Rich Barlow | Spiritual Life

Catholic church embraces old and new

Email|Print| Text size + By Rich Barlow
February 9, 2008

The advent of parenthood pushed Laurie Moynihan and her husband into a search for a church, one that could help them teach morality to their children. Unlike some of her generation with a similar desire, Moynihan did not return to the church of her upbringing, for Roman Catholicism had never taken with her.

As soon as she got out the door for college, "I was a Christmas and Easter Catholic from that point on," she recalled. She was put off by the church's conservative stand on matters from homosexuality to premarital sex to divorce, the latter especially touching her since her first marriage broke up. By the time she remarried, she and her husband had found a female priest to marry them and a church for their children.

A Catholic church, in fact. Just not Roman Catholic.

Four-year-old All Souls Faith Community is part of a small body of so-called independent Catholic communities planting themselves outside the authority and theology of the Vatican. Its tiny congregation of about 20 refugees from Roman Catholicism celebrates Mass Saturdays in a rented Episcopal church in Watertown.

The Rev. Rene Petrin, All Souls's copastor, says his church shares views, though not an affiliation, with the Old Catholic Church, founded in Europe in the 1870s in rebellion against the Vatican's then-new doctrine of papal infallibility on faith and morals. Like the Old Catholic Church, All Souls allows women and married priests and takes other liberal stands, declining, for example, to condemn homosexuality.

All Souls is part of the American Catholic Church of New England, which is part of a conference of like-minded Catholic churches in North America. Relations between independent Catholics and leaders of the Romans, Petrin's shorthand for Roman Catholics, hover between unfamiliarity and wariness. When the ACCNE asked permission once to use an archdiocesan building for one of its meetings, Petrin said, it was turned down.

Asked to comment on the ACCNE, the Archdiocese of Boston issued a statement saying in part that the group "has no ecclesial sanction from the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, or from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley. The Roman Catholic faithful should know that participation in religious services or catechetical activities organized by the American Catholic Church of New England is not recognized or authorized by the Roman Catholic Church."

It's no secret that on a range of issues - artificial contraception comes to mind - many American Catholics don't agree with the Vatican's teaching. But while Old Catholics trace their heritage back a century-plus, many other such breakaway churches "usually wind up running out of steam," said Stephen Pope, theology professor at Boston College. "Most Catholics that get disaffected will either join Protestant churches or stop going to church." Even when Roman Catholics dissent from a church teaching, Pope added, the church's doctrine says they should act according to their informed conscience.

Unlike Moynihan, Petrin is among those for whom his old church exerts a gravitational pull on the spirit.

A former brother in a Roman Catholic order in Wisconsin, Petrin, who is gay, spent 12 years in parochial school and three years in the seminary, training that facilitated his ordination by the ACCNE's Boston-based bishop. The process of separating from the church of his upbringing was painful.

"I really couldn't be fully functioning as a gay person within that church. It wasn't welcoming. It didn't feel welcoming."

After sampling a gay-friendly Protestant church, he still missed something about Catholicism. From the mid-1980s until joining the ACCNE, he wandered the spiritual landscape as a man without a church.

"It was really a long period of wilderness," he said. "I ended up trying to find other alternatives, [but] nothing spoke to me. And yet, what else would you do, just sit around and not go anywhere? I could go to a [Roman] Catholic church, but I just did not feel comfortable there. You could go in there and go through the motions . . . but you say to yourself, 'These people wouldn't accept me anyway.' There's a real juxtaposition between the reality and what you should feel."

"It's hard to say goodbye to what basically is your spiritual mother," Petrin said. "There's something called a Catholic sensibility, which is really hard to describe. If you're Catholic, you probably already know it without being able to describe it. . . . It's a sense of Christ's presence in the world in a very incarnate way," from the devotional practices to its reverence for the saints."

But at All Souls, "here was a place that I could be Catholic, if you will, and feel like this is where the church should be."

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But at All Souls Faith Community, 'here was a place that I could be Catholic, if you will.'

All Souls's copastor


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