Skip to content

Growing discontent with Vatican spawns underground churches


Rev. Mary Ramerman leads a service at Spiritus Christi Church in New York. (Courtesy of Paul Kuppinger)


Rev. Mary Ramerman holds the communion cup while Fr. James Callan (holding his hands in front of him) stands beside her. (Courtesy of Paul Kuppinger)


Rev. Mary Ramerman performs a baptism at Spiritus Christi Church in New York. (Courtesy of Paul Kuppinger)


A boy gets confirmed by Rev. Mary Ramerman while Fr. James Callan looks on. (Courtesy of Paul Kuppinger)


Rev. Mary Ramerman and Fr. James Callan give a first communion at Spiritus Christi Church in New York. (Courtesy of Paul Kuppinger)

Ten years ago, James Callan’s world turned upside down. He had been a priest for 22 years at Corpus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y., but was ousted for supporting gay unions, female priests and communion for non-Catholics. Two months later, the newly conservative diocese demanded that Mary Ramerman, then associate pastor of the church, step down from the altar because she was a woman. After refusing, she was fired. The following Sunday, 1,200 people came to church to protest.

Together, they decided to break away from the traditional rigid structure and form Spiritus Christi, an “underground church” that follows the liturgy of the Catholic Church, but is not restricted by the demands of Rome. They are part of a new form of worship, where women are free to take leadership roles, married men can be priests, and many support gay unions as well as communion for non-Catholics. These underground churches, or gatherings of people who have broken away from the Catholic Church to form their own independent churches, believe in an inclusive, progressive environment for worship. Some rent church space from other denominations, but most gather for services in people’s homes.

“Up until now, it was love it or leave it,” said Kathleen Kautzer, a sociologist at Regis College who studies the movement. “Now there’s a third way. You can remain connected, you can work for change in the church, but you can practice Catholicism on your own terms.”

Though officially unrecognized, there are now around 300 to 400 such churches, at least half of which have started in the last decade by Catholics disenchanted by the growing conservative nature of the church, said Kautzer. That number continues to grow.

Spiritus Christi now has a following of 1,500 people, up from 1,100 when it started in 1999. The church, which now has satellite churches in Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira, N.Y., is the largest underground church in the country. After Ramerman was ordained, “there’s been a flood of ordination of women, and some men” who are married, Callan said. Now, there are national organizations of female priests and married priests. Callan describes it as “a transformation of the church from below rather than from above.”

Though it is no secret that more people have been shying away from traditional religion, a March 2008 Pew survey on religion and public life found that “Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” Although 31 percent of the Americans surveyed were raised in the Catholic faith, only 24 percent described themselves as Catholic.

A number of factors are driving this trend. Though the church began to liberalize in the 1960s under Pope John XXIII, every pope since has moved toward a more conservative ideology. The current pope, Benedict XVI, is the most conservative of all, showing no flexibility regarding celibacy, homosexuality and bans on the ordination of women

Sexual abuse scandals, which came to light in 2002, are also feeding this move. According to a March 2008 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, nearly 14,000 molestation claims have been filed against the Catholic clergy since 1950, resulting in a total payout of $2.3 billion. In 2007 alone, total abuse related costs exceeded $615 million. These payouts, as well as the declining attendance at Mass, caused many parishes throughout the country to close.

Disgusted by the scandals in the church, some Catholics began searching for new ways to express their beliefs while retaining their Catholic identity. Out of this environment, a new movement was born.

Just outside of Chicago, Mary Nichols-Schleitwiler, 63, and her husband Paul, decided seven years ago to form an underground church with nearly 75 other Catholics. Every month, they take turns hosting services in their homes, sometimes gathering around the dining room table, other times congregating in living rooms. Every service culminates in a big potluck feast, and an evening discussion.

Though they begin each service with the same prayers heard in traditional churches, they change all the language to be gender neutral. When they gathered in January, they incorporated passages from Martin Luther King Jr., and when they celebrated the feast of Mary Magdalene in July, they used it as an opportunity to celebrate Middle Eastern women.

Born a Catholic, Schleitwiler attended traditional churches her whole life, but was increasingly frustrated by its growing conservatism. In 1994, her former pastor asked her to participate in a ministry training program that typically culminates in ordination. Because she was a woman, she was allowed to complete only two of the four years of training. Instead of ordination, she received a certificate.

“Here we were coming into yet another millennium and they weren’t there yet,” she said. “I had come to a place in my life where I could not accept anymore the idea that this church has no place for women in ministry.”

Now, at her underground church, Schleitwiler has found comfort with her new surroundings. “It’s given me a voice,” she said, “a voice I wouldn’t have in a traditional church. It’s given me the opportunity to hear the voices of other women.” Instead of going to Mass for an hour, greeting strangers and then going home, Schleitwiler describes her underground church as a “closely knit community without being a closed community.”

Though Kautzer does not argue that underground churches will lead to greater numbers of practicing Catholics, she said they could potentially draw people back to Catholicism.

“These days, the scandals have really undermined its credibility and legitimacy,” she said. As people become less fiercely loyal to the church, Kautzer believes they might be willing to join underground churches. “It’s possible that these independent groups will continue to grow and that they’ll attract a lot more. It’s a new movement. It’s really just begun.”