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Are ‘independent Catholic’ churches really Catholic?

Pope Francis Angelus

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP - published on 11/16/21

The pastor of a new church in Kansas City says they are welcoming people who feel they have been "ostracized" by the Catholic Church.

The local news media in Kansas City recently reported on something calling itself the “Independent Catholic Church.” The article describes it as part of an “independent Catholic movement” and suggests that it is part of the Catholic Church. The question may arise: Is this group Catholic?  Should a Catholic attend Church there?

At the heart of these questions is a deeper one: What does it mean to be Catholic?  Some would say that it is baptism that makes one Catholic. And there is some truth to that. The Church has taught that it is through baptism that one becomes a member of the one Church of Jesus Christ. Moreover, baptism as a Catholic makes one subject to the ecclesiastical law of the Church.  

But being Catholic is more than just the reception of baptism. It is a necessary first step, but the fullness of being Catholic requires communion with the Church. The canon law of the Church obligates every Catholic to maintain full communion with the Church. The Church has generally seen the fullness of communion as comprising three areas: faith, sacraments, and governance. That is, to be fully Catholic requires one to believe in the truths of the faith, to participate in the sacramental life, and to subject oneself to the lawful government of the Church, both the Pope and one’s proper Bishop.

At the level of faith, all Catholics are obligated to accept the truths of revelation and those proposed by the Magisterium touching upon faith and the moral life. Even persistent doubt about a truth that the Church holds to have been revealed by God would be a failure to put oneself into full communion with the Church and would make one less than fully Catholic in that sense.

The same is true about governance. The Church is not only the People of God, but a complete society which is structured for the common good. The Latin Church will soon be celebrating the Solemnity of Christ the King. Christ truly rules and governs us, and those ordained to sacred ministry, especially the bishops, govern the Church in his name. To deliberately remove oneself from the legitimate authority that they have in the Church is to remove oneself from the Church. This, too, would make one less than truly Catholic. 

The difficulty with these so-called independent Catholic Churches is that they promote themselves as having valid sacraments but do so removed from the faith and governance of the Church. They reject many propositions of the faith and especially of the moral life that the Church has always held to have been revealed truths. Moreover, they deliberately refuse to recognize the legitimate authority that Pope Francis and their local Bishop have over them. As such, they affirmatively reject full communion with the Church.  

The history of this group in Kansas City makes this separation from the Church even more obvious. On their own website, they claim the validity of their sacraments because their priesthood derives from ordination by Emmanuel Milingo. However, Milingo was excommunicated by the Pope in 2006 for disobeying the laws of the Church. How can one claim to be fully Catholic from a source publicly known to be excommunicated – but definition out of communion?

Are such “independent” churches Catholic? In the sense that their baptism and some of their Sacraments are valid, yes. But they are not Catholic in the best and deepest sense of the word because of their rejection of essential truths of the faith and the legitimate governance of the Church. As Catholics who desire to remain in full communion with the Church, we should avoid such groups, even while we continue to pray for eventual unity.  

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