Like Catholic priests everywhere, Bishop Peter Hickman dons a white tunic each Sunday to celebrate Mass in a sanctuary laden with incense and crosses.
Unlike most, he’ll often have lunch with his wife and children afterward.
“Marriage promotes growth,” says Hickman, 50, who has fathered five children, been married three times and divorced twice. “People who’ve never been married have a hard time knowing themselves.”
Marriage and children aren’t the only things separating Hickman from nearly all Roman Catholic clergy. The church he has pastored for more than 20 years, St. Matthew in Orange, operates much like any other Catholic church, and offers what appear to be the same sacraments. Yet it ordains female, married and openly gay priests, recognizes divorce, accepts birth control and premarital sex, blesses same-sex unions and, most important, rejects the authority of the pope.
Occupying cramped storefront quarters in a strip mall, Hickman and his church have become the center of the nation’s largest coalition of liberal independent Catholic churches, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
“Hickman is a missionary,” says Kathleen Kautzer, a sociology professor at Regis College, a Massachusetts Catholic school. “This is an important development in the field.”
Fueled by the church’s sexual abuse scandal and increasing demands for full participation by women, gays and others, the independent Catholic movement has gained momentum in the last several years. After starting out three years ago with seven parishes representing about 1,700 people, Hickman said, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion now comprises 23 parishes serving nearly 3,200 people in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Florida and New York.
Kautzer, who is writing a book on breakaway Catholic churches like the ECC, estimates there are more than 300 independent Catholic congregations nationwide serving at least 5,000 people. That’s a tiny percentage of the country’s estimated 60 million Catholics. But the number is growing rapidly, experts say, among those who reject the faith’s conservative social teachings yet remain theologically Catholic.
“Our Catholic identity is very important to us,” Hickman says, “but the Catholic Church no longer has a monopoly on sacraments.” Speaking to his congregation, Hickman goes even further, saying the Roman church hierarchy has betrayed the Gospel.
Those, of course, are fighting words to some Roman Catholic Church leaders who described the ECC in canon documents as “in conflict with divine law,” and recently convicted a breakaway priest of heresy.
Many conservative Roman Catholics have criticized their church for what they see as its post-Vatican II drift from its conservative roots. Yet many liberals see the ECC as the leading edge of progressive-minded Catholics who are declaring their independence from traditional church dogma.
“It’s quite clear that a growing number of Catholics find that churches like Hickman’s offer an openness they prefer,” said Bill D’Antonio, a visiting research professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and author of several books on church-related issues.
According to theologians, independent Catholic movements arose as early as the 11th century, some of which, including the Jesuits, the Vatican incorporated into the church. Following the First Vatican Council of 1870, a handful of German, Austrian and Swiss Catholics opposed to the concept of papal infallibility formed the Old Catholic Church, to which some current dissenters, including Hickman, trace their roots.
For a time, hundreds of independent Catholic congregations operated separately. Then came the ordination of Mary Ramerman in 2001, an event that thrust Hickman into the limelight, sparking the beginning of his new coalition.
A lay leader in a Rochester, N.Y., Roman Catholic diocese whose parish priest had been dismissed for, among other things, blessing homosexual unions and allowing women on the altar during Mass, Ramerman began conducting communion services in the priest’s stead. She too ran afoul of the diocese and was fired.
Ramerman formed her own Catholic religious community, drawing hundreds of former parishioners. Hickman then ordained her in a well-attended public ceremony.
“It’s what really got us started,” Hickman says.
Half of the ECC’s 40 priests are former Roman Catholic clergymen; the others, including several women, were ordained for the first time by Hickman. Some large groups have broken away from Roman Catholic parishes to join the ECC.
One of them is Light of Christ, a congregation of about 100 families outside Denver, formed a year ago. Most of the families had belonged to a Roman Catholic parish whose longtime pastor retired in the late 1990s. His successor put less emphasis on social justice, and the church became less inclusive of women and gays, said Mary Franch, the new congregation’s interim lay pastoral associate. “He had a different vision of what it meant to be a good Catholic,” Franch said.
Franch and two other lay pastoral leaders resigned and took about 10% of the parish to the ECC.
Many independent Catholics came from the liberalization movement born of Vatican II, the landmark reassessment of church teachings in the early 1960s. After nearly three decades of rule by Pope John Paul II, a new pope who promises more of the same and the clerical sex abuse scandal, Kautzer said, “some have given up.”
Yet they want to be Catholic.
Some say the ECC’s growth may have contributed to the Diocese of San Bernardino’s recent decision to try Father Ned Reidy for heresy. Reidy, 69, says he stopped calling himself a Roman Catholic priest in 1999 after 37 years of ministry. He formed the Community of the Risen Christ in Bermuda Dunes and affiliated with the ECC. Last year, the diocese charged him with heresy.
Diocesan spokesman Father Howard Lincoln has said the action was necessary to formally separate Reidy from his Roman Catholic collar.
Lincoln declined to explain why Reidy was singled out among other breakaway priests, adding only that the diocese holds “absolutely no antagonism toward the ECC.”
Experts say they are aware of only one other heresy trial in the United States, a 2003 case in the same diocese involving a priest who had formed a church in Riverside County that permitted priests to marry.
Not all church leaders share the San Bernardino fathers’ concern.
“It’s a separate church that operates independently,” said Father Joe Fenton, a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, in whose territory Bishop Hickman says Mass every Sunday. “We respect everyone’s right to religious freedom.”
Hickman’s church, featuring a large wooden cross with chairs in a semicircle, serves as spiritual home to some 130 families.
“We dream of a Catholic Church that’s open to everyone,” Hickman said in a recent Sunday sermon. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, he said, “betrays the Gospel they are called to preach. We pray they will be delivered from the demonic hold they have been caught up in.”
All of which sounded just fine to Tony Bomkamp, a 52-year-old graduate of Mater Dei, a Roman Catholic high school in Santa Ana. “I like the inclusive aspect of this church,” he said. “It’s the perfect balance: still Catholic but with everyone invited. That resonates with me. It’s what Jesus would have done.”