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Our Old Catholic Church Roots

Two bishops brought the Old Catholic line of Apostolic Succession into

the Celtic Christian Communion, of which St. Ciarán's Fellowship was a part.

from Oregon for the consecration.  Bishop MacKillop was the presiding bishop of the

Communion and the primary consecrator.  Bishop Ivan MacKillop who travelled

cross-country from Eugene OR to PA on April 6, 1997 to consecrate Father Joseph Grenier as first bishop of St. Ciaran's Fellowship of Celtic Christian Communities.  The consecration took

place in the Methodist Church of Canadensis.  Bishop Armand Whitehead was asked to

be a co-consecrator.  The spiritual bonds lasted until all three bishops passed through the veil.


The Old Catholic Church is a Christian denomination originating with mainly German-speaking groups that split from the Holy See because they disagreed with the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated by the First Vatican Council (1871).[1] The church is not in communion with the Holy See, though the Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches is in full communion with the Anglican Communion[2] and a member of the World Council of Churches.[3]

The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who, as with the earliest Catholic communities, did not recognise any claimed 'infallible' papal authority.[4] As the groups that split from the Holy See in the 1870s had no bishop, they joined Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht.


With its particular view of the Church, the Old Catholic theology joins those theologians who see the Eucharist as the core of being a Church. From that point the church is a communion of believers. All are in communion with one another around the surrender of life by Jesus Christ, as the highest expression of the love of God. Therefore in the celebration of the Eucharist is the faithful experience of how the Lord prevailed by the surrender of his life to sin. Sin is that power that divides life in all of its dimensions. The defeat of sin consists in bringing together that which is divided.[5]

Through communion, discrepancies between people are reconciled, what was scattered brought together. As communion belongs to the core of human life, so we can see in the relation of Jesus with all men and women the restoration of human community. Therefore the Eucharist can be seen as a symbol which prefigures the total restoration of all creation in a new covenant with God. It prefigures the reconciliation of all that and who have been broken in one or another way.

In the Old Catholic theology, “Church” means reconciliation. “Church” means the restoration of broken relations between God and men and men with each other. It is the leading to a new communion in which the old differences and discriminations between people are removed. Distinctions in position and places are there to manifest the unity in differences and reflect in that way the being of the triune God.

The Old Catholic Church does not consider communion as uniformity, but unity in diversity. Communion aims at personal human well being, so that reciprocally individual persons enrich the community at large. And what is said of believers is true for churches as well. Individual churches are too restrained to reflect the richness of Gods love, therefore it is necessary that they are also in communion with one another. It is the communion of churches that can reflect – unified as they are in diversity – the creativity of the Lord’s care about humanity.

That this ecclesiological opinion, then, can be carried back to orthodox theologians and to the Church fathers, is recently more and more elaborated by Old Catholic theologians as the special mark of Old Catholic ecclesiology. Old Catholics usually refer to the Church Father St. Vincent of Lerins in his saying: "We must hold fast to that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all the Faithful."[6]


Independent bishopric

Main articles: Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands and Ultrajectine

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 was a great Investiture Controversy where the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope fought over who could appoint Bishops. In 1122, the Concordat of Worms[7] 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[8] in 1123.

The Fourth Lateran Council[9] 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

Old Catholicism originated when various Catholic churches separated from Roman Catholicism over the issue of Papal authority after the Protestant Reformation. The initial separation from Rome occurred in The Netherlands in 1724 which formed the first Old Catholic Church. The churches of Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Switzerland created the Union of Utrecht after Vatican I (1871) over the Dogma of Papal Infallibility. In the early 1900s the movement included England, Canada, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, North America, the Philippines, China, and Hungry. The Union of Utrecht has not welcomed any non-continental European community to join the Union with the exception of the Polish National Catholic Church.

Post Reformation The Netherlands - first period

During the 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.[10]

In 1580, the Protestant Reformation occurred in The Netherlands and the institutionalized Catholic Church was persecuted. The Dutch Reform Church confiscated Church property, forced Religious Sisters and Brothers out of convents and monasteries, and made it illegal to receive the Sacraments of the Church.[11] However, the 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.[12]  Priests identified themselves by wearing all black clothing with very simple collars.   (This was the beginning of what we know today as the clerical collar.)  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.[13]

Protestants occupied most church buildings, and those remaining were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic of Seven Provinces, which favoured Calvinism.As part of the Counter Reformation, there were attempts to "re-Romanize" the Dutch Church.[14] 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 reestablish 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 called by Rome the Archbishop of Utrecht in partibus infidelium (i.e., archbishop in the land of unbelievers). 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

After Codde's resignation, the Diocese of Utrecht elected Cornelius van Steenoven as bishop.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] Van Steenoven and the other bishops were excommunicated and thus began the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands.[22]

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.[23]

In 1853 Pope Pius IX received guarantees of religious freedom from the Dutch King Willem II and established a Catholic [24] 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.[25] The Diocese of Utrecht was considered schismatic but not in heresy.

 Impact of the First Vatican Council - second period

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.[26] 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."[27]

In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers.[1] 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

The Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul, consecrated Father Arnold Harris Mathew, a former Roman Catholic priest, as Regionary Bishop for England.[33] 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.[14]

Bishop de Berghes was frequently called "the Prince".[14] 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.[14] At the beginning of World War I, Bishop de Berghes went to the United States at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican). Bishop Mathew later declared his autonomy from the Union of Utrecht, finding them 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 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.[14]

In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph René Vilatte began working with Catholics of Belgian ancestry, who tended to be isolated influence due to their geographical position. 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.

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. Vilatte sought opportunities for consecration in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. He was ordained 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 are in communion with, nor recognised by, the Old Catholic See of Utrecht.

Polish National Catholic Church

The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is no longer in communion with any other body, and 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 issues concerning the ownership of church property and the domination of the U.S. hierarchy by Irish prelates. 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 withdrew from 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

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 to the consultation 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 and 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 valid belief that given the different nature of our charisms, union might not be feasible.[41]


Immediately after forming the Union of Utrect, 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 who was the source of inspiration and a guide of the Old Catholic Movement, are famous. Representatives of the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches were invited. The aim was to discuss the denominational differences in view of a theological consensus as the ground for restoring the church communion. The participants choose another way to restore the Catholic Church communion as Rome has done: it influenced the climate. The Conferences did not have an immediate measurable effect, but still set the course for the later Old Catholic involvement in ecumenical affairs. The basic assumptions for participation were the following principles: The acceptance of the Christological dogmata's 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"[6] (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. One may conclude that this option implies a hermeneutical theological approach by which the fundamental decisions of the Councils and the early Church structure are accepted in their importance for the actual situation. In that way the original unity of the Church could be made visible again. According to these principles the later bishops and theologians of the Old Catholic Churches stayed in contact with (Russian) Orthodox and Anglican representatives in order to restore Church union.[42]

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. The OCC believes the unity which the ecumenical movement seeks for the churches is one which needs to exist as a reconciled diversity of all, rooted in the common faith and order of the early church of the first centuries. To the ongoing study process of Faith and Order Christendom owes a number of initiatives that could lead to a breakthrough of stalemates. 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.[42]

Apostolic succession

Besides being catholic in terms of communion in space, one of the marks of the Church is its apostolicity as connectedness in time. In the Old Catholic belief this mark is guaranteed by the apostolic succession. What do the Old Catholics understand as such? Not only the uninterrupted laying on of hands by bishops as such, making it seem as if the succession was merely dependent on this consecration. The apostolic succession contains more: it deals with the continuation of the whole life of the church community by word and sacrament through the years and ages. So they consider the apostolic succession as the process of the handing over 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.[5] A reference to the Old Catholic Movement from:

1978 Our Sunday Visitor Catholic magazine

Old Catholic-several groups, including: (1) the Church of Utrecht, which severed relations with Rome in 1724; (2) The National Polish Church in the U.S., which has its origin near the end of the 19th century; (3) German, Austrian and Swiss Old Catholics, who broke away from union with Rome following the First Vatican Council in 1870 because they objected to the dogma of papal infallibility.

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 A. Döllinger. Four years later Episcopal succession was established with ordination 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. They have a valid priesthood and valid sacraments. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that they have recognized Anglican ordinations since 1925, that they have full communion with the Church of England since 1932, and have taken part in ordination of Anglican Bishops.[43]


The Old Catholic Church shares most of the same doctrine and liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Christianity, and High Church Protestants. Old Catholics hold an open approach 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. 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.[44] The Utrecht Union allows those who are divorced to have a new religious marriage and upholds no teaching on birth control, leaving such decisions to the married couple.[45]

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:

  • adherence to the ancient Catholic faith;

  • maintenance of the rights of Catholics as such;

  • rejection of the new dogmas,

  • adherence to the constitutions of the ancient Church with repudiation of every dogma of faith not in harmony with the actual consciousness of the Church;

  • reform of the Church with constitutional participation of the laity;

  • preparation of the way for reunion of the Christian confessions;

  • reform of the training and position of the clergy;

  • adherence to the State against the attacks of Ultramontanism;

  • rejection of the Society of Jesus;

  • solemn assertion of the claims of Catholics as such to the real property of the Church and to the title to it.[46]


* The Celtic Christian Church has traditionally used a Celtic Rite for liturgy.


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