Diocese to Try Priest for Heresy
By David Olson
December 13, 2005
The Diocese of San Bernardino today will hold what experts say could be one of the few Roman Catholic heresy trials in U.S. history.
The priest on trial refuses to attend the hearing, which he calls "medieval and totally un-Christian."
"It's like the Inquisition has returned," said the Rev. Ned Reidy, of Bermuda Dunes, who also is charged with schism.
The church defines heresy as the denial of a church truth and schism as the refusal to submit to the authority of the pope or church leaders.
If the diocesan tribunal concludes that Reidy committed heresy and schism, he will be formally excommunicated from the church -- although the Vatican believes no one can ever fully lose his priesthood. Heresy is the same charge that Galileo faced for defying church teaching.
Reidy, 69, does not deny the principal allegations against him: that he left the Roman Catholic Church for another religion and espouses teachings that violate church doctrine.
But he said the San Bernardino Diocese has no jurisdiction over him or his new church. He does not expect the trial to be fair.
"This whole thing is so biased I don't know why they're doing it," he said. "Why would I give it credence by being there?"
Resigned in 1999
Reidy served 19 years as pastor of Christ of the Desert Roman Catholic parish in Palm Desert before resigning from the Order of the Holy Cross in 1999 to join the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which does not recognize the Vatican's authority and has beliefs that Reidy said are more in synch with his own. In 2000, Reidy founded an Ecumenical Catholic parish in Bermuda Dunes, just east of Palm Desert. It is one of 18 Ecumenical Catholic parishes nationwide.
The denomination, based in the city of Orange, holds more liberal views than the Vatican on issues such as divorce, birth control and homosexuality, and it ordains married, female, divorced and gay priests.
Reidy was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church when he joined the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. The diocese is holding the heresy and schism trial because some Roman Catholics might still believe Reidy is a practicing Roman Catholic priest, said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese. Reidy's current church is only a few miles from his old Roman Catholic parish, Lincoln said.
"He is still using the term 'Catholic' in quotes, in advertising and on the Internet," he said. "Because of the confusion in not differentiating between his church and the Roman Catholic Church, the diocese felt we must proceed with this official action in order to make that distinction."
Reidy said he severed his ties to the Roman Catholic Church when he resigned from his order. The homepage of Reidy's current parish, Pathfinder Community of the Risen Christ, states: "We are a Non-Roman-Catholic Community."
The diocese issued a letter in April 2000 shortly after Reidy founded the Pathfinder parish warning Roman Catholics not to attend his services or retreats. Reidy said several parishioners from his former Roman Catholic parish, Christ of the Desert, have followed him to Pathfinder.
The letter states that Roman Catholics who participate in a Mass or other rites associated with groups such as Ecumenical Catholics would suffer "serious spiritual harm."
Earlier Trial in Corona
Lincoln said the diocese has held one previous heresy trial. That one involved the Rev. Anthony Garduno, formerly of St. Edward parish in Corona.
The diocese held the trial because Garduno in 1996 formed a church in Corona with beliefs similar to the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
Garduno left St. Edward after 1993 allegations that he had asked a man to strip during premarriage counseling.
Although Garduno said there was a church trial against him in 2003, he insisted it was not for heresy, but for not being in union with the pope. He said the documents he received in 2003 on the trial did not mention the word "schism" either.
Garduno said he did not attend the hearing because the diocese no longer has jurisdiction over him.
Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an expert on church history, said he is unaware of Catholic heresy trials in the United States outside the San Bernardino diocese. Several other Roman Catholic scholars said they, too, are unaware of other U.S. trials.
Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said such trials in modern times are rare worldwide.
"By and large, once you get past the Council of Trent and the 1600s and 1700s, you don't hear much about it," he said.
Heresy trials can occur at the Vatican or in a diocesan court. Green said the last time the Vatican itself formally excommunicated a priest for heresy was in 1997, when the Rev. Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka was denounced for his views on original sin. Balasuriya later reconciled with the Vatican.
The one-day closed trial of Reidy is being held today in the Halls of the Tribunal at the diocese's San Bernardino headquarters. Three diocesan priests will serve as judges at the trial, which will also include other diocesan officials. A ruling is expected within several days, Lincoln said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which outlines Vatican doctrine, defines heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth." Green said that means the rejection of fundamental matters of faith, such as the Holy Trinity or the virgin birth of Jesus. The catechism defines schism as "refusal of submission to the Roman pontiff."
In a June 15 document delineating the accusations, Stephen Osborn, promoter of justice for the diocese, wrote that Reidy committed "offenses against the Christian faithful by espousing and teaching matters contrary to divine law and to the universal law of the Catholic Church."
Among other things, Osborn cites the Ecumenical Catholic church's refusal to accept the infallibility of the pope, its blessing of same-sex unions and its ordination of women.
Bishop Peter Hickman, the Ecumenical Catholic denomination's leader, said the language in Osborn's missive is offensive.
"The cold, mean-spirited tone of the letter makes you think this was from a few centuries ago," he said.
Lincoln said the letter is worded carefully to be in accordance with canon law.
Green, the Catholic University canon law expert, said heresy trials occurred "not infrequently" through the 1600s, although there are no reliable statistics on the exact number.
Perhaps the most famous heresy trial was the one in 1633 against Galileo for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun. He was sentenced to lifelong house arrest.
Others found guilty of heresy during inquisitions from the 12th to 19th centuries suffered penalties as severe as torture or death.
Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis and a former Roman Catholic friar, predicted that the San Bernardino trial will backfire and publicize a little-known denomination that might appeal to disenchanted Roman Catholics looking for a liberal alternative that preserves Catholic rituals.
Left to Avoid Reassignment
Reidy said he joined the Ecumenical Catholic Communion because the Holy Cross order planned to reassign him and he did not want to leave the desert. The order typically limits a priest's stay in one parish to 12 years.
In 2003, the Holy Cross order formally dismissed Reidy, said the Rev. Ken Molinaro, assistant provincial for the order.
Reidy, who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1962, said he had long questioned church teachings on the ordination of women and other issues. However, he said, he would have stayed at Christ of the Desert indefinitely because he had a long history there, liked his parishioners and was able to take "a progressive approach" to liturgy and ministry.
Most of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion's 35 priests are former Roman Catholic priests, Hickman said.
Lincoln said the diocese is not taking action against other Ecumenical priests because it is unaware of any others who had been pastors in the diocese.
The Rev. John Coughlin, a law professor at Notre Dame and an expert in canon law, said although the trial can be conducted at the diocesan level, Reidy would have the right to appeal any ruling to the Vatican. Reidy said he has no plans to do so because an appeal would give the decision legitimacy.
Coughlin said there are less drastic ways for the diocese to make it clear that Reidy is no longer a Roman Catholic priest.
"It doesn't make sense if he's left the priesthood and left the Catholic Church for him to be tried," Coughlin said. "It seems to me it could be achieved by a simple statement by the bishop that the priest is no longer a Roman Catholic priest."
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