Eminentoes

Florida’s Kissing Priest Ignites Catholic-Episcopal Row

Liberal Episcopalianism recruits its kind of sinner -- and revels in its victory over dread Catholicism.

By 6.9.09

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A tabloid exposé of a celebrity (now former) Catholic priest's cavorting with his bikini-clad consort on the sands of a Florida beach has ignited an ecumenical brouhaha between the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami and the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.

"This truly is a serious setback for ecumenical relations and cooperation between us," observed Archbishop of Miami John Favalora about a May 28 press conference featuring the smooching priest and his new supervising prelate, Episcopal Bishop of Southeast Florida Leo Frade. "The Archdiocese of Miami has never made a public display when for doctrinal reasons Episcopal priests have joined the Catholic Church and sought ordination. In fact, to do so would violate the principles of the Catholic Church governing ecumenical relations. I regret that Bishop Frade has not afforded me or the Catholic community the same courtesy and respect."

The amorous priest is Alberto Cutié, a telegenic 40-year-old Miami-based television and radio talk show host sometimes called "Father Oprah" for his love advice and chatty broadcast presence. Easily recognizable to millions of Spanish-speakers after his years on Telemundo and EWTN Español, Cutié could not have been overly surprised when a photo spread of his frolics with girlfriend Ruhama Buni Canellis splashed across a Spanish-language tabloid in early May. In the following days, Cutié coyly told inquiring media that that he supports the Catholic Church's expectation of celibacy for priests but was uncertain about his own vocation, about which he was supposedly consulting with his own archdiocese.

So the Archbishop was surprised when Cutié and a smiling Miss Canellis, whom some press reports describe as a fiancée, appeared at a lavishly covered press conference with Episcopal Bishop Frade and his own beaming wife. The two couples, appearing outside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami after Cutié's reception into Episcopalianism, more resembled a presidential ticket than parties to a transfer of ecclesial allegiance. "We welcome Father Alberto into the ministry of the Episcopal Church," gushed Bishop Frade, whose flashy purple and red vestments, with towering miter, were perhaps more suited to a medieval pope consecrating a Holy Roman emperor than a Miami press conference. Surrounded by 50 clamoring reporters and photographers, Bishop Frade dressed the part for what was undoubtedly the media zenith of his church career. "Our ministry has centered on spiritual growth, love, forgiveness, and a sense of community," Frade pronounced. "Guided by a spirit of fellowship and understanding, the Episcopal Church remains a beacon of hope and faith for all."

An Episcopal News Service report was enthusiastic about Cutié's transfer. "He and Mother Angelica, they are the Roman Catholic televangelists," pronounced one Episcopal Church official. "This is like Joel Osteen [a popular Christian preacher, author and televangelist] changing faith, abandoning ship." Another quoted Episcopal official was equally excited, calling Cutié "very good looking," "eloquent," and "charismatic," who's "hung out with stars," befriended Gloria Estefan, and now, himself a "celebrity," is "very boldly go[ing] against his promise to the church and its teachings."  Bishop Frade credited the media frenzy to there being "nothing like a priest committing a sin, as seen by Rome; a good looking man finding someone he loved." The bishop claimed:  "We were hoping that it would be low key, but that was impossible."

Purportedly, unknown to the archdiocese, Cutié's high profile switch to Episcopalianism was preceded by two years of "discernment." "I thank God for the many people in our community who have shown me their love and support," Cutié told the press conference. "Your prayers have truly sustained me at this time of transition in my life. With God's help, I hope to continue priestly ministry and service in my new spiritual home." Bishop Frade's news release hailed Cutié's "bilingual skills, evangelical voice, and cultural sensitivities" as a "natural fit" for Miami area Episcopalians.

The Frade-Cutié press conference was a reminder that Episcopal bishops, presiding over an ever diminishing flock, typically only get media play in the midst of sexual imbroglios, usually involving controversies over homosexual clergy, a cause of increasing church schism. Unlike the other two Episcopal bishops in Florida, Frade sides with his church's dominant liberal faction. Last year, he publicly denounced Florida's successfully approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between man and woman. He has celebrated the Episcopal Church's affirmation of various "sexual orientations." Last year, Bishop Frade marched with other Anglican bishops through the streets of London in an anti-poverty demonstration, wrapping his own placard with a rainbow flag, because, "when we talk about justice and mercy, we need to remember that gay and lesbian persons are discriminated against by the church and the government."

Archbishop Favrola, who presumably has never marched with a rainbow flag, pronounced that Father Cutié had separated himself from Roman Catholicism by professing "erroneous faith and morals, and refusing submission to the Holy Father."

Favrola said Cutié had "caused grave scandal within the Catholic Church, harmed the Archdiocese of Miami -- especially our priests -- and led to division within the ecumenical community and the community at large," whose "wounds" were deepened by the press conference with Bishop Frade. "He has never told me that he was considering joining the Episcopal Church," he noted of Cutié. As for the Episcopal bishop, the Catholic Archbishop curtly observed: "I have only heard from him through the local media."

Wasting no time, Cutié delivered his first sermon from an Episcopal pulpit on May 31, though he will have to wait another year before formal ordination. According to the Miami Herald, he got several standing ovations. "The spirit of God has been with me," he told his now fellow Episcopalians. "And I'm going to tell you something: God is the only one we follow."

Fawning Episcopalians predicted Cutié would bring energy and new members to the numerically declining Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. With only 35,000 members (compared to the growing Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, with 800,000 members), the Episcopalians of Miami surely could use the help.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.