Another kind of Catholic: Breakaway groups reject Vatican teachings on issues such as priestly celibacy and divorce
Terry Villaire, 69, has a neatly trimmed black goatee, pudgy expressive hands and penetrating dark eyes that are hard to avoid, even from the back pew.
During a recent Mass at Holy Angels Parish in Fort Lauderdale, Villaire seemed more like a party host than a presiding bishop as he circulated, distributing kisses on ready lips and cheeks. Just as effortlessly, he slipped into the solemnity of a centuries-old ritual, singing over a wine chalice and wafers.
”Our motto is love without judgment, and that’s piqued some curiosity,” said Villaire, a former Roman Catholic priest who’s now a bishop in an independent Catholic movement.
In hundreds of homes and parishes around the country, former Roman Catholic priests like Villaire are leading a grass-roots movement to redefine Catholicism at a time when the Vatican has urged greater orthodoxy.
Villaire’s small but growing 40-person congregation, made up mostly of former Roman Catholics, meets every Sunday at a Unity church on the Intracoastal Waterway in a shady Fort Lauderdale suburb.
”Most of us were born and raised as Catholics, and in good conscience I still see myself as Catholic,” said Villaire, who conducted Mass in green and white clerical robes and a red silk miter.
His denomination, the National Catholic Church, was founded by Villaire and 10 other former Roman Catholic priests in 1994. It now has 22 priests and five parishes from Miami to Jacksonville, and touts ”Vatican-free” Catholicism on its website.
The spread of independent Catholic communities — Catholic congregations that reject Vatican teachings on issues such as priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, divorce and papal infallibility — has met skepticism and opposition from many mainstream Roman Catholics.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, said groups that reject the authority of Rome are ”by definition” no longer Catholic.
”To be a Catholic is to accept the authority of the bishops in union with the pope to determine what we believe,” said Fessio, a former theology student of Cardinal Joesph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. ‘To say, `I want to be a Catholic but I don’t want to accept all the teachings the church declares as part of myself’ is like saying, ‘Well, I want to be an employee of Ford Motor Company but I don’t want to follow any of their rules.’ ”
But as more of the faithful embrace alternative forms of Catholicism, splinter groups have started pushing radical reform by ordaining women and married men, forming their own parishes and worship communities and writing their own canon law.
”There’s a real struggle going on right now in the Catholic Church in terms of what it means to be Catholic,” said Angela Bonavoglia, author of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church. “We’ve got a pope right now who has implied that a smaller, more orthodox church may be the direction the church is going in.”
More than 300 nontraditional Catholic congregations have formed in the United States, said Kathleen Kautzer, an associate professor of sociology at Regis College in Weston, Mass., who is writing a book on what she’s termed the ”underground” Catholic Church. Many more such parishes may exist but do not advertise, she said.
”There’s a whole range of ways that you can be Catholic and stay connected to Catholicism,” said Kautzer.
“Reformers believe that some day the church will change, but it’s becoming intolerable. They’re saying that being a Catholic is bigger than the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Many groups call themselves Traditional Catholic, Old Catholic, United Catholic and Ecumenical Catholic — some claiming spiritual roots as old as the Roman Catholic Church.
Some belong to independent Catholic movements that have been around for centuries after breaking with the Roman Catholic Church, while others have formed in the last five years. Miami and Fort Lauderdale each have more than a dozen independent Catholic congregations, members of the movement say.
Roman Catholic Church officials say calling such churches Catholic can be misleading, however.
”Our concern is that Roman Catholics aren’t confused by the use of the word Catholic,” said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami. ‘At times, we have received phone calls from people who say, `I went to the Catholic church in my neighborhood and it wasn’t a Roman Catholic church.’ ”
The Archdiocese of Miami issues periodic disclaimers in its diocesan newspaper warning against Catholic churches that are not under the authority of the Vatican. Other U.S. dioceses take similar measures.
Some have gone further than printing disclaimers.
Last December, the Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., excommunicated a former Roman Catholic priest and charged him with heresy for joining the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a denomination that denies church teachings on homosexuality, abortion and the ordination of women. The Rev. Ned Reidy countered that he was no longer under the jurisdiction of Rome. In 2002, seven Catholic women were excommunicated after being ordained in Germany by a bishop from a sect that broke with Rome. They refused a Vatican request to renounce their vows.
To some worshipers, however, underground Catholic parishes offer a chance to practice Catholic liturgy and rituals without the dogma. ”It’s nonjudgmental Catholicism,” said Angela Ochmanski, a former Roman Catholic who joined Holy Angels Parish last November after receiving a church flier in the 1mail.
Like many parishioners at Holy Angels, Ochmanski disagrees with the Vatican’s teaching that homosexual relationships and remarriage after divorce are sins, but still feels connected to the Catholic Church. Services at Holy Angels appeal both to her spiritual sensibility and her social values, she said.
”I felt more of an understanding of the way that Bishop Villaire interprets the Catholic teaching,” she said.
Independent Catholic movements go back at least until the 11th century, and many have been incorporated by the Vatican as Roman Catholic religious orders since then, said theology professor Ed Sunshine of Barry University.
After the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s, a wide range of independent Catholic groups formed in the United States. Traditionalists who felt the reforms veered too far from the church’s roots broke away from the Vatican, while liberals left because they felt the church was still too conservative.
Dormant for decades, the Catholic reform movement has been gathering momentum in recent years, led by lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful, which formed in response to the sexual abuse crisis. About 70,000 Catholics belong to reform groups, Bonavoglia and other experts say.
Sunshine believes the Vatican will eventually absorb splinter groups into its hierarchy, much as it did with religious orders such as the Franciscans. ”The Roman Catholic church thinks in terms of centuries,” he said.
But to some leaders of dissident Catholic groups, differences with Rome are too vast and various to be bridged. Some say they are ministering to disenfranchised Catholics who feel alienated from the church, while others say they themselves felt like outcasts.
Paul Veliyathil, a former Roman Catholic priest who leads weekly prayer and discussion for lapsed Roman Catholics in his Coral Springs home, spent 13 years as a priest in India, Canada and the United States before breaking with Roman Catholicism over a host of issues, ranging from the prohibition on birth control to the infallibility of the pope.
”I couldn’t honestly teach some of the teachings of the church,” said Veliyathil, who started holding meetings at a Lutheran church five years ago. “Every time you put on the collar, you are a representative of the church, and it’s a very difficult cognitive dissonance.”
Bishop Villaire, who was raised Roman Catholic in Bay City, Mich., said he felt called to the priesthood at a young age. But shortly after being ordained in 1965, he started to feel uncomfortable with church teachings condemning divorce and birth control, he said.
His father, a grocer, and his mother, a beautician, had raised him to believe ”the customer is always right,” he said. Denying communion to divorced Catholics made him uncomfortable, he said.
”We had people in parishes who were in a second marriage and they felt that they were on the outside looking in,” he said. “I encouraged them to come to communion. That put me at odds with the church.”
After 30 years of ministry in parishes, college campuses and hospices, Villaire broke with the Roman church to join an independent movement. In 1998, he was ordained as a bishop by seven independent Catholic bishops in the lineage of Old Catholic Church, a schismatic group that broke with Rome after the church declared the pope infallible in 1870.
Now, he’s seeking to expand his flock through church fliers and advertisements that promise “love without judgment.”
”We did not want to deceive people in saying that we continue to be Roman Catholic, but we function very much in the same way we did before,” he said.
At a recent Mass, Villaire led the congregation in a revised version of the Mass, administering communion and offering healing through a laying on of hands. Aside from subtle differences — no one knelt during the service, and no references were made to the pope — Villaire conducted a traditional Catholic liturgy.
Even some seminarians can fail to spot differences in such services.
The Rev. Ricardo Rivera, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who was ordained as a priest in the National Catholic Church last November, said he did not realize he was joining an independent Catholic movement when he first attended Mass at an independent Catholic church in Fort Lauderdale.
”The liturgy is the same, everything is the same,” said Rivera, who joined the National Catholic church after moving to South Florida from Puerto Rico two years ago.
Rivera now serves as a priest at Santa Barbara Catholic Church, a Spanish-speaking independent Catholic parish in Little Havana with about 400 parishioners, many from Cuba and Central America. The simple, white church is adorned with large statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints. A wall of votive candles flickers in the back corner.
”It’s confusing for some people,” Rivera said. “Most of the people that come to the church visiting, they are under the impression that we’re Roman Catholics.”