Kathleen Kautzer, The Underground Church: Nonviolent Resistance to the Vatican Empire, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, pp. 346. $163.00 hb. ISBN 978-90-04-21938-0, reviewed by Lluis OVIEDO, Antonianum University, Via Merulana 124, 00185 Roma, Italy

The new book of Kathleen Kautzer is a timely contribution to the study of some fringes of Catholicism in USA, rising in the last decades as a kind of ‘protest movement’ against the official stances held by Church authorities, and as a vindication of a greater role for the laity. The book is an extensive chronicle of the unrest and critical positions grown in different waves after the Council Vatican II (1965) and claiming their legitimacy as heirs of the ‘spirit’ of that Council. The author describes the issues mobilizing these organized groups, their achievements, and their decline and eventual demise after years of positive engagement.

The book offers a long introduction and three parts. The reader is introduced into the main features of the “Underground Church” and the aims of the research. In big strokes it is shown how ‘Liberal Catholicism’ has taken ground in America, giving place to many ‘reform groups’, aimed at expanding views and concerns neglected by the Official Church, as a reaction to the perceived dismay before the Church policy after the seventies. Issues like women’s full participation, no-compulsory priest celibacy, homosexual and divorcées rights, and a more tolerant sexual morality set the agenda of this movement. Furthermore, the revelations about sexual abuse by clergy in 2002 and the cover-up policy often practiced by Church authorities ignited a second wave of protests and concerns, claiming more transparency and accountability in the Church management.

The introductory study reflects on the dynamics and demography of the movement. It tries to frame it into a sociology of sects or dissident minorities and follows their steps from insider strategies to outsider strategies. The diagnosis about the future of this reform movement is somewhat grim “because they have not as yet generated structures and resources necessary to sustain themselves” (5). Indeed their members are ageing and their resources are diminishing lacking generational renewal.

The body of the book chronicles in three sections the history of the main groups engaged in the reformist agenda. In the first part, the author reviews organizations like: Call to Action (CTA), Voice of the Faithfull (VOTF), and other minor groups and feminist Catholic movements. The review often presents their origins, accomplishments, the criticism they meet, and the changes undergone until todays.

Part two carries the title “Testing the waters and pushing the boundaries”. It provides a dismal view of Catholicism in the new millennium, with a worrying decline in priesthood, and repressive measures by authorities trying to keep order and discipline in the ranks. Many cases are described as symptoms of this repressive atmosphere, resulting in the resignation of “Vatican II priests”, censure of parishes, and even some schism. Conservatism appears as the main currency. This atmosphere seems to explain the rise of marginal and resistance communities, often small and organized as a network, taking an alternative agenda. The issue of the sisters claiming priestly ordination and their dismissal by Vatican draws special attention, and – linked to it – the discontent shown by many sisters regarding the Church’s official line. Other issues like the resistance against parish closures are included in this heterogeneous list of movements.

The third part describes alternative paths – often beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church – arising as a result of the described polarization. Some experiences of ‘underground liturgies’ are offered as examples. In a similar way ‘schismatic parishes’ appear as alternatives beyond the canonical limits; several cases draw especial attention.

The conclusive chapter reports on the ‘culture-wars’ atmosphere that emerges from this very polarized situation, confronting reform movements and Catholic authorities. The author blames in her analysis the last papacies and their attempt to impose conservatism as the true sign of Catholic identity and to marginalise any form of liberalism. This clash has pushed many liberals against the limits, alienating them, even to the extreme of leaving the Church. Beyond these critical lines, the conclusion provides interesting reflections about the process followed by these groups, their accomplishments, their weaknesses, and their future. A constructive analysis highlights inclusiveness, the role of structure, and the challenges thus far confronted by these groups.
This is an excellent study based on an extensive field work, representing in a very accurate and unbiased way the reality of the Catholic Reform Movement in USA. The reviewer would prefer to avoid some general issues often beyond the scope of the study, and of much more complex nature. For instance, the issue of how much secularization in advanced societies is related to faulty Church policies prompting disaffection in the ranks of the faithful (21); or the historical question about John Paul II policy; his conservatism, effects and impact, both positive and negative. These are important issues related to the main topic, but requiring a different treatment.