Martin Luther might quote Yogi Berra — “Deja vu all over again.”
Well, it’s not exactly the Reformation, or even Reformation Lite, but what Bishop Thomas Abel is involved in is a rebellion against his Roman Catholic upbringing and some of the church’s beliefs that he refuses to believe.
Everyone knows that millions of Catholics ignore the church’s proscription against birth control and divorce. However, Abel’s issues were broader than that, and his dissatisfaction went beyond grumbling. He became a priest in an offshoot Catholic church.
Abel must often feel like nobody is listening. He is the bishop and parish priest for a congregation of his Catholic Church of America in El Cajon — the Santo Niño Catholic Church, which meets in a mortuary chapel and where attendance at Mass runs from four to 35. There is one other startup parish of his church, St. Thomas Independent Catholic Community, in the San Diego State University area. He doesn’t anticipate overflow crowds there, either.
The reach of the Catholic Church of America is limited to San Diego County, at least for now. For the moment, the name is the biggest thing about it.
Religious people — Christians, Muslims and many etceteras — seem to fill their spare time forming splinter groups (in the trade, they’re called “schisms”). Evangelicals are famous for bickering over minutiae of doctrine. Muslims can get intense about their differences, as we are seeing. Roman Catholics tend to stay on more of an even keel, which is what makes Abel and others like him interesting.
Now 62 and living in Rancho Bernardo, Abel was raised in the Midwest, where he was a pre-seminary college student in the ’70s headed toward a life as a priest, except for two things: He was gay, and he couldn’t keep quiet about being gay.
Were you out of the closet?
“Sort of. I confided in some of my classmates.”
Which means you confided in the entire Western Hemisphere.
At first, his admission was allowed to pass. Eventually, “The rector of the seminary called me in and said, ‘Well, I think there’s a conflict between your sexuality and your vocation.’ ”
Abel was one divorce the church was willing to sanction. His homosexuality eventually led to his excommunication.
“I later spoke to priests in the diocese, and they said, ‘Tom, you’ve got a big mouth. If you had just kept it shut, you would have become a priest.’ I go, ‘I know.’ ”
Thrown out in the cold regarding his vocation, he turned to secular life, working in corporate human resources for 35 years. He retired as director of human resources for LG Electronics in San Diego in 2007. He now lives on Social Security and a pension.
But the desire to be a priest never left him. In 1992, he entered training with the Old Roman Catholic Church English Rite, another independent group through which he was ordained in 1995.
Beyond the sexuality issue, as Abel’s religious education deepened, he realized that his liberalism was incompatible with other areas of Roman Catholic belief.
Today, Abel’s church is in loose affiliation with other small, independent Catholic congregations nationwide in rebellion against Rome. Mostly, their objections are that the church is not liberal enough on doctrine. A few object that the church is too liberal, especially on the abandonment of the Latin Mass.
Abel is a friendly, open man with the mellow demeanor of an elementary school teacher — or a priest. He has been married since 2008 to a Filipino-American man who does not want his name published. That man is also a fall-away Roman Catholic. They have been a pair for 22 years.
Abel says he’s not bothered or discouraged by his congregation’s size. “One of the great gifts that any priest has is being able to offer the sacrament of Mass, be it to one person or 1,500.”
His shoestring pastorate is in the Christian tradition, going all the way back. Through the centuries, from the early years of persecution, Christianity has been most vital when faced with rejection or hard times of one kind or another. And having four people show up for Mass is one hard time that’s hard to ignore.
Abel was made a bishop in 2003 by the Independent Catholic Church in Chicago. As such, he believes his bishopric is in the stream of apostolic succession beginning with St. Peter. He considers the pope to be a fellow bishop, “the first among equals,” but other than that, no greater than himself in the eyes of the church. At least of his church.
Abel has paid a price, as you might expect, both for his rebellion and for the sexual orientation that contributed to it.
Having grown up in a strict Roman Catholic household, he says, his family had mixed reactions to both his leaving the church and his sexuality. The way he says it is a tipoff that he faced some hurtful times.
“My dad had issues. Before he died, we had a really long, good talk and we professed our love for each other as father and son, and he said, ‘I’m glad you’re happy. That’s all I want.’ ”
It might be tempting to view this man with some amusement and consider him a clerical Don Quixote, but why? Strip away the cathedrals, the pope mobiles, the Notre Dame football team and even the Sistine Chapel, and what we are left with — spiritually — is an argument about which creed is most faithful to the New Testament church and true to the Gospel of Jesus.
That’s an argument Abel is eager to have. His attitude, in prayerful pugnacity, is “anytime, any place.”
He explains the difference between dogma and “pious belief” in the Roman Catholic faith. In common terms, dogma is proclaimed by a church council and signed off by the pope at the time. It is etched in stone (tablets) and nonnegotiable for believers. A pious belief, however, can be changed and gives the individual some wiggle room as to what to believe. Disputing the church about a pious belief does not jeopardize one’s standing with the church.
(I expect Catholic theologians will react in horror at my simplifications. I apologize in advance.)
Abel objects to three dogmas of the Roman church: edicts against homosexuality and divorce, and the doctrine of papal infallibility on matters of faith. However, those are not going to change except by a church council sanctioned by the pope, which means not tomorrow or the day after.
Those Abel defines as pious beliefs and takes issue with are: clerical celibacy (he believes marriage for priests, nuns and religious brothers should be allowed), the prohibition of birth control and the ban on elevating women to the priesthood. As bishop of his own church, he has personally ordained a female priest.
He believes the Roman Catholic refusal to allow divorce is outdated.
Of course, I say to him, the Church of Rome has that safety valve of annulment to fall back on.
He says, “Annulment requires that the sacrament of marriage was never conveyed or received: legally married but not sacramentally married.”
“In our church, we recognize that sometimes marriages die.”
And sometimes they live ugly.
“In our church, we welcome people who have been divorced and are remarried.”
Did you consider becoming an Episcopalian? It’s similar to Roman Catholicism, I’m told. The founder, Henry VIII, didn’t have a problem with divorce, either.
“It wasn’t a good fit for me.”
You must run into some ardent Catholics who take you to task.
“There’s one priest up in Escondido who just hates us, and he’s a rabid Republican. Just hates Obama. Literally hates him.”
Could you call that an “impious belief”?
Abel says the emergence of churches such as his is caused by a hardness of heart on the part of Rome. “(It’s) not listening to the needs of the people. We all have different needs, and we all have different views. And I think the church needs to take a more big-tent view of inclusiveness.”
Who are your parishioners? What attracts them?
“Most have been hurt by the Rome church in one way or another … divorcees, gay people … average people.”
How many priests do you have in San Diego County?
“We have three, and probably will add a fourth in a few weeks.” He adds that no priest, including himself, is paid a salary.
One assumes you have no doubts about your own salvation.
“Oh, absolutely not. I love Christ, and I know Christ loves me, and I know where I’m going. I’m going to be with God.”
Abel responded to a recent Vatican Council statement from bishops encouraging an opening of church attitudes toward gays, divorcees and others traditionally frowned upon by the church.
“I think it’s great,” Abel says. “Of course, the church moves at glacial speed. (Pope) Francis is pushing for more inclusiveness; an uphill battle for him.”
Might a liberalized church pull him back into the fold?
“Not yet. There’s a long way to go.”
I cherish rebels, especially ones who act on principle. If I did not, I wouldn’t be a journalist, or shouldn’t be.
However, even my tendency toward boldness will not draw me into Bishop Abel’s dispute with the Roman Catholic Church. So, here I stand: Peace to both your houses. It would be nice if you could work it out.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org