Old Catholic Churches: an alternative path to Catholicism
The Old Catholic Churches are a group of national churches that separated from Rome at different times. The term "Old Catholics" is a reference to original Catholicism. There are three Old Catholic churches: (1) the Utrecht Church, which arose in 1724 when the head of the church defended its ancient right to elect the archbishop of Utrecht despite opposition from Rome; (2) the Old Catholic churches in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, which refused to accept the tenets of papal infallibility and universal primacy of jurisdiction defined by Ecumenical Council I at the Vatican in 1870; and (3) several small groups of Slavic origin. National church movements among Poles in the United States (1897) and Croats (1924) led to the establishment of the Polish National Church in America and Poland and the Old Catholic Church in Croatia. Unfortunately, the Polish National Church in the United States and Canada withdrew from the Utrecht Union in 2003 because its bishops disagreed with the majority opinion of the International Bishops' Conference, which favored opening the apostolic ministry to women. The Independent Church of the Philippines established sacramental communion with Old Catholics in 1965.
The doctrinal basis of the Old Catholic churches is the Utrecht Declaration (1889). Like the Chalcedonian Orthodox, Old Catholics recognize the seven Ecumenical Councils and the doctrines accepted by the Church prior to the Great Schism of 1054. They recognize the seven sacraments and acknowledge apostolic succession. They also believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but not in transubstantiation; they forbid private Masses and permit the reception of the Eucharist under one or both species. Old Catholic churches have an episcopal and synodal structure. Bishops, like all members of the clergy, have the right to marry. All services are conducted in the local language. Since 1996, the three-fingered apostolic ministry has been open to women. From the beginning, Anglicans have been close to the Old Catholics. As early as 1874 they took part in an international conference of theologians convened by the Old Catholics in Bonn to discuss the rapprochement of the churches outside Rome. Old Catholics have recognized Anglican ordinations since 1925. In 1931 they declared themselves in full communion with the Church of England and then with all the churches of the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a permanent representative in the International Conference of Old Catholic Bishops. Dialogues between Old Catholics and Orthodox have been going on since 1931. In 1987 agreement was reached on the most important theological and ecclesiological issues. Together with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a commission was established to monitor the application of this agreement in the Churches. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Old Catholic Churches have been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Various initiatives have been taken both nationally and internationally to address major ecclesiological issues on which the two Catholic Church families hold different views.
Old Catholic churches, though relatively small, play an important role in contemporary Christianity. They represent an alternative way of developing Catholicism based on the principles of the original Church. Old Catholic churches are open to dialog with other Christian denominations, which contributes to the ecumenical movement.