The Other Catholics
Remaking America's Largest Religion
The Other Catholics by Julie Byrne was clearly a labor of love, the result of ten years of field research and scholarship undertaken with the intent to make readers take its subject seriously. Its descriptions of churches that aspire to “Catholic” universality and tradition without affiliation with Rome are lively and compelling. Alongside accounts of the Diocese of Utrecht breaking from Rome in 1724 (88), and the conferral of apostolic succession by a Syrian bishop to a French priest in Ceylon in 1892 (109) Byrne sets the scenes of herself being moved to tears at many services (70) and admiring the dancing of an Archbishop of the Church of Antioch (303). Although focused on the Church of Antioch, this book touches on other churches—including the Polish National Catholic Church, the African Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, the Liberal Catholic Church, and the American Catholic Church.
With regard to what these churches teach and practice, Byrne provides welcome clarity. She claims that “independent”—and not all of them like the term—Catholic churches have four things in common: “apostolic succession, seven sacraments, devotion to the saints (especially Mary, the mother of Jesus), and the word ‘Catholic’ itself” (15). Often, these churches reject the doctrine of original sin, or even of sin itself, preferring to speak of “imperfections” and “shortcomings,” and to hope for universal salvation (97, 128, 191, 261). At first no more liberal than Roman Catholicism with regard to gender roles, most of these churches now have female priests and bishops. The Church of Antioch has been led by a Matriarch, and it has changed the wording of the “Hail Mary” prayer to eliminate sin and to elevate Mary to divine status:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with You.
Blessed are You among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Holy Mary, Mother God, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.
Catholic churches detached from Rome have also taken the lead in welcoming LGBTQ parishioners, and in ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. In fact, Byrne estimates that while only 2-5% of “progressive” Roman Catholics identify as gay or bisexual, members of the “left-leaning” independent Catholic churches she concentrates on in this book are between 40-60% gay (61). This estimate was based on a “convenience sample” survey of 407 respondents that Byrne took over eleven months between 2011 and 2012.
Byrne places her Catholics firmly within the larger history of religion in the modern era. Two French-born bishops—Dominique-Marie Varlet (1678-1742) and Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929)—transmitted the apostolic succession they received under Rome to many branches of these churches, and those two men traveled and maintained contacts across Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. By following their careers, and those of several successors, Byrne makes the case that Catholics unconnected with Rome have been “more like a vanguard than a margin” and that “we may not fully understand modern Catholicism without them” (297).
The Other Catholics connects these churches with other movements in religion and culture. Starting with a mystical appreciation of the sacraments, non-Roman Catholics have appropriated and influenced many New Age and occult approaches to religion. Aleister Crowley, the British magician and occultist, led the British branch of a church called the Ordo Templi Orientis, which claimed descent from Vilatte. Crowley’s Gnostic Mass—written in 1913—became the most popular of his published works, and is still performed by the Ordo Templi Orientis today. That Mass, which ends with the declaration, “There is no part of me that is not of the Gods,” impressed Gerald Gardner, the British founder of modern Wicca (114-115).
In the less esoteric realms, independent Catholics have included figures such as Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice-president. Wallace helped to found a Liberal Catholic Church in Iowa in 1925, but later dropped this association as a political inconvenience (130). Within the African Orthodox Church—launched by Vilatte in Paris in 1925 and which later joined with the Greek Orthodox Church in Uganda and allied with Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association in America—a St. John Coltrane Church emerged in San Francisco in 1982. That congregation celebrates the Eucharist with a jam session based on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (119-123). Musicians touched by non-Roman Catholics include Bob Dylan and Sinéad O’Connor. In Woodstock, New York, Father William Henry Francis Brothers—ordained as a priest by Vilatte—ran a church for decades and became known as “the Hippie Priest” when he fed and housed dozens during the Woodstock music festival of 1969. “Father Francis” exposed many, including Dylan, to Catholic tradition without Roman authority (118-119). O’Connor, who notoriously tore up a picture of Pope John-Paul II to protest patriarchal oppression and clerical sex abuse on Saturday Night Live in 1992, was ordained an independent Catholic priest in 1999, and in 2013 she was performing in clerical collar and pectoral cross (18, 295).
Despite the strengths of The Other Catholics, this review may be making the book seem better organized than it is. The juxtaposition of personal experiences and historical accounts does not always flow smoothly, and Byrne lapses into jargon as she looks for a conclusion: “What is the cultural work of the discourse in different times and places? How does it function as capital or counterconduct?” (295). A tighter structure might have enabled Byrne to deal with more groups—such as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests—which are mentioned in passing. Still, The Other Catholics is a heartfelt, readable, welcome addition to the history of religions.
Peter Gardella is professor of world religions at Manhattanville College.
Add New Comment
Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.