A Roman Catholic diocese in Southern California has put a former priest on trial on charges of heresy. The San Bernardino Diocese says Father Ned Reidy is leading Catholics astray with his breakaway parish near Palm Springs. While a secret diocese tribunal deliberates on a verdict, Father Reidy continues to celebrate Mass for his small but devoted congregation at the Pathfinder Community of the Risen Christ in San Bernardino, Calif.
Reidy left the Roman Catholic church in 1999 to join the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a denomination that now boasts more than a dozen parishes nationwide. While Catholic in name, it splits with the Vatican over some fundamental church doctrines. Unlike heretics of old, Reidy does not openly rail against Roman Catholic teachings with which he disagrees. He says he just offers an alternative.
- The Vatican defines heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine or catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same."
- At the turn of the fourth century, a priest from Egyptian Alexandria named Arius presented the Catholic church with its first major heretical challenge. Arius taught that Jesus, though divine, was not truly equal to God the father. That came in direct opposition to church doctrine on the holy trinity -- which holds that God is a single being existing simultaneously and eternally as God the father, God the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. At the first Council of Nicea, in A.D 325 -- which was attended by more than 300 early church fathers -- Arius' teachings were condemned, and he was declared a heretic and excommunicated.
- Heresy trials were not infrequent in medieval times. They became much rarer after the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. The Roman Catholic Church convened the council in order to definitively determine its doctrines in the face of Protestant challenges.
- In 1431, Joan of Arc -- who had led France to military victory against the English -- was convicted of heresy and sorcery and burned at the stake. She was canonized in 1920.
- In 16th-century France, secular courts punished Protestants for heresy under laws governing treason and sedition. Punishments included a range of torture techniques -- such as whippings and the cutting out of the tongue -- as well as death by burning or strangulation.
- One of the best-known heresy trials carried out by the Catholic church was the 1633 case against Galileo. The church found Galileo guilty of heresy for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun; it forced him to recant his views. Galileo was ordered imprisoned, but his sentence was later commuted to lifelong house arrest. Publication of Galileo's work was also forbidden.
- Among other famous heretics is Jan Hus. Born in the late 12th century in Husinec, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), Hus was a religious thinker and reformer whose challenges to Catholic doctrine included a questioning of the existence of purgatory and a rejection of confession. He was excommunicated in 1411, condemned by the Council of Constance, which acted as a court of Inquisition, and burned at the stake in Germany in 1415. His followers were called Hussites, and the movement he started is considered a precursor to Protestanism.
- Heresy trials can occur at the Vatican or in a diocesan court. The last time the Vatican itself formally excommunicated a priest for heretical views was in 1997. The Sri Lankan priest involved -- whose split with the church had involved his views on original sin -- later reconciled with the Vatican.
"We're involved in ministry here: women's ordination and calling men who are married and who've all their lives wanted to be priests," Reidy tells Steven Cuevas of member station KPCC. "I'm involved with priests who've left, who are just floating around. We're involved in preaching a good news that a lot of people have never heard before."
It's a message that resonates with some Catholics. Gene Philips is a regular at Pathfinder. A staunch anti-abortion Catholic, he broke away after a priest told him that as a divorced man, he could not receive communion.
"When Jesus said, 'Take this all of you and eat it. Take this all of you and drink from it,' he meant all!" Philips says. "He meant all of you!"
But in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, Father Reidy is a heretic -- someone who goes against basic church teachings. Father Howard Lincoln, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese, says the rare heresy trial is necessary to clarify Reidy's status within the church: He is no longer a Roman Catholic priest. The diocese fears that by using the word "Catholic" in his denomination, Reidy could mislead some worshippers.
"Ned Reidy made promises to his religious community and vows at his ordination, which he publicly broke with the Roman Catholic Church with the establishment of another denomination," Lincoln says.
Reidy is also charged with schism, which is defined as a failure to submit to the authority of the pope or of church leaders.
Reidy doesn't deny the charges. But he says the diocese no longer has jurisdiction over him. If found guilty, Reidy would be formally defrocked and ex-communicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
Reidy was a Roman Catholic priest in good standing for nearly 20 years in the Palm Desert area of Southern California. Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, says he understands if the diocese might feel a little threatened by Reidy's breakaway denomination.
"If he's an effective minister, someone who's been high profile in the community, and he leaves and co-founds his own denomination, I can understand the bishop wanting to make a special statement about this person," Roberts says. "I also don't think Catholics are confused by these issues. I don't think they would mistake this person as a Roman Catholic cleric."
Whatever the verdict, Reidy can always appeal to the Vatican. But he says he won't. He didn't attend his heresy trial, and he says he plans to continue his ministry regardless of the verdict.