The Search for Responsible Inclusivity

One of the hallmarks of the Independent Catholic Movement is its inclusivity. Following the example of Jesus, we welcome outcasts and sinners of all kinds. We bring them into the church and attempt to provide an environment in which God’s grace can touch them, heal them, and save them. But how does God’s grace flow to the sinner? By the good example of those already walking with God, certainly. But also through the sacraments. The sacraments were given to the church as a means of giving God’s grace to sinners. Then why deny the sacraments to sinners who ask for them? Why deny baptism to children of single mothers? Why deny the graces of Matrimony to those whose first marriage failed? Why be stingy with the sacrament of Reconciliation through General Absolution? Why deny the Eucharist to any baptized Christian who seeks the Lord? … Catholic or not, in the “state of grace” or not.

Part of our “inclusivity” then is generosity with the sacraments. But this can be misinterpreted as condoning sin. It is not. Jesus never condoned sin; yet He never turned away a sinner. Following that example in the real world is not always as easy as it sounds.

Some independent Catholic churches got carried away and let inclusivity become irresponsibility. Openly promiscuous persons were ordained to the priesthood. This is unacceptable. There is a difference between turning a sinner away from the church and refusing them Holy Orders! We are to be absolutely nondiscriminatory when it comes to welcoming people to the Church – and, we believe, to the Lord’s table as well. But we are to be very discriminating and selective when accepting candidates to Holy Orders. If Christ’s Church is not to be rocked by scandal (any more than it already has been, in almost every denomination), we must take steps to see that we ordain only those who have a genuine calling, who are of good moral character, who are emotionally stable, who are intellectually capable of performing their ministry, who have the requisite training, and who will draw people to Christ with their example.

In the Independent Catholic Movement, since we avoid hierarchical structure and legalism, carrying out this selectivity of ordination depends almost exclusively on the good judgment of the ordaining bishop. Once in a while, as throughout history, that judgment fails, and unsuitable persons enter the clergy. There has even been the occasional con artist who has succeeded in getting himself ordained. If a bishop makes a habit of unwise ordinations, the gentle persuasion of his brother bishops can be brought to bear. Some people just find it difficult to say “no.”

But in this Movement, there is also an automatic corrective. Clergy are guaranteed no salary, no house, no car, no health care, no retirement. Their only support is that given them voluntarily by the parishioners they serve. So ineffective ministers will not be supported, and they will turn to other work.

Another sometimes controversial aspect of inclusivity involves standards of belief. The independent Catholic churches generally do not require belief in a long list of dogmas. Yet there are core beliefs that we hold to. (For a full discussion of this, see the document “What Does It Mean To Be Catholic: A Call to Unity.”) Our various churches should first and foremost attempt to see that their people are Christian. That does not mean that they are baptized, or that they grew up in a Christian denomination, or that they identify themselves as Christian, but that they are Christian. This means having a basic knowledge of the Christian faith, having accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and having opened themselves to the influence of the Holy Spirit. It means more than saying the words. It means turning their life over to God and allowing Him to change them. It means following the example of Jesus in one’s daily life.

It is impossible to be a good Catholic without first being a good Christian. Beyond that, we should teach our people the distinctives of the Catholic faith – respect for the Apostolic succession, belief in the efficacy of the Sacraments, and belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

We teach our people these things through our example, our liturgy, our preaching, and our teaching (Bible study, etc.) But these are not entrance requirements into the Church. They are graduation requirements. So we are to welcome the skeptics, the confused, the agnostics, the atheists, and the “nominal Christians.” We don’t make them feel like outsiders by turning them away from the Lord’s table. Jesus never ever did that. What got him in trouble more than anything else was eating with sinners. We must do the same. We are to include them in the broadest sense of the term. We are to make them feel at home. And we let God’s grace do the rest.

In 1996, a group of independent Catholic bishops meeting in synod asked Bishop Bowman to draw up guidelines for “inclusivity.” “What is it that makes us Catholic? What are our core beliefs? Our churches are so different, one from the other. How can we have unity, the unity Jesus prayed for? On what basis do we include or exclude churches from our family? What should be our relationship with the Orthodox churches? With Protestants? What should be the standards for clergy? How can we have unity without requiring the lockstep uniformity that we left behind?”

This was the genesis of the United Catholic Church. We don’t have all the answers. (Bishop Bowman’s first attempt at dealing with these difficult issues is contained in the document “What Does It Mean to be Catholic?: A Call To Unity”) But at least we recognize the importance of the questions. What has developed is a loose fellowship of independent Catholic churches (some call themselves Roman Catholic, some Old Catholic, some United Catholic, some just “Catholic”). These churches are cooperating to find the answers to the above questions. We recognize each other; we support each other (spiritually, not financially); we love each other. None of us follows another. We are all attempting to follow Jesus.

As with so many of our spiritual forebears, we are Catholics who put our conscience above blind obedience to hierarchical legalisms; who put faithfulness to the inclusivity of Jesus above the exclusivity of institutions; who (like Jesus) put more emphasis on caring for widows and orphans than on avoiding sexual pleasure in committed loving relationships; who put more value on faithfulness to the early Church than on the inventions of recent centuries; and who, above all, when forced to make a choice, would rather follow Jesus than follow the rules.