The Old Catholic Church is a community of Christian churches. Many of these were German-speaking churches which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s because of the promulgation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility as promoted by the First Vatican Council of 18691870. The term 'Old Catholic' was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht that were not under Papal authority. While the European Old Catholic Churches are a part of the Union of Utrecht, there are many, many more that are independent, especially in the United States.


Old Catholic Church of the NetherlandsEdit

Main article: Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands

St. Willibrord, was consecrated to the Episcopacy by Pope Sergius I in 696 at Rome. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he established his See at Utrecht. In addition, he established the dioceses at Deventer and Haarlem. The Church of Utrecht also provided a worthy occupant for the Papal See in 1552 in the person of Pope Hadrian VI, while two of the most able exponents of the spiritual life, Geert Groote, who founded the Brothers of the Common Life, and Thomas a Kempis, who is credited with writing the Imitation of Christ, were both from the Dutch Church.

Granting the petition made by the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht, Blessed Pope Eugene III, in the year 1145, granted the See of Utrecht the right to elect successors to the See in times of vacancy. This privilege was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The autonomous nature of this See was further demonstrated when a second papal grant by Pope Leo X, Debitum Pastoralis, conceded to Philip of Burgundy, the 57th Bishop of Utrecht, that neither he nor any of his successors, or any of their clergy or laity, should ever, be tried by a tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church, and that if any such tribunals where called against them, those tribunals would be, ipso facto, null and void. This papal concession, in 1520, was of the greatest importance in the defense of the rights of the Church of Utrecht. During the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands remained under attack and the dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal eventually were dissolved and suspended by the Holy See. Protestants had occupied most church buildings, and those left were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic of Seven Provinces which favoured Calvinist protestantism.

However about one third of the population north of the Rhine in the Netherlands, remained staunchly Catholic. The 17th century Popes appointed one bishop at a time to be Apostolic Vicar for territories of the Dutch Republic who, governing from the city of Utrecht, sacramentally served the needs of the Dutch Roman Catholics, who secretly celebrated Holy Masses in private homes, farm houses, or small chapels which resembled ordinary sheds rather than parish churches. The Apostolic Vicar of Utrecht thus had to serve from many hundreds of thousands to up to a million of Catholics. German and Belgian missionary secretly helped out.

In 1691, the Jesuits took the step of accusing the Apostolic Vicar of Utrecht, Petrus Codde, of favoring the so-called Jansenist heresy. The Holy Father, Pope Innocent XII appointed a Commission of Cardinals to investigate the accusations against Apostolic Vicar Codde. The result of this inquiry was a complete and unconditional exoneration of the Apostolic Vicar.

Undaunted by the decision of the Commission, the new Pope, Clement XI, summoned Codde to Rome in 1700 to participate in the Jubilee Year whereupon a second Commission was appointed to try Codde. The result of this second proceeding was again a complete and unconditional acquittal. Pope Clement XI decided to issue an order which suspended the Apostolic Vicar in 1701 and appointed a successor to the Apostolic Vicariate of Utrecht, despite the ruling of the Commission.

Bishop Peter Codde resented the attempts by the Papacy and the Jesuits to interfere with the affairs of his diocese. The Dutch refused to accept the replacement the Pope had appointed, and Codde continued in his office; however he resigned in 1703.

A replacement Archbishop, Cornelius van Steenoven, was elected by dissatisfied clergy in 1723. Van Steenoven was consecrated a bishop by a missionary bishop who was appointed by the Pope to a titular see in Lebanon, but never went to the Middle East. The consecration was done without the necessary Apostolic Mandate of the Pope. He and his successors were not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and the Popes of Rome appointed Apostolic Vicars, while excommunicating the rebellious bishops of the See of Utrecht. This was the beginning of the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands, also known as the Ancient Catholic Church or the Roman Catholic Church of the Old Episcopal Order.

Van Steenoven appointed and consecrated bishops to the Sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen, which had all been vacant since the dissolution of the Roman Catholic diocesan structure in the Northern Netherlands due to the rise of protestantism and the eighty years lasting protestant Dutch Rebellion against Spanish (Catholic) rule.

Most of the Dutch Catholics, who since 1600 had been mainly served by regular missionary priests, not by secular clergy, did not follow the Old Catholic bishops of Utrecht and remained in communion with the Holy See in Rome.

Pope Pius IX, in 1853, established his own Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands, to rival the hierarchy established by 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 the 'new' Catholic Church established by the Pope. Under Roman Catholic Canon Law, the line of apostolic succession in the Utrecht church remains "valid, but not licit".

Impact of the First Vatican Council Edit

After the First Vatican Council in 1870, many Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the teaching on papal infallibility, and left to form their own churches. These churches were supported by the Archbishop of Utrecht, who ordained their priests and bishops; later the Dutch were united more formally with many of these Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics under the name "Utrecht Union of Churches".

In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers. The most notable leader of the movement, though maintaining a certain distance from the Old Catholic Church as an institution, was the important church historian and priest Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (17991890), who had already been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church over the affair. Despite never formally becoming a member of the Old Catholic Church, Döllinger requested and took last rites from an Old Catholic priest.

The convention decided to form a new church, to be called the "Old Catholic Church" to distinguish themselves from what they saw as novelty in the Roman Catholic Church. At their second convention, they elected the first Old Catholic bishop, who was ordained by the Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands. In 1874 they abandoned the requirement of priestly celibacy. The church received some support from the government of the new German Empire of Otto von Bismarck, whose policy was increasingly hostile towards the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s and 1880s, especially during the Kulturkampf period from 18711877.

The Old Catholic Church shares much doctrine and liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church. However it tends to have a more liberal stance on most issues, including the eligibility of women for religious offices.

From the Old Catholic Church website:

The "Catholic Diocese of the Old Catholics in Germany" (Katholisches Bistum der Alt-Katholiken in Deutschland) is an

  • autonomous,
  • episcopally, synodally structured,
  • catholic
  • church, which acknowledges the diversity and the essential teaching and institutions of the early, undivided church during the first millennium. Its origins lie in various Catholic reform movements.

Based on critical examination of the historical witnesses of early Christianity, the leaders of the Old Catholic movement developed an episcopal, synodal church structure, which incorporates the historic episcopal and priestly offices into democratic structures at all levels.

Old Catholics in the United States Edit

Soon after Old Catholicism's momentous events at the end of the 19th century, Old Catholic missionaries came to the United States.

In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph Rene Vilatte began working with Catholics of Belgian ancestry. He 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. After his ordination, Fr. Vilatte worked diligently on behalf of his congregations in Wisconsin, providing the only Catholic presence in his very rural part of the state.

In time, he petitioned the Old Catholic Bishop of Utrecht to be consecrated a bishop so that he might confirm children and perform other ministrations for his people. His petition was not granted. Determined to meet the spiritual needs of his people, Father Vilatte sought opportunities in the Eastern Church.

He was consecrated a bishop on the 28 May, 1892 under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch. A number of western orthodox churches such as the African Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church of America are descended from Bishop Vilatte as founder by virtue of his ordinations and consecrations.

Many Old Catholic bishops in the United States trace their Apostolic Succession to Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Church of England. Father Mathew was consecrated bishop on 28 April, 1908, by Archbishop Gul, assisted by Bishops of Deventer and Berne, in St. Gertrude's Cathedral at Utrecht. Bishop Mathew sent pioneers to the United States including Bishop James Ingall Wedgwood (1892 - 1950) and Prince (Bishop) Rudolph de Landas Berghes et de Rache (1873-1920).

Bishop de Landas arrived in the United States on 7 November, 1914. He hoped to bring the various Old Catholic jurisdictions into one church organization under Archbishop Arnold Mathew of England. Bishop de Landas contributed greatly to the growth and development of the Old Catholic Church during his active years. He ordained and consecrated other pioneers including William Francis Brothers and Carmel Henry Cafora.

With the passing of the original organizers from the ecclesiastical scene, the Old Catholic Church in the United States has evolved from a 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.

Today, the two largest of these Old Catholic communities in the United States are the Polish National Catholic Church (no longer in communion with the Union of Utrecht) and the Liberal Catholic Church.

While there are several Old Catholic groups in the United States, not affiliated with the European Old Catholics, who have credible communities and real churches, the European Old Catholics, being in Communion with the Church of England, are not willing to antagonize their Anglican cohorts by recognizing a competing English-speaking Old Catholic movement.


The term 'Old Catholic' is used often by many splinter groups, ranging from 'Continuing' or 'Traditionalist' to 'New Age'. Many of these so-called Old Catholic Churches are gatherings of clergy without congregations, and some exist only on the Internet. Although the Bishops of many of these groups can trace lines of Apostolic Succession through Old Catholic Churches, most of these are regarded as Episcopi vagantes by the churches of the Utrecht Union.


  • Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. Henry R.T. Brandreth. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1947.
  • Episcopi vagantes in church history. A.J. Macdonald. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1945.
  • History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland. John M. Neale. New York: AMS Press, 1958.
  • Old Catholic: History, Ministry, Faith & Mission. Andre J. Queen. iUniverse title, 2003.
  • The Old Catholic Church: A History and Chronology (The Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, No. 3). Karl Pruter. Highlandville, Missouri: St. Willibrord's Press, 1996.
  • The Old Catholic Sourcebook (Garland Reference Library of Social Science). Karl Pruter and J. Gordon Melton. New York: Garland Publishers, 1983.
  • The Old Catholic Churches and Anglican Orders. C.B. Moss. The Christian East, January, 1926.
  • The Old Catholic Movement. C.B. Moss. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1964.

See also Edit

Notable Old CatholicsEdit

External links Edit

Old Catholic ChurchesEdit

Other links Edit

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