Like many, I have run into independent Catholics before, but I had never really grasped their existence. Eyebrows were raised when Mel Gibson established a church in California. I vaguely recall hearing about the ordination of Sinéad O’Connor. I completely overlooked the Santa Muerte reference in Breaking Bad, while my attention was fixed on Tuco’s bizarre cousins.
Independent Catholics are roughly split into 250 geographical areas, or “jurisdictions.” Since the 1890 United States census, where they were labelled “Other Catholics,” the best estimations put them at 1 million in the US. Julie Byrne’s The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016; source: publisher) takes a moment to study these independent Catholics.
The Other Catholics is an engaging work and reads fairly quickly, but it is the fruit of a ten year study. The scope of the study addresses the history of independent Catholics from the eighteenth century, but concentrates on the Church of Antioch. Byrne traces non-Roman Catholicism from the Netherlands in 1724, to its way to the US in 1819, and its development into the Church of Antioch.
The differences between independent Catholics are as varied as the Protestant denominations. However, as a reform movement that left the Roman church but remained Catholic, they share some commonalities. As Byrne states,
As diverse as they are, however, almost all independent Catholics have a few things in common. They have bishops in apostolic succession. They celebrate seven sacraments. They revere the saints. And they hold that it is possible to be Catholic outside the big bodies. The Other Catholics, 8.
In short, “It’s Catholicism without Rome.”
Through following the life of Archbishop Richard Gundrey, Byrne explains the theology of the Church of Antioch. For instance, traditional doctrines are reinterpreted. Byrne writes,
Like Herman, Richard is not big on sin. He does not baptize, confess, or heal people to handle sin, he said. Rather, he baptizes to awaken the Christ that already lives within. With a theological anthropology espousing innate human divinity , there is really nothing to prevent Antioch’s “altars and orders” from being open to everyone, as Richard often put it. The Other Catholics, 190.
Though not found in all branches of independent Catholics, esotericism has a large presence in the Church of Antioch. Metaphysics, such as Theosophy or Religious Science, is found in all areas of their theology and church practice.
Independent Catholics are often compared to progressive Roman Catholics. Though they may agree on issues such as gay-ordination, they differ on the justification. Byrne explains,
So even though left-leaning independents actually carry out reforms that Roman progressives only dream of, it still looks to them like independents are going backward. Independents have women priests, married priests, and out-gay priests, but only by obsessing about a Holy Orders ever more “absolute,”“magical,”or “mechanistic.”Instead, Roman progressives say, the future lies in ordinations conferred not by bishops but by whole congregations, as some progressive communities are already doing. The Other Catholics, 41.
It also seems that one obvious distinction between independent Catholics and progressive Roman Catholics, namely the absence or presence of the Roman Church, leads to distinct approaches to ecumenism. At least in the Church of Antioch, a spirit of ecumenism does not just extend to the Roman Catholic Church, or even to Protestantism, but as Byrne writes, “They not only acknowledge non-Catholic religious truth, but also welcome it to reconfigure Catholicism.” (The Other Catholics, 242).
A peculiar characteristic of the Church of Antioch is their reading of history. Byrne states,
Even casually informed Antiochians characterize church history in ways that depart drastically from big-body narratives of orthodoxy and unity. Maybe it’s a veritable requirement of survival in independent Catholicism to get wise fast about power and positionality from the perspective of critical history. The Other Catholics, 246.
This reading of history breaks down longstanding theological positions established by the church. Doctrines which have been deemed heretical are revived, or at least put back on the table, as viable theological positions.
Julie Byrne’s The Other Catholics is a fascinating look at an overlooked subset of American religion. There is much to disagree with the Church of Antioch from a Protestant point of view. It also seems fair to not only ask what makes them Catholic, but also to ask what makes them Christian. However, Byrne does well to tell their story and their theology.