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The Parallel Catholic Church

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan praises a new HBO documentary, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," by Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") on the perpetration and cover-up of sex abuse in the Catholic Church that traces the corruption all the way to the Pope. None of this, I think, will be news to many of us who have been following this horrifying story for more than a decade, but Sullivan offers an interesting comment on how the loss of moral credibility among the hierarchy has created two parallel churches:

One feature of this last election was the complete failure of the Vatican hierarchs to dictate the vote to the flock. American Catholics voted for Obama over Romney. The docile fools in dresses - from Dolan to Chaput - were ignored as they now routinely are, and should be. They actually think they still have moral authority. But moral authority has to be earned with each generation, and the corruption in the Vatican is so deep and so rotten and so incapable of self-reflection it has effectively created two Catholic churches in America: those few in the pews who still listen to the bishops and those who exist almost in a parallel church, focused on their own parish, their own priest, and their own faith, which remains, for many of us, undimmed.

I have also found the idea of inhabiting a parallel Catholic Church to be one way of sustaining my own faith through the dark time of scandal, pastoral malfeasance, and political cynicism that continues to undermine the hierarchical Church. The wonderful community at my local parish and the excellent priests that serve us have kept me coming back every week in spite of the continual heartbreak that comes from seeing certain bishops and their friends take the public stage with a militant defensiveness, a hunger for power, and a litigiousness that seems to be the very antithesis of the Gospel's message of self-sacrifice, humility, and love. Now more than ever, I find that spending Sunday mornings in prayer with my spouse and our friends at the Church of Loretto is essential to sustaining a spiritual life away from the daily silliness that has become the public witness of institutional Catholicism.This is why I find Luke's post about a young man being denied confirmation at his Minnesota parish so depressing. Some conservative Catholics may applaud this move as an important catechetical moment on the way to preserving doctrinal discipline and the deeper edification of a smaller, purer Church. From the pew where I sit, however, it is a cold-hearted, pharisaical action that privileges the letter over the Spirit, which will only result in stamping out any meaningful future for this Church that so many of us love in spite of feeling unloved by it. Why a priest or bishop would deny the sacraments to an enthusiastic and independently-minded young person -- who has an obvious interest in practicing the virtues of love and justice (that he, no doubt, learned in the Church) in the public sphere -- and the family that raised him is beyond baffling to me. It is mean, plain and simple. Do we really have so many 17 year-olds seeking confirmation these days that we can afford to alienate those who desire the sacrament in good faith?As Sullivan points out, this case in Minnesota is made even worse by the fact that it looks like political retribution:

In Minnesota, where a third of the population is Catholic, the hierarchy insisted that the state amend its constitution to keep gay couples out of civil society and civil marriage. The hierarchy failed - as miserably as they failed in their trumped up "war on religion" nonsense. The Amendment didn't pass. [...] And so in Minnesota, a 17-year-old Catholic, Lennon Cihack, who goes to mass weekly, and who was diligently preparing for his confirmation, posted on his Facebook page a picture of himself and a poster opposing the Amendment. His mother is then called into the rectory by the local priest and told that the confirmation cannot occur. Then she is told that the entire family is now barred from communion.

Is it Sunday yet? I need to go to Mass.


Commenting Guidelines

Helen--I believe the gentlemen mentioned by Chaput were all previous winners of the award, so it's only natural that he would mention them specifically. I'm sure he has other heroes too, and probably many in common with you.

This may be merely semantics, but I don't think the locution "denied confirmation" is conducive to fruitful exchange. The pastor determined that the young man was not yet ready for confirmation--that he did not have a sufficient understanding of the teachings of the Church. Would you say an 7-year old was denied confirmation if a pastor determined he was not ready yet?Reasonable people may disagree with the pastor's approach, and whether it was sufficiently "pastoral", but let's call it what it is, so we can debate it on the merits.

Mark Proska:I was aware that the gentlemen were previous winners. At least, Arcbishop Chaput did not refer to them as saints.

John Page:Pickle fork! A good and apt image considering the fact that the Church is in a bit of a pickle today.

The "parallel church" Andrew Sullivan describes is very familiar to me. From my perch in my pew (usually in the balcony), the advent of a more democratic, more inclusive, less reactionary, more possessed of a vibrant humanity, couldn't come fast enough.The necessary reform and predicate has been before us for a long, long time: And inexorable evolution toward a Peoples Church has already begun. Like first century Christians we are struggling for a new enlightenment: LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE!My sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, often forewarned us after our daily reading from the Lives of the Saints: "Christianity is not for sissies."Got to go ... Sunday Mass starts in an hour!

Just got back from Mass across the street from Eric's community: Same creed, same liturgy, priests in union wih the bishop and he, in turn, with all other bishops. One difference: we sang the ND Alma Mater at the end (after all, it is a Marian hymn) wich hapens on football weekends to make the alumni happy. Unity in diversity which is what catholcism is al about. Enough of that flabby "parallel church" talk.

I can only imagine the singing was most lusty today, after yesterday's events. I imagine the Crimson Tide is going to come rolling in but first, Southern Cal...

Claire's nightmare (7:51am) points to one fact that makes our era unique and calls for far better understanding in thinking about "the Church" as fractionated as described above and as it may evolve. How will "the Church", with whichever meaning you give the words, function in the real world recognizable today? Theses equivalents are hanging on cathedral-door equivalents in Austria and Ireland today. They can be read and further disseminated from URLs immediately available to you and worldwide. If language is an obstacle, Google will translate (poorly). The Austrian Pastors' site offers 10 languages at a click. It took 3 days this spring for the Pope to denounce the Austrian Pastors' call, Cdl. Schonborn to echo the Pope, and the Pastors' leader to reject the criticisms. A flip side of Claire's nightmare is that traffic to and from the CDF and internal and external correspondents may be accessible to a suitably adept and motivated network expert, inspired by the precedent of the Pope's pedestrian butler. Would the CDF survive a Net dump? We could hear and see 250 US Church leaders assembled last week to address pastorally the economy (too hard) and Sunday Homilies (limited importance since most Catholics seldom go where Sunday Homilies are spoken - see CARA). Reaction to the crime and punishment of Bishop Finn, sitting among them, was widely reported on (none). Complexities of increased modern transparency call for refined awareness by the USCCB if they hope to lead with effectiveness. Recent authoritative pronouncements from some bishops on the risk of eternal damnation from voting evilly, which might preferably be forgotten, can be promptly retrieved verbatim for comparison if the bishops were to bring up eternal damnation again in the course of teaching and sanctifying. Chair of the USCCB Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, Bishop Conlon of Joliet, famously reappointed a known hazardous priest to ministry with direct access to children at home. He reversed himself a week later after intense public outcry from Faithful and media. As with Boonesville, Minn (Pop. 2300), local matters relatively trivial on a grand scale don't stay local. Proportionality of attention is hard to find and impossible to impose. Merits aside, whoever hopes to lead parallel churches into the future must be able to function in an interactive environment never seen before.

Ann, Thomas Reese drew on Pew's "A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict's Visit to the U.S." (March 27, 2008). Reese noted that almost half of ex-Catholics became Protestant and almost half of ex-Catholics became unaffiliated. He wrote that he was "leaving that discussion [about "those who become unaffiliated"] to another time." This would suggest at least the possibility, it seems, that perhaps more liberals than conservatives are leaving the Church of Rome. We just don't know, I suppose.The Pew report is at your observations about semantics, Richard McBrien commented several years ago about "Redefining the Center" in Catholicism. To access:+ Go to Click "Essays in Theology"+ Click "I want to search the archives"+ Enter "Redefining the Center" (w/o quote marks)He's also shared some thoughts about *fundamentalism* at his website.

Helen 11/17/2012 - 9:10 amDavid Smith:One of the most unpleasant characteristics of the human animal is its hunger for intense and enduring hate.Really? Is that your opinion or do you have results from a study that proves your statement?

"Unpleasant"is a judgement word Helen. It can be used only to express opinion.

Who excommunicated the young man's family ... the bishop? Why? Cannot a canon lawyer for the defense appeal this up the line? Has it come to this that parents can be excommunicated for actions of their children? How can that be, even with the teapublican eccleiastical superstructure that we are blessed with?

David Smith:You never cease to amaze me. that was a very good spin. :-)

"One difference: we sang the ND Alma Mater at the end (after all, it is a Marian hymn) which happens on football weekends to make the alumni happy."The alumni must be very happy this weekend, with ND # 1 in the football rankings for the first time in a long time. I have two siblings who graduated from ND and a nephew there now in the law school (he was also an undergrad at ND), and they're ecstatic, driving the non-ND members of the family nuts. ND...a parallel universe. ;)

"Vatican City State is governed as an absolute monarchy. The Head of State is the Pope who holds full legislative, executive and judicial powers." Pope governs autocratically. Bishops govern autocratically, accountable to no one else except the Pope. Pastors function in effectively the same way. How in the world can the faithful expect that they will behave differently with this governance structure in place? Peter Steinfels said in his book A People Adrift that "The Catholic Church can succeed as an institution while failing as a church. But it cannot succeed as a church while failing as an institution." The world (aka God's creation) has come to understand and validate ideas such as democracy, transparency, accountability, evolved standards of justice, intellectual freedom, etc. etc. etc., none of which are compatible with autocracy. Until the faithful decide to use their education, voice and pocketbooks to do something about governance, the Church will inevitably continue to fail as an institution. I don't think, for the majority of the faithful, that nickel has dropped. But one day it will, and the sooner the better.

Essentially, I agree with Lawrence Cunningham.I'm not completely sure what is meant by "parallel Catholic church", as it may be used in different ways by different commenters. I take the meaning of that phrase to be, "two Catholic churches, one in communion with the pope and bishops, and the other not." I don't know of any Catholic *communities* like the latter (and I suppose that statement is tautological, as being in communion with the bishops is one of the creedal marks of Catholic faith). Well, I do know of some such communities, but they are far-right communities - SSPX and the like.Certainly, in the Chicago area, there are some Catholic communities with a substantial number of progressives, and some of those blocs are vocal and influential. But those communities still maintain communion: their clergy are in communion with their bishops, they administer sacraments in communion with the church, etc. I sometimes think we're more in communion than we realize.Even the constant criticism of bishops that goes on at dotCom (and it can be wearying) may presuppose that bishops are worth a respectful listen.

Joseph J.--Thanks for the addresses. Having computer problems, can't check them out.

Jim P. ---My biggest problems with the bishops are 1) they remain silent when they should speak out, and 2) they don't listen to the Faithful.

I consider myself a faithful Catholic to the bishops. But I was never more shocked when I heard a local parish priest all but say emphatically "vote for Romney" or you are not in communion with the church on respect life issues. My husband and I were taken aback, and I thought "this is not going over well with the parish." Fortunately this is not my home parish, however I thought the issues are so much larger and complex than this man is making them. Today I ran into the deacon of that parish and asked him how things were going at the church. He said the priest was alienating the parish. He keeps wanting to set up a meeting with the priest, but the priest says he's too busy. I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking this man was off base. Even the deacon thinks so. So the idea of parallel churches is not so far fetched when thinking of the issues and the need for communication from the Catholic Church.

I took the term "parallel Catholic Church" to be a take-off on the expression "parallel universe" meaning that people inhabit a thought world so different from each other that they really don't understand how the other could think that way. I'd just like to add one point that hasn't been raised yet: The first casualty of all the recent conflicts such as the one concerning the young man in Minnesota is, guess what? Discipline. Because we can't agree on right and wrong, we end up arguing that discipline itself is the problem. Frankly, I don't think that's fair.If the young man were part of a Neo-Nazi group and was held back from confirmation because he espoused violence and racism on Facebook, would we have the same problem with it? I don't think so. Let's be clear about what the issue is. The disagreement is over whether gay marriage is good or at least morally neutral, or evil and morally wrong. This is really not a conflict about confirmation polity.

If the young man were part of a Neo-Nazi group and was held back from confirmation because he espoused violence and racism on Facebook, would we have the same problem with it? I dont think so.Actually, I think I still would, although maybe I would be a lonely voice. After unexcommunicating the SSPX bishops, Pope Benedict said that, had he known Williamson's negationist statements, he would not have done it. I thought then that that didn't make sense because those statements (however false and ugly) were not linked to the excommunication. So in the present case it really is the unchecked arbitrariness of the sacramental punishment that bothers me. It reminds me of Mark 10:42.

Mike McG asks: Im also wondering how centrist Catholics might find each other to create an identity between the overpowering narratives of the hierarchical and parallel churches. Anybody out there? Others have expressed similar sentiments in this thread.There is in fact a Catholic organization whose overarching goals are the respectful consideration of opposing viewpoints and the search for common ground among those viewpoints. Founded in 1996 by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative seeks to lessen polarities and divisions that weaken the communion of the Church. Father Imbelli and Prof. Kaveny are past advisory committee members of the CCGI, and Fr. Komonchak delivered the CCGIs annual Philip J. Murnion Lecture in 2003. While perhaps not as well-known within the Church after the untimely loss of its founder, the CCGI remains focused on bridging the gaps between Catholics on both prongs of the pickle fork, to borrow a metaphor from this thread. IMO, the CCGI should be revered for its goals and mission.Spend some time clicking around CCGIs website, and then make a gift to help keep this worthwhile organization going:

Thomas Blackburn:I only should speak of the countruies I know well, the US and Italy. In Itay there is a spectrum of Catholic opinion that you could loosely define "left to right" but it is by far not as polarized as here. On the left you do not find anybody who passionately hates (or at least despises) the bishops as you can find among the commenters on NCR or (slightly less frequently) Commonweal. Moreover, nobody seems to let their political preferences shape their moral and cultural opinion as much as US Catholics ON BOTH SIDES do, in my honest, non-snarky assessment.

Thanks to Lisa, Larry, John Prior, Michael Barberi and others for their helpful comments, concerns, and corrections regarding the "parallel church" concept. I think that Lisa's concerns are well stated, and I hope that my continued participation in this blog among other things is evidence that I am not at all interested in using the "parallel church" as a cloister in which to seal myself off from engagement with the public conversation of the Church. I also agree with Larry that some of this can become a bit "flabby," but I did want to open a thread to discuss why Andrew Sullivan's use of the term resonates, especially when confronted with some of the silliness that has been served up from Church leaders during the recently and mercifully ended election cycle.I should say that it did not explicitly occur to me, when I posted this, that the parallel churches were liberal and conservative, certainly not in political terms. Rather, the divide seems to be between local communities, which I am happy to say feel themselves to be in union with each other more often than not (especially those that root for Notre Dame football!), and the hierarchical administrative and disciplinary structure of the Church, which often seems quite removed from the everyday life of those of us in the pews. This is to say that I feel more fully in communion with the most "conservative" person across the street than I do with most representatives of the institutional Church.So the "parallel church" worry is more of a base/superstructure disconnect than a different sides of the street divide. I should also say that I don't think that this disconnect is good, nor do I think Sullivan thinks that it is. I do think that it describes what is happening to Catholicism in America, though, and for many of the reasons mentioned in this thread, I think that it is something that we and the hierarchy should be interested in fixing. The last thing lay people should do is quietly retreat into marginal communities (or simply leave), just as the last thing the bishops should do is write off those communities as heterodox and therefore not really "Catholic" anyway.

Carlo - Just a "honest, non-snarky" question: Is it that Italians failing to connect their moral and cultural opinion to their religious and spiritual lives underlying why they are so apathetic and alienated from their Catholicism?

Carlo Lancellotti Perhaps, we in the U.S. expect more of our bishops.

"I should say that it did not explicitly occur to me, when I posted this, that the parallel churches were liberal and conservative, certainly not in political terms. Rather, the divide seems to be between local communities, which I am happy to say feel themselves to be in union with each other more often than not (especially those that root for Notre Dame football!), and the hierarchical administrative and disciplinary structure of the Church, which often seems quite removed from the everyday life of those of us in the pews. This is to say that I feel more fully in communion with the most conservative person across the street than I do with most representatives of the institutional Church."Hi, Eric, this is a helpful clarification. I believe that social research has supported this observation of the local / universal divide within the church for a number of years now. The priests, deacons and parish staff - not necessarily in that order - are the glue that connects the two worlds. They are supposed to take laws, rules and policies written on paper or computer screens in a chancery or in Rome, and humanize them for real people and concrete situations. Arguably, the laws, rules and policies themselves haven't changed. But the people in the parishes have changed significantly. The local ministry professionals need to recognize this and recalibrate their ministry approach accordingly. Personally, I believe that parish staffs need to focus much more on evangalization, initiation and formation than was the case during the 20th century. It can't be taken for granted that the faith is being passed from one generation to the next. That's the context in which I see this Minnesota confirmation incident: as one of evangelization, initiation and formation. It may be that this priest has upheld a church rule as it is written on paper or a computer screen (although I have serious doubts about this). But has he succeeded in evangelizing, initiating and forming this young man in the faith?

Jim P. --But what if it's the bishops, priests and deacons who need to change what they teach? I'm thinking about contraception, of course. Don't you admit that the clergy has been wrong in the past? And if so, that shows that it is possible for the clergy to be wrong. So how do you, a member of the clergy, find out when you're wrong -- that you have not been very well formed? We know that it is a principle in the Church that for a teaching to be authentic it must be received by the laity. But the contraception teaching over at least the last 100 years has been steadily losing ground to the point that now only about a quarter of the laity think the teaching is right. Given this diminishment of belief in spite of a great deal of preaching and teaching against it, shouldn't you wonder whether it's the clergy who have been ill-formed, not the laity? And if so, who needs evangelization?

Hi, Ann, sorry, I did not see this until today - I've been away for a few days.Yes, I'm wrong on occasion. But deacons and priests are different than bishops in this regard - priests and deacons don't possess teaching authority in the way that bishops do. I do have a responsibility to be formed in the truth and to pass it along to those whom I serve. But this process is a good deal more than simply parroting some document from a pope. I have to present teachings to specific people who live in a specific culture and have specific issues and problems.I'm not so sure about your principle that acceptance by the laity is a litmus test for teaching authenticity. Earlier this year, Cardinal George wrote this, in the context of the contraception mandate: " What isnt always understood is that the Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse. That dynamic is clear in history and became clear also in the official visit to Rome that the Bishops of our region made this week." is my view on the matter: the bishops possess teaching authority. The process of defining and refining a teaching may be lengthy (as in, it could take years or centuries of refinement), and a teaching may take different forms in different times and places. The church used to teach that taking any interest on a loan is sinful; now, it teaches that excessive interest on a loan is sinful. What is the core, the nugget, of that teaching? Whatever it is, it's more subtle than, "Thou shalt not collect interest on a loan".