It's an old question: Is the pope Catholic? OK, here is the modern question that seems to come up every few months in a major newspaper or wire service: If the pope says you are no longer a Catholic, are you still a Catholic?
I raise this question because of the interesting Religion News Service story by Jeff Diamant that ran the other day in The Washington Post, the one under the headline "Some Dissenters Quit the Church But Don't Stop Being Catholic."
The story is about the small "Catholic" churches that exist in many American cities, rebel congregations that are often led by "priests" who left the church to get married. Some also include women who have been ordained, to one degree or another. These churches clash with Rome on all of the usual "doctrinal" issues linked to the Sexual Revolution.
Yes, please note the presence of scare quotes around some of the key words in the previous sentences, words like "Catholic" and "ordained." If you add scare quotes of this kind you offend one group of readers. If you do not use them, you offend another. There is no way around this reality.
As you would expect, Diamant's story includes all kinds of material that will tick off faithful Roman Catholics who remain members of traditional Roman Catholic parishes. Then again, the new alternative Catholics or catholics believe that their version of the faith is just as faithful as the faith demanded by the Vatican.
Is the pope Catholic? Who knows? What is a "Catholic worldview" anyway? If you join something called the "Inclusive Community," are you still a "Catholic"?
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.
Yes, yes, note the loaded use of the word "reformers." You could also call them "protesters." In fact as Diamant reports -- too far into the story for my taste -- you could also accurately call them Protestants. You see, this Inclusive Community has actually (the story says "technically") joined the liberal-and-proud-of-it United Church of Christ. That means the members are Protestants. Of course, they could say they are Catholics and Protestants at the same time. But, wait, that would make them Episcopalians?
The point is that this story does nail down the key fact: At least some of the alternative Catholic flocks are now legally Protestant. I think that would make Pope Benedict XVI happy and sad at the same time.
P.S. The story did leave me with two major unanswered questions. Do these churches have bishops? How do you claim to be Catholic -- big C -- without a bishop? Also, what is the Vatican's legal or technical view of the sacraments offered by the men who were once ordained? I mean, a priest is always a priest, even if he is an inactive priest. Right? That might have been interesting to explore in a sidebar.
Photo: Spiritus Christi Church