Short History of the Old Catholic Church
Introduction: The Catholic Family
Today the Catholic (universal) Church is made up of sister congregations:
– Roman Catholic
– Old Catholic
– Eastern Uniate and Eastern Orthodox
– “Oriental” Churches, such as Coptic, Syrian and “Nestorian” Churches.
Relating to each other in love, these sister Churches hold that by baptism, we are each
made members of the one Body of Christ. In addition, we are nourished by the Body and
Blood of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine consecrated in the Liturgy.
Moreover, according to the faith handed down to us from the apostles (Apostolic
Tradition) there are other sacraments for special occasions in our life’s journey, such as
Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation, Penance, and Healing of the Sick. The sister Churches
interpret God’s plan of salvation essentially the same. But like all sisters in a family, there
are differences, most of them administrative and disciplinary, but some theological. Certain
differences are expected and accepted. Nevertheless, the universal Churches remain
united by means of the closest bonds: Baptism, Eucharist, and apostolic succession.
Who are the Old Catholics?
The Old Catholics are a body of Christians committed to the Person of Jesus Christ and His
teaching. We accept and believe the testimony of the apostles, eyewitnesses of His life,
death, and resurrection from the dead. The apostles passed on to succeeding generations
their own testimony about Jesus Christ and His life. By proclaiming the Gospel and giving
their own testimony (called the Apostolic Tradition), the Church developed worldwide.
Historically, Old Catholics are part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and
have their origins in the Catholic Church of the Netherlands.
The Great Schism
While the division of Christendom into two great categories, Protestant and Catholic, is
familiar to all, fewer people are aware of the jurisdiction (administrative) and disciplinary
divisions within the universal Churches. Since the earliest times of Christianity, the local
bishop determined local liturgical practices. Periodically local synods (convocation of
bishops) were called by local bishops to determine larger issues of beliefs and disciplines.
When Christianity was tolerated as a religion in the Roman Empire in 313, “General
Councils” of bishops from all areas of the Roman Empire were called by the leading political
leader, the emperor Constantine and his successors, to decide uniformity of dogma based
on the Greek language. At these General Councils, all five Patriarchs (Jerusalem, Antioch,
Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople – Constantinople being a political, not an apostolic
based See) were equal in jurisdiction. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise
of the Papacy in Rome, the Patriarch of Rome ascertained himself to have jurisdiction over
all Christianity. Because of this, around 1054 both the Eastern Churches (known as the
Orthodox Churches) and the Western Church (known as the Roman Catholic Church)
mutually declared each other in schism and mutually excommunicated each other.
The Beginnings of the Old Catholic Movement
St. Willibrord evangelized the area of Europe known as the Netherlands in the seventh
century. Utrecht eventually became the archiepiscopal See. Assenting to a petition made
by the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht in 1145, Blessed
Pope Eugene III granted the Cathedral Chapter of Utrecht the right to elect successors to
the See in times of vacancy. The Fourth Lateran Council confirmed this privilege in 1215.
The autonomous character of the Church in the Netherlands was further reaffirmed by a
second grant in 1520 by Pope Leo X, Debitum Pastoralis. This meant that, unlike anywhere
else in the Roman Catholic Church, the archbishop of Utrecht could consecrate bishops
without permission or approval from the Pope, just as the Orthodox and Oriental Churches
have always done.
Following the First Vatican Council in 1870 (to which the bishops of the Netherlands
Church were refused admittance), considerable dissent arose among the Catholic bishops,
especially in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, over the proposed dogma of papal
infallibility. The dissenters held the Church in General Council to be infallible (as the
earliest Church believed), not the Pope acting alone in matters of faith and morals. Many
of the dissenting bishops formed independent communities that came to be known as Old
Catholic because they sought to adhere to the beliefs and practices of the Catholic
(universal) Church of the apostolic era existing prior to 1054 (see Declaration of Utrecht).
The Old Catholic communities collaborated with the Archbishop of Utrecht, who
consecrated the first bishops for these communities. Under the leadership of the Church of
Holland, these Old Catholic communities joined together to form the Utrecht Union of
Churches. The Old Catholic Church expanded rapidly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and
Holland. Old Catholic communities were also established in Poland, France, and throughout
the world. In 1990 there were about 500,000 Old Catholics in the United States and about
15 million world-wide.
In the United States
The establishment of Old Catholic Churches in the United States occurred very soon after
the Utrecht Union of Churches. The Belgium Old Catholics were led by Bishop Joseph Rene
Vilatte in Wisconsin; the Czech Old Catholics were lead by Bishop Jan Francis Tichy in
Cleveland, Ohio; and the Polish Old Catholics were led by Bishop Anton Kozlowski in
Chicago, Illinois. All these national Old Catholic Churches were thriving before 1915. In
1917 an additional Old Catholic bishop, Prince Rudolph Edward de Landes-Berghes, was
appointed by the Utrecht Union of Churches for the English speaking people of the United
States. Bishop de Landes-Berghes’ consecrated several other Bishops to carry on the
mission and encouraged the various ethnic groups to accept diversity in their own
With the passing of these original organizers from the ecclesiastical scene, the Old
Catholic Church in the United States has evolved from a fairly 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. The sister churches of today in North
America have diverse liturgical and ministerial styles. The leadership and representatives
of the Churches of the European (Utrecht) Union meet on a regular basis in collegial
dialogues to work on pastoral and theological issues of common concern. The ACOC
maintains friendly communications with the Union and works closely with other churches
with whom the Union is in intercommunion, especially the Episcopal (ECUSA) and
Evangelical Lutheran churches. The autonomous North American churches of the Old
Catholic heritage relate to one another by such means as conferences of churches,
concordats of intercommunion and cooperative outreach in ministry.
What Old Catholics Believe
Like the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the Old Catholics accept the first
seven General Councils of the Early Church without apology or excuse. Thus, Old
Catholics, tracing their apostolic succession through the Roman Catholic Church to the
apostles, participate in the full sacramental ministry of the Church. The “Rule of Faith” of
Old Catholics is faithful adherence to Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.
How Do Old Catholics Differ from Roman Catholics?
1. Papal infallibility defined by Vatican Council I is a non-issue for Old Catholics, since we
are independent of papal jurisdiction. Like the various Eastern Orthodox Churches, all Old
Catholic communities accord the Holy Father respect due him as Patriarch of the West and
“First among Equals,” but not having ultimate jurisdiction over all Christian Churches. Old
Catholics adhere to the teaching from apostolic times that the Church in General Council is
2. In some matters of discipline (non-dogmatic issues). For example:
– Clerical celibacy is optional
– Married men may be ordained
– Deacons and priests are selected based on their individual
suitability for ministry
– In some Old Catholic jurisdictions, members participate in the
ministerial priesthood in response to a genuine vocation regardless
of gender, sexual orientation or physical disability
-Sexuality and orientation are seen as a gift from God
– Divorced Catholics may remarry within the Old Catholic Church, as
divorced Orthodox may remarry within the Orthodox Churches
– EVERY person, as a participant in the Royal Priesthood of Christ,
plays an important and prominent role in the government and
ministry of the Church.
3. There is some diversity in liturgical expression. Spirit of Hope and many other Old
Catholic communities have adopted the liturgical renewal promulgated following the
Second Vatican Council (as used in most current Roman Catholic communities), while
others maintain the Tridentine Mass in Latin and others use direct translations into
classical or modern English.
4. Because Old Catholic communities are usually smaller in comparison to
mainline churches, they are able to successfully implement the Apostolic
model of the Church referred to earlier. This model views the faithful
with their clergy and bishop as a community (or family) in loving
concern for each other and each working together to live the
Scriptural commands in their daily lives as Christians bringing
the love of Christ to others. Old Catholic communities – because of a
less hierarchical structure – are promptly able to implement decisions
affecting the sacramental life of the faithful, doing so always within
the authority of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.
Special thanks to Bishop James Judd – Heartland Old Catholic Church