NEW YORK — Ten years ago, JamesCallan’s world turned upside down. He had been a priest for 22 years atCorpus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y., but was ousted for supportinggay unions, female priests and communion for non-Catholics. Two monthslater, the newly conservative diocese demanded that Mary Ramerman, thenassociate pastor of the church, step down from the altar because shewas a woman. After refusing, she was fired. The following Sunday, 1,200people came to church to protest.
Together, they decided to break away from the traditional rigidstructure and form Spiritus Christi, an "underground church" thatfollows the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, but is not restrictedby the demands of Rome. They are part of a new form of worship, wherewomen are free to take leadership roles, married men can be priests,and many support gay unions as well as communion for non-Catholics.These underground churches, or gatherings of people who have brokenaway from the Catholic Church to form their own independent churches,believe in an inclusive, progressive environment for worship. Some rentchurch space from other denominations, but most gather for services inpeople’s homes.
"Up until now, it was love it or leave it," said Kathleen Kautzer, asociologist at Regis College who studies the movement. "Now there’s athird way. You can remain connected, you can work for change in thechurch, but you can practice Catholicism on your own terms."
Though officially unrecognized, there are now around 300 to 400 suchchurches, at least half of which have started in the last decade byCatholics disenchanted by the growing conservative nature of thechurch, said Kautzer. That number continues to grow.
Spiritus Christi now has a following of 1,500 people, up from 1,100when it started in 1999. The church, which now has satellite churchesin Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira, N.Y., is the largest undergroundchurch in the country. After Ramerman was ordained, "there’s been aflood of ordination of women, and some men" who are married, Callansaid. Now, there are national organizations of female priests andmarried priests. Callan describes it as "a transformation of the churchfrom below rather than from above."
Though it is no secret that more people have been shying away fromtraditional religion, a March 2008 Pew survey on religion and publiclife found that "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses asa result of affiliation changes." Although 31 per cent of the Americanssurveyed were raised in the Catholic faith, only 24 per cent describedthemselves as Catholic.
A number of factors are driving this trend. Though the church beganto liberalize in the 1960s under Pope John XXIII, every pope since hasmoved toward a more conservative ideology. The current pope, BenedictXVI, is the most conservative of all, showing no flexibility regardingcelibacy, homosexuality and bans on the ordination of women
Sexual abuse scandals, which came to light in 2002, are also feedingthis move. According to a March 2008 report commissioned by the U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops, nearly 14,000 molestation claims havebeen filed against the Catholic clergy since 1950, resulting in a totalpayout of $2.3 billion. In 2007 alone, total abuse related costsexceeded $615 million. These payouts, as well as the decliningattendance at Mass, caused many parishes throughout the country toclose.
Disgusted by the scandals in the church, some Catholics begansearching for new ways to express their beliefs while retaining theirCatholic identity. Out of this environment, a new movement was born.
Just outside of Chicago, Mary Nichols-Schleitwiler, 63, and herhusband Paul, decided seven years ago to form an underground churchwith nearly 75 other Catholics. Every month, they take turns hostingservices in their homes, sometimes gathering around the dining roomtable, other times congregating in living rooms. Every serviceculminates in a big potluck feast, and an evening discussion.
Though they begin each service with the same prayers heard intraditional churches, they change all the language to be genderneutral. When they gathered in January, they incorporated passages fromMartin Luther King Jr., and when they celebrated the feast of MaryMagdalene in July, they used it as an opportunity to celebrate MiddleEastern women.
Born a Catholic, Schleitwiler attended traditional churches herwhole life, but was increasingly frustrated by its growingconservatism. In 1994, her former pastor asked her to participate in aministry training program that typically culminates in ordination.Because she was a woman, she was allowed to complete only two of thefour years of training. Instead of ordination, she received acertificate.
"Here we were coming into yet another millennium and they weren’tthere yet," she said. "I had come to a place in my life where I couldnot accept anymore the idea that this church has no place for women inministry."
Now, at her underground church, Schleitwiler has found comfort withher new surroundings. "It’s given me a voice," she said, "a voice Iwouldn’t have in a traditional church. It’s given me the opportunity tohear the voices of other women." Instead of going to mass for an hour,greeting strangers and then going home, Schleitwiler describes herunderground church as a "closely knit community without being a closedcommunity."
Though Kautzer does not argue that underground churches will lead togreater numbers of practicing Catholics, she said they couldpotentially draw people back to Catholicism.
’I had come to a place in my life where Icould not accept anymore the idea that this church has no place forwomen in ministry.’