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.
Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
George Marsden, author of pivotal works such as Fundamentalism and American Culture and the definitive biography of Jonathan Edwards, returns with a cultural and theological assessment of the “liberal consensus” and its demise. Contributing to previous accounts of liberalism, as in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and Matthew Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion, Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (Basic Books, 2014) argues that the 1950s served as a transitional period in this story. The decade witnessed the end of the American Enlightenment, along with its religious foundation, and gave way to an unsustainable liberalism which rewarded consensus and punished dissent.
There are three “motifs” central to Marsden’s work. The first sets the stage with an evaluation of American culture in the 1950s. Beyond popular depictions found in shows like Mad Men, Marsden’s analysis offers insight into the negative impact of technology and mass media on the cultural and moral development of the nation. Mass culture and new technology, such as the TV, fed off each other and propitiated a banal society aspiring for meritocracy. Recognizing this downward spiral, the cultural commentators of the day advanced an elite or intellectual leadership which sought to correct the course towards a more fulfilling culture.
Take Protestantism, drop it in the American context, and what do you get? A proliferation of schisms and denominations.
Protestantism broke off of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and quickly formed different streams of Protestants after Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli failed to find agreement over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Fast forward to the early years of the United States when the young republic disestablished religion, and there you find Christian sects—and some not so Christian—forming even more rapidly.
Now in the twenty-first century, with the vast diversity of Protestant denominations, one wonders what unifies this colorful array of Christians? Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson suggest that denominationalism is not essentially at odds with evangelical unity, and in their book, Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Crossway, 2013), they probe this question from several angles, pooling the insight of evangelicals in several denominations to offer a helpful foray into the tension of unity and diversity in the church today.