The Old Catholic Church

A brief background and Historical Information


Old Catholics are a Community committed to the teachings of Jesus.   We accept the testimony of His Apostles as eye witness to His life.   These twelve Apostles passed on to succeeding generations their own testimony about Jesus.   Through proclaiming His teachings and giving of their testimony (called Apostolic Tradition) the Apostles built up the Church.   Old Catholics are a historical part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and have their origins in the Netherlands.   Old Catholic orders and sacramental services are recognized as "valid" by Roman, Orthodox and Anglican authorities.  


St. Willibrord and eleven companions (Celtic Church missionaries) were invited by Pipen of Landen, Mayor of the Palace under King Sigebert III of Austrasia (Merovingian dynasty) to convert the area of Europe known as the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) to the Catholic faith in the 7th century.   These people were known as the Friesians.   Towards this aim, he was ordained a bishop by Pope Sergius I at the request of Pepin and King Sigebert and given the pallium (a circular vestment symbolizing rank) of an Archbishop.   This began the practice of appointed bishops in the diocese of Utrecht as was the Merovingian custom (see "Divine Right of Kings" below).   Willibrord introduced the Celtic Church custom of suffragan (regionary) bishops.   He established his cathedral (see, chair or headquarters) at Utrecht, in what is now the Netherlands.   Two suffragan dioceses were eventualy established in the towns of Deventer and Haarlem.  A monastery was established in what is now Echternach, Luxembourg.   Originally founded upon the Celtic Church model, the monastery became a Benedictine house (abbey).

Since the Apostolic era of the Church it had been the custom of the people to elect their clergy, especially bishops.   With the recognition of the Christian church (One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic) by the Roman Empire the administration of the church began to be mixed with that of the Empire.   The rise of the Merovingian (Frankish) and other Germanic dynasties in Western Europe established the concept of the "divine right of kings" among christian nations in the west.  This was a belief that the secular authorities (kings) were given the right to rule by God. This included the right to appoint, invest and depose bishops while the religious authorities were left with the obligation to ordain.   Under this structure the clergy were subserviant to the aristocracy.   Left over from an earlier period of the church was the concept that the clergy in association with a particular bishop formed a Cathedral Chapter and shared with the bishop the administration of the diocese as subordinates and in times of vacancy as administrators.   Clergy within a Cathedral Capter are known as Canons.   These two concepts existed simultaneously in the Western church.   The rise of the Carolingian dynasty did two things: 1) it laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire; and 2) it created a system of balance of power between the secular (Emperial) and religious (Papal) authorities:  The Emperor chose the Pope and the Pope chose the Emperor.   This situation led to great conflict between these authorities.

The bishops of Utrecht had always been independent in nature.  By the year 1024 the Utrechtine bishops had become so involved with the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire that they were created Prince-Bishops.  This gave them both a temporal as well as spiritual authority.  As a result of this, through a combination of secular and religious law, the bishops were chosen popularly by laity and clergy, (unique among bishops of the empire).  This remained the case until the election of Heribert as Prince-Bishop of Utrecht (1139-1150).

The Concordat of Worms, in 1122, terminated the right of the Emperor to appoint and depose bishops (this included the Pope), retained the right to investiture (give the symbols of office) for the Emperor and assigned the right to elect bishops in times of vacancy to the Cathedral Chapter.   This was confirmed by the first Lateran Council in 1123.   In 1145, Pope Eugene III, upon the complaint of Conrad III, Holy Roman Emperor, discontinued the popular election of the Bishop of Utrecht, as a direct result of bishop Heribert (popularly elected), and to bring Utrecht into compliance with the Council, limited the right to elect successors to the Cathedral Chapter.   The fourth Lateran Council (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 succesors without interference from outside their jurisdictional region.  This greatly promoted the independence of the See of Utrecht.   These three items, then, set the stage for an independent Bishopric of Utrecht:   1) Concordat of Worms, 2) the first and fourth Lateran Councils, and 3) the concessions of Pope Leo X.

Henry of Bavaria, last Prince-Bishop, was elected in May 1524, succeeding Philip of Burgundy.  Forced to flee by a Reformist rebellion, he bartered his secular (princely) authority to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in exchange for assistance in quelling the uprising.  The principality of Utrecht passed into Hapsburg hands and the Protestant Reformation began in full swing.


The concessions of Leo X and the canons (rules) of the councils did much to protect the bishopric of Utrecht from outside interference, but these did nothing to protect it from inside termoil.  In an effort to overcome the reformist Burgomeisters of the Netherlands, the Bishopric of Utrecht was once again raised to the status of an Arbishopric with the election of Frederick Schenk van Toutenburg to the See of Utrecht (1559-1580).  Subsequently, the government of Utrecht was taken over by the reformists (Calvinist), the Archbishops denied entry to the area and installment in their Cathedral, and , in 1588, open displays of High Church (Catholic) liturgy were forbidden.  During this period Catholics in the Netherlands were forced underground into "house-churches" to survive.   The Vatican appointed apostolic vicars (a sort of ambasador to the Dutch Republic) who were frequently forced to administer from outside the territory.  Eventually an informal agreement with the civil government allowed the Dutch Church to function without interference from the reformists as long as they did so out of sight.  

While an uneasy peace existed between the Netherlands Church and the civil government, the "counter-reformation" movement attempted to "re-Romanize" the Dutch Church.   The Dutch resisted strongly.   Contrary to prior guarantees, starting in 1592, Papal forces intervened on the side of the Counter-reformists (Jesuits).   The Church in Holland was isolated by interdict; its appeals to Church General Council ignored.

The most significant of the apostolic vicars, Petrus Codde (1688-1704), was accused of Jansenism twice by the Jesuits.  Although twice found innocent of the charge, he was removed from office. This gave rise to the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht.

In 1724, due to politics in the Netherlands, the See of Utrecht had been vacant for many years.   The Dutch had no bishops of their own.   In that year they prevailed upon Dominique Marie Varlet, (a Roman Catholic Bishop of the French Oratorian Society of Foreign Missions) to consecrate Cornelius Steenoven as Archbishop of Utrecht.   He agreed to do this after consultation with both cannon lawyers and theologians in France and Germany.   What had been de jure autonomous became de facto an independent Catholic Church.  


Following the first Vatican Council, 1870, (at which the Church of Holland was refused admittance) dissent among German, Austrian and Swiss Catholics arose over the definition of Papal Infallibility.   The dissenters, holding the General Councils of the Church infallible, were unwilling to accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility.   Many of these Catholics formed independent communities which became known as "Old Catholic".  

They are called "Old Catholic" because they adhered to the pre-Vatican I teachings of the General Councils of the Church.   The Old Catholic Communities appealed to the Archbishop of Utrecht to consecrate bishops for them; he did.   Eventually these communities united under the leadership of the Archbishop of Utrecht, forming the Utrecht Union of Churches.   The Archbishop of Utrecht, later, consecrated Father Arnold H.   Mathew, a former Roman Catholic priest, as Regionary Bishop for England.   His mission was to establish a community for Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics.   In 1913, Bishop Mathew with permission of the Continental Old Catholic bishops consecrated Rudolph Edward de Landen Berghes as a bishop to work among the Scottish.  

Bishop de Berghes was frequently called "the Prince".   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.   At the beginning of World War I, Bishop de Berghes went to the United States at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican).   Subsequently, Bishop Mathew unwisely withdrew from the Utrecht Union, finding them too "protestant oriented".  


Bishop de Berghes, in spite of his isolation, was able to plant the seed of Old Catholicism in the Americas.   He consecrated a Capuchin Franciscan priest as bishop:  Carmel Henry Carfora.   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.  


Old Catholic, Old Roman Catholic and Independent Catholic are terms used to identify those Catholics in the United States not associated with ethnic communities, i.e., the Polish National Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, nor the various Lutheran communities.   The terms "Old Catholic" and "Old Roman Catholic" are not interchangeable; variations of viewpoint exist between them.   However, Old Roman Catholics do call themselves "Old Catholic".   The diocese established by Archbishop Carfora in the 1920's at Chicago was called the "Old Roman Catholic Diocese in the United States", rendering the term "Old Roman Catholic".  

A more modern, but incorrect, appellation is "Independent Catholic" which refers more toward a system of ideas.   There are several lines of Apostolic Succession in the United States derived from Anglican, Orthodox and Roman sources.   These have become intertwined, in some cases, with the Old Catholic lines of succession.  

The name "Old Catholic" has become a generic term in the United States.  


Old Catholics adhere to the traditions of the Church from Apostolic times to the present.   The ecumenical Councils express what Old Catholics believe.   Old Catholics, tracing their Apostolic Succession through the Roman Catholic community, and some through the Orthodox and Anglican communities, to the Apostles, participate in the full sacramental ministry of the Catholic Church.   (Old Catholic orders and sacramental services are recognized as "valid" by Roman, Orthodox and Anglican authorities.  )


In matters of discipline, administration and procedure, Old Catholics differ from the Roman Community.   For example, clerical celibacy is optional.   At the discretion of the local bishop, sex and orientations are disregarded in selection of clergy.   The local bishop determines liturgical expression.   Consequently, Old Catholic Communities use a variety of formulae for the sacraments -- all within acceptable patterns.   Because of the small size of Old Catholic Communities they are better able to use the Ignatian model (previously mentioned) of organization.   This concept views the membership with clergy and bishop as a community or family united in concern and support for each other.  

Old Catholic Communities use this smallness and loose structure to best advantage in their ability to make decisions affecting the life and camaraderie of the community.  


There are other distinctions in which Old Catholic Communities differ from Roman Catholic parishes.   The matter of Papal Infallibility is a non-issue for Old Catholics because they are independent of Papal jurisdiction.   Old Catholic Communities extend to the Holy Father the respect and honor due him as the first among equals.   Old Catholics adhere to the traditional opinion that only the whole Church in General Council is infallible.   On the matter of divorce, Old Catholics may do so and remarry in the Church.   The issue of contraception is a personal matter between spouses.   The Community, usually, being inclusive by nature, regards such matters as sexual orientation, ethnicity or politics as non-issues; all are treated equally and equally welcome.   Old Catholic theology recognizes that the Church's teaching magisterium has two objectives: the formation of conscience, in which authority has an instructional quality; and the nurturing of a formed conscience to full maturity, in which case authority is guiding but not dogmatic nor dictatorial.  


By developing new methods and ideas with an eye toward community Old Catholic clergy can meet the needs of a pluralistic society.   Old Catholic communities, being small, can give special attention to individual spiritual needs and develop unique approaches to meet those needs.