History of the Old Catholic Church
Introduction: The Catholic Family
Today the catholic (universal) Church is made up of sister congregations:
- Roman Catholic
- Old Catholic
- Eastern Uniate and Eastern Orthodox
- Oriental Churches, such as Coptic, Syrian and Nestorian Churches.
Relating to each other in love, these sister Churches hold that by baptism, we are each made members of the one Body of Christ. In addition, we are nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine consecrated in the Liturgy. Moreover, according to the faith handed down to us from the apostles (Apostolic Tradition) there are other sacraments for special occasions in our lifes journey, such as Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation, Penance, and Healing of the Sick. The sister Churches interpret Gods plan of salvation essentially the same. But like all sisters in a family, there are differences, most of them administrative and disciplinary, but some theological. Certain differences are expected and accepted. Nevertheless, the universal Churches remain united by means of the closest bonds: Baptism, Eucharist, and apostolic succession.
Who are the Old Catholics?
The Old Catholics are a body of Christians committed to the Person of Jesus Christ and His teaching. We accept and believe the testimony of the apostles, eyewitnesses of His life, death, and resurrection from the dead. The apostles passed on to succeeding generations their own testimony about Jesus Christ and His life. By proclaiming the Gospel and giving their own testimony (called the Apostolic Tradition), the Church developed worldwide. Historically, Old Catholics are part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and have their origins in the Catholic Church of the Netherlands.
The Great Schism
While the division of Christendom into two great categories, Protestant and Catholic, is familiar to all, fewer people are aware of the jurisdiction (administrative) and disciplinary divisions within the universal Churches. Since the earliest times of Christianity, the local bishop determined local liturgical practices. Periodically local synods (convocation of bishops) were called by local bishops to determine larger issues of beliefs and disciplines. When Christianity was tolerated as a religion in the Roman Empire in 313, General Councils of bishops from all areas of the Roman Empire were called by the leading political leader, the emperor Constantine and his successors, to decide uniformity of dogma based on the Greek language. At these General Councils, all five Patriarchs (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople - Constantinople being a political, not an apostolic based See) were equal in jurisdiction. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Papacy in Rome, the Patriarch of Rome ascertained himself to have jurisdiction over all Christianity. Because of this, around 1054 both the Eastern Churches (known as the Orthodox Churches) and the Western Church (known as the Roman Catholic Church) mutually declared each other in schism and mutually excommunicated each other.
The Beginnings of the Old Catholic Movement
St. Willibrord evangelized the area of Europe known as the Netherlands in the seventh century. Utrecht eventually became the archiepiscopal See. Assenting to a petition made by the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht in 1145, Blessed Pope Eugene III granted the Cathedral Chapter of Utrecht the right to elect successors to the See in times of vacancy. The Fourth Lateran Council confirmed this privilege in 1215. The autonomous character of the Church in the Netherlands was further reaffirmed by a second grant in 1520 by Pope Leo X, Debitum Pastoralis. This meant that, unlike anywhere else in the Roman Catholic Church, the archbishop of Utrecht could consecrate bishops without permission or approval from the Pope, just as the Orthodox and Oriental Churches have always done.
Following the First Vatican Council in 1870 (to which the bishops of the Netherlands Church were refused admittance), considerable dissent arose among the Catholics bishops, especially in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, over the proposed dogma of papal infallibility. The dissenters held the Church in General Council to be infallible (as the earliest Church believed), not the Pope acting alone in matters of faith and morals. Many of the dissenting bishops formed independent communities that came to be known as Old Catholic because they sought to adhere to the beliefs and practices of the catholic (universal) Church of the apostolic era existing prior to 1054 (see Declaration of Utrecht). The Old Catholic communities collaborated with the Archbishop of Utrecht, who consecrated the first bishops for these communities. Under the leadership of the Church of Holland, these Old Catholic communities joined together to form the Utrecht Union of Churches. The Old Catholic Church expanded rapidly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Holland. Old Catholic communities were also established in Poland, France, and throughout the world. In 1990 there were about 500,000 Old Catholics in the United States and about 15 million world-wide.
In the United States
The establishment of Old Catholic Churches in the United States occurred very soon after the Utrecht Union of Churches. The Belgium Old Catholics were led by Bishop Joseph Rene Vilatte in Wisconsin; the Czech Old Catholics were lead by Bishop Jan Francis Tichy in Cleveland, Ohio; and the Polish Old Catholics were led by Bishop Anton Kozlowski in Chicago, Illinois. All these national Old Catholic Churches were thriving before 1915. In 1917 an additional Old Catholic bishop, Prince Rudolph Edward de Landes-Berghes, was appointed by the Utrecht Union of Churches for the English speaking people of the United States. Bishop de Landes-Berghes successor, Bishop William Francis, was consecrated Archbishop for the Metropolitan American See and encouraged the various ethnic groups to accept diversity in their own Churches.
With the passing of these original organizers from the ecclesiastical scene, the Old Catholic Church in the United States has evolved from a fairly centralized administration with structured oversight of ministry to a local and regional model of administration with self-governing dioceses and provinces. This local model more closely follows the ancient tradition of the early Christian Churches as a communion of communities each laboring together to proclaim the message of the Gospel.
What Old Catholics Believe
Like the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the Old Catholics accept the first seven General Councils of the Early Church without apology or excuse. Thus, Old Catholics, tracing their apostolic succession through the Roman Catholic Church to the apostles, participate in the full sacramental ministry of the Church. The Rule of Faith of Old Catholics is faithful adherence to Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.
How Do Old Catholics Differ from Roman Catholics?
1. Papal infallibility defined by Vatican Council I is a non-issue for Old Catholics, since we are independent of papal jurisdiction. Like the various Eastern Orthodox Churches, all Old Catholic communities accord the Holy Father respect due him as Patriarch of the West and First among Equals, but not having ultimate jurisdiction over all Christian Churches. Old Catholics adhere to the teaching from apostolic times that the Church in General Council is infallible.
2. In some matters of discipline (non-dogmatic issues). For example:
- Clerical celibacy is optional
- Married men may be ordained
- Deacons and priests are selected based on their individual
suitability for ministry
- In some Old Catholic jurisdictions, members participate in the
ministerial priesthood in response to a genuine vocation regardless
of gender, sexual orientation or physical disability
- Divorced Catholics may remarry within the Old Catholic Church, as
divorced Orthodox may remarry within the Orthodox Churches
- EVERY person, as a participant in the Royal Priesthood of Christ,
plays an important and prominent role in the government and
ministry of the Church.
3. There is some diversity in liturgical expression. Many Old Catholic communities have adopted the liturgical renewal promulgated following the Second Vatican Council, while others maintain the Tridentine Mass in Latin and others use direct translations into classical or modern English.
4. Because Old Catholic communities are usually smaller in comparison to mainline churches, they are able to successfully implement the early model of the Church referred to earlier. This model views the faithful with their clergy and bishop as a community (or family) in loving concern for each other and each working together to live the Scriptural commands in their daily lives as Christians bringing the love of Christ to others. Old Catholic communities - because of a less hierarchical structure - are promptly able to implement decisions affecting the sacramental life of the faithful, doing so always within the authority of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.
Special thanks to Bishop James Judd of the Heartland Old Catholic Church in St. Paul, Minnesota for permission to use an adaptation of his booklet on Old Catholic history as a basis for this page.