Neither Old nor Catholic

September 1998By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

The Old Catholic Phenomenon.  By Alan M. Cole. Avon Books (1 Dovedale Studios, 465 Battersea Park Rd., London SW11 4LR, England). 231 pages. £26..



“Old Catholicism” is a phenomenon to which the English-speaking religious world is largely oblivious. So far as the name evokes a glimmer of recognition in North America, we are likely to think of those tiny “churches” with more clergy than laity and more bishops than priests, often functioning as factories for the production of “holy orders.” A number of these bodies have been run by persons with unsavory reputations, and glancing through editions of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches from the past twenty years, we see various “Old Catholic” entities appear and vanish from its pages like mayflies.

Then there is the Liberal Catholic Church, which boasts of its lack of credal demands upon its members and which combines Catholic-style ritual practice with a theosophical doctrine traceable to the rags and tags of Hindu thought mediated to the West by the medium Madame Blavatsky, the protofeminist eugenicist birth-controller Annie Besant, and Charles Webster Leadbeater, a Church of England clergyman who was defrocked for pederasty and died in 1934.

Readers wishing to acquaint themselves further with this ecclesiastical demimonde are advised to consult that now rare curiosity of a book, Peter Anson’s Bishops-at-Large, an instructive and entertaining atlas of this obscure world that includes photographs of “His Whiteness, Tugdual I, Patriarch of Brittany” and of the coronation of a “Byzantine Emperor” in the 1960s.

There is, however, a genuine Old Catholicism, to which these numerous bodies stand as might the illegitimate offspring of a profligate monarch to the legitimate royal line: They share the blood, but not legal membership in the family, and their existence is a continual source of embarrassment to the royal house (although, as we shall see, the “royal house” itself has in recent years adopted more relaxed standards of decorum). Genuine Old Catholicism originated in the 18th century in a schism within the technically illegal but unofficially tolerated Catholic Church in the officially Calvinist Netherlands. A dispute between Rome and the dominant faction of the Dutch Catholic clergy, which had been going on since 1702 and which involved repeated papal condemnations of Jansenism, climaxed in 1724 with the consecration (by a French Catholic missionary bishop who had been suspended from his office and summoned to Rome to answer charges of Jansenism) of an archbishop for the See of Utrecht, in defiance of Rome.

By the middle of the 18th century there had emerged a schismatic church consisting of the Archbishop of Utrecht and two suffragan bishops (Haarlem and Deventer), which professed to hold the Roman Catholic faith in its fullness, but which chose and consecrated its own bishops in spite of reiterated papal prohibitions and in defiance of subsequent papal excommunications of all participants in these consecrations. And so matters stood until 1853, when Rome set up a new Catholic diocesan structure for the Netherlands, ignoring the existence of these “Old Catholic” bishops (as they called themselves), whose adherents had dwindled to a tiny remnant compared to those attached to the “papal church.” In 1854 Pope Pius IX’s definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was repudiated by the three Old Catholic bishops. In 1870 the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility was also repudiated by the Old Catholic bishops, as well as by “liberal Catholic” clergy and laity, notably seminary professors and upper-middle-class nationalistic Catholics in Germany and Switzerland, where the civil authorities did all they could to foster the schism in order to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church in their countries.

In the mid-1870s the Dutch Old Catholics provided consecration for the bishops of these new churches, some of which from the beginning displayed an interest in the Church of England and Anglicanism in general that was reciprocated vigorously by English high churchmen who wished to find support for their generally ill-received notions concerning the “essentially Catholic” nature of Anglicanism. In 1889 representatives of these Old Catholic churches met at Utrecht and organized themselves into the Union of Utrecht, membership in which remains to this day the criterion of Old Catholic legitimacy.

Other Old Catholic churches were organized in Austria (which became popularly known as the “divorce church” for its willingness to “bless” the marriage of just about anybody) and in the United States. In America this took the form of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), which arose in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a result of a prolonged and unpleasant ethnic dispute between Polish Catholic laity and the predominantly Irish clergy of the Scranton diocese in the 1890s. The PNCC, apart from an occasional inclination toward universalism (this is disputed), maintained a general orthodoxy of belief. In 1931 the Bonn Agreement marked the mutual recognition as “Catholic churches” of the Church of England and the churches of the Utrecht Union, and within the next two decades intercommunion had been established between Anglicans and Old Catholics (in the U.S. the Episcopal Church and the PNCC ratified this agreement for themselves in 1946).

This is essentially the background to the book under review. While Cole does discuss much of this in cursory fashion, and not without traces of the old antipapal animus common in Old Catholic and certain Anglo-Catholic circles, the book’s primary focus is on Anglican/Old Catholic relations and on developments within the Union of Utrecht over the past quarter-century, although, in addition to this, the book does expose the eager collaboration with the Nazi regime practiced by the leading figures of the German Old Catholic Church, over which C.B. Moss, hitherto the premier English historian of these bodies, had drawn a discreet veil when he came to publish The Old Catholic Movement in 1948. And here a hint, if not of intellectual schizophrenia, then certainly of double-mindedness, enters Cole’s account. On the one hand, the Bonn Agreement is portrayed as a triumph of “Catholic ecumenism”; on the other hand, it is shown to have contributed to wrecking ecumenical progress between the Old Catholic and the Orthodox churches and to the transformation of the German, Austrian, Dutch, and Swiss Old Catholic bodies into pallid Continental versions of the liberal “affirming Catholic” movement in Anglicanism, complete with priestesses and an “anything goes” attitude toward morality and doctrine. In other words, the Bonn Agreement undermined both the antiquity and the “Catholicism” meant to be secured by the Utrecht Union.

But the blame for these developments should not be primarily assigned to Anglican influence upon the Union of Utrecht churches. These churches have always drawn a high proportion of their clergy from the Roman Catholic Church — indeed, from the Roman Catholic priesthood. In 1989 I was told that of the 125 or so active clergy in the German Old Catholic Church 80 percent were former Roman Catholics. Up to the late 1960s, such priests generally switched churches as a prelude to or result of getting married, and the change did not necessarily betoken a reorientation of their basic Catholic beliefs. But since the late 1960s a new species of clerical converts has made its way into these Old Catholic bodies, and after thirty years they have begun to take control of their unwitting hosts. These we might describe as ex-Catholics who have been prey to unfounded notions about a “continuing revolution” initiated by the Second Vatican Council — a marriage of the Holy Ghost and the Zeitgeist that somehow never made it into the Council documents — and have seen Rome as increasingly betraying “the spirit” of Vatican II, and who have sought greener pastures.

And their new pastures have been good grazing for the revolutionaries. Initially, while the “old guard” still dominated the Old Catholic episcopate, the advent of priestesses in the Anglican Communion was met with resistance. In 1976 the International Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference (IOCBC) declared that no individual “Catholic church” possessed the authority to permit the ordination of women to the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate, although it left open the possibility that an “ecumenical council” of the whole “Catholic church” (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Old Catholics) might do so. When the Episcopal Church officially authorized the ordination of women in 1976, the Prime Bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church immediately terminated the 1946 intercommunion agreement between the two bodies, a decision endorsed by the PNCC General Synod two years later. The IOCBC, however, decided to maintain intercommunion on a limited basis with those Anglican churches that ordained women to the priesthood.

By then, however, the solidity of the Union of Utrecht was already beginning to crack as the push for women deacons got underway despite the clear 1976 IOCBC statement. The Swiss began such ordinations in 1987, the Germans in 1988, and the Austrians in 1991 (the Dutch held back until 1997). At the same time, authority in the European Old Catholic churches was passing into the hands of the “revolutionary” former Roman Catholic priests, as individuals from among them were chosen as bishops in Germany and Austria (1994) and then the Netherlands (1995). In May 1996 a new German bishop “priested” two women (both of them former Roman Catholics, of course), and in July 1997 the IOCBC threw in the towel and, over the strong objections of the PNCC, voted to allow individual member churches of the Union of Utrecht to do as they wished regarding the ordination of women. And in September 1997 the Austrian Old Catholic Church, perhaps desiring to augment its tired “divorce church” nickname with something else, endorsed the blessing of homosexual “marriages” as well as the ordination of women.

Cole’s book does not carry the story so far, as it ends around 1992 (even though the book was published in late 1997). Even by that time he was willing to prophesy a split in the Union of Utrecht as the PNCC upheld the orthodox view on these controversial issues, while the European churches practiced the philosophy of “go with the flow.” He surmised that the PNCC would seek accommodation and eventual reunion with either Rome or Orthodoxy. Certainly, as the European member churches of the Union of Utrecht have moved further from Catholic orthodoxy — as they have become more Anglican, in other words — the PNCC and the Roman Catholic Church have managed to allay past hostilities and achieve a remarkable degree of theological agreement, so much so that the PNCC is the only church other than certain ancient Eastern ones whose members are in certain circumstances allowed to avail themselves of the sacramental ministrations of Catholic clergy without first having to establish the orthodoxy of their belief. It may be that a genuine healing of this century-old schism is in prospect.

Fascinating though the story that it recounts is, The Old Catholic Phenomenon is not a book to buy lightly, especially as an introduction to Old Catholicism. Costing the equivalent of about $43, to which $5 should probably be added for postage, it is not cheap; and what is worse, it is riddled with elementary historical errors that give rise to the suspicion that it cannot have been adequately proofread. On a single page (p. 22) we have 1865 given as the date of the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility (it happened in 1870) and we read that the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 was by the First Vatican Council (though that Council did not convene until 1869).

There are other errors less obvious (save to persons knowledgeable in the history of Old Catholicism), and there are strange contradictions. For example, we are told, correctly, on page 105 that the Old Catholics formally recognized the validity of Anglican Orders in 1925, but on page 60 there is the erroneous statement that by 1908 Dutch Old Catholic and English Anglican bishops “had collaborated in each others’ consecrations” for the previous twenty years. Since the author is an Australian Anglican clergyman who forged close links with Old Catholics during his years in Europe, these blemishes in his work are inexplicable as well as objectionable; moreover, the book appears to suppose a pre-existing acquaintance with its subject. Those desiring to acquire a basic knowledge of the origins and history of Old Catholicism would be better advised to read The Old Catholic Movement by C.B. Moss (and to ignore Moss’s repeatedly expressed animus against the papacy). As for The Old Catholic Phenomenon, the impulse to judge it harshly for its errors and contradictions is mitigated by the realization that it is a labor of love by a traditional Anglo-Catholic who is fully aware of the sickness unto death of post-Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism and of the same infection at work in European Old Catholicism.

The lesson of the story can be summed up by the Latin adage, Veritas Temporis Filia, Truth is the Daughter of Time. Time has revealed the truth that all attempts to construct, concoct, or (allegedly) restore a nonpapal, patristic, or primitive “Catholicism” are vain. We see them collapsing into modernism and bowing down in adoration before the Spirit of the Age. This applies both to Anglicanism — most notably in the shape of its so-called “affirming Catholicism” movement, of which Frank Griswold, the Episcopal Church’s new Presiding Bishop, is a proponent — and Old Catholicism, but not to Orthodoxy, whose relations with Catholicism need to be regarded on a wholly different basis. The “end of an auld song” (as a Scottish nobleman called the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707) is always a melancholy occasion, even to auditors who have doubts about the veracity of the lyrics, and certainly much more so to those who have had their souls shaped by the music.



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