How do we distinguish ourselves in the Catholic landscape?
Bishop Francis Krebs
While we have a 95% shared history with the Roman Catholic Churchi, the tradition we follow finally separated from Rome in 1889, primarily over the jurisdiction and authority of the pope, the local election of bishops, and the inclusion of laity in the governance of the Church. In Europe in that year the Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches was formed.ii
By the time this “Old Catholic movement” came to the United States at the turn of the last century from England, the connection with the Union of Utrecht had been broken. However, churches in the US continued to develop (and even flourish) operating out of the same theological tradition. This school of Catholic theological thought stresses the importance of the first millennium of Christianity. Things that were settled parameters of Christianity during that era are normative since virtually all of Christianity was united during that time. After that time churches began calling positions essential to which the whole Church had not agreed.
To capture this focus on what the whole Church was able to agree, we call ourselves Ecumenical (from a Greek word meaning “all over the world”) Catholics. In the first millennium virtually all Christians held the Scripture as sacred, the creeds as normative, and the liturgy and basic structure of the Church as fundamental. These are the elements that were considered essential. St. Vincent of Lerins said, around the year 434, that what defines Catholic is “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”iii Churches can agree on certain things, but what of the differences that they have? Need these block unity? John XXIII’s first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram of 1959 included a famous quote that speaks to living in unity when not all things are held in common.
“But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” (paragraph 72)iv
This principle has been a very important key to ecumenical relations and Christian unity.
Old Catholics? Ecumenical Catholics
The use of the term “old” does not mean that this was a “traditionalist” movement in the contemporary sense nor does it signal a reactionary position. This movement has embraced many reforms that the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has not, e.g., the inclusion of the lay voice in governance and the ordination of women.
“Catholic” means including the essentials of the Christian tradition, as Vincent of Lerins said above. We prefer not to use the term “Old Catholic” and to use the term “Ecumenical Catholic” instead. At the same time, we are grateful for the rich resource that European Old Catholic theology is for us. We admire the Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht.
What we share with all Catholicsv
- The Sacred Scriptures
- The ancient creeds of churchvi
- The sacraments and liturgical worship
- The threefold apostolic ministry: bishop, presbyter (usually called priest) and deacon
What distinguishes us on the Catholic landscape, among other things, is the inclusion of the following elements:
- Synodalityvii (the inclusion of laity and clergy in the governance and mission of the Church)
- We welcome and include the following:
- Divorced and remarried persons
- Married clergy
- Women Priests
- LGBTQ persons
It is worth noting that describing one’s boundaries does not always point directly to the heart of our ethos. There are many ways to say this, but we can say that at our center we are followers of Jesus Christ, gratefully living in the love of God, and giving our lives to the full thriving of every human being and indeed all of creation. For more, see the Preamble of our Constitution.
i See Utrecht and Uppsala, p. 16
ii Recommended Reading for the History of the Old Catholic Movement and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht:
- John M. Neale, A History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland, Oxford, London, 1858, a history of the Church of Utrecht prior to the establishing of the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht
- Charles Parker, Faith on the Margins, Catholics and Catholicism during the Dutch Golden Age, Harvard University Press, 2008, relates to the history of the Church of Utrecht just prior to and during Reformation/Hidden Church period.
- C.B. Moss, The Old Catholic Movement, Its Origins and History, Apocraphile Press, Berkley, CA, first published 1948, second edition, 1964, additional material 1977, a classic history of the Old Catholic Church.
- Thomas Albert Howard, The Pope and the Professor, Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017, a contemporary reflection on the “architect” of the Old Catholic Movement, Ignaz von Dollinger, in the context of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, the mid to late 1800’s.
- Canon drs. Wietse van der Velde, Who Are the Old Catholics? Their history, organization and ecumenical relations (Old Catholics 2013-1.pdf), a brief history of each of the churches of the U of U. [give link to attached PDF]
- See more Old Catholic history and theology resources at https://www.lrcatholic.org/resources.
vi This item and the Sacred Scriptures together make up the “apostolic tradition” in Old Catholic theology; the specific creeds are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Please note: the ECC constitution says, “We realize that this profession does not preclude further development in our theological understanding and expression”; Old Catholics, to whom we trace our roots, in their 2013 document, Utrecht and Uppsala, state, “Instead of speaking of scripture and tradition … as two separated entities or sources of revelation, Old Catholic theology tends to see them as two expressions of the one apostolic tradition, which is interpreted in and by the church. It is confident of being enlightened by the Holy Spirit when using hermeneutically reflected methods.” Hermeneutics refers to the scholarly methodological principles of interpretation.
vii See especially Utrecht and Uppsala, pp. 6 and 16; Roman Catholicism has perhaps not emphasized what Old Catholics call “synodality” as essential to Catholicism, but Old Catholics have. Speaking of the Old Catholic founders’ insistence on synodality, they state: “For the German-speaking Old Catholics in the 19th century the influence of the Catholic Enlightenment and of parliamentary democracy was predominant. The appeal to the ancient church did not imply a repetition of the past but rather a reorientation to the origins of the church.” (Utrecht and Uppsala, p. 14) [Emphasis added; as to a reorientation to the origins, see Acts 15 where the apostles, the presbyters, and the whole people all played a role at this “first council” of the Church.] The Roman Catholic Church expressed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) a vision of the Church where there was much more lay participation than had been the case in that church since the earliest times. One should judge for oneself the implementation of this vision of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II; the Old Catholic churches have been expressing this synodality in practical ways for 120 years.