- The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion by Julie Byrne
The “other Catholics” in the title of Julie Byrne’s new book are the members of independent Catholic communities, which is to say those not institutionally connected with the Roman Catholic Church: Byrne estimates that there are between half a million and a million such individuals in the United States. “Not institutionally connected,” admittedly an awkward phrase, captures something of the liminal status of these groups. In the eyes of Rome they are officially schismatic; in the eyes of their members, they are “Catholicism without Rome,” Catholic denominations in a tradition that has so often denied its denominationalism (8). They range from the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X to the progressive Church of Antioch, the latter of which consecrated its first female bishop in 1974, chose a woman as its presiding bishop in 1990, has sanctioned same-sex marriages since its founding, and is Byrne’s central point of reference in this thought-provoking book.
Byrne’s research emerges from more than a decade spent in careful participant-observation and interviews with members of the Church of Antioch, especially its former presiding bishop, Richard Gundrey. Her book locates the Church of Antioch within the historical sweep of independent Catholicism, as one of the heirs of a movement whose roots Byrne traces back to the Church of Utrecht in the Netherlands (commonly known as the Old Catholic Church), which Rome has considered schismatic since the 1720s. The Other Catholics explores contemporary U.S. independent Catholicism, particularly on the left, [End Page 67] seeking to demonstrate that it comprises a vibrant, diverse set of communities that have mostly escaped the attention of Roman Catholics, not to mention church historians and sociologists of religion.
Chapters in the book seek to maneuver—sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so—between the particularities of the Church of Antioch and the overall contours of U.S. independent Catholicism. Byrne’s introduction and opening chapter are mostly methodological in content, identifying the difficulties involved in studying independent Catholics, such as how to categorize and count them. One might quibble with some of Byrne’s terminological choices: for instance, are the Orthodox and Anglican communions “usually associated with Catholicism” in the way that she suggests (3)?
In chapter 2, Byrne takes the reader on a highly accessible, if whistle-stop, tour of the history of independent Catholicism. She begins in 1724 in Utrecht, narrates the emergence of the first independent Catholic churches in North America, and goes on to depict the plurality of U.S. independent Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century. Chapter 3 narrows its scope to the Church of Antioch, officially established as the Church Universal-Christian Catholic in 1959. This chapter focuses on the life story and theological vision of its founder, Herman Spruit, who consecrated his wife, Meri, as an archbishop in what he called the “conjugal episcopate.” Proudly bearing the title of matriarch, she went on to become the sole leader of the church after Herman’s death.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 bring the story of the Church of Antioch up to the present day and are organized more thematically than chronologically. In Chapter 4, Byrne profiles Archbishop Richard Gundrey, describing his ministry at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as in his home there; gradually, the discussion broadens to include Gundrey’s role as presiding bishop of his “far-flung and diverse church,” which we later learn suffered significant internal divisions after his retirement (209). Chapter 5, “Mix and Mysticism,” considers the eclectic religious practices of Antioch and identifies a “common mystical orientation” that Byrne argues characterizes much of the church’s practice. The last substantial chapter, “Sacraments and Saints,” explores Antioch’s openness to practices not permitted by Rome, especially women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. In a thoughtful conclusion, Byrne reflects upon the significance of her findings for Catholic studies and for the future...