Some Dissenters Quit the Church But Don't Stop Being Catholic

By Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
Saturday, January 20, 2007

She grew up Roman Catholic, but like millions of others, Rebecca Ortelli came to disagree with church teachings on contraception, communion and priestly celibacy, among other things.

Many Catholics drift away from the church or join other denominations. But Ortelli, 57, wanted to maintain both her Catholic identity and her worldview. And she didn't want to feel one was inconsistent with the other.

So 20 years ago, she did what a small number of defiant Catholics are doing. She joined a church with many lifelong Catholics of similar views, a church that borrows heavily from Catholic rituals even though it's not part of a Catholic diocese.

"I don't think I should have to give up my Catholicism. That's part of who I am. It makes me who I choose to be," said Ortelli, whose church, in Nutley, N.J., is called the Inclusive Community. "I like some of the rituals that we have. They're important."

At the Inclusive Community, she and her husband, raised a Lutheran, receive Communion each Sunday from former Catholic priests who left the church -- and its priestly celibacy requirement -- to marry.

The Inclusive Community meets in a small chapel of a Congregational church, has a $16,000 budget, and draws maybe 15 people most Sundays. In those ways, it is similar to most "underground" churches, said Kathleen Kautzer, a professor at Regis College in Weston, Mass.

It's unclear how many "underground" Catholic churches are in the United States. Most are small, many unstable. They lack networks and are often unpublicized, so no one knows whether they are increasing or decreasing in number.

Kautzer estimated that there are 200 and that they probably attract much less than 1 percent of the 67 million American Catholics. That is a small number, considering that polls show significant opposition to church teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce, and priestly celibacy.

Still, in the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandal, these churches offer a different path from the one taken by most Catholic reformers, who have sought -- unsuccessfully, so far -- to change church rules and hierarchy.

Most members of underground churches are "really liberal people who are divorced, gays and feminists," Kautzer said. She added to the list former priests and former nuns who have married.

"The reform movement is full of those couples," she said. "Their whole life was the church, and they left . . . because they couldn't handle the conservative direction the church was going in. They said, 'This institution is not going to change in my lifetime, so what else can I do but to find a faith community where I feel comfortable?' "

Among those couples at the Inclusive Community are Fred and Terry Quinn. Fred Quinn was a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Newark when he met his future wife, then a nun with the Caldwell Dominicans, at a labor rally in Jersey City in 1969.

Fred Quinn has presided at services at the Inclusive Community, which is technically part of the United Church of Christ denomination. Most members were raised Catholic, and many are Protestants who married Catholics, Quinn said.

The Inclusive Community's chapel is set up to be, well, inclusive. Two crosses are on the Communion table -- one with the body of Jesus, the other without, respecting Catholic and Protestant traditions, respectively. The Communion host can be taken with either wine or grape juice.

In Rochester, N.Y., the Revs. James Callan and Mary Ramerman lead what is perhaps the biggest church of its type in the country: Spiritus Christi, which grew out of Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church.

In 1998, the Catholic bishop in Rochester was told by the Vatican to remove Callan from Corpus Christi. Callan had blessed gay unions, given women prominent roles at the altar and offered Communion to non-Catholics.

In 1999, Spiritus Christi opened, with Callan as priest. The congregation was made up of 800 people upset by Callan's removal from Corpus Christi. Spiritus now has 1,500 members, said Ramerman, who was Callan's associate pastor at Corpus Christi, in violation of church rules against female priests.

"As a church, we've always been on the liberal side," Ramerman said. "We have . . . very strong outreach to the poor and a strong message of inclusion. Those are the two pillars, the same pillars we had when we were Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church."

In Morristown, N.J., a retired priest leads Mass for about 50 members of the lay Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful on the first and third Sundays of the month, said Maria Cleary, director of Voice of the Faithful's New Jersey chapter.

"We're all people who have made a lifelong commitment to the Catholic church," Cleary said, "but for a variety of reasons have become disillusioned. . . . They feel that this is an alternative for them, that they're worshiping with like-minded Catholics."

She said many services like hers "don't publicize themselves because they . . . don't want to be shut down." She agreed to be interviewed, she said, because "I feel very strongly, we can't keep our light under a bushel. It doesn't make any sense for us to be hiding."

Jeff Diamant writes for the Star-Ledger in Newark.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company