Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

A Discussion on Faith and Culture

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Congregationalist Catholicism

February 25th, 2012 · 10 Comments

In Baltimore, parishes were closed one or two at a time, and I noticed little outcry. Ethnic parishes had been built within a block or two of each other, and the neighborhoods had become almost entirely back, with very few Catholics. Other dioceses held onto a structure that was built for a far larger and more ethnic Catholic population, and with the recent financial crunch have had to close down parishes wholesale. In Cleveland the enormous decline in both the Catholic and overall population has necessitated the closing of numerous parishes with the usual outcry – although is hard to see how it could have been avoided.

One parish responded by setting up its own congregation independent of the bishop Tom Roberts has an article, “A Community of a Different Sort,” in the National Catholic Reporter (now available here) about this situation.

The Rev. Robert Marrone had revived St. Peter’s, an inner city parish (for some of its problems see Marrone’s difficult relationship with street people) by attracting white suburbanites, but Bishop Lennon decided that it had to be closed as part of the diocesan reorganization. The members of the parish rented their own space in an industrial and have continued to meet as the Community of St. Peter with Marrone, their former pastor, who has been threatened with unspecified ecclesiastical penalties.

The parish seems to be in schism – it is conducting unauthorized liturgies with the former pastor, who is not assigned to it and is listed as being on leave from the active ministry.

The present Catholic system of episcopal governance is not God-given in all its details, but on the whole many problems in the Church have been the result of bishops (and popes) failing to exercise the oversight that is the essence of their office, not in exercising too much oversight.

The Community of St. Peter has set itself up as an independent Catholic congregation outside the structure of the diocese. Marrone has not been suspended or excommunicated – not yet, but that seems inevitable.

Marrone claims that the split was not based on any of the controversies in the Church, but on the desire of the congregation to stay together. The congregation has set itself up as a legal entity and plans to hire its own clergy.

In all the other independent Catholic congregations that have been set up, almost immediately there is a full acceptance of homosexual behavior and a general rejection of Catholic sexual ethics. It also seems inevitable that the parish will hire a woman priest, whose ordination they will claim to have somehow been in the line of apostolic succession – the one doctrine that schismatic Catholics cling to when they reject all other Catholic ecclesiology. (See the experience of Spiritus Christi in Rochester)

Protestant denominations that are congregational in polity also have a poor record of dealing with sensitive problems like sexual abuse. The Southern Baptists point out that the denomination has no authority over clergy – each congregation calls its pastor and no one outside the congregation  has any say over the qualifications, opinions or behavior of the pastor. Congregations who have suffered from manipulative, sexually abusive pastors sometimes look wistfully at denominations with an episcopal structure which could step in and deal with the problem.

I do not see why the Community of St. Peter does not join the Episcopal Church. That polity allows the congregation more autonomy in running its affairs and choosing its pastors than the Roman Catholic system does, but also provides episcopal oversight to deal with problems that congregations cannot deal with internally. A congregation can also accept or reject as much Catholicism as its feels comfortable with. The Episcopalian Church has a good pension system, which an individual congregation would have trouble setting up.

Do the parishioners of the Community of St. Peter not think that the Episcopal Church is as much a church as the Roman Catholic Church? Do they have a lingering suspicion that Episcopalian priests are not “validly” ordained? Why do they insist in being Catholic but not being in communion (or at least in impaired communion) with the local Roman Catholic bishop, or, for that matter, with any bishop of any denomination? If they reject the episcopal structure entirely, in what sense do they differ from Congregationalists? If they set up their own episcopal structure independent of the Roman Catholic Church, in what sense are they not in schism?

I suspect that, in their anger at Lennon, they have not thought these matters through, and they will sooner or later discover that it is hard to remain Catholic when one is completely detached from the structures of Catholicism. It is hard to be a Catholic with the bishops that have been inflicted on us, but it is almost impossible to be a Catholic without a bishop.

Tags: Episcopal Church · Popular religion

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TheAltonRoute // Feb 25, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Another breakaway parish in Ohio (St. James in Kansas) hired its own married priest. The parish had tried the Polish National Catholic Church, but I heard some members found the PNCC too conservative.

    As far as St. Peter’s in Cleveland goes, I don’t understand the reasons for closing it. Not that I’m a big fan of Marrone. I believe he did a wreckovation of the old church. The fact that NCR did a story on the Community of St. Peter is more than enough to tell me to avoid the place.

    I have seen in these cases of parish closings that pretty much nobody has a clue what to do to fight them. Fortunately, following canon law does work. St. Stanislaus Church in Adams, MA, is being re-opened on Palm Sunday. I have dealt with the closings myself. The pastor we had was absolutely brutal and wanted to close all the old churches in town in order to build a new one, even though the old ones were in good shape. Priests and bishops will lie, cheat and do whatever it takes to close a parish and church.

  • 2 Mary // Feb 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    One understands all one needs to know by looking at the picture. Baby boomers were the first generations raised in a peer culture.

  • 3 Joseph D'Hippolito // Feb 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Mary, this has far more to do than with baby boomers being part of a peer culture. Lee said it best: The bishops have not used their authority effectively, not only to exercise oversight but also to teach the fundamentals of the faith. Too many bishops acted as if the institution itself would communicate those fundamentals strictly by osmosis. The Church in the First World is collapsing.

  • 4 Mary Ann // Feb 28, 2012 at 9:07 am

    That too. Plus lots of sin that the baby boomers buy into.

  • 5 Jay // Feb 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    TEC - The Episcopal Church while largely lay driven, has huge layers of stifling bureaucracy; and membership & attendance is rapidly plummeting. Plus, if St. Peter’s has ‘authority issues’, they won’t escape them in TEC, no matter how revisionist they are.

    Their defection would however be a big publicity coup for the two queens of TEC: Katharine Jefferts Schori [an ex-Catholic], who’s currently ‘Presiding Bishop’ - and Dr. Bonnie Anderson, long-time (lay) president of the House of Deputies. The two are bitter rivals - but still, there’s always time to take time to trash ‘The Catholics’.

    - disillusioned Episcopalian

  • 6 TheAltonRoute // Feb 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Bishop Spong recently lashed out at the Catholic Church in a blog post on his website. He writes that the Catholic bishops are destroying the Church with respect to birth control, homosexuality, etc. I wonder whether he’s ever thought about himself? Yes, just like the Call to Action people, the Episcopal Church is “lay-led” yet wants tons of bureaucracy.

    What I love about guys like Spong, Schori and their Catholic counterparts such as Kueng, the NCR people, etc. are that they seem to exude an air of omniscience. Spong knows exactly what’s wrong with the Catholic Church. So then why is his own ECUSA practically dead? He also had the nerve to criticize the RC Church on abuse, as though the ECUSA never had had any perverts of its own. What bothers me is that Fr. Tom Doyle praises Spong. That made me lose respect for the former.

  • 7 Mary Henry // Feb 29, 2012 at 8:31 am

    re: Church “teaching by osmosis”
    Anti contraception was only preached from the pulpits here in the late eighties , early nineties.when the pro life agenda became a political cause.
    http://cnsnews.com/news/article/pelosi-catholic-church-has-not-enforced-its-teaching-contraception

    and also a little late in the game..
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/pope-tells-couples-to-shun-artificial-procreation-says-arrogance-drives-infertility-field/2012/02/25/gIQAIRMhZR_story.html

  • 8 Joe CSP // Mar 4, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Podles article stresses the need for a worshiping community to have larger church ties, and I think the Community of St. Peter knows the importance of connections beyond the congregation. But I think the blog article does not give enough attention to the importance of real community and worship together. Churches with impeccable ecclesial credentials may have lots of ‘members’ on the books and few worshipers; may have great organization but find themselves at a deficit when it comes to committed community relationships and real Gospel outreach.
    A move toward independence is definitely risky and demands extraordinary attention to many details that ecclesial structures can ensure. At the same time, such risk seems better than just shutting down and drifting away from word and worship and the challenge of ministry that are the mission of any Christian community.

  • 9 TheAltonRoute // Mar 8, 2012 at 8:28 am

    The Congregation for the Clergy has ordered the re-opening of (apparently) both St. Peter church and parish. What will Marrone and the Community of St. Peter do now?

  • 10 Anonymous // Jun 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Too bad you didn’t take time to research the facts. St Peter church was illegally closed by Bishop Lennon, as the Vatican has now determined. The people of the parish wanted simply to continue their service to the community and their commitments to worship and pray and learn together. Ironically, Bishop Lennon encouraged them to do this in a letter sent to many of the parishioners prior to the church closing.

    After the closing and several times since, Bishop Lennon has said publicly that he would contact the Community of Saint Peter to reconcile. To this date, he has contacted no one other than Fr Marrone to threaten him each time.

    The Community of St Peter has denied not one tenet of the Church..it is not in schism…it is in disagreement with the bishop, a matter of conscience which even Pope Benedict has said should be followed above all else.

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