Defiant Catholics Leave the Church, Keep the Faith

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) 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 like-minded 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 similar “underground” Catholic churches there are in the United States. Most are small, many unstable. They are not networked and often unpublicized, so no one knows if they are increasing or decreasing in number.

Kautzer estimated there are 200, speculating they probably attract far fewer than 1 percent of the 67 million American Catholics. That is a small number, considering polls show significant American 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 than the one taken by most Catholic reformers, who have sought _ unsuccessfully, so far _ to change church rules and hierarchy.

Most members of these churches are “really liberal people who are divorced, gays, and feminists,” Kautzer said, adding to the list a type of married couple most Catholics would find startling: former priests and former nuns.

“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 more liberal United Church of Christ denomination. Most members were raised Catholic, and many are Protestants who married Catholics, said Quinn.

The Inclusive Community’s chapel is set up to be, well, inclusive. Two crosses are on the Communion table _ one with the corpus of Jesus, the other without, respecting Catholic and Protestant traditions, respectively. For the same reason, the Communion host can be savored 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 Rev. Callan from Corpus Christi. Callan had blessed gay unions, given women prominent roles on the altar and offered communion to non-Catholics.

Spiritus Christi, with Callan as priest, opened in 1999, starting with 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 women priests.

“As a church, we’ve always been on the liberal side,” said Ramerman. “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.

Asked why attendees don’t attend a regular church on those Sundays, she said, “we’re all people who have made a lifelong commitment to the Catholic church, but for a variety of reasons have become disillusioned. … They feel that this is an alternative for them, that they’re worshipping 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, N.J.)


Editors: To obtain a photo of Terry and Fred Quinn, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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