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Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands

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Archbishop Gerardus Gul, Jansenist Old Catholic Bishop of Utrecht

Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul (1892-1920).

The Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands is the mother church related to the Old Catholic Churches. It is sometimes called Ancient Catholic Church, Church of Utrecht (Ultrajectine Church) or Dutch Roman Catholic Church of the Old Episcopal Order. In the past Roman Catholic and Jesuit, critics tended to call it the Jansenist Church of Holland.

Early history

Catholicism came to the Netherlands by means of the proselytising of St. Willibrord in the 7th century. Willibrord had been consecrated by Pope Sergius I in 696 in Rome. In 1145 Pope Eugene III granted the Cathedral Chapter of Utrecht the right to elect bishops after such had been requested by the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht. The Fourth Lateran Council confirmed this in 1215. Pope Leo X, issued the papal bull Debitum Pastoralis in 1520 giving extraordinary powers to Philip of Burgundy, 57th Bishop of Utrecht, essentially removing the ability of any external authority to "in the first instance, have his cause evoked to any external tribunal, not even under pretense of any apostolic letters whatever; and that all such proceedings should be, ipso facto, null and void".

Reformation and Jansenism

Forced into hiding during the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church of the Netherlands continued to thrive, even eventually obtaining a comfortable enough status with the local authorities so as to allow it to practice Catholicism as long as this did not take place in public or semi-public buildings and areas. The popes appointed Apostolic Vicars to Utrecht, while the other sees remained vacant since the dissolution of diocesan structures due to the reformation. Strangely, despite the Debitum Pastoralis and the waivers it provided, in 1692 the Dutch ancient Church came under persecution from counter-reformist Jesuits, who, despite opposition to this from Rome, accused Petrus Codde, Apostolic Vicar of Utrecht and the Dutch Republic, of favouring the so-called Jansenist heresy. Pope Innocent XII appointed a Commission of Cardinals who started an investigation of Archbishop Codde, ending in exoneration. In 1700 Archbishop Codde was summoned to Rome and brought before a second commission appointed by Pope Clement XI. After another acquittal, Clement XI suspended Codde in 1701 and appointed a successor, Gerard Potcamp, to the See of Utrecht.

This was not a popular decision in Holland, culminating in a demand by the Dutch for the return of Codde, and the refusal to accept his successor by a large part of the clergy. Codde returned to Utrecht in June of 1703 and formally resigned - protesting the circumstance - in a pastoral letter of March 19, 1704. He died on December 18, 1710.

Shortly before the controversy concerning Codde, the Netherlands and its Catholic clergy had become a refuge for a number of well-known dissenting priests from France and Belgium, who were persecuted because due to accusations of Jansenism and because of their anti-Roman views on jurisdiction.

Lacking an archbishop in partibus infidelium, the Dutch Church was able to arrange for an Irish bishop, Luke Fagan, Bishop of Meath (later Archbishop of Dublin), to ordain priests for the see of Utrecht. The canonical matters arising from the supposed Roman violations of Debitum Pastoralis led to the case being brought before the Pontifical Roman Catholic University of Leuven (Southern Brabant) in May of 1717, which found in favour of Utrecht, but was unable to resolve the matter with Rome; this led to a de facto autonomous Catholic church in the Netherlands. Finally in 1723 dissatisfied Dutch clergy elected Cornelius van Steenoven as Archbishop of Utrecht. He was consecrated (without a papal mandate) by Dominique Marie Varlet, who had been consecrated by the pope as Coadjutor Bishop of Babylon, (a titular see i.e. a diocese in name only), who was visiting the Netherlands. Varlet also agreed to confirm children and to support the Dutch clergy as he was sympathetic to their position. Both consecrator and consecrated incurred the penalty of suspension and excommunication for illicit episcopal consecration (only punished by a suspension at the time and until 1950) and because of illegitimately claiming a diocesan see of jurisdiction without the permission of the Roman Pontiff (punished by excommunication). Bishop Varlet was later reconciled to Rome, even though he subsequently consecrated four bishops for the Independent Ultrajectine Church, which would become known as 'Old Catholic' after 1853. Van Steenoven after his consecration autonomously, and from the Roman view point illegitimately, appointed bishops to the vacant Dutch sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen.

Most Dutch Catholics nevertheless continued to follow the pope and accepted his newly appointed Apostolic Vicars at Utrecht as well as the later official Roman Catholic hierarchy established in 1853, when Catholicism was allowed in the public sphere again after two and a half centuries of secret and private religious worship.

Vatican I

After Pope Pius IX reestablished a Catholic hierarchy in Holland in 1853, the breakaway Church of Utrecht adopted the name "Old Catholic Church" to distinguish itself from the newly created Roman hierarchy by its seniority in Holland. In 1870 Vatican I was convened, and the bishops of the Church of Utrecht were not invited because they were not seen as being in communion with the Holy See. At the Vatican I, papal primacy in jurisdiction and the dogma of papal infallibility were defined, to the objection of the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht and some communities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Several separate communities were formed at this time, seeking to practice pre-Vatican I Catholic ideas. Since no Roman Catholic bishops left over the issues, these communities sought apostolic succession from the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht, thus leading to the formation of the Utrecht Union of Churches, and the final adoption of the name "Old Catholic" by these German speaking communities.


Perhaps the most fundamental positions of the Old Catholic Church are its claim to apostolic succession and to being legally separate from the Roman Catholic Church.

The churches of the Union of Utrecht have been in communion with the Church of England since 1931. The Polish National Catholic Church was part of the Union and also in communion with the Episcopal Church in the United States. The PNCC left the Union of Utrecht and broke communion with the ECUSA over the issues of the ordination of women and openly gay clergy.

Old Catholics have celebrated Mass in the vernacular virtually since their foundation, even if not everywhere, doing so as early as the 18th century in Utrecht. They reject the Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary as well as papal infallibility. Their practice of private confession has fallen into disuse in most areas. Since 1878 Old Catholic clergy have been allowed to marry at any time. It would also seem that, by the beginning of the 20th century the Eucharistic fast had been abandoned along with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the veneration of the saints; in his declaration of ecclesial independence of December 29, 1910 Arnold Harris Mathew, wrote to the Old Catholics of Utrecht, deploring the lack of these practices on the amongst Old Catholics on the European continent. [1]

The main bodies of the Old Catholics are theologically progressive. The Dutch Old Catholics since 1998 have allowed women to enter the priesthood, and for a long time have allowed divorce. Since the beginning of the 20th century, some Roman Catholic priests who have been unable to accept certian Roman Catholic disciplines or doctrines have joined the Old Catholic Church, often in order to marry.

Whilst the vernacular was introduced at a very early stage, external rites remained very Catholic, as well as the prayers of Mass, which still emphasized sacrificial intention. Although distinct from the Roman Catholic Church, since the 1960s most Old Catholics in communion with Utrecht have followed the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which met periodically from 1962-1965.

Independent Old Catholic bodies tend to follow the theological and ecclesiological ideas of their founders and current leaders, which can vary from ultra conservative to extremely liberal. Old Catholic bodies and Ultrajectine thought surpasses the liberal/conservative divide in the Catholic Church today.

Old Catholic Archbishops of Utrecht

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