The Old Catholic Church is a Christian denomination originating with mainly German-speaking groups that split from the Holy See in the 1870s because they disagreed with the solemn declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870). The Old Catholic Church holds close to ideas of ecclesiastical liberalism (Liberal Christianity). The Church is not in communion with the Holy See, though the Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches is in full communion with the Anglican Communion.
The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who were not under papal authority. As the groups that split from the Holy See in the 1870s had no bishop, they joined Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht. The Old Catholic Churches which form the Union of Utrecht are not in communion with any of the various groups which style themselves Independent (Old) Catholic.
Old Catholic Thought & Beliefs
Old Catholics reject papal infallibility, instead proposing that only the Church in Ecumenical Council may speak infallibly. For Old Catholics, the fullness of authoritative power in the Church is vested in the Bishopric, and a Council of the Bishops as a whole alone may speak infallibly. Old Catholics view the Pope as primus inter pares or "First Among Equals". Old Catholics usually refer to the Church Father St. Vincent of Lerins in his saying: "We must hold fast to that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all the Faithful."
Old Catholics consider themselves wholly Catholic and are offended by being thought of as any less by Roman Catholics.
St. Willibrord was consecrated to the episcopacy by Pope Sergius I in 696 at Rome. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he established his see at Utrecht. In addition, he established the dioceses at Deventer and Haarlem. The Diocese of Utrecht provided the only Dutch pope Adrian VI in 1552 and two prominent writers on the spiritual life, Geert Groote, who founded the Brethren of the Common Life, and Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the Imitation of Christ.
At the request of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht, in 1125 Pope Eugene III gave Utrecht the right to elect its own bishops, and this was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1520, Pope Leo X granted to the then Bishop of Utrecht (Philip of Burgundy), that no clergy or laity from Utrecht, would ever be tried by a Roman tribunal. During the Reformation the Catholic Church was persecuted and the Dutch dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal were suspended by the Holy See. Protestants occupied most church buildings, and those remaining were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic of Seven Provinces which favoured Calvinism.
However, about one third of the population in the northern Netherlands remained Catholic, and the popes appointed apostolic vicars (based in Utrecht) to care for these people. Clergy secretly celebrated the sacraments in a variety of places and were cared for by German and Flemish missionaries. The person named as apostolic vicar was also called Archbishop of Utrecht in partibus infidelium (i.e., archbishop in the land of unbelievers).
In 1691, the Jesuits accused Petrus Codde, the then apostolic vicar of favouring the Jansenist heresy. Pope Innocent XII appointed a commission of cardinals to investigate the accusations - apparently violating the exemption granted in 1520. The commission concluded that the accusations were groundless.
In 1700 a new pope, Clement XI, summoned Codde to Rome in order to participate in the Jubilee Year, whereupon a second commission was appointed to try Codde. The result of this second proceeding was again a complete acquittal. However, in 1701 Clement XI decided to suspend Codde and appoint a successor. The Church in Utrecht refused to accept the replacement, and Codde continued in office until he resigned in 1703.
After Codde's resignation, the Diocese of Utrecht chose Cornelius van Steenoven as bishop, and he was consecrated by Dominique Marie Varlet the bishop of Babylon (1678-1742), who was visiting the Netherlands. Van Steenoven appointed and ordained bishops to the sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen. Although the pope was duly notified of all proceedings, the Holy See still regarded these dioceses as vacant due to papal permission not being sought; therefore, the pope continued to appoint apostolic vicars for the Netherlands. Van Steenoven and the other bishops were excommunicated, and thus began the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands
Most Dutch Catholics remained in full communion with pope and with the apostolic vicars appointed by him. However, due to prevailing anti-papal feeling among the powerful Dutch Calvinists, the Church of Utrecht was tolerated and even praised by the government of the Dutch Republic.
In 1853 Pope Pius IX received guarantees of religious freedom from the Dutch King Willem II, and established a Catholic hierarchy, loyal to the pope, in the Netherlands; this existed alongside that of the Old Catholic See of Utrecht. Thereafter in the Netherlands the Utrecht hierarchy was referred to as the 'Old Catholic Church' to distinguish it from those in union with the pope. In the mind of the Holy See, the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht had maintained apostolic succession, and its clergy thus celebrated valid sacraments in every respect; the Diocese of Utrecht was considered schismatic but not in heresy.
Impact of the First Vatican Council
After the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), several groups of Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the solemn declaration concerning papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals, and left to form their own churches. These were supported by the `Old Catholic´ Archbishop of Utrecht, who ordained priests and bishops for them; later the Dutch were united more formally with many of these groups under the name "Utrecht Union of Churches".
In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers. The most notable leader of the movement, though maintaining a certain distance from the Old Catholic Church as an institution, was the renowned church historian and priest Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890), who had been excommunicated by the pope because of his support for the affair.
The convention decided to form the "Old Catholic Church" in order to distinguish its members from what they saw as the novel teaching of papal infallibility in the Catholic Church. Although it had continued to use the Roman Rite, from the middle of the 18th century the Dutch Old Catholic See of Utrecht had increasingly used the vernacular instead of Latin. The churches which broke from the Holy See in 1870 and subsequently entered into union with the Old Catholic See of Utrecht gradually introduced the vernacular into the Liturgy until it completely replaced Latin in 1877. In 1874 Old Catholics removed the requirement of clerical celibacy.
The Old Catholic Church in Germany received some support from the new German Empire of Otto von Bismarck, whose policy was increasingly hostile towards the Catholic Church in the 1870s and 1880s. In Austrian territories, pan-Germanic nationalist groups, like those of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, promoted the conversion to Old Catholicism or Lutheranism of those Catholics loyal to the Holy See.
The Old Catholic Church shares much doctrine and liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church, but has a more liberal stance on most issues, such as the ordination of women, the morality of homosexual acts, artificial contraception and liturgical reforms such as open communion. Its liturgy has departed significantly from the Tridentine Mass, as is shown in the English translation of the German Altarbook (missal) provided on its website. In 1994 the German bishops decided to ordain women as priests, and put this into practice on 27 May 1996; similar decisions and practices followed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The Utrecht Union allows those who are divorced to have a new religious marriage and upholds no teaching on birth control, leaving such decisions to the married couple.
The "Catholic Diocese of the Old Catholics in Germany" (Katholisches Bistum der Alt-Katholiken in Deutschland) is
- episcopally, synodally structured,
- a church, which acknowledges the diversity and the essential teaching and institutions of the early, undivided church during the first millennium. Its origins lie in various Catholic reform movements.
The United States
On 28 April, 1908, Arnold Harris Mathew a suspended Catholic priest who had joined the Old Catholic Church was ordained to the episcopacy by Utrecht Archbishop Gerhardus Gul, assisted by the Old Catholic bishops of Deventer and Berne, in St. Gertrude's Old Catholic Cathedral, Utrecht. Mathew had been ordained a bishop as the Old Catholic Church believed he had a significant following, and wished to establish a mission in the United Kingdom. Only two years later, Mathew declared his autonomy from the Union of Utrecht, with which he had experienced tension from the beginning. Thus began the Independent Old Catholic movement.
Mathew sent missionaries to the United States including the theosophist Bishop J. I. Wedgwood (1892 - 1950) and Bishop Rudolph de Landas Berghes et de Rache (1873–1920). De Landas arrived in the United States on 7 November, 1914, hoping to unite the various independent Old Catholic jurisdictions under Archbishop Mathew. He ordained a significant number of priests and consecrated others including William Francis Brothers and Carmel Henry Carfora.
In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph Rene Vilatte began working with Catholics of Belgian ancestry, who tended to be isolated influence due to their geographical position. Vilatte was ordained a deacon on 6 June 1885 and priest on 7 June, 1885 by the Most Rev. Eduard Herzog, bishop of the Old Catholic Church of Switzerland. Vilatte's work provided the only sacramental presence in that particular part of rural Wisconsin.
In time, he asked the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to be ordained a bishop so that he might confirm, but his petition was not granted. Vilatte sought opportunities for consecration in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. He was ordained a bishop in India on the 28 May, 1892 under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. Over the years, literally hundreds of people in the United States have come to claim apostolic succession from Vilatte; none are in communion with, nor recognised by, the Old Catholic See of Utrecht.
Polish National Catholic Church
This church is not in communion with any other body, and it is the largest of the Old Catholic communities in the United States. The Polish National Catholic Church began in the late 19th century over issues concerning the ownership of church property and the domination of the U.S. hierarchy by Irish prelates. The church traces its apostolic succession directly to the Utrecht Union and thus possesses orders and sacraments which are recognised by the Holy See. In 2003 the church withdrew from the Utrecht Union due to Utrecht's acceptance of the ordination of women and open attitude towards homosexuality, both of which the Polish Church rejects.
The Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops
With the PNCC no longer a member of the Union of Utrecht, the Union's International Bishops Conference asked the Episcopal Church - its ecumenical partner in the United States - to initiate discussions among various groups identifying as Old Catholics. The purpose was to find out how they identify as Old Catholics, their understanding of Old Catholic ecclesiology, and whether they ordain women. The Episcopal Church, after having gathered this information, reported to the IBC the summary of the various experiences of those Old Catholic churches that responded. The report was given at the annual meeting of the IBC in August 2005. The IBC then asked the Episcopal Church to host a consultation of these American bishops.
In May 2006, from among many the Old Catholic bishops who initially responded, four American Old Catholic bishops gathered at the Bethsaida Spirituality Center in Queens Village, New York: the Most Rev. Peter Hickman, the Most Rv. Peter Paul Brennan, the Most Rev. Charles Leigh, and the Most Rev. Robert T. Fuentes. Along with these four bishops, also in attendance was the liaison of the Episcopal Church to the IBC, the Rt. Rev. Michie Klusmeyer, Bishop of West Virginia, the deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, Dr. Tom Ferguson, and Fr. Bjorn Marcussen, an Episcopal priest who had been ordained in the Old Catholic Church of Austria and who is an Old Catholic theologian. The IBC sent as an observer to this consulation, Fr. Gunther Esser, Director of Old Catholic Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. Key to the discussions was the ecclesiology of the Old Catholic Church, highlighted in the Preamble to the Statutes of the International Bishops Conference. After three days of discussions, the American bishops agreed to the formation of the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops, agreeing to pattern itself after the IBC. The CNAOCB has as its central goal the tangible, organic unity among American Old Catholic jurisdictions. The bishops also agreed to meet at least twice a year.
In November 2006, the two bishops who remained engaged to the development and formation of the CNAOCB, met in Los Angeles, to develop the Conference's Unity Statement, to fashion its rules of order, and to set forth the criteria for joining the Conference itself. The Unity Statement, which incorporated the ecclesiological understanding of the Union of Utrecht and which all new members must subscribe to, states:
"Assembled at St. Paul’s Cathedral Center in Los Angeles, California, on the seventh day of November, 2006, we commit ourselves to these goals:
1. To place Jesus Christ as the head and center of this Conference of Bishops.
2. To conform to the gospel of Jesus and his call to serve God and to serve our neighbor.
3. To call upon the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to bless, sanctify and guide this Conference.
4. To form this Conference of Bishops as an office, a voice and a center of Old Catholicism in the USA.
5. To model our Conference on the International Conference of Bishops (IBC) of the Union of Utrecht, as outlined in the Preamble of the Statutes of the International Bishops Conference of the Union of Utrecht.
6. To work collegially and cooperatively to form one national Old Catholic Church.
7. To study and discuss Old Catholic documents and history, in order to determine how these documents are to promote the work toward unity.
8. To indicate those elements which identify our churches as Old Catholic.
9. To pray and work for unity among the bishops and the churches we represent.
10. To convene at least two face-to-face meetings each year for consultations on subjects of common interest.
We commit ourselves to these understandings:
1. In order to begin, nurture and perfect a more complete and satisfactory union, we have formed the CNAOCB, basing our cooperation upon the tenets of the Bonn Accord of 1931 between the Old Catholic and Anglican Churches, which states:
a. Each Communion recognizes the Catholicity and independence of the other, and maintains its own.
b. Each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments.
c. Full Communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith.
2. We acknowledge and accept the Union of Utrecht’s Four Ecclesiological Points, namely,
a. Ecclesiology of the Local Church: The fullness of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church resides in the local church, understood as the local diocese.
b. The Role of the Bishop and Apostolic Succession: Apostolic succession belongs to the church. Bishops are servants of the church, elected by the church, for ordained office in the church. Apostolic succession refers to the passing on of the faith of the apostles in and through the church under the leadership and oversight of the bishop of the local church, ordained for his or her office of bishop through the laying on of hands and prayer. Apostolic succession is not the personal possession of a bishop that can be passed on to others in separation from the office of bishop in the local church. There cannot be a church without a bishop; conversely there cannot be a bishop without church. Here the expression “local church” refers to a community of faith that can best be described as a diocese, which in turn consists of a communion of parishes and missions. Bishops without churches are outside of the apostolic succession, even though they may have been ordained with the proper ritual and the proper intention.
c. The Theology of Communion: Even though the fullness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church resides in the local church, the local church cannot remain alone. The church’s catholicity must express itself, which it does through communion with other local churches. The bishop of a local church stands at the intersection of where the local church meets with the other churches in communion. The bishop represents the local church to the other churches in communion, and represents the churches in communion to the local church. The bishop brings concerns of importance for the local church that may have consequences for the entire communion to the attention of the other bishops of the communion, and brings the concerns of the bishops of the communion to the attention of the local church.
d. Synodality: Synodality permeates all levels of the church. Members of the local congregation meet and make joint decisions about how to implement the mission, pastoral care and finances of the parish. It elects the pastor from qualified candidates. It elects a parish committee of lay people to govern the temporal affairs of the parish and minister side by side with the pastor. It elects representatives to the Diocesan Synod. Old Catholic dioceses are governed synodically by a synod of elected lay people and clergy. The Diocesan Synod elects the bishop. An elected Synodical Council assists the bishop in the governance of the diocese between diocesan synods.
3. We accept the Declaration of Utrecht (1889), The Munich Declaration (1871), and The Fourteen Thesis of the Old Catholic Union Conference at Bonn (1874).
4. The clergy candidates are to be educated as professionals at the university level or at the discretion of the local bishop, candidates with sufficient pastoral experience may also be ordained Whenever possible, candidates will normally attain a Master’s Degree or its equivalent in theology or ministry.
5. The church is open to all the baptized. Any baptized member who is qualified may be elected to and called to holy orders with the laying on of hands for ministry in the church.
Given at Los Angeles, California, 7th of November, 2006.
The original signers of the Unity Statement are Bishop Charles Leigh (Apostolic Catholic Church of Florida) and Bishop Robert T. Fuentes (Old Catholic Diocese of Napa).
The present members of the Conference (as of November 2008) are the Old Catholic Diocese of Napa, the American Catholic Church of New England, and the Heartland Old Catholic Church.
Although there have been various attempts at unity among Old Catholic jurisdictions since the turn of the 20th century, none have had the participation or the support of either the Episcopal Church or the Union of Utrecht. Both the Episcopal Church and the Union of Utrecht agree to remain engaged with the Conference. However, the success of the CNAOCB, and the degree of unity among the American churches, rests with the American bishops, both present members and those that will join, and the churches they represent.
Independent Old Catholics in the United States interpret and understand Catholicism and the Gospel in different ways. Some adhere to the theological and moral positions of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council, while others follow the foundational documents of the European Old Catholics; still others acknowledge female ordination and accept the ordination of gays.
- Episcopi vagantes
- Independent Catholic Churches
- King's Family of Churches
- Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands
- Warren Prall Watters
- Willibrord Society
Official pages of the Old Catholic Churches
- Union of Utrecht of The Old Catholic Churches
- Old-Catholic Church of the Netherlands
- Catholic Diocese of the Old Catholics in Germany
- Old-Catholic Church of Switzerland
- Old-Catholic Church of Austria
- Old-Catholic Church of the Czech Republic
- Old-Catholic Church of Slovakia
- Polish-Catholic Church of Poland
- Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops now known as
- The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States
- British Old Catholic Church
- Apostolic Catholic and Spiritual Church
- American Apostolic Catholic Church
- King's Family of Churches
- Old Catholic Communion of North America
- Table of the Old Catholic Apostolic Succession
- New York Times, 30 August 1879: Is the Old Catholic Movement a Failure?
- The Old Catholics, by Anthony Cekada in The Roman Catholic Magazine, 1980.
- Catholic Encyclopedia on the Old Catholics (Döllingerites)
- Ecclesia Apostolica Jesu Christi
- Kerkgemeenschap van de Goede Herder
- Traditional Catholic Orthodox Church
- Reformed Catholic Church in Poland
- The Old Catholic Church Oratory of the Common Life
- Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. Henry R.T. Brandreth. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1947.
- Episcopi vagantes in church history. A.J. Macdonald. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1945.
- History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland. John M. Neale. New York: AMS Press, 1958.
- Old Catholic: History, Ministry, Faith & Mission. Andre J. Queen. iUniverse title, 2003.
- The Old Catholic Church: A History and Chronology (The Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, No. 3). Karl Pruter. Highlandville, Missouri: St. Willibrord's Press, 1996.
- The Old Catholic Sourcebook (Garland Reference Library of Social Science). Karl Pruter and J. Gordon Melton. New York: Garland Publishers, 1983.
- The Old Catholic Churches and Anglican Orders. C.B. Moss. The Christian East, January, 1926.
- The Old Catholic Movement. C.B. Moss. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1964.
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