Old Catholics

General Information

Old Catholics include several small local churches that have separated from the Roman Catholic church. The Church of Utrecht - which was established in 1724 in a dispute over papal charges of Jansenism in Holland - was the first of these churches to separate from Rome. In the 1870s other Old Catholic churches were formed in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria by those Catholics who rejected the dogma of papal infallibility promulgated by the First Vatican Council (1870). The first German bishop was consecrated (1874) by a bishop of the Church of Utrecht.

In the United States, Polish Roman Catholics, resentful of domination by non - Polish clergy, split in 1897 to form the National Polish church. Other Slavic groups have also become Old Catholics, as has the Philippine Independent Church (established 1902).

Old Catholic churches are in communion with each other and with the Church of England and seek ecumenical relations. Bishops and priests may marry; services generally follow the Roman ritual and are in the vernacular; in some both bread and wine are distributed to the congregation in communion.

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Frederick A Norwood

R Aubert, The Christian Centuries: The Church in a Secularized Society (1978); C B Moss, The Old Catholic Movement (1964); K Pruter, A History of the Old Catholic Church (1985).

Old Catholics

General Information

Old Catholics are a Christian denomination organized in Munich in 1871 by Roman Catholics who protested the dogma, proclaimed the previous year by Vatican Council I, of the personal infallibility of the pope in all ex cathedra pronouncements (see Infallibility). The Munich protest, by 44 professors under the leadership of the German theologians and historians Johann Joseph Ignaz von D÷llinger and Johannes Friedrich, was directed against the binding authority of the Vatican Council. To this protest a number of professors at Bonn, Breslau (now Wroc│aw, Poland), Freiburg, and Giessen declared their adherence. At Cologne in 1873 the German theologian Joseph Hubert Reinkens was elected bishop of the Old Catholics in the ancient fashion, by "clergy and people," that is, by all the Old Catholic priests and by representatives of the Old Catholic congregations. He was consecrated at Rotterdam by the bishop of Deventer, the Netherlands, and acknowledged by the German states of Prussia, Baden, and Hessen. D÷llinger refused to become involved in organized schism and eventually broke with the movement, but he never returned to the Roman Catholic church.

Old Catholics conduct church services in the vernacular. Priests are allowed to marry. Intercommunion with the Church of England was accomplished at a conference in Bonn in July 1931; the concordat was ratified later by the Vienna congress of the Old Catholic church and by the convocations of Canterbury and York of the Church of England. According to recent figures, the Old Catholics number fewer than 250,000, with fewer than 70,000 in the U.S.

Declaration of Utrecht (1889)

General Information

A policy statement made by the five Old Catholic bishops, which in 1897 was adopted as the doctrinal basis of the Old Catholic Churches. It affirmed loyalty to Catholicism rightly understood, that is, as found in the beliefs of the primitive church and the decrees of the ecumenical councils up to the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054. Made at a time soon after Vatican Council I controversies had augmented the ranks of dissidents, the declaration condemned what it regarded as Roman deviations from orthodoxy. Prominent among these were the decrees on immaculate conception (1854) and papal infallibility (1870), and the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which had condemned liberal doctrines. The Declaration of Utrecht was in large part the work of those who had earlier unsuccessfully tried to persuade Roman Catholicism to subject its history and traditions to modern criticism.


(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Old Catholics

Additional Information

(We received the following two articles from Michael Nesmith, a priest in the Independent Old Catholic Church of America (IOCCA).)

As you know there are many offshoots of the Old Catholic Church here in the US which makes it all but impossible to determine the actual number of OC and Independent Catholic parishes. Our particular group has approximately 90 clergy involved in all types of ministry. I have pasted below some additional information about the Old Catholic Church I hope you will find it beneficial.

The Declaration of Utrecht,

of the Old Catholic Bishops
of the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland

  1. We adhere faithfully to the Rule of Faith laid down by St. Vincent of Lerins in these terms: "Id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum." For this reason we preserve in professing the faith of the primitive Church, as formulated in the ecumenical symbols and specified precisely by the unanimously accepted decisions of the Ecumenical Councils held in the undivided Church of the first thousand years.
  2. We therefore reject the decrees of the so-called Council of the Vatican, which were promulgated July 18th, 1870, concerning the infallibility and the universal Episcopate of the Bishop of Rome, decrees which are in contradiction with the faith of the ancient Church, and which destroy its ancient canonical constitution by attributing to the Pope the plentitude of ecclesiastical powers over all Dioceses and over all the faithful. By denial of this primatial jurisdiction we do not wish to deny the historical primacy which several Ecumenical Councils and Fathers of the ancient Church have attributed to the Bishop of Rome by recognizing him as the Primus inter pares.
  3. We also reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception promulgated by Pius IX in 1854 in defiance of the Holy Scriptures and in contradiction to the tradition of the centuries.
  4. As for other Encyclicals published by the Bishops of Rome in recent times for example, the Bulls Unigenitus and Auctorem fidei , and the Syllabus of 1864, we reject them on all such points as are in contradiction with the doctrine of the primitive Church, and we do not recognize them as binding on the consciences of the faithful. We also renew the ancient protests of the Catholic Church of Holland against the errors of the Roman Curia, and against its attacks upon the rights of national Churches.
  5. We refuse to accept the decrees of the Council of Trent in matters of discipline, and as for the dogmatic decisions of that Council we accept them only so far as they are in harmony with the teaching of the primitive Church.
  6. Considering that the Holy Eucharist has always been the true central point of Catholic worship, we consider it our right to declare that we maintain with perfect fidelity the ancient Catholic doctrine concerning the Sacrament of the Altar, by believing that we receive the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ under the species of bread and wine. The Eucharistic celebration in the Church is neither a continual repetition nor a renewal of the expiatory sacrifice which Jesus offered once for all upon the Cross: but it is a sacrifice because it is the perpetual commemoration of the sacrifice offered upon the Cross, and it is the act by which we represent upon earth and appropriate to ourselves the one offering which Jesus Christ makes in Heaven, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11-12, for the salvation of redeemed humanity, by appearing for us in the presence of God (Heb. 9:24). The character of the Holy Eucharist being thus understood, it is, at the same time, a sacrificial feast, by means of which the faithful in receiving the Body and Blood of our Saviour, enter into communion with one another (I Cor. 10:17).
  7. We hope that Catholic theologians, in maintaining the faith of the undivided Church, will succeed in establishing an agreement upon questions which have been controverted ever since the divisions which arose between the Churches. We exhort the priests under our jurisdiction to teach, both by preaching and by the instruction of the young, especially the essential Christian truths professed by all the Christian confessions, to avoid, in discussing controverted doctrines, any violation of truth or charity, and in word and deed to set an example to the members.
  8. By maintaining and professing faithfully the doctrine of Jesus Christ, by refusing to admit those errors which by the fault of men have crept into the Catholic Church, by laying aside the abuses in ecclesiastical matters, together with the worldly tendencies of the hierarchy, we believe that we shall be able to combat efficaciously the great evils of our day, which are unbelief and indifference in matters of religion.

Old Catholic or Old Roman Catholic

Old Catholic and Old Roman Catholic are terms used to identify independent Catholics in the United States who are not necessarily affiliated with ethnic Old Catholic communities such as the Polish National Catholic Church. The original diocese established by the late Archbishop Carfora in the 1920's in Chicago was called the Old Roman Catholic Diocese in the United States. Because of this, most independent Catholic communities are called Old Catholic or Old Roman Catholic.

What Old Catholics Believe

The faith of Old Catholics is simply that of the Catholic Church as taught by the Church from apostolic times to the present day. The ecumenical Councils clearly express what Old Catholics believe without the need for apology or excuse. In 1823, Archbishop Willibrord van Os of Utrecht reiterated adherence to the unchanging doctrine of Catholicism in the following words:"We accept without any exception whatever, all the Articles of the Holy Catholic Faith. We will never hold nor teach, now or afterwards, any other opinions than those that have been decreed, determined and published by our Mother, Holy Church " Thus, Old Catholics, tracing their Apostolic Succession through the Roman Catholic Church to the Apostles, participated in the full sacramental ministry of the Church. The Rule of Faith of Old Catholics is faithful adherence to Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition.

How Do They Differ?

In matters of discipline, administration and procedure, Old Catholics differ from the Roman Catholic Church. For example, clerical celibacy (which is a matter of discipline) is optional among Old Catholics. Married men may be ordained and in many of our dioceses clergy may, with prior episcopal consent, enter into Holy Matrimony after ordination. Liturgical expression is also a matter of discipline determined by the local bishop. Consequently, many Old Catholic communities have adopted the liturgical renewal promulgated following the Second Vatican Council while still maintaining Tridentine liturgy, in Latin or direct translation into classical or modern English, in those parishes that desire it. Eastern rite Old Catholic parishes exist as well, which follow the ancient liturgies of that rich tradition. Because Old Catholic communities are small, they are able to successfully implement the Ignatian model of the Church referred to earlier. This concept 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 utilize their size and lack of highly detailed structure to the very best advantage organizationally by their ability to expedite decisions affecting the sacramental and community life of the faithful, within the revelation and authority of Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

Other Distinctions

There are other distinctives by which Old Catholic communities are differentiated from Roman Catholic parishes. The matter of papal infallibility defined by Vatican Council I is a non-issue for Old Catholics, since we are independent of papal jurisdiction. All Old Catholic communities accord the Holy Father that respect due him as Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles and Patriarch of the West. Old Catholics adhere to the teaching from apostolic times that the Church in General Council is infallible. Another difference, is that divorced people who remarry are treated in a pastoral manner and not excluded from the sacramental life of the Church. Further, the matter of contraception is treated as a matter of personal conscience between husband and wife. Old Catholic theology recognizes that the Church's teaching magisterium has no less than two objects: the formation of conscience, in which case authority has an instructive quality; and the nurturing of a formed conscience to full maturity, in which case authority is guiding but not directive.

Old Catholics

Catholic Information

The sect organised in German-speaking countries to combat the dogma of Papal Infallibility.

Filled with ideas of ecclesiastical Liberalism and rejecting the Christian spirit of submission to the teachings of the Church, nearly 1400 Germans issued, in September, 1870, a declaration in which they repudiated the dogma of Infallibility "as an innovation contrary to the traditional faith of the Church". They were encouraged by large numbers of scholars, politicians, and statesmen, and were acclaimed by the Liberal press of the whole world. The break with the Church began with this declaration, which was put forth notwithstanding the fact that the majority of the German bishops issued, at Fulda on 30 August, a common pastoral letter in support of the dogma. It was not until 10 April, 1871, that Bishop Hefele of Rotterdam issued a letter concerning the dogma to his clergy. By the end of 1870 all the Austrian and Swiss bishops had done the same.

The movement against the dogma was carried on with such energy that the first Old Catholic Congress was able to meet at Munich, 22-24 September, 1871. Before this, however, the Archbishop of Munich had excommunicated D├Âllinger on 17 April 1871, and later also Friedrich. The congress was attended by over 300 delegates from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, besides friends from Holland, France, Spain, Brazil, Ireland, and the representatives of the Anglican Church, with German and American Protestants. The moving spirit in this 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.

A resolution was also passed on the forming of the parish communities, which D├Âllinger vehemently opposed and voted against. The second congress, held at Cologne, 20-22 September, 1872, ws attended by 350 Old Catholic delegates, besides one Jansenist and three Anglican bishops, Russian clergy, and English and other Protestant ministers. The election of a bishop was decided on, and among the most important resolutions passed were those pertaining to the organization of the pastorate and parishes. This was followed by steps to obtain recognition of the Old Catholics by various governments; the general feeling of that time made it easy to obtain this recognition from Prussia, Baden, and Hesse. Professor Reinkens of Bonn was elected bishop, 4 June, 1873, and was consecrated at Rotterdam by the Jansenist Bishop of Deventer, Heydekamp, 11 August, 1873. Having been officially recognized as "Catholic Bishop" by Prussia, 19 September, and having taken the oath of allegiance, 7 October, 1873, he selected Bonn as his place of residence. The bishop and his diocese were granted by Prussia an annual sum of 4800 Marks ($1200). Pius IX excommunicated Reinkens by name, 9 November, 1873; previous to which, in the spring of 1872, the archbishop of Cologne had been obliged to excommunicate Hilgers, Langen, Reusch, and Knoodt, professors of theology at Bonn. The same fate had also overtaken several professors at Braunsberg and Breslau. The fiction brought forward by Friedrich von Schulte that the Old Catholics are the true Catholics was accepted by several governments in Germany and Switzerland, and many Catholic churches were transferred to the sect. This was done notwithstanding the fact that a decree of the Inquisition, dated 17 September, 1871, and a Brief of 12 March, 1873, had again shown that the Old Catholics had no connection with the Catholic church; represented, therefore, a religious society entirely separate from the Church; and consequently could assert no legal claims whatever to the funds or buildings for worship of the Catholic Church.

The development of the internal organization of the sect occupied the congresses held at Freiburg in the Breisgau, 1874; at Breslau, 1876; Baden-Baden, 1880; and Krefeld, 1884; as well as the ordinary synods. The synodal constitution, adopted at the urgency of von Schulte, seems likely to lead to the ruin of the sect. It has resulted in unlimited arbitrariness and a radical break with all the disciplinary ordinances of Catholicism. Especially far-reaching was the abolition of celibacy, called forth by the lack of priests. After the repeal of this law a number of priests who were tired of celibacy, none of whom were of much intellectual importance, took refuge among the Old Catholics. The statute of 14 June, 1878, for the maintenance of discipline among the Old Catholic clergy, has merely theoretical value. A bishop's fund, a pension fund, and a supplementary fund for the incomes of parish priests have been formed, thanks to the aid given by governments and private persons. In the autumn of 1877, Bishop Reinkens founded a residential seminary for theological students, which, on 17 January, 1894, was recognized by royal cabinet order as a juridical person with an endowment of 110,000 Marks ($27,500). A house of studies for gymnasial students called the Paulinum was founded 20 April, 1898, and a residence for the bishop was bought. Besides other periodical publications there is an official church paper. These statements, which refer mainly to Germany, may also be applied in part to the few communities founded in Austria, which, however, have never reached any importance. In Switzerland the clergy, notwithstanding the very pernicious agitation, acquitted themselves well, so that only three priests apostatized. The Protestant cantons -- above all, Berne, Basle, and Geneva -- did everything possible to promote the movement. An Old Catholic theological faculty, in which two radical Protestants lectured, was founded at the University of Berne. At the same time all the Swiss Old Catholic communities organized themselves into a "Christian Catholic National Church" in 1875; in the next hear Dr. Herzog was elected bishop and consecrated by Dr. Reinkens. Berne was chosen as his place of residence. As in Germany so in Switzerland confession was done away with, celibacy abolished, and the use of the vernacular prescribed for the service of the altar. Attempts to extend Old Catholicism to other countries failed completely. That lately an apostate English priest named Arnold Matthew, who for a time was a Unitarian, married, then united with another suspended London priest named O'Halloran, and was consecrated by the Jansenist Archbishop of Utrecht, is not a matter of any importance. Matthew calls himself an Old Catholic bishop, but has practically no following. Some of the few persons who attend his church in London do so ignorantly in the belief that the church is genuinely Catholic.

The very radical liturgical, disciplinary, and constitutional ordinances adopted in the first fifteen years gradually convinced even the most friendly government officials that the fiction of the Catholicism of the Old Catholics was no longer tenable. The damage, however, had been done, the legal recognition remained unchanged, and the grant from the budget could not easily be dropped. In Germany, although there was no essential change in this particular, yet the political necessity which led to a modus vivendi in the Kulturkampf chilled the interest of statesmen in Old Catholics, particularly as the latter had not been able to fulfil their promise of nationalizing the Church in Germany. The utter failure of this attempt was due to the solidarity of the violently persecuted Catholics. In many cases entire families returned to the Church after the first excitement had passed, and the winning power of the Old Catholic movement declined throughout Germany in the same degree as that in which the Kulturkampf powerfully stimulated genuine Catholic feeling. The number of Old Catholics sank rapidly and steadily; to conceal this the leaders of the movement made use of a singular device. Up to then Old Catholics had called themselves such, both for the police registry and for the census. They were now directed by their leaders to cease this and to call themselves simply Catholics. The rapid decline of the sect has thus been successfully concealed, so that it is not possible at the present day to give fairly exact statistics. The designation of themselves as Catholics by the Old Catholics is all the stranger as in essential doctrines and worship they hardly differ from a liberal form of Protestantism. However, the prescribed concealment of membership in the Old Catholic body had this much good in it, that many who had long been secretly estranged from the sect were able to return to the Church without attracting attention. On account of these circumstances only Old Catholic statistics of some years back can be given. In 1878 there were in the German empire: 122 congregations, including 44 in Baden, 36 in Prussia, 34 in Bavaria, and about 52,000 members; in 1890 there were only about 30,000 Old Catholics on account of a decided decline in Bavaria. In 1877 there were in Switzerland about 73,000; in 1890 only about 25,000. In Austria at the most flourishing period there were perhaps at the most 10,000 adherents, today there are probably not more than 4000. It may be said that the total number of Old Catholics in the whole of Europe is not much above 40,000. It seems strange that a movement carried on with so much intellectual vigour and one receiving such large support from the State should from bad management have gone to pieces thus rapidly and completely, especially as it was aided to a large degree in Germany and Switzerland by a violent attack upon Catholics. The reason is mainly the predominant influence of the laity under whose control the ecclesiastics were placed by the synodal constitution. The abrogation of compulsory celibacy showed the utter instability and lack of moral foundation of the sect. D├Âllinger repeatedly but vainly uttered warnings against all these destructive measures. In general he held back from any active participation in the congresses and synods. This reserve frequently irritated the leaders of the movement, but D├Âllinger never let himself be persuaded to screen with his name things which he considered in the highest degree pernicious. He never, however, became reconciled to the Church, notwithstanding the many efforts made by the Archbishop of Munich. All things considered, Old Catholicism has practically ceased to exist. It is no longer of any public importance.

For accounts of the movements and tendencies that led up to Old Catholicism see D├ľLLINGER; GUNTHER; HERMES; INFALLIBILITY; LAMENNAIS; SYLLABUS; VATICAN COUNCIL.

Publication information Written by Paul Maria Baumgarten. Transcribed by Herman F. Holbrook. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


FRIEDBERG, Aktenstucke die altkatholische Bewegung betreffend (Tubingen, 1876); VON SCHULTE, Der Altkatholizismus, Geschichte Deutchland (Giessen, 1887); IDEM, Lebenerinnerungen. Mein Worken als Rechtsleher, mein Anteil and der Politik in Kirche und Staat (giessen, 1908); VERING, Kirchenrecht (3rd ed., 1893), gives a good summary based on the original authorities. Besides the statements in the statistical year-books there is a good account of Old Catholicism in MACCAFFREY, History of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century. 1789-1909, I (Dublin and Waterford, 1909); MARSHALL, D├Âllinger and the Old Catholics in Amer. Cath. Quart. Review (Philadelphia, 1890), 267 sqq.; cf. Also files of the London Taablet and Dublin Review (1870-71); Bruck-Kissling, lGeschicte der katholischen Kirche im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (Munster, 1908); MAJUNKE, Geschicte des Kulturkampfes in Preussen-Deutchland (Paderborn, 1882); GRANDERATH-KIRCH, Geschicte des Vatikanischen Konzils (Freiburg, 1903-06); cf. also Friedrich, Geschicte des Vatikanischen Konzils (Bonn, 1877-87); in addition, the very full polemical literature of 1868-72 concerning the council and the question of Infallibility should be examined. The most important writings are briefly mentioned in the works just mentioned. The two biographies, from opposing points of view, of Dolllinger by FRIEDRICH (Munich, 1891-1901) and MICHAEL (Innsbruck, 1892) contain much valuable material.

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