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A Concise Overview of "Old" Catholic Origins

A glance through Church history shows us that there are quite a number of "independent" Catholic jurisdictions. Many of these churches fall into the ecclesiastical category which have come to be known as "Old Catholic." The term "Old Catholic" often brings to mind a few images that are not quite accurate: our order of services is usually in the "vernacular," (local language) and not the old school, Latin, and no, we don't hate the Pope! Due to these misconceptions and others, millions of Old Catholic communicants around the world minimize their outward affiliation with the term Old Catholic, but still hold to the same founding Rule of Faith laid down by St. Vincent of Lerins in these terms: “Id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum.” [Let us hold to what has been believed everywhere, always, by all; for this is truly and properly catholic.] 

The primary division of Christendom into two distinct camps, Protestantism and Catholicism, is familiar to most of us. However, while a preponderance people know more or less of the various denominations of Protestantism, fewer understand the intricacies of what is known as the Catholic Church, its administrative and disciplinary divisions. Few people who are not historians or theologians are familiar with these details. Authentic Catholic churches generally hold the same essential elements of faith and doctrine. The Eastern Orthodox Church with 180 million souls and the Roman Catholic Church with its 240 million souls, each hold a different concept of administration. The Old Catholic Church is unique in that it holds the Catholic faith, being in a sense, in union with the Eastern Orthodox Church, representing the Catholic Church in the western world, but disavowing the modern innovations and administrative peculiarities of the Latin Rite (Roman) Church.

In 1870, the Roman Catholic Church experienced a schism. It was not the first schism in the worldwide Christian church: a previous split had separated the Roman and Orthodox churches in 1054 (the “Great Schism”), and the Protestant churches had gradually peeled away from the Roman Catholic church since the publication of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” in 1517. But by 1870, the Roman Catholic church had been relatively stable for a long time. So the schism of 1870 was in a sense unexpected – and painful.

This particular division was triggered by two new doctrines:

The authority (infallibility) and universal episcopacy of the Pope

This Roman Catholic Dogma basically enumerates the “infallibility” of the Pope -- that "the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex-cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed,"

The dogma of the "Immaculate Conception" of the Virgin Mary which was proclaimed  a dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus

Both of these "new innovations" were bitterly opposed by a minority of bishops, particularly in Germany, France, and England. Arguments and counter-arguments flew even before the council was convened, as the Catholic New Advent Encyclopedia explains:"The dean of the theological faculty of Paris, Bishop Maret, wrote in opposition to these doctrines the work “Du concile générale et de la paix religieuse” (2 vols., Paris 1869). Bishop Dupanloup of Orléans published the work “Observations sur la controverse soulevée relativement à la définition de l infaillibilité au prochain concile” (Paris, Nov. 1869). Maret’s work was answered by several French bishops and by Archbishop Manning. Archbishop Dechamps of Mechlin, Belgium, who had written a work in favor of the definition entitled “L infaillibilité et le concile générale” (Paris, 1869), became involved in a controversy with Dupanloup. In England a book entitled “The Condemnation of Pope Honorius” (London, 1868), written by the convert, Le Page Renouf, aroused animated discussions in newspapers and periodicals. Renouf’s publication was refuted by Father Botalla, S.J., in “Honorius Reconsidered with Reference to Recent Apologies” (London, 1869). Letters from French correspondents in the first number for Feb. 1869, of the “Civiltà Cattolica”, which stated that the majority of French Catholics desired the declaration of infallibility, added fresh fuel to the flames. In particular, it led to the appearance in the discussion of Ignaz Döllinger, provost of St. Cajetan and professor of church history at Munich. From now on, Döllinger was the leading spirit of the movement in Germany hostile to the council. He disputed most passionately the Syllabus and the doctrine of papal infallibility in five anonymous articles that were published in March 1869, in the “Allgemeine Zeitung” of Augsburg. A large number of Catholic scholars opposed him vigorously, especially after he published his articles in book form under the pseudonym of “Janus”, “Der Papst und das Konzil” (Leipzig, 1869). Among these was Professor Joseph Hergenröther of Würzburg, who issued in reply “Anti-Janus” (Freiburg, 1870)."

The publications war raged on while the Vatican Council was in session, forcing the question of papal infallibility into prime position on the agenda (while many of the opposing bishops were not in attendance). Finally, on 29 April, during the forty-seventh general congregation, the president interrupted the second debate on the smaller Catechism by the announcement that as soon as possible the fathers should receive for examination the draft of a Constitution, “De Romano Pontifice” which would contain the dogma of the primacy and of the infallibility of the pope. For this purpose, the deputation on faith had altered the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the old draft of the Constitution “De ecclesia”.

The Vatican Council itself was deeply split. The majority of bishops were in favor of papal infallibility becoming dogma, but a substantial minority opposed it, fearing “the apostasy of many wavering Catholics, an increased estrangement of those separated from the Church, and interference with the affairs of the Church by the Governments of the different countries.”

However, (some say due to undue influence by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits) due to impending war between Germany and France, many of the European bishops who opposed the introduction of the dogma at that time returned home and did not vote. In the end, the dogma of papal infallibility was passed by a majority of 433 to two. In the end, the majority of bishops present voted overwhelmingly for new innovations – and it was duly executed, even though it seems that a majority of bishops were not present or did not vote -- some controversy exists on the timing and political nature of the vote.

The vote may have made sense to the Vatican Council but to others, it was not so obvious. Protestants worldwide denied its claim. So did a small percentage of Catholics. To political analysts, the doctrine seemed politically motivated. The ideas of the Roman Church were under attack. Italy had confiscated lands long controlled by the popes. The pope had even fled from the Vatican for a time. To some analysts, it seemed that because the church could not assert its supremacy in political matters, it was throwing down a gauntlet in the spiritual realm.

As noted above, of the Roman Church's most gifted historians, Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger wrote a long letter in which he said that he could not accept the pope's infallibility "as a Christian, a theologian, a history student and a citizen." His strong opposition was echoed by several bishops, although all of these others yielded when the church put heavy pressure on them.

Other scholars and about 60,000 Catholic lay-people did not yield. They withdrew from the Roman Church and called themselves Old Catholics. To them, it was a matter of truth. They documented instances when popes, speaking authoritatively, had made mistakes; a couple popes had even been condemned by church councils as heretics.

Dollinger, however, never joined the Old Catholics. Nor did he return to the Roman Church. He was urged to do so on his death bed but replied, "Ought I (in obedience to your suggestion) to appear before the Eternal Judge, my conscience burdened with a double perjury?" He went on to add, "I think that what I have written so far will suffice to make clear to you that with such convictions one may stand even on the threshold of eternity in a condition of inner peace and spiritual calm."

Soon after Vatican I the dissenters started to organize as dioceses and they made contact with the older, autocephalous Church of Utrecht in the Netherlands. In the first years, these contacts were not free of tension. The Church of Utrecht assisted the Old Catholics in building up their churches: In 1872 the Archbishop of Utrecht confirmed the children of excommunicated Old Catholics in Germany and in 1873 the Bishop of Deventer consecrated the first German bishop, J .H. Reinkens, in Rotterdam. However, the speed with which the German and Swiss churches introduced reforms, the abolition of celibacy, in particular, was difficult for the Dutch. They began to question the Catholic character of the Old Catholic movement. As the Swiss Bishop Eduard Herzog and the German Bishop Reinkens took up contacts with the Anglican churches of Great Britain and the United States, these doubts increased, as the Dutch Church at this time was not able to recognize the validity of Anglican orders, and therefore also the Catholic character of these churches. It was not until 1925 that the Anglican orders were recognized by the Dutch bishops.

Towards the end of the 1880s, the desire of both sides for a closer relationship prevailed. For this purpose the five Old Catholic bishops met on September 24, 1889 in Utrecht: H. Heykamp (Archbishop of Utrecht), C.J. Rinkel (Bishop of Haarlem), C. Diependaal (Bishop of Deventer) J.H. Reinkens (Bishop of the Old Catholic Church in Germany) and E. Herzog (Bishop of the Christ Catholic Church of Switzerland). During this meeting, they constituted themselves as a conference and declared firmly that the churches which they represented and led were in full communion with each other. They also issued a Statement to the Roman Catholic Church in which they set forth the ecclesiological principals that they were guided by.

Soon after the joining together of the Old Catholic bishops, the group became known as the 'Union of Utrecht'. This Union is based on three foundational documents that together are sometimes known as the 'Convention of Utrecht':· The "Regulations" as the rules of procedure for the Bishops' Conference,· The "(Utrecht) Agreement" on staying in Communion both within the Union and in its external relationships, that also explained the ecclesiology of the Union of Utrecht, and· The "(Utrecht) Declaration", in which the principles, based on the early church, of the unified Old Catholic bishops and their churches, were expressed.

Especially the 'Agreement' and the 'Declaration' have become important for building the Old Catholic identity. The second has received a special position. It is this historical document which the churches 'confess' through their bishops, and to which each new bishop of one of the member churches must assent by his signature at his consecration. Although the 'Utrecht Declaration' has never been revised, the 'Agreement' and the 'Regulations' were redrafted in 1952 and 1974 on the basis of experience and the growing leadership function of the International Old Catholic Bishop's Conference. A third revision was commenced in 1996. It resulted in the "Statute of the Old Catholic Bishops United in the Union of Utrecht" which has been brought into force at the beginning of 2001. The 'Agreement' has become the 'Order' and the 'Regulations' the 'Rules' A preamble was added before these two sections that present, in concentrated form, the ecclesiological understanding of itself that the Union of Utrecht has developed during its historical development and the theological reflection that has been part of that development.  

The Union of Utrecht was and remains primarily a joining together of "National Churches" which is a uniquely European model. Up until recently the only so-called American church in the Union was the Polish National Catholic Church. However, there are a number of American Catholic Jurisdictions that are working towards creating ecclesiastic ties with the Church of Utrecht. Whether or not modern Old Catholic Churches are in strict "union" with the Union of Utrecht, we remain united through the mysteries of our Catholic Faith, Apostolic succession. You can find Old Catholic influences today across Europe and throughout the world, especially in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Latin America, the Philippines, as well as the United States and Canada. 

Fast forward not to the 21st century and we find that Old Catholics have basically split themselves into two camps. Much like the Anglican churches, the divisions are along lines involving new innovations and change. Conservative Old Catholic jurisdictions (like the CCIA) are striving to maintain a continuity to the spirit of orthodoxy envisioned by Union of Utrecht founders, and the other side is aligned along what we view as a New Age version of the church with a focused liberal, progressive change.

The Catholic Church in America, though our communities are diverse in their unique cultures and traditions, remain unified in our commitment to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Traditions that have been passed down through the centuries. We also affirm the statements and spirit of the Declaration of Utrecht.

The CCIA’s founding vision is to make manifest the Kingdom of God to the nations of the world and to express the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With Sacred Scripture and the traditions of the Church as our guide, we seek to experience the full nature of the living historic Catholic Church in its sacramental communion with a personal God, its charismatic joy in the Spirit, and its evangelistic zeal to share our blessed hope with all people. To those who seek a deeper experience of God in the sacraments, a more profound communion with His Spirit, spiritual growth, a community with fellow believers, and service to a broken world.

Declaration of Utrecht:

"We adhere faithfully to the Rule of Faith laid down by St. Vincent of Lerins in these terms: “Id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum.” [Let us hold to what has been believed everywhere, always, by all; for this is truly and properly catholic.] For this reason we preserve in professing the faith of the primitive Church, as formulated in the ecumenical symbols and specified precisely by the unanimously accepted decisions of the Ecumenical Councils held in the undivided Church of the first thousand years.

We therefore reject the decrees of the so-called Council of the Vatican, which were promulgated July 18th, 1870, concerning the infallibility and the universal Episcopate of the Bishop of Rome, decrees which are in contradiction with the faith of the ancient Church, and which destroy its ancient canonical constitution by attributing to the Pope the plenitude of ecclesiastical powers over all Dioceses and over all the faithful. By denial of this primatial jurisdiction, we do not wish to deny the historical primacy which several Ecumenical Councils and Fathers of the ancient Church have attributed to the Bishop of Rome by recognizing him as the Primus inter pares [First among equals].

We also reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception promulgated by Pius IX in 1854 in defiance of the Holy Scriptures and in contradiction to the tradition of the centuries.

As for other Encyclicals published by the Bishops of Rome in recent times, for example, the Bulls Unigenitus and Auctorem Fidei, and the Syllabus of 1864, we reject them on all such points as are in contradiction with the doctrine of the primitive Church, and we do not recognize them as binding on the consciences of the faithful. We also renew the ancient protests of the Catholic Church of Holland against the errors of the Roman Curia, and against its attacks upon the rights of national Churches.

We refuse to accept the decrees of the Council of Trent in matters of discipline, and as for the dogmatic decisions of that Council, we accept them only so far as they are in harmony with the teaching of the primitive Church."

Considering that the Holy Eucharist has always been the true central point of Catholic worship, we consider it our right to declare that we maintain with perfect fidelity the ancient Catholic doctrine concerning the Sacrament of the Altar, by believing that we receive the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ under the species of bread and wine. The Eucharistic celebration in the Church is neither a continual repetition nor a renewal of the expiatory sacrifice which Jesus offered once for all upon the Cross: but it is a sacrifice because it is the perpetual commemoration of the sacrifice offered upon the Cross, and it is the act by which we represent upon earth and appropriate to ourselves the one offering which Jesus Christ makes in Heaven, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11-12, for the salvation of redeemed humanity, by appearing for us in the presence of God (Heb. 9:24). The character of the Holy Eucharist being thus understood, it is, at the same time, a sacrificial feast, by means of which the faithful in receiving the Body and Blood of our Savior, enter into communion with one another (I Cor. 10:17).

We hope that Catholic theologians, in maintaining the faith of the undivided Church, will succeed in establishing an agreement upon questions which have been controverted ever since the divisions which arose between the Churches. We exhort the priests under our jurisdiction to teach, both by preaching and by the instruction of the young, especially the essential Christian truths professed by all the Christian confessions, to avoid, in discussing controverted doctrines, any violation of truth or charity, and in word and deed to set an example to the members.

By maintaining and professing faithfully the doctrine of Jesus Christ, by refusing to admit those errors which by the fault of men have crept into the Catholic Church, by laying aside the abuses in ecclesiastical matters, together with the worldly tendencies of the hierarchy, we believe that we shall be able to combat efficaciously the great evils of our day, which are unbelief and indifference in matters of religion.