04 October 2011

So what's an Old Catholic, anyway?

You will no doubt have noticed me talking a lot about not just Anglicans and Episcopalians, but also "Old Catholics". The thing is, relatively few people have heard of them, and many immediately get the wrong idea from the name. One question that gets asked a lot is whether we do Masses in Latin -- i.e. Old Catholics get confused with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which is a quite different thing to say the least. In fact Old Catholics and the SSPX are almost mirror images of each other.

Essentially, Old Catholics in Europe have two origins -- the first in the general chaos of the Reformation in the Netherlands and the controversy over Jansenism, the second as a backlash predominantly in German-speaking countries against the papal dogmas proclaimed by Pius IX at the First Vatican Council in the 1870s.

To make matters more confusing, in North America there are many groups claiming the use of the name "Old Catholic", with wildly varying degrees of legitimacy. Usually the term "Old Catholic" pops up amongst people calling themselves "Independent Catholics" or similar. Sad to say, but many would-be bishops seem to view getting an Old Catholic line of succession as a kind of quick and easy way of claiming legitimacy, as if ordination was a magic trick performed by the dude with the right mojo and hey presto, you've got your very own church. So many "Old Catholics" in America are what are called episcopi vagantes, or wandering bishops -- bishops without a church, in effect. Which in Catholic ecclesiology is a total non sequitur.

It is thus important, for clarity's sake, to differentiate between the "regular" Old Catholics in the Union of Utrecht, and the "irregular" Old Catholics in North America. The relations between the two have been strained or virtually non-existent, with the Utrecht Old Catholics generally taking a dim view of their counterparts in North America partly because of their association with Arnold Harris Mathew (see below).

The only "regular" Old Catholic jurisdiction in North America was the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), which in spite of the name is located in the US, based in Scranton, Illinois. Unfortunately, they left the Union in the 1990s over women's ordination, so the Union currently has no representation in North America -- there are thus no "regular" Old Catholics there (though that hopefully will change, as contacts are being established and the various irregular churches being nudged into joining together).

To get an idea of what the Old Catholics are, I'll concentrate on the regular Old Catholics as defined above. I mean no offense to Old Catholics in North America when I make this distinction, but it is an important one for outsiders to understand the workings of Old Catholicism, and obviously I'm far more familiar with the Utrecht Old Catholics. So let's look at the history and origins.

Old Catholics in the Netherlands, 17th century

The Dutch Old Catholics were once part of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Archdiocese of Utrecht. That archdiocese had the right to elect and choose its own archbishop, without consulting Rome -- something which today is, sadly, almost unheard of in the Roman communion. Then in the 17th century, there was some controversy over Jansenism in Holland, with the Jesuits in particular accusing the Utrecht church of harboring Jansenists and also sharing their views, which Rome condemned as heresy. A convoluted series of events led to the chapter in Utrecht electing their own archbishop, and getting a Roman Catholic bishop travelling through to agree to ordain their elected bishop. Then Rome excommunicated them for what Rome regarded as open rebellion, and essentially disclaimed any presence in the Netherlands until the 1850s. All subsequent Archbishops of Utrecht were excommunicated as soon as they were ordained, again because they supposedly did it without permission from Rome. This led to the rather bizarre legalistic hair-splitting way Rome views Old Catholic holy orders and sacraments -- "valid, but illicit". So the Dutch continued to have bishops with valid orders, preserving their line of apostolic succession.

The name "Old Catholic" came into being when Rome began to re-establish their own jurisdiction in the Netherlands in the 19th century. Since the Utrecht archdiocese considered itself to be the "regular" Catholic Church in the Netherlands, they became known as the "Old" Catholics, since they were there first. Indeed for some time they continued to refer to themselves as being Roman Catholic, but with an "old" jurisdiction.

Old Catholics in German-speaking countries, 19th century

Fast forward to 1870 and the First Vatican Council. There, Pope Pius IX rammed through the twin papal dogmas -- papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction -- over the protests of many bishops, especially in Europe and particularly in German-speaking areas. These bishops tried to boycott the council and thus prevent the dogmas from taking effect, to no avail. At that time, many clubs and groups formed to resist and protest the dogmas. Eventually Pius IX simply excommunicated the lot of them, leaving them effectively without a church of their own.

A large number of these Catholics didn't want to become Protestant or Orthodox, but to remain Catholic and to stay true to what they believed in. They established contact with Anglicans and the Utrecht archdiocese, and formed churches in the various countries they represented -- in particular Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Poland. These churches were intended and described as "provisional" churches, that is, they expected to rejoin with Rome at a future date when the First Vatican Council was revoked or revised.

Since Catholic ecclesiology requires a bishop with valid orders, they were able to have the Archbishop of Utrecht ordain their first bishops. Then these churches joined together in the Union of Utrecht, which is the Old Catholic counterpart to the Anglican Communion. Early on, talks were held with Anglicans and Orthodox with a view to uniting them, but in the end only the Anglicans agreed to join up, and did so with the Bonn Agreement in 1931. Ever since, Anglicans and Utrecht Old Catholics have been in full communion, exchanging priests, liturgy, theology and so forth, and members of the respective churches are welcomed as full members of the others. (Hence I'm still formally Episcopalian, while being a member of an Old Catholic parish and serving in the Old Catholic synod.)

Arnold Harris Mathew and the English Old Catholics, late 19th century

In the meantime, a rather colorful character named Arnold Harris Mathew approached the Union with a view to establishing an English Old Catholic church. There is much controversy surrounding Mathew, and he does seem to me to be a bit of a dodgy person -- not a charlatan, but certainly erratic and unpredictable. It turned out that the "church" he claimed to represent simply did not exist, at least not in the way he claimed, and the Union cut off support and ties with Mathew. He in turn declared independence from the Union (which seems to me to be like saying "you can't fire me, I quit!") and made contact with various people in North America, ordaining large numbers of bishops without much apparent concern for whether or not they had a legitimate interest in being a bishop or whether they were appropriate for the office. Eventually he converted back to being Roman Catholic and died isolated from the Old Catholics.

Irregular Old Catholics in North America, late 19th century to today

It is from these episcopi vagantes in North America that most of the "irregular" Old Catholics have their holy orders and apostolic succession. The North American Old Catholic movement, if it could be called as such, quickly splintered into a myriad of various churches with a wild range of beliefs, such as the "Liberal Catholics", who regrettably incorporated things like reincarnation and theosophy into their belief systems.

Today many of these irregular Old Catholics -- those with more orthodox beliefs, unlike the Liberal Catholics -- are trying, with guidance and help from the Episcopal Church USA and the Union of Utrecht, to finally come in from the cold and become a regular Old Catholic jurisdiction with recognition from and in communion with Utrecht. Unfortunately from what I am told, there are a lot of egos at work, preventing serious cooperation, and the project has not been crowned with success so far, but at least some progress has been made.

Of special note is the Cornerstone Old Catholic Community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose priest, Robert Caruso+, has been beating the drum to try and encourage more cooperation and to reconcile European and American Old Catholics; the Conference of Old Catholic Bishops, which transformed itself in September 2010 into the Old Catholic Church Province of the United States (sponsored by the Union of Utrecht); and the North American Old Catholic Church, led by Bishop Michael Seneco. Each of these are attempts at getting such a joint jurisdiction off the ground by getting the various bishops under one roof. Hopefully they will succeed and join the Union, and someday the Union of Utrecht can also deepen its ties with the Anglican Communion, maybe even fully merge. But that is years, maybe even decades, away -- sad to say.

Similarities and differences between Old Catholics and Anglicans

An obvious question is, what are Old Catholics like? Given that each national member church is autonomous and has its own history, it is difficult to make blanket statements. But it is possible to note a few differences from Anglicans. First, the liturgy and style is more "high church" as a rule than what you find in Anglicanism. Second, the traditions, tastes, and accentuations are clearly Continental and not English. Third, there are more concrete and clear practices related to the Real Presence in the Eucharist -- things like tabernacles and sanctuary lamps are more widespread. (Which I think is a Good Thing.) And lastly, I would argue that Old Catholics as a whole are more liberal than Anglicans in general, particularly in the question of homosexuality, and in a more limited sense in women's ordination. Old Catholics also are clearer in their belief in seven sacraments (which Anglicans tend to hedge by calling baptism and Communion the "great sacraments", implying the others are subordinate or not important). And of course, Old Catholics' holy orders and sacraments are recognized as valid by Rome, whereas Anglican orders are not.

I was once asked by my priest if I noticed any differences with Anglicanism, and I jokingly asked him, "I dunno, what's your position on polygamy?" He never did answer, so I can't tell you. ;)

There are also parallels and similarities. For one thing, German Old Catholics have borrowed liturgical elements from Anglicans, in particular from the Canadian Anglican liturgy, as well as a number of classic Anglican hymns, such as Hyrfrydol and The day thou gavest (an old favorite of mine). Theologically speaking, I have yet to detect any particular differences of note. Both support and practice women's ordination; both have an international communion with a clearly Catholic and episcopal ecclesiology (i.e. run by bishops with territorial dioceses); both are set up as a group of autonomous national churches in communion with each other; both believe in the Real Presence as the fundamental understanding of the Eucharist, albeit with different ways of reflecting that. So while on the surface, you would see some differences in style and practice, on the whole there is really no difference in substance as far as I can see.

As an Episcopalian in an Old Catholic parish, I have served as diocesan delegate three times, as a member of the parish vestry for five years, and numerous other jobs. In other words, I feel quite at home and am living out the promise of full communion. I look forward to the day when that full communion can blossom and add other episcopal churches to create a new super-church, with Anglicans, Old Catholics and various independent episcopal churches such as the Mar Thoma church or the Philippine Independent Church joining as one global jurisdiction as a counterweight to Rome and Constantinople.

Here's hoping that the Way of Christ leads to that unity, and to unity with all Catholic Christians and beyond.

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