One occasionally comes across references to the Old Catholic Church, usually understood as the Union of Utrecht, which is an ecclesial body in communion with the Church of England since 1931 and a member of the World Council of Churches. Historically, Old Catholicism was an amalgam of the Dutch Jansenists who broke from Rome in the early eighteenth century and a number of groups of Swiss and German intellectuals who aligned themselves with the minority “anti-infallibilists” at Vatican I and the Kulturkampf of Chancellor Bismarck.
The title Old Catholicism came more from the Swiss and German liberals rather than from the Dutch, who called themselves something like the Roman Catholic Church of the Old Episcopal Clergy. From the early days of the twentieth century, this movement had its imitators in the forms of long strings of successions of episcopi vagantes. Few of those men had ever belonged to the schismatic Archdiocese of Utrecht or the Germanic liberal and anti-infallibilist groups. Their only connection with historical Old Catholicism is the origin of their episcopal lineages. The subject hardly merits comment.
Historical Old Catholicism was largely based on European liberalism of the nineteenth century and the anti-clerical ideology of the German Kulturkampf. The German and Swiss versions of this break from Rome were very near to the liberal Protestant position of the likes of Harnack and the later Bultmann. It was to be a religion without miracles, mystery or spirituality. The Catholic world accepted the Vatican I definition of Papal infallibility, and the minority position of Döllinger, Strossmayer, etc. was quickly discredited. The biggest mistake of the dissident Archbishop of Utrecht was to consecrate Dr. Reinkens, thus leading to the Union of Utrecht of 1889. However, it was understandable, the dry branch cut off from the tree since 1725 was desperate in its loneliness, and the originally Jansenist Dutch community by then had run out of steam and relevance.
Soloviev observed that Old Catholicism had never been a popular movement. It was a confined circle of intellectuals and bourgeois liberals. The schism was thus inoffensive for Rome and useless for the Teutonic empire of the time. They were given a few churches here and there in Europe, and were joined by a certain number of families. It was not surprising that the Roman Catholic characteristics and disciplines were dropped one by one at the end of the nineteenth century, and by 1910, the venerable Latin liturgy was gone and replaced by simplified vernacular rites. They united with the Church of England in 1931, and thereafter followed all the developments including the banalisation and secularisation of the liturgy, the ordination of women, LGBT inclusion, etc. Only the Polish National Catholic Church resisted the movement and broke away from both the Episcopal Church and the Union of Utrecht.
There have been no “continuing” movements from Old Catholicism other than the PNCC. Those who style themselves as conservative “Old Catholics” today are mostly former Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The world is filled with hundreds of episcopal “descendents” of Mathew, Vilatte and a small number of Roman Catholic prelates like Duarte Costa, Ngo-Dinh-Thuc and Milingo who added to the scandal and confusion. These are the episcopi vagantes described by men by Peter Anson, Henry Brandreth and others – and who now peddle their wares on the Internet. Some describe themselves as “independent” Catholics, and the purpose of most of those “paper churches” is simply to justify an irregular ordination, nothing more, nothing less.
To some extent, the appeal of the old Utrecht Church had been the survival of a form of ecclesiological Gallicanism, and synodal and “democratic” method of Church government rather than everything being under the Pope. Is this not an expression for characteristics of Anglicanism that are now recognised as legitimate in Anglicanorum coetibus? There is a healthy ecclesiological Gallicanism, and there is the hell that is presently suffered by the Holy Father at the hands of episcopal conferences that are determined to torpedo and mine every effort to bring the Church into line with the true Vatican II and offer real pastoral outreach and not just ideological talk and chatter! Old Catholicism the way it is now – virtually indistinguishable from German liberal Protestantism. With its coffee-table Eucharists and secularised ways, Old Catholicism is certainly not my cup of tea! When the salt loses its savour….
What is unfortunate about Old Catholicism is that it has mutated to such an extent that it no longer exists as an expression of Catholicism with a distinct identity. Its protagonists often go on in the same way as some continuing Anglicans about Vincent of Lerins’ saying Quod ubique, quod semper quod ab omnibus to deny the notion of doctrinal development. In its sclerosed immobilism, the Old Catholic idea simply mutates in time into a form of Protestantism.
Restore the Utrecht version as it was between its separation from Roman communion and its unfortunate link with the Germanic liberals? There is always a fascination with something that survives from the past in a kind of “time capsule”. There is the Petite Eglise here in France, whose people live practically as in the early nineteenth century like the Amish in America, but to a less extreme extent. Unfortunately, they have no priests. Ships that sink to the bottom of the sea become “time capsules”, and they attract divers and explorers like magnets draw iron filings. But, the Utrecht church is like a house that has been broken open, mutilated and modernised – and the old stuff is trashed or sold. It is no longer of any interest. It can’t be restored, but perhaps it can be copied? Attempts are made here and there, but I have hardly seen anything more enduring and stable than the usual episcopi vagantes quagmire and continuing Anglican alphabet soup.
What can we learn, and how relevant is all this to us? History has vindicated the Catholic Church and not the dissident minorities. It is certainly easier to say this now, under Benedict XVI than as we have been in the final years of the John Paul II pontificate or under the more repressive policies of Pius X, Pius XII, Paul VI and others.
One particular obstacle and “deal-breaker” in the Roman Catholic Church since the mid nineteenth century has not been so much the actual notion of Papal infallibility and the actual dogmatic definition of Vatican I, but the ideological atmosphere of an unofficial character that surrounded it, a kind of stuffy and asphyxiating totalitarianism. Newman was an “inopportunist” (did not deny the truth of the teaching but felt it was not opportune at this time to make of Papal infallibility an obligatory article of faith), like Félix Dupanloup, Bishop of Orléans, but accepted the definition which was a perfect compromise between the positions of the Ultramontanists and the Gallicans. The French term ultramontain was applied to those French Catholics who looked to the authority of Rome (ultra montes—beyond the Alps), as opposed to Gallicanism.
This shift in ecclesiology from the King and the local Bishops to the authority (and then the absolute authority) of the Pope was nothing new. It had built up essentially since the Gregorian Reform as the Pope fought for the independence of the Church from interference by secular authority and later for dominance over temporal monarchs. In the nineteenth century, reacting from the Revolution and the old “stuffiness”, young priests like Lamennais and Romantic writers like De Maistre, looked to Rome and the Popes for spiritual inspiration. It was from 1848, when Pius IX returned to Rome from Gaëta that the reinforcing of Papal authority took on new associations, in particular with anti-intellectualism and the fight against political liberalism. A new breed of Catholic was born in the form of men like Ward, Louis Veuillot and Cardinal Vaughan. From the mid nineteenth century, some very extreme tendencies of an Ultramontanist minority attributed a kind of “absolute infallibility” or even impeccability to the Roman Pontiff, even in his private opinions, even in matters beyond faith and morals. This extreme position, never forming a part of the Church’s teaching, became almost an analogy of fundamentalism in Protestantism.
Many of these difficulties are resolved by the teachings of Vatican II, especially in Lumen Gentium, the constitution on the Church. Ecclesiology, or the theology of the Church, is a highly complex science and the subject of a considerable amount of study. Simplism in these matters is not helpful, but enough has changed for Anglicans to be able to dialogue with the Catholic Church about issues of authority and ministry. Papal authority as it is now taught and exercised is absolutely no problem for us in the TAC.
Some Old Catholic imitators might be tempted to identify with the defunct (as a Catholic entity) Church of Utrecht and invite Anglicans to consider it as an alternative, a sort of “plan B” if they would prefer not to follow the possibilities offered by Anglicanorum coetibus. With what is presently on offer, such a move would be most unwise.
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