History of Independent Catholicism

A Brief History of Independent “Old” Catholicism

[NOTE: What is referred to as Old Catholicism, is also known by several names, such as Independent Catholicism, The Independent Sacramental Movement, Autocephalous Sacramental Movement, Reformed Catholicism and other names as well, some specific to certain churches or dioceses.]

The history of Indpendent Catholicism can be traced to the Apostles themselves who spread out to the far winds. The Roman Catholic Church claims its succession from Peter, but there is little said about the succession of the other Apostles. In the 0090s C.E., Clement of Rome, in a letter to the feuding community of Corinth, reminded his fellow Christians that the apostles had appointed and anointed the bishops as their valid successors. The office of bishop is more ancient than priest, deacon, and lesser orders, which were not established until the second century.

In the fourth century after the Roman Emperor Constantine declared the Christian Church as the State Church, it began declaring other rites as heretical and the Petrine line became the only Apostolic lineage recognized by what was to become the Roman Church. This did not make other lines less valid. It simply showed that the church in power with the backing of the state made the rules. During this time there were the ancient patriarchal sees of Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Canterbury and Constantinople, which had neither organizational connection nor intercommunication with these traditional centers of episcopal Christianity. The present Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who is the “first among equals” of Orthodox patriarchs, claims that he is the 270th successor to the Apostle Andrew. Those early bishops who were members of sects that were declared heretical often just went off on their own and were referred to as “Wandering Bishops”. They continued to have followers and dissenting clergy and congregants rallied around them. They continued to ordain priests and consecrate bishops.

An example of one of the earliest churches not in communion with Rome was the Thomas Christians in India. History shows that St. Thomas after his arrival in the Malabar region in India in 52 C.E. ordained bishops and priests from the Pakalomattom family. At the end of the second century Pantaenus from Alexandria found Christians in India. The Syro-Malabar Rite is now incorporated into the Roman Church, but there are still many Thomas Christians who are not affiliated with Rome in India. The Syrian language was the language of the liturgy in the Church. It, therefore, maintained relations with the See of Antioch. The early prelates came from Persia and Babylon. In this Church there were influences of the Chaldeans and Nestorians, later declared heretics by Rome. The Thomas Christians never ceased to regard themselves as belonging to the Universal Church founded by Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century that there was a contact with Rome. We find in the Acts of the Apostles that the other apostles went in various directions.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity consisted of three major divisions: the Roman Catholic Church in the western half of the former Roman empire, Eastern Orthodoxy was in the eastern half of the old empire, in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the old capital of the empire. Separate churches were in the territories now dominated by Islam, and further in Armenia, Ethiopia and India. There were also “wandering bishops” separate from any affiliation who moved through the countryside performing functions reserved for bishops, such as confirming young people and ordaining priests and deacons.

The Reformation, which began in Germany in the 1520s initiated a rise of religious pluralism, which reached monumental proportions in the modern world. Since the Lutheran and Reformed churches did not base their claims on a leadership of bishops with apostolic succession, the major challenge to the tradition of episcopal authority through apostolic succession came from the Church of England. The archbishops of Canterbury and York, although they separated from Rome, they were the source of future episcopal lineages which developed as the church spread.

French Bishop Varlet, who while traveling through Holland, began to minister to an isolated group within the Catholic minority remaining in that Calvinist land. He was finally persuaded to bestow the episcopate on the leader of this group of Dutch Catholics, and in 1724, the nucleus of the Dutch Old Catholic Church was born.

In the eighteenth century, a dispute began between bishops of Holland (Netherlands) and Rome, which led Rome to cut off Holland from ecclesiastical support. All hopes of reconciliation ended at the Vatican Council of 1870. Acting in cooperation with others across Europe who dissented from the statements of Vatican I, particularly papal infallibility, they formally established the Old Catholic Church.

Due to an early tradition, articulated but not invented by St. Augustine, the orthodoxy and validity of apostolic succession were not considered identical. Bishops could be heretics, yet could exercise their office as stewards of the sacraments in a valid manner. The doctrine (known as the Augustinian doctrine of orders) has been held to this day by the Roman Catholic Church The bishops could therefore pass on their sacred powers and administer the sacraments in a manner that the popes would recognize as valid. Such is the character and status of the bishops of The Free Catholic Church and some other independent Catholic churches today.

A majority of independent Catholic bishops can trace their lineage to one bishop, Arnold Harris Mathew, the British clergyman consecrated by the Old Catholic bishops in Holland in 1906 to establish an Old Catholic Church in England. Violating his agreement not to consecrate other bishops without the participation of the Dutch bishops, Mathew passed the lineage on to fifteen men who in turn consecrated even more in the process of creating such new institutions as the Liberal Catholic Church, the North American Old Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church in America. It was the reluctance of the Dutch bishops to repeat their mistake with Mathew that led Joseph Rene’ Vilatte, who had been ordained by the Old Catholics in Holland, to seek orders elsewhere. He thus initiated the second main source of apostolic succession for many independent bishops, the ancient Eastern churches. Vilatte turned to Antonio Alvarez, a bishop of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, a church under the authority of the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East. Both of these lines are unquestionably considered valid episcopal orders, if irregular or illicit, by the Roman Catholic Church.

Orthodox churches in America began to get orders from Russians who affiliated for a time with the Episcopal Church in the United States. In the 1940s Carlos Duarte Costa, a Brazilian bishop who protested the church during World War II later established the Igreja Catolica Apostolica Brasileira (Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church). In the 1970s, two prominent archbishops, Marcel Lefebvre and Pierre Martin Ngo-Dinh-Thuc, broke with Rome over issues related to Vatican II and its liberalizing pronouncements. One of the bishops consecrated by Ngo-Dinh-Thuc, Clement Dominguez Gomez, Spanish leader of the Holy Palmarian Church, has reportedly consecrated over 100 bishops.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Old Catholic Church is a Christian denomination originating with mainly German-speaking groups that split from the Holy See in the 1870s because they disagreed with the solemn declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870). The church is not in formal communion with the Holy See, though the Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches is in full communion with the Anglican Communion.

The term “Old Catholic” was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who, as with the earliest Catholic communities, did not recognise any claimed ‘infallible’ papal authority. As the groups that split from the Holy See in the 1870s had no bishop, they joined Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht. The Old Catholic Churches which form the Union of Utrecht are not in communion with any of the various groups which style themselves Independent (Old) Catholic.


Old Catholics reject papal infallibility, instead proposing that only the Church in Ecumenical Council may speak infallibly. For Old Catholics, the fullness of authoritative power in the Church is vested in the episcopacy, and a Council of the Bishops as a whole alone may speak infallibly. Old Catholics view the Pope as primus inter pares or “First Among Equals”. Old Catholics usually refer to the Church Father St. Vincent of Lerins in his saying: “We must hold fast to that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all the Faithful.”

The Netherlands

St. Willibrord was consecrated to the episcopacy by Pope Sergius I in 696 at Rome. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he established his see at Utrecht. In addition, he established the dioceses at Deventer and Haarlem. The Diocese of Utrecht provided the only Dutch pope Adrian VI in 1552 and two prominent writers on the spiritual life, Geert Groote, who founded the Brethren of the Common Life, and Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the Imitation of Christ.

In 1125, at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht, Pope Eugene III gave Utrecht the right to elect its own bishops. This was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1520, Pope Leo X granted to the then Bishop of Utrecht (Philip of Burgundy) that no clergy or laity from Utrecht would ever be tried by a Roman tribunal. During the Reformation the Catholic Church was persecuted and the Dutch dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal were suspended by the Holy See. Protestants occupied most church buildings, and those remaining were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic of Seven Provinces, which favoured Calvinism.

However, about one third of the population in the northern Netherlands remained Catholic and the popes appointed apostolic vicars (based in Utrecht) to care for these people. Clergy secretly celebrated the sacraments in a variety of places and were cared for by German and Flemish missionaries. The person named as apostolic vicar was also called Archbishop of Utrecht in partibus infidelium (i.e., archbishop in the land of unbelievers).

In 1691, the Jesuits accused Petrus Codde, the then apostolic vicar, of favouring the Jansenist heresy. Pope Innocent XII appointed a commission of cardinals to investigate the accusations – apparently violating the exemption granted in 1520. The commission concluded that the accusations were groundless.

In 1700 a new pope, Clement XI, summoned Codde to Rome in order to participate in the Jubilee Year, whereupon a second commission was appointed to try Codde. The result of this second proceeding was again acquittal. However, in 1701 Clement XI decided to suspend Codde and appoint a successor. The Church in Utrecht refused to accept the replacement and Codde continued in office until 1703, when he resigned.

After Codde’s resignation, the Diocese of Utrecht chose Cornelius van Steenoven as bishop. He was consecrated by Dominique Marie Varlet, the bishop of Babylon (1678-1742), who was visiting the Netherlands. Van Steenoven appointed and ordained bishops to the sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen. Although the pope was duly notified of all proceedings, the Holy See still regarded these dioceses as vacant due to papal permission not being sought. The pope, therefore, continued to appoint apostolic vicars for the Netherlands. Van Steenoven and the other bishops were excommunicated and thus began the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands.

Most Dutch Catholics remained in full communion with the pope and with the apostolic vicars appointed by him. However, due to prevailing anti-papal feeling among the powerful Dutch Calvinists, the Church of Utrecht was tolerated and even praised by the government of the Dutch Republic.

In 1853 Pope Pius IX received guarantees of religious freedom from the Dutch King Willem II and established a Catholic hierarchy, loyal to the pope, in the Netherlands. This existed alongside that of the Old Catholic See of Utrecht. Thereafter in the Netherlands the Utrecht hierarchy was referred to as the ‘Old Catholic Church’ to distinguish it from those in union with the pope. In the mind of the Holy See, the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht had maintained apostolic succession and its clergy thus celebrated valid sacraments in every respect. The Diocese of Utrecht was considered schismatic but not in heresy.

Impact of the First Vatican Council

After the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), several groups of Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the solemn declaration concerning papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals and left to form their own churches. These were supported by the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht, who ordained priests and bishops for them. Later the Dutch were united more formally with many of these groups under the name “Utrecht Union of Churches”.

In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers. The most notable leader of the movement, though maintaining a certain distance from the Old Catholic Church as an institution, was the renowned church historian and priest Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890), who had been excommunicated by the pope because of his support for the affair.

The convention decided to form the “Old Catholic Church” in order to distinguish its members from what they saw as the novel teaching of papal infallibility in the Catholic Church. Although it had continued to use the Roman Rite, from the middle of the 18th century, the Dutch Old Catholic See of Utrecht had increasingly used the vernacular instead of Latin. The churches which broke from the Holy See in 1870 and subsequently entered into union with the Old Catholic See of Utrecht gradually introduced the vernacular into the Liturgy until it completely replaced Latin in 1877. In 1874 Old Catholics removed the requirement of clerical celibacy.

The Old Catholic Church in Germany received some support from the new German Empire of Otto von Bismarck, whose policy was increasingly hostile towards the Catholic Church in the 1870s and 1880s. In Austrian territories, pan-Germanic nationalist groups, like those of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, promoted the conversion to Old Catholicism or Lutheranism of those Catholics loyal to the Holy See.


The Old Catholic Church shares much doctrine and liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church, but has a more liberal stance on most issues, such as the ordination of women, the morality of homosexual acts, artificial contraception and liturgical reforms such as open communion. Its liturgy has departed significantly from the Tridentine Mass, as is shown in the English translation of the German Altarbook (missal). In 1994 the German bishops decided to ordain women as priests, and put this into practice on 27 May 1996; similar decisions and practices followed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.[1] The Utrecht Union allows those who are divorced to have a new religious marriage and upholds no teaching on birth control, leaving such decisions to the married couple.[2]

The “Catholic Diocese of the Old Catholics in Germany” (Katholisches Bistum der Alt-Katholiken in Deutschland) is

* autonomous,
* episcopally, synodally structured,
* catholic
* a church, which acknowledges the diversity and the essential teaching and institutions of the early, undivided church during the first millennium. Its origins lie in various Catholic reform movements.

United States

Soon after Old Catholicism’s events at the end of the 19th century, Old Catholic missionaries came to the United States.

On 28 April 1908, Arnold Harris Mathew, a suspended Catholic priest who had joined the Old Catholic Church, was ordained to the episcopacy by Utrecht Archbishop Gerhardus Gul, assisted by the Old Catholic bishops of Deventer and Berne, in St. Gertrude’s Old Catholic Cathedral, Utrecht. Mathew had been ordained a bishop as the Old Catholic Church believed that he had a significant following, and wished to establish a mission in the United Kingdom. Only two years later, Mathew declared his autonomy from the Union of Utrecht, with which he had experienced tension from the beginning. Thus began the Independent Old Catholic movement.

Mathew sent missionaries to the United States, including the theosophist Bishop J. I. Wedgwood (1892 – 1950) and Bishop Rudolph de Landas Berghes et de Rache (1873–1920). De Landas arrived in the United States on 7 November 1914, hoping to unite the various independent Old Catholic jurisdictions under Archbishop Mathew. He ordained a significant number of priests and consecrated others including William Francis Brothers and Carmel Henry Carfora.

In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph René Vilatte began working with Catholics of Belgian ancestry, who tended to be isolated influence due to their geographical position. Vilatte was ordained a deacon on 6 June 1885 and priest on 7 June 1885 by the Most Rev. Eduard Herzog, bishop of the Old Catholic Church of Switzerland. Vilatte’s work provided the only sacramental presence in that particular part of rural Wisconsin.

In time, Vilatte asked the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to be ordained a bishop so that he might confirm, but his petition was not granted. Vilatte sought opportunities for consecration in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. He was ordained a bishop in India on the 28 May 1892 under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. Over the years, literally hundreds of people in the United States have come to claim apostolic succession from Vilatte; none are in communion with, nor recognised by, the Old Catholic See of Utrecht.

Polish National Catholic Church

The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is not in communion with any other body, and it is the largest of the Old Catholic communities in the United States. The Polish National Catholic Church began in the late 19th century over issues concerning the ownership of church property and the domination of the U.S. hierarchy by Irish prelates. The church traces its apostolic succession directly to the Utrecht Union and thus possesses orders and sacraments which are recognised by the Holy See. In 2003 the church withdrew from the Utrecht Union due to Utrecht’s acceptance of the ordination of women and open attitude towards homosexuality, both of which the Polish Church rejects.

Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops

With the PNCC no longer a member of the Union of Utrecht, the Union’s International Bishops Conference (IBC) asked the Episcopal Church – its ecumenical partner in the United States – to initiate discussions among various groups identifying as Old Catholics. The purpose was to find out how they identify as Old Catholics, their understanding of Old Catholic ecclesiology, and whether they ordain women. The Episcopal Church, after having gathered this information, reported to the IBC the summary of the various experiences of those Old Catholic churches that responded. The report was given at the annual meeting of the IBC in August 2005. The IBC then asked the Episcopal Church to host a consultation of these American bishops.

In May 2006, from the Old Catholic bishops who initially responded, four American Old Catholic bishops gathered at the Bethsaida Spirituality Center in Queens Village, New York: the Most Rev. Peter Hickman, the Most Rev. Peter Paul Brennan, the Most Rev. Charles Leigh, and the Most Rev. Robert T. Fuentes. Along with these four bishops, also in attendance was the liaison of the Episcopal Church to the IBC, the Rt. Rev. Michie Klusmeyer, Bishop of West Virginia, the deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, Dr. Tom Ferguson and Fr. Bjorn Marcussen, an Episcopal priest who had been ordained in the Old Catholic Church of Austria and who is an Old Catholic theologian, himself having been consecrated a Bishop December 27, 1970, by Bishop Helmut Norbert Maas, assisted by Bishop Henry Marciniak and Bishop Jacob Rokitta. The IBC sent as an observer to this consulation, Fr. Gunther Esser, Director of Old Catholic Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. Key to the discussions was the ecclesiology of the Old Catholic Church, highlighted in the Preamble to the Statutes of the International Bishops Conference. After three days of discussions, the American bishops agreed to the formation of the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops, agreeing to pattern itself after the IBC. The CNAOCB has as its central goal the tangible, organic unity among American Old Catholic jurisdictions. The bishops also agreed to meet at least twice a year.

In November 2006, the two bishops who remained engaged to the development and formation of the CNAOCB, met in Los Angeles, to develop the Conference’s Unity Statement, to fashion its rules of order, and to set forth the criteria for joining the Conference itself. The Unity Statement incorporated the ecclesiological understanding of the Union of Utrecht; all new members must subscribe to it.

The original signers of the Unity Statement (Nov. 2006) are Bishop Charles Leigh (Apostolic Catholic Church of Florida) and Bishop Robert T. Fuentes (Old Catholic Diocese of Napa). The American Catholic Church of New England joined the Conference in July 2007 and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion (Peter Hickman) joined in September 2007. Heartland Old Catholic Communion joins on September 13 , 2008 (cfr website). Both the Apostolic Catholic Church (Leigh) and the Ecumenical Catholic Church (Hickman) left the Conference in 2008.

The present members of the conference (as of November 2008) are the Old Catholic Diocese of Napa, the American Catholic Church of New England, and the Heartland Old Catholic Church.

Although there have been various attempts at unity among Old Catholic jurisdictions since the turn of the 20th century, none have had the participation or the indirect support of either the Episcopal Church or the Union of Utrecht. Both the Episcopal Church and the Union of Utrecht agree to remain engaged with the Conference.


For a more detailed history on Independent Catholicism, the following are excellent references:

Anson, Peter. Bishops at Large. London: Faber and Faber, 1964. 593pp.

Barrett, David B. World Christian Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982. 1010pp.

Brandreth, Henry R. T. Episcopit Vagantes and the Anglican Church. London: Society for Promoting

Christian Knowledge, 1947, 2nd ed., 1961, 140pp. Facsimile edition, Scottsdale, AZ St. Willibrord Press, 1987. 79pp.

Hoeller, Stephan A. “Wandering Bishops: Not All Roads Lead to Rome”, Gnosis Magazine, Summer 86, p20.

Keizer, Lewis S. The Wandering Bishops: Hearalds of a New Christianity. Seaside, CA: Academy of Arts and Humanities Monograph Series No. 2, 1976. 79pp.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedia of American Religions. 3rd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989. 1102pp.

Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. Profiles in Belief. Vol. I. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977. 324pp.

Pruter, Karl. A History of the Old Catholic Church. Scottsdale, AZ: At. Willibrord’s Press, 1973. 76pp.

Pruter, Karl and J. Gordon Melton. The Old Catholic Sourcebook. New York, NY: Garland, 1983. 254pp.

Ward, Gary L. Independent Bishops: An International Directory. 1st ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Centre, 1990. pp.


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