The Catholic Church is known for its conservative theology. When progressive ideals enter the fray, the Vatican is generally quick to respond in an effort to correct any actions that are taken by clergy that seemingly contradict the Church’s teaching. But what happens when issues — like gay marriage — become so glaring that those who disagree with more conservative views no longer wish to abide by official Catholic doctrine?

To answer this question, one must look no further than the American National Catholic Church (ANCC), a relatively new denomination that was founded in 2009. The splinter group, which has no attachment to the official Church, dubs itself the ”the church you have been praying for” and embraces left-of-center ideals. On its web site, the denomination explains that is it not a part of the Roman Catholic tradition, that “there are many other types of Catholics” and that the ANCC wishes to make the world “a more compassionate place.”

While the denomination celebrates the same sacraments that were brought into existence during the Vatican Council II, there are many notable worship — and theological differences — between ANCC and the Vatican. While the group prays for the pope, it does not see him as the kingpin of all Catholic denominations. Furthermore, adherents do not believe that the religious leader is infallible.

Meet the American National Catholic Church: A Liberal Splinter Group

A screen shot from the ANCC web site.

Other major areas of difference are celibacy, women in the priesthood and policies governing the inclusion of gays and lesbians. Under ANCC rules, clergy members are not required to take a vow of celibacy and, like most Protestant denominations, they are permitted to have families so that they “understand firsthand the joys and struggles that come with the Sacrament of Matrimony.”

Females are also permitted to be priests and bishops within the ANCC umbrella — something that the Roman Catholic church has, up to this point, not sanctioned. And, as RNS notes, people who have been divorced are permitted to have communion. As for gays and lesbians, the denomination believes that sexuality is a part of individuals’ identity. Perhaps most controversial is the ANCC’s teaching that God has created some people to be homosexuals — a sentiment many conservatives would reject. 

“Sacramental limitations on marriage and ordination are rejected,” the church’s web site proclaims. “As such, we joyfully united same sex couples in the Sacrament of Matrimony and ordain qualified gays and lesbians called by God.”

While the ANCC is clearly a tiny denomination, it already has a total of seven parishes in six states: Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Typically, breakaway religious groups — particularly in the Catholic tradition — fail to grow.

“It’s a big undertaking. A number of us had explored different options, so we sat down and talked about what was really good, what didn’t work, and tried to craft something that addressed it,” the Rev. Matthew Bailey, a co-founder of the ANCC, told RNS.

Bailey said that splinter groups typically fail, because they don’t keep up their standards. In an effort to avoid this issue, the ANCC has launched a seminary and is training clergy to effectively avoid these issues.

However, experts contend that, though there are 200 Catholic groups that operate outside of the Roman tradition, most are conservative. Very few follow ANCC’s blueprint of taking a more progressive stance on the issues, meaning that the denomination is likely facing what RNS reports to be a potential “uphill battle.”