Old Catholic Church

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The Old Catholic Church (in Switzerland Christian Catholic Church) is not so much a religious denomination, as a community, part of whose member churches split from the Roman Catholic church in 1870. The German-speaking communities in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and territories of Czech Republic and Slovakia were deeply disturbed by the promulgation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council of 18691870.

The Union of Utrecht consists of the Dutch Church of Utrecht (see: Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands), the Old Catholic Church in Germany, the Christian Catholic Church of Switzerland, and similar movements in Austria, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, organized into the Utrecht Union. The Utrecht Union is in full communion with the Anglican Communion, as per the Bonn Agreement of 1931 [1].

The Polish National Catholic Church in the United States was in a state of "impaired communion" with the Utrecht Union from 1997–2003, since they do not accept the validity of ordaining women to the priesthood, which both the Anglicans and the European Old Catholics (and some US Old Catholic groups not in communion with Utrecht) have been doing for the last several years.

Because of this refusal to ordain women, the 2003 International Old Catholic Bishops' Conference stated that "…full communion, as determined in the statute of the IBC, could not be restored and that therefore, as a consequence, the separation of our Churches follows." In effect, the PNCC was expelled from the Union of Utrecht not because it refused to ordain women, but because it continued to refuse full communion with those Churches in the Union which do ordain women.

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.

There are, however, 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. (See Independent Catholic Churches)

The Old Catholic Church traces its apostolic succession through the See of Utrecht in Utrecht in the Netherlands, to the founding of that see c. A.D. 695. However, the see itself did not split from the Roman Catholic Church until the Pope tried to sack Archbishop Peter Codde of Utrecht in 1701, urged on by the Jesuits. The Archbishop resented the attempts by the Papacy and the Jesuits to interfere with the affairs of his diocese, and they had multiple times accused him of being a Jansenist, a claim he denied. 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 was not elected until 1723.

The Pope later, in 1853, established his own Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands, to rival the hierarchy established by the 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".

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 (1799–1890), 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 1871–1877.

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.

After the First Vatican Council (1870), congregations of Catholic Christians formed throughout German-speaking countries, whose conscience prevented them from accepting the new dogmas of the Pope's infallibility and his jurisdictional primacy and who retained their previous beliefs.

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.

The Polish National Catholic Church of the United States left the Utrecht Union following the admission of women to the priesthood by other member churches. At present, there is no Old Catholic denomination in the United States in communion with 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

The Anglican Communion Image:CompassRose.gif
The "Instruments of Unity"

Archbishop of Canterbury | Lambeth Conference | Anglican Consultative Council | Primates' Meeting

Churches of the Anglican Communion

Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia | Australia | Bangladesh | Brazil | Burundi | Canada | Central Africa | Central America | Congo | Cuba | England | Hong Kong | Ireland | Japan | Jerusalem and the Middle East | Kenya | Korea | Melanesia | Mexico | Myanmar | Nigeria | North India | Papua New Guinea | Pakistan | Philippines | Portugal | Rwanda | Scotland | South East Asia | South India | Southern Africa | Southern Cone | Spain | Sudan | Tanzania | Indian Ocean | West Indies | West Africa | Uganda | USA | Wales

Churches in full communion

Philippine Independent Church | Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India | Old Catholic Church

de:Alt-Katholische Kirche

fr:Église vieille-catholique nl:Oud-katholieke Kerk pl:Starokatolicyzm pt:Velha Igreja Católica sv:Gammalkatolska kyrkan

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