Old Catholic Church

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Old Catholic parish church in Gablonz an der Neiße, Austria-Hungary (now Jablonec nad Nisou, Czech Republic). A considerable number of ethnic German Catholics supported Döllinger in his rejection of the dogma of papal infallibility.

The term Old Catholic Church originated with groups which separated from the Roman Catholic Church over certain doctrines, most notably that of Papal Infallibility. These churches are not in full communion with the Holy See of Rome, but their Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches is in full communion with the Anglican Communion[1] and a member of the World Council of Churches.[2] Nevertheless, according to Roman Catholic teaching, the Old Catholic churches of the Utrecht Union have maintained apostolic succession and valid sacraments. The formation of the Old Catholic communion of Germans, Austrians and Swiss began in 1870 at a public meeting held in Nuremberg under the leadership of Ignaz von Döllinger, following the First Vatican Council. Four years later episcopal succession was established with the consecration of an Old Catholic German bishop by a prelate of the Church of Utrecht. In line with the "Declaration of Utrecht" of 1889, they accept the first seven ecumenical councils and doctrine formulated before 1054, but reject communion with the pope and a number of other Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that since 1925 they have recognized Anglican ordinations, that they have had full communion with the Church of England since 1932 and have taken part in the ordination of Anglican bishops.[3]

The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who did not recognize any claimed "infallible" papal authority. Later Catholics who disagreed with the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as made official by the First Vatican Council (1870) had no bishop and so joined with Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht.



Old Catholic theology views the Eucharist as at the core of the Church. From that point the Church is a community of believers. All are in communion with one another around the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as the highest expression of the love of God. Therefore, the celebration of the Eucharist is understood as the experience of the Christ's triumph over sin. The defeat of sin consists in bringing together that which is divided.[4]

The Old Catholic Church believes in unity in diversity. As a result, more diversity of belief and practice is to be found among its churches than is characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox churches. Old Catholics often refer to the Church Father St. Vincent of Lerins and his saying: "We must hold fast to that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all the Faithful."[5]


Independent bishopric[edit]

Four disputes set the stage for an independent Bishopric of Utrecht: the Concordat of Worms, the First Lateran Council and Fourth Lateran Council, and the concession of Pope Leo X. In the 12th century, there occurred the Investiture Controversy where the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope fought over who could appoint Bishops. In 1122, the Concordat of Worms[6] was signed, making peace. The Emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration. The Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II ended the feud by granting one another peace. The Concordat was confirmed by the First Council of the Lateran[7] in 1123.

The Fourth Lateran Council[8] in 1215 re-enforced the right of all Cathedral Chapters to elect their bishops. Philip of Burgundy, 57th Bishop of Utrecht (1517–1524), through a family connection with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, secured a significant concession from Pope Leo X, granting internal autonomy in both church and temporal affairs for himself and his successors without interference from outside their jurisdictional region. This greatly promoted the independence of the See of Utrecht, so that no clergy or laity from Utrecht would ever be tried by a Roman tribunal.

Three periods of development[edit]

Roman Catholicism's formal separation from Old Catholicism occurred over the issue of Papal authority. This separation occurred in The Netherlands in 1724, creating the first Old Catholic Church. The churches of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Switzerland created the Union of Utrecht after Vatican I (1871) over the Dogma of Papal Infallibility. By the early 1900s, the movement included England, Canada, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, America, the Philippines, China, and Hungary. The American affiliate of the Union of Utrecht until recently was the Polish National Catholic Church which ceased to belong to the Union in opposition to the ordination of women by other member churches.

Post Reformation Netherlands: first period[edit]

During the Protestant 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.[9]

In 1580, the Protestant Reformation occurred in The Netherlands and the institutionalized Catholic Church was persecuted. The Dutch Reformed Church confiscated Church property, expelled monks and nuns from convents and monasteries, and made it illegal to receive the Catholic Sacraments.[10] However, the Catholic Church did not die, rather priests and communities went underground. Groups would meet for the sacraments in the attics of private homes at the risk of arrest.[11] Priests identified themselves by wearing all black clothing with very simple collars. At the same time as there were local underground priests and bishops, the Pope considered the Catholic Church in The Netherlands to be mission territory and no longer the traditional Bishopric of Utrecht. The Holy See suspended the Dutch dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal.[12]

As part of the Counter Reformation, there were attempts to "re-Romanize" the Dutch Church.[13] The Dutch resisted strongly. Contrary to prior guarantees, Papal forces intervened on the side of the Counter-reformists (Jesuits). The Pope sent Roman priests to re-establish the Church in The Netherlands. The Catholics persecution in the 17th century, was exacerbated by theological disputes which divided the Church. One of the contentious issues was, whether the Catholic Church in the Netherlands after the Reformation was a continuous church or a mission of Rome and governed by the Pope. If The Netherlands were no longer a continuous Church, the Concordat of Worms and the concession of Pope Leo X were no longer applicable. The popes took advantage of the failure of Utrecht, and the person named as apostolic vicar was derided by Rome as the Archbishop of Utrecht in partibus infidelium. As countries and dioceses collapsed across Europe since the 4th century, Rome had bailed out the communities but as a result, the Churches became subject to Roman jurisdiction. Many clergy and lay people of Utrecht did not want to become one more formerly autonomous jurisdiction now under Roman control, however, many did.

In 1691, the Jesuits accused Petrus Codde, the then apostolic vicar, of favouring the Jansenist heresy.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] The result of this second proceeding was again 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 1703, when he resigned.[17]

After Codde's resignation, the Diocese of Utrecht elected Cornelius van Steenoven as bishop.[18] After consultation with both canon lawyers and theologians in France and Germany, Dominique Marie Varlet (1678–1742), a Roman Catholic Bishop of the French Oratorian Society of Foreign Missions, ordained Bishop Steenoven.[19] What had been de jure autonomous became de facto an independent Catholic Church. Van Steenoven appointed and ordained bishops to the sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen.[20] 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. The pope, therefore, continued to appoint apostolic vicars for the Netherlands.[21] Van Steenoven and the other bishops were excommunicated and thus began the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands.[21]

Most Dutch Catholics remained in full communion with the 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.[22]

In 1853 Pope Pius IX received guarantees of religious freedom from the Dutch King Willem II and established a Catholic [23] 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.[24] The Diocese of Utrecht was considered schismatic but not in heresy.

Impact of the First Vatican Council: second period[edit]

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.[25] 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".[26]

In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] In 1874 Old Catholics removed the requirement of clerical celibacy.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

United States: third period[edit]

In 1908 the Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul, consecrated Father Arnold Harris Mathew, a former Catholic priest, as Regionary Bishop for England.[33] His mission was to establish a community for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In 1913, Bishop Mathew claimed to have secured permission from the Continental Old Catholic bishops for his consecration of Rudolph Edward de Landen Berghes as a bishop to work among the Scots.[13]

Bishop de Berghes was frequently called "the Prince".[13] He was of noble birth but had never claimed the title for himself. The title of "Prince" was rightfully that of his older brother who had died. When Bishop de Berghes became eligible to inherit he was in a religious community and could not accept the title.[13] At the beginning of World War I, Bishop de Berghes went to the United States at the suggestion of the Anglican Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Mathew later declared his autonomy from the Union of Utrecht, finding it too "protestant oriented".[34]

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).[35] De Berghes arrived in the United States on 7 November 1914, hoping to unite the various independent Old Catholic jurisdictions under Archbishop Mathew.[36] Bishop de Berghes, in spite of his isolation, was able to plant the seed of Old Catholicism in the Americas. He consecrated a former Capuchin Franciscan priest as bishop: Carmel Henry Carfora.[37] From this the Old Catholic Church in the United States evolved into local and regional self-governing dioceses and provinces along the design of St. Ignatius of Antioch - a network of Communities.[13]

In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph René Vilatte began working with Catholics of Belgian ancestry and with the knowledge and blessing of the Union of Utrecht and under the full jurisdiction of the local Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, WI—See C.B. Moss "The Old Catholic Movement" p. 291, middle paragraph]. 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.[38] Vilatte's work provided the only sacramental presence in that particular part of rural Wisconsin [under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, WI].

In time, Vilatte asked the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to be ordained a bishop so that he might confirm, but his petition was not granted because Utrecht recognized that a local Catholic Church already existed (i.e., the Episcopal Church). Vilatte sought opportunities for consecration in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. He was made a bishop in India on the 28 May 1892 under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.[38] Over the years, literally hundreds of people in the United States have come to claim apostolic succession from Vilatte; none is in communion with, nor recognised by, the Old Catholic See of Utrecht.

Polish National Catholic Church[edit]

The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is no longer in communion with any other body; it is the largest of the Old Catholic communities in the United States.[39] The Polish National Catholic Church began in the late 19th century over concerns about the ownership of church property and the domination of the U.S. church by Irish bishops. 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 was voted out of 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.[40]

Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops[edit]

With the PNCC no longer a member of the Union of Utrecht, the Union's International Bishops Conference (IBC) 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. That consultation took place in May 2006, in Queens Village, New York. In attendance were observers from the Union of Utrecht.

One result of this consultation was the formation of the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops, a group dedicated to the formation of organic, tangible unity among American Old Catholics. The Episcopal bishop of West Virginia, liaison to the International Bishops Conference, who also attended the consultation, without an open dialogue with the Conference members or other viable Old Catholic jurisdictions, declared that there was not enough interest to form an American Old Catholic Church which could be a member of the Union of Utrecht. Many jurisdictions within the United States would like the Union to reconsider their decision but there is also a feeling that, given the different charisms, union might not be feasible.[41]

Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States[edit]

On September 24, 2010, the members of the conference signed the Plan of Union, which created the Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States (TOCCUSA). This merge of the constituent members of the conference was a step forward in realizing the goal of creating a national church that patterns itself after the ecclesiology of the Union of Utrecht. The bishops of TOCCUSA recognize that full unity among Old Catholic jurisdictions is not yet accomplished. The bishops continue to invite Old Catholic bishops not yet a part of TOCCUSA to enter into dialogue, with the hopes that deeper unity may be accomplished. The conference itself still exists as an ecumenical arm of TOCCUSA and Old Catholic jurisdictions not able to unify themselves to TOCCUSA are encouraged to join the conference of bishops in order to foster greater cooperation.


In 1988, it was reported that there were less than a half million Old Catholic adherents worldwide.[42]


Immediately after forming the Union of Utrecht, the Old Catholic theologians dedicated themselves to a reunion of the Christian churches. The Conferences of Reunion in Bonn in 1874 and 1875 convoked by Johann von Döllinger, the leading personality of Old Catholicism, are famous. Representatives of the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches were invited. The aim was to discuss the denominational differences as the ground for restoring the church communion. The basic assumptions for participation were the following principles:

The acceptance of the Christological dogmata of Nicea and Chalcedon; Christ's foundation of the Church; the Holy Bible, the doctrine of the undivided Church and the Church fathers of the first ten centuries as the genuine sources of belief; and as criterion the famous sentence of St. Vincentius of Lerins: "id teneamus, quod ubique, semper et ab omnibus creditum est"[5] (The true faith is what everywhere, always and by everybody has been believed) as a preferred method for historical research.

Reunion of the churches had to be based on a re-actualization of the decisions of faith made by the undivided Church. In that way the original unity of the Church could be made visible again. Following these principles, later bishops and theologians of the Old Catholic churches stayed in contact with (Russian) Orthodox and Anglican representatives.[43]

Old Catholic involvement in the multilateral ecumenical movement formally began with the participation of two bishops, from the Netherlands and Switzerland, at the Lausanne Faith and Order (F&O) conference (1927). This side of ecumenism has always remained a major interest for Old Catholics who have never missed an F&O conference. Old Catholics also participate in other activities of the WCC and of national councils of churches. By its active participation in the ecumenical movement since its very beginning then, the OCC demonstrates its belief in the necessity of the continuation of this work.[43]

Apostolic succession[edit]

Old Catholicism values apostolic succession by which they mean both the uninterrupted laying on of hands by bishops through time and the continuation of the whole life of the church community by word and sacrament over the years and ages. Old Catholics consider apostolic succession to be the handing on of belief in which the whole Church is involved. In this process the ministry has a special responsibility and task, caring for the continuation in time of the mission of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.[4]


The Old Catholic Church shares some of the liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church and similar to the Orthodox, Anglicans and high church Protestants.

Christ-Catholic Swiss bishop Urs Küry dismissed the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation as well as consubstantiation because these Scholastic interpretations presume to explain the Eucharist using the metaphysical concept of "substance". Like the Orthodox and Methodist approaches to the Eucharist, the Old Catholic Christian ought to accept an unexplainable divine mystery as such, and should not cleave to or insist upon a particular theory of the sacrament.[44]

Because of this approach, Old Catholics hold an open view to most issues, including the role of women in the Church, the role of married people within ordained ministry, the morality of same sex relationships, the use of one's conscience when deciding to use artificial contraception, and liturgical reforms such as open communion (because no human can presume to exclude any Christian from communion). Its liturgy has not significantly departed from the Tridentine Mass, as is shown in the English translation of the German Altarbook (missal).

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.[45] The Utrecht Union allows those who are divorced to have a new religious marriage, and it has no particular teaching on abortion, leaving such decisions to the married couple.[46]

An active contributor to The Declaration of the Catholic Congress, Munich, 1871 and all later assemblies for organization was Johann Friedrich von Schulte, the professor of dogma at Prague. Von Schulte summed up the results of the congress as follows:

Roman Catholic views[edit]

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, "The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches" in the 2000 declaration, Dominus Iesus, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This speaks primarily to the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches as well as the Church of the East, but also to "separated churches in the West", which is understood to be a reference to the Old Catholic Communion.[48]

Since the Old Catholic Church is not in full communion with the see of Rome a situation of schism exists between them. A schismatic church may be recognized as having valid sacraments and clergy. The Old Catholic Church has been a leader of the ecumenical movement, and the Union of Utrecht is engaged in official dialogue with the Vatican in order to address their differences and promote Christian cooperation between the two communions.

See also[edit]


Old Roman Catholic Church[edit]

Old Roman Catholic Church Old Roman Catholic Church




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External links[edit]

Union of Utrecht[edit]

Union of Utrecht dependent churches[edit]

Other links[edit]