Old Catholics

Not all Catholics are Roman Catholic.

Most people have never heard of Old Catholicism, and so are missing out on one of the best kept secrets of Catholicism: that “Old” really means just means “original” – as in, those folks who took the other fork in the road after the unfortunate decisions of the First Vatican Council. Though relatively small in head count, Old Catholics today are progressive, fully catholic, inclusive, deeply spiritual, and actively engaged in the world.

This page will give you the back story of Old Catholicism as a distinct spiritual path.

Siblings in Christ

There are five sibling branches of the Apostolic traditions of Christianity:

  • Eastern Orthodox
  • Oriental Churches (Coptic, Syriac, Nestorian, Malabar, etc.)
  • Roman Catholic
  • Anglican Communion (Episcopal)
  • Old Catholic – that’s us!

Like all siblings, we have our disagreements, and we do not always play well together. But as faithful followers of Jesus the Christ, we strive to bear true witness to the Gospel. Together we preserve the historic Christian faith through our understanding of scripture, tradition, and reason.

Old Catholic Origins

In the 1100s and 1200s A.D. the Catholic Church in Utrecht, the Netherlands secured for itself the right for the local people and clergy to elect their own bishops (a practice that was universal in the early churches). This was accomplished through a series of political and ecclesiastical agreements between the bishops of Utrecht and Rome. This was an extraordinary achievement in the Catholic West, because it kept both the Holy Roman Emperors and the Popes from installing their own puppet bishops in Utrecht. It also allowed the Dutch Catholics to practice their faith with a great deal of independence from Rome, while still honoring the Pope as first among equals (bishops, that is), and spiritual leader of the faithful.

The Protestant Reformation overwhelmed the Dutch Church in the 1500s, forcing Catholics out of their church buildings. Dutch Catholics went underground, and worshipped in homes, barns, and wherever possible. In the 1600s, the Pope gave full support to the Jesuits, who were pressing the Counter-Reformation in the Netherlands. The Pope placed the Dutch Church under interdict (basically, excommunicating the whole country) – a move that was decidedly more political than theological.

Rome inhibited Utrecht’s Archbishop Peter Codde in 1702 and threatened to reduce the still-independent Utrecht province to a missionary territory, which would allow the Pope to exercise direct control and overthrow centuries of freedoms enjoyed by Utrecht. The Jesuits accused Archbishop Codde of various Jansenist heresies, though Bishop Codde was repeatedly proven innocent at each ecclesiastical trial.

The Utrecht cathedral chapter responded to Codde’s inhibition and retirement by asserting its ancient rights of self-determination, and in 1723 elected Cornelius Steenhoven to fill the vacant seat as Archbishop of Utrecht. Steenhoven was then ordained as bishop by the French missionary bishop Dominique Varlet. Bishop Varlet first consulted with canon lawyers in Germany and France, and determined this action was appropriate. This action created in fact an independent Catholic Church in the Netherlands. Through much of the 1700s the Dutch Church attempted to resolve the situation with Rome, but was not successful. The Roman leadership simply ignored the Dutch Catholics.

Fork in the Road

The introduction of two new dogmas by Rome in the 1800s caused a split in the Western Catholic Church in 1871. The first: in 1854 Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. The second: in 1870 the First Vatican Council promulagated the dogma of Papal Infallibility and the universal jurisdiction of the Pope to decide matters of faith and morals. It is noteworthy that the Dutch bishops were not invited to the First Vatican Council.

Those bishops who remained faithful to the Pope accepted these innovations. A number of German, Austrian and Swiss bishops rejected these innovations on the basis of complete lack of support for either dogma in scripture or tradition – in other words, these innovations violated the consensus of the ancient undivided church. Dissenting Catholic clergy and laity refused to accept these new dogmas or to teach them in their dioceses. For this act of conscience they were excommunicated by Rome (that is, barred from the sacraments of the church) and were thus compelled to form independent catholic churches across Europe (and later, North America).

These dissenting Catholic bishops and faithful who rejected the Roman innovations came together organizationally, calling themselves “Old Catholics”, to signify their commitment to Catholicism in its more ancient, faithful and collegial expression prior to the Great Schism of 1054. The Old Catholic Churches looked to the Archbishop of Utrecht to consecrate bishops as vacancies occurred, to ensure the continuity of Catholic communities and the validity of their sacraments. Under the leadership of Utrecht, these new national Catholic bodies joined together and formed the Union of Utrecht. Together they formulated the Declaration of Utrecht in 1889, to articulate the founding principles of the Old Catholic faithful.

Catholic, but not Roman Catholic

The focus of Old Catholicism today is as it was at the beginning: we embrace the beliefs and practices of the early undivided Church, and we confess that Jesus the Christ is truly in our midst, as our head. We reject Rome’s new dogmas, which created a break with the continuity of ancient tradition and are unsupported by Scripture or an Ecumenical Council of the whole Body of Christ, and so in no sense can be called “catholic”. Like Orthodox and Anglican Churches, we are independent of the jurisdiction of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, and our sacraments are efficacious and valid. While we honor the Pope of Rome as a bishop of the universal Church, we do not recognize that the Pope has any unique primacy or authority.

There are no “official” Old Catholic groups in North America – none can claim membership in the Union of Utrecht. The charism of Old Catholicism is on its own journey here, becoming something unique and finding its needed expressions and missions. We feel the great privilege of being called to walk this journey together with many other faithful.

We are consciously rooted in vision and values of historic Old Catholicism, and are humbled to have direct apostolic succession from the Old Catholic Church in Utrecht to ensure the validity of our sacraments. Standing with all Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faithful, we believe that apostolic succession is necessary for the nature and life of the Church.