Q&A: Breakaway Catholic churches not new, but frowned upon
BOSTON — Parishioners who have maintained a constant vigil inside a Roman Catholic church for nearly 12 years in defiance of the Boston archdiocese's order to close it are vowing to create an independent church outside the Vatican's control. The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a last-ditch appeal from the St. Frances X. Cabrini parishioners.
Creating an independent church raises questions:
Is it unusual for dissatisfied parishioners to start their own independent churches?
No. Parishioners have formed their own Catholic worship communities for years in cities around the country. When a liberal pastor and other leaders were removed from the Corpus Christi parish in Rochester, New York, a large number of parishioners began meeting in 1999 as Spiritus Christi in leased space in a historic Presbyterian church.
In Cleveland, the pastor and some parishioners of St. Peter Catholic Church began gathering in a new location as The Community of St. Peter after the church was closed in 2010 as part of a reorganization. And at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in St. Louis, parishioners formed a not-for-profit corporation to manage the church amid a long dispute between the lay board of trustees and the archbishop over ownership of the parish property. It is now an independent Catholic church.
The Rev. William Clark, a Jesuit priest and associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said there are also smaller Catholic worship groups that have been formed over the years by Catholics disillusioned by the clergy sex abuse scandal, the church's refusal to ordain women and the church's opposition to gay marriage.
Who celebrates Mass and adminsters the sacraments?
Some of the independent churches and worship communities have been served by priests who help them surreptitiously because Roman Catholic bishops do not recognize these communities and would not grant permission for priests to celebrate Mass, give Communion or perform other sacraments. Clark said it is well known that parishioners at St. Frances X. Cabrini have received consecrated hosts for Communion from "an underground network of priests" during the nearly 12 years the church has been closed.
The Rev. James Bretzke, a Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, said if Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley heard about a priest who celebrated Mass at an independent church, he would likely reprimand the priest in some way.
"It's his judgment call, but I would say virtually every bishop in the world would remove the priest's 'faculties' so he could not therefore celebrate any other sacrament anywhere legally. He would then be a renegade priest," Bretzke said.
Some of the independent communities have been served by inactive, retired or former priests who have left the priesthood so they could marry.
How does the church hierarchy feel about these independent churches?
Clark said dioceses generally do not recognize independent churches in any way.
"There's definitely not an acceptance of the new parishes," Clark said. "The reason that it's happening in the first place is a dispute with the diocese. The parishioners are not backing down and neither are the archdioceses in each of these situations."
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, declined to comment on plans by St. Frances X. Cabrini parishioners to form their own church beyond referring to a statement in which he said the parishes of the archdiocese "welcome and invite those involved with the vigil to participate and join in the fullness of parish life."
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