The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion

Julie Byrne (Columbia University Press, 2016)

Review by Catherine R. Osborne


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What makes a Catholic church Catholic? Julie Byrne’s deeply researched, compellingly written, and intellectually provocative study probes this question through an ethnographic deep dive into the diverse and sometimes wild world of “independent Catholics,” groups who proclaim their Catholicism yet are not in communion with Rome. She borrows the term “Other Catholics” from the U.S. Census Bureau, which used it from 1890 until 1936, when it ceased collecting data on religious affiliation. “Independent” or “other,” the groups include around a million members, while also providing sacraments, counseling, and other services to nonmembers. The Other Catholics glances at a variety of these groups to build its overall argument, but the book is structured largely by a decade of archival and ethnographic work with the Church of Antioch, “an important and long-lasting group” by independent standards, “encompassing the American movement’s variety, including mystical, metaphysical, esoteric, and eclectic threads” (4). While this description suggests independents’ strong connection to American esoteric traditions, and while she declines to adjudicate whether any of these groups are “really” Catholic, Byrne also notes that nearly all of them share three core characteristics with each other and with Roman Catholicism: they claim bishops in the line of apostolic succession, celebrate seven sacraments, and “revere the saints” (8). The left-leaning groups Byrne focuses on, however, impose nearly no specific doctrinal or disciplinary requirements on those who worship with them. They offer a big tent in a very small church.

The bulk of the book is divided into two parts, historical and ethnographic. As a historian both of modern Catholicism and of 20th century spiritualist movements in California, I found the first of these sections fascinating. I’m thoroughly convinced by Byrne’s evidence that independent Catholic churches are not a novel post-Vatican II development, but instead have both spiritual and legal roots going back at least as far as the doctrinal and political ferment of the Counter-Reformation. Byrne’s story begins with Dominique-Marie Varlet, a French-born bishop who, after a convoluted series of events, ended up consecrating three bishops on behalf of a group in Utrecht in 1724—thereby triggering their excommunication by Rome, and (independent Catholics claim, though Byrne herself cautiously demurs) establishing a line of apostolic succession that persists to this day in the United States. Varlet fits beautifully into a recent historical re-evaluation of the early modern period, which foregrounds both the transatlantic circulation of ideas and people (early independent priests served in, among other locations, Babylon and Sri Lanka, before breaking with Rome) and the impact of the long communications delays which, in a pre-modern era, often affected individual and communal decision-making. The story of Varlet and his “descendants” also affords Byrne a chance to look again at classic interpretations of American Catholic history; she points out that, for example, Peter Guilday’s inclination to see many local independent groups as schismatic and therefore barely relevant to the story of American Catholicism has rendered invisible the links between American groups and controversies and European reform movements.

The second historical chapter deals with one of Varlet’s apostolic heirs. Herman Spruit is a familiar type: the “seeker among seekers in postwar southern California” (134) whose influences included a heady brew of theosophy, Old Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern borrowings such as chakra theory and yoga. In 1927, Spruit immigrated with his Dutch-German family to Los Angeles. He had a Methodist upbringing and eventually became a minister, but in 1951, depressed and in the midst of a metaphysical crisis, he resigned and, within a few years, also divorced his first wife. Meanwhile, he explored Los Angeles’ esoteric community. To make a long and winding journey short, he was consecrated to the episcopacy by three independents in 1957—a bishop without portfolio until, two years later, he founded the Church of Antioch. Perhaps due to his interest in universal salvation and the unity of the many branches of the Christian lineage (two concerns shared by many 20th-century independents), Spruit went out of his way to consolidate a number of pre-existing smaller ventures and apostolic lineages (143). With resources ranging from astrology to the Book of Mormon, he was, as Byrne notes, “eclectic and then some” (150), with a strong mystical bent, an indifference to the logistics and finances of parish formation, and an openness to others’ spiritual experiences that led him to ordain and then consecrate women, gay men, and others excluded from even many Protestant ministries. His ordinands included his third wife, Helen, and his fourth, Meri, whom he later named co-archbishop and Matriarch of the Church of Antioch. He and Meri, in turn, later consecrated half a dozen couples in the “conjugal episcopate”—a practical recognition that partners often work together in ministry, but also an idea born out of sexual mysticism and esoteric convictions about male and female complementarity. Spruit died in 1994, and Meri retired ten years later in favor of Archbishop Richard Gundrey of Santa Fe, who led the Church of Antioch through most of Byrne’s research period.

The ethnographic section, “Sacraments and Saints,” is dominated by the personal histories of Antioch members, obtained through interviews, a survey, and Byrne’s own participant-observation. One chapter deals with Gundrey’s leadership of Antioch’s approximately 75 clerics, scattered around the southwestern and western United States, as well as (during his tenure as archbishop) a new but growing group on the east coast. It’s fascinating to watch, through Byrne’s eyes, the low-key archbishop who followed in the wake of charismatic, dominating founders. Byrne discovers both a theology and a practical stance of “balance.” Gundrey leads a church of people who are by definition seekers and free spirits, but who also worry about the centripetal forces of their no-dogma position. One person’s spiritual growth through Mayan initiation is another’s dangerous departure from centuries of Christian heritage, and Gundrey’s authority isn’t strong enough to make every call. I laughed when Byrne described one especially contentious two-month argument on Antioch’s email listserv about the Divine Feminine (221)—remembering participation in other online arguments where positions became so entrenched that people had nearly forgotten what they were fighting about in the first place. The independents Byrne describes enjoy close-knit emotional and sacramental community, and the creativity they virtually mandate can be appealing, but with no higher juridical power to appeal to, Antiocheans needed to exercise “balance” as a daily practice of holding their polity together.

Byrne situates Antiocheans’ practices of “mixing and mysticism” in long Catholic and American traditions. Their tendency to arrive at Antioch only after a journey through personal mystical experience and other esoteric groups leads them to generally support members’ personal exploration and influences, although serious controversies erupted during Byrne’s research period around how to balance these with Christocentrism. Smartly, Byrne notes that headline-grabbing “woo-woo” is not the only kind of mixing Antiocheans engage in; there’s also a lot of downright staid ecumenical work, for example Gundrey’s presidency of Santa Fe’s Interfaith Council (233). Some of her most intriguing observations concern independents’ “mixing” with Roman Catholicism. They receive overflow “business” from Roman laypeople seeking access to sacraments, and they also take an ongoing interest in Roman developments, as when one of Antioch’s priests, a former Roman seminarian, travels to El Salvador for Oscar Romero’s beatification. This leads into her last chapter, which deals largely with ex-Roman Catholics, women and gay men, who found in Antioch the chance to be ordained that their communion of birth denied them.

Both for historians of American religion, and for any Roman Catholic who has ever fantasized about cutting loose from the Curia, Byrne’s book offers considerable food for thought. She makes a number of intriguing claims, several of which slip between ethnographic and theological intervention (a statement which is not a criticism). Byrne’s research and her subsequent analysis are made possible by her basic decision that Catholics are people who say they are Catholic. The decision to use self-identification rather than imposing a doctrinal or juridical test is satisfying from a religious studies point of view, but many theologians would object. Yet even so, we all would benefit from at least temporarily bracketing an argument about the relationship between the visible and invisible church in order to understand the lived experience Byrne describes.

Byrne argues that despite their small numbers, independents deserve the attention of historians of Catholicism because they are “part of how modern Catholicism works” (15) and because, as both a literal and figurative “queer Catholicism,” they are a tool for understanding how “big-body” Catholicism really functions. In marked contrast to Rome’s self-image as eternal and unchanging, independent communities are characterized by flow. Communities draw closer and move apart, while relationships “cycle.” But according to Byrne, this obvious characteristic of independent communities highlights, among other things, the way independent Catholicism functions in concert with Roman Catholicism. 65 percent of Antiocheans in Byrne’s sample were ex-Roman Catholics, and Byrne observes that Roman Catholic progressives function as a “proximate other” (29) to the independents. Meanwhile, Byrne often finds Roman Catholic laity availing themselves of independent sacramental options, especially in order to navigate non-standard marital situations. Instead of a stable boundary drawn between Roman and independent Catholicism, Byrne sees froth and ferment, an insight which allows her not only to observe change within “big body” Catholicism, but to propose a mechanism for how change happens. Maybe because I read much of her book while in California, I found it easy to picture waves cresting and pounding against the shore, constantly reconfiguring the shifting sands between land and water.

While a full argument is beyond the scope of her book, Byrne suggests provocatively in her opening pages that perhaps independents “function for modern Catholicism in the same way as religious orders functioned for late medieval and early modern Catholicism” (17)—that is, as a type of safety valve that allows the Church to experiment with new forms of faith and life. Having read her full study of Antioch, with its large complement of ex-Romans and flowing ties back into Roman progressive groups like Call to Action, I take her point. Yet I wonder about three things. First, Antioch was founded by a man with no ties to institutional Roman Catholicism, a classic American seeker; its founding character is rather at odds with a comparison to the Franciscans, Dominicans, or Jesuits, as controversial as those orders may have been.

Second, it’s hard to look at the sweep of the religious orders’ history without concluding that no matter how “borderline” they were at their founding, they have been inexorably drawn into and remade in the image of the Roman center, even as they sometimes tug away again at times. This raises the question: will independent Catholics have to choose between their independence and their ties to the Roman Church?

Third, Byrne suggests that maybe “Catholicism can be defined less by institutions and creeds and more by discourse about succession, sacraments, saints, and the word ‘Catholic’” (295). While this is a very useful suggestion, it seems to me that institution-building and creedal disputes characterize both religious orders and independent Catholics as much as they do the secular clergy and “big-body” Roman Catholicism, albeit on a smaller scale. Antiochean priests spend most of their time, in Byrne’s telling, building ministries and even parishes, not to mention arguing theology on the listserv. The high level of churn made possible by the low-cost infrastructure of house churches and websites doesn’t disguise that institution-building and creed-arguing seem to be (to borrow one of Byrne’s observations) a “human thing.”

The question of Antioch’s priests and their relationship to institution-building leads me to the area of Byrne’s work that strikes me as most ripe for follow-up research on multiple vectors: the question of the relationship between Roman Catholic and other laity and independent clergy. On the one hand, as Byrne points out, independent Catholicism is numerically dominated by clergy, and lay Roman Catholics have spent decades quoting John Henry Newman’s acid observation that the Church would look foolish without them. What does it say about independent Catholicism that it spends so much energy on ordaining priests and consecrating bishops? Byrne and several of her subjects point out that clericalism is a real risk. On the other hand, Byrne’s invitation to use “other Catholics” as a tool for understanding how Roman Catholicism and American religion function in general leads her to counter that with two points. One is that independent Catholic clergy do serve a very large group of laity—who are almost all “counted” with other groups. They focus, Byrne observes, on “sacramental justice,” not only through ordaining the otherwise unordainable but through the provision of marriage, communion, counseling, healing, and confession to all comers, including many who for canonical and other reasons cannot receive Roman sacraments. Byrne’s second observation is that it may be easier for laypeople, especially heterosexually married ones, to remain at least partially identified with Roman Catholicism, since their canonical irregularities are much less noticeable than those of independently ordained clergy. The phrase “defecting in place” may be useful here, and it might provide a link between the left-leaning independents Byrne focuses on and the right-leaning independents who are mentioned but often tangential to her specific story. Hopefully many researchers, from historians to sociologists to theologians, will take up some of these questions and carry this illuminating work forward.

Catherine Osborne is a postdoctoral fellow at the Cushwa Center.