Catholicism and Episcopalianism


To be honest, I had not heard of Father Cutie (pronounced "coo-tee-ay") until recently, although he was apparently something of a media celebrity in South Florida and in the Spanish speaking community. He made the news because of his decision to leave the Catholic Church for the Episcopal church because he wanted to be able to be able to pursue both his religious calling and his natural human desire for romantic companionship, two things which, in the strange world of Catholic doctrine, are somehow considered contradictory. He decided that enough was enough, and now he is an Episcopal priest.

In the context of that news event, South Florida newspaper ran a story that tried to compare and contrast the Catholic Church with the Episcopal Church. I have never belonged to either of those churches, so the best I can do is make what are probably less than fully informed comments. The joke has always been that the Episcopal Church is "Catholic Lite", but, as the article points out, there is more to it than that. Nevertheless, it is true that a lot of ex-Catholics do end up being Episcopalians, because there would seem to be at least some similarities that would make an ex-Catholic feel somewhat more comfortable in that church than in more openly Protestant churches.

The question of sexuality is obviously one important question that impinged on Father Cutie's experience. It seems clear to me that the Catholic Church has historically held a view that deemed celibacy to be in some sense a purer way of life than one in which sexuality played a part. This unfortunate undercurrent (or sometimes overcurrent) of hostility towards such a significant part of human physical existence goes back at least as far as Augustine, but it can also be found in such non-canonical writings from early Christianity as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The idea that such a basic part of our physical natures can somehow come into conflict with a higher calling reflects a kind of dualism about the physical and the spiritual, and in fact a hostility towards the physical.

Father Cutie is a famous example, but really he is just the latest of a long line of refugees, both famous and not so famous, from the Catholic hierarchy's intransigence on such matters as celibacy, homosexuality, the role of women, and freedom of theological inquiry. While the Catholic Church remains stuck in the dark ages in its views on women, for example, the Episcopal Church now has a female presiding bishop. The contrast is rather stark. The problem as I see it is that such medieval Catholic doctrines are not likely to be reformed any time soon. As one former Catholic priest quoted in the Florida newspaper article puts it,

"The Catholic Church is monarchical; we're democratic," says the Rev. Robert Deshaies, a former Catholic priest and current rector at St. Benedict's Episcopal Church in Plantation. "It's basically about how the church is governed."
The leader of the Catholic Church appoints like minded people to choose his successor. The closest model that I can think of for how the Catholic Church handles papal succession is the old Soviet system, in which the politburo picked new leadership when the old ruler died, with membership in the politburo itself being hand selected by the leadership. It is true that out of the Soviet politburo system there did eventually emerge a reformer like Gorbachev, just as the Catholic system produced a reformer like John XXIII; and yet, this is perhaps that is where the analogy breaks down, because theological doctrine, unlike Stalinist orthodoxy, is much more immune to economic and political pressures, and furthermore recent popes seem to have taken careful steps to make sure that only like minded people inhabited the halls of church power. The point is that as a non-democratic institution, the people within the church are essentially powerless to effect real progressive change; power flows hierarchically from above, rather than democratically from below, and I can't imagine women becoming priests, let along pope, any time in the foreseeable future.

It seems that some Episcopal churches do try to offer themselves as a refuge for people who don't fit into the Catholic Church. The website for Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco, for example, mentions a group called Sophia in Trinity, which describes itself as "an inclusive community welcoming all those on the margins and especially those marginalized by the Roman Catholic Church: LGBT people, those that are divorced, remarried, those who witness to reproductive rights, all seeking justice and equality and the integrity of creation." Of course, that doesn't help much if you don't live in San Francisco, and I don't know how many similar communities exist elsewhere, especially in small towns.

It also seems that some Episcopal churches are more Catholic than others. The newspaper article reports,
Even in the American church, differences have emerged. "High Church" Episcopalians insist on Catholic-style liturgy, with bells and candles and incense. Their "Low Church" brethren have less formal worship, often like that in an ordinary Protestant church.
Indeed, I once attended a service at one Episcopal church service that was quite "High Church"; it wasn't my style, and I walked out about ten minutes into the service. Had I had a Catholic background, however, my guess is that I might have felt more at home there.

All of this raises some interesting questions in my own mind about the role that loyalty plays in all of this. I know that there are many progressive Catholics, people who object to specific policies or theologies of the church but who remain loyal to it nonetheless. I admit that I don't really understand it; a church that has egregiously offensive views on gays or women and which is not open to popular change from below is not something that I would choose to be a part of. Of course, I wasn't brought up Catholic either, so clearly some kind of loyalty issue is going on that I don't understand.


PrickliestPear said...

Actually, Cutié is not an Episcopal priest yet. Apparently it will take about a year for him to be certified as such.

I don't think the practice of celibacy necessarily reflects a dualistic worldview. Nor is the promotion of celibacy as superior to marriage absent from the New Testament. Paul clearly held that remaining celibate was to be preferred, and seems to suggest that marriage is for those who are unable to control their sexual appetites (1 Cor 7.1-9). Having said that, Paul's teaching has to be understood in the context of his eschatological beliefs, namely that the end of the world was near. Had he known there would be a second century (never mind a 21st!) I imagine he would have taught differently.

I think there are legitimate (and non-dualistic) arguments in favour of celibacy, undertaken for spiritual reasons. Celibacy, strictly speaking, simply means "remaining unmarried." Being in an intimate relationship and (especially) having children, are a hindrance to cultivating detachment.

But clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church does not serve this purpose. Garry Wills discusses this in his book Papal Sin. He contrasts the celibacy of the desert fathers, for whom "asceticism was part of an integral life pattern," with that of the modern Catholic priest, who often enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle (145).

It seems to me that any spiritual advantages that might be had by undertaking a life of celibacy are completely undermined when it's not part of a comprehensive ascetic lifestyle.

As for progressive Catholics, I would suggest that we don't consider the institution as central to "Catholicism" as non-Catholics probably imagine. To say that the Church is not open to "popular change from below" is simply mistaken. This is only true of the increasingly irrelevant hierarchy, and the shrinking number of Catholics who still take them seriously. The Church is much bigger than just them.

I think it's a lot more complicated than mere "loyalty." I'll have to post something about that later, though.

Mystical Seeker said...

I understand that the hierarchy could be said to be irrelevant with respect to its pronouncements on such things as condoms and birth control, which obviously a lot of Catholics ignore because those pronouncements are largely ridiculous. But it seems to me that it is not irrelevant with respect to, for example, the denial of women the right to be priests, or the denial of communion to people for this reason or that. And its pronouncements on homosexuality are at the very least hurtful to gays in the church, and to the extent that gays are excluded from the life of the church it goes beyond merely being hurtful.

To those extents, I am not sure how the institution does not matter. I certainly understand the role that the lay community plays in the life of Catholicism, and I appreciate that. But I don't see how the importance of the hierarchy with respect to policy decisions that affect worship cannot be totally ignored. Every woman who feels a calling to be a priest surely understands this. Having read books by women in the clergy who have discussed their first hand experiences with that profession, I think that this calling is a real thing and if a woman has the calling it matters when we shut that down. I actually do think that there is something perverse about denying women the right to serve that role, and I think it says something to girls growing up in a church when they are told that their gender prevents them from serving God in that way.

Rather than going through life being ashamed of a leadership that you have no democratic say in the selection of, wouldn't it be better if the members of the church actually got to have a direct say in policy. Wouldn't be great to be proud of your church when it selects a woman to lead it, as surely Episcopalians were when Katharine Jefferts Schori was selected as Presiding bishop, or as gay Episcopalians surely were when they selected their first gay bishop?

I guess that, from my perspective, institutions, and they they are governed and make policy, do matter.

PrickliestPear said...


I understand your point, and I don't disagree with you. When I say that the hierarchy is largely irrelevant to progressive Catholics, I'm certainly not saying that we should ignore it.

I certainly agree in principle that women should be permitted to enter the priesthood. In a better world, they would be. But under the present circumstances, changing the policy could have two very negative consequences.

First, it might provide a temporary shot in the arm to the institution of the priesthood, which is dying and which needs to die. That, of course, assumes that there are significant numbers of women who actually want to join the priesthood as it presently exists. I doubt, actually, that there are.

Second, and more serious, is the possibility that schismatic groups would split from the church. While female priests might be acceptable to most Western Catholics, they would probably not be welcomed in the developing world, where a large segment of the Catholic population resides. This would cut them off from Vatican leadership. This might not sound like a bad thing, but consider, as backward as the Vatican is, it's not nearly as backward as the leadership of fundamentalist schismatic groups, and the world doesn't need any more of those.

As for why progressive Catholics stay instead of defecting to a more hospitable environment, there are a lot of reasons. Personally, the thought of a Catholic Church without a progressive community is more than a little disturbing. I'm writing a blog post right now that explains my position on this in considerably greater detail than I could go into here.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest, coming from an unprogrammed Quaker background myself (they have no paid clergy), your comment about the need for the institution of the priesthood to die resonates a bit with me, although I'm not sure specifically you propose to replace that institution with. Personally, I am a big believer in the "priesthood of all believers", a concept that a lot of Christianity pays lip service to but I'm not clear on what many mean by that when in practice the priesthood is really restricted to a small group of paid individuals who are, at least in some denominations, given a special role with respect to the sacraments.

I suppose you could argue that ending the ban on celibacy would also give an unfortunate shot in the arm to the institution of the priesthood, since this is causing a strain on the church. It is hard to find priests who are willing to remain celibate--as Father Cutie will attest.

PrickliestPear said...


I'm not sure what would replace the priesthood. I don't know if pre-70 C.E. Jews could have anticipated what would replace the Jewish priesthood with the fall of the Temple. I really have no idea.

It may be inevitable that mandatory celibacy will be relaxed. That, too, would slow the death of the priesthood to some extent, but not enough to stop it.

Frank said...

I would like to respond to some of this stuff, but I wonder if this problem is on a cognitive or emotional level. Do you want to see the negative in the Catholic Church?