The United States Old Catholic Church is a small, yet vibrant Old Catholic community. Our Bishops govern the Church in the apostolic tradition with gentleness and love in imitation of he who they represent, Jesus Christ.
We are governed by an elected Presiding Bishop together with Bishops who have dedicated their lives to service. From our Old Catholic tradition, we reject the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and do not view the Pope as the head of the church, rather, the Roman Catholic leader and Bishop of Rome.
Our on-going mission is to welcome all with open arms and stay rooted in our Catholic Tradition. We celebrate seven sacraments and welcome those married or divorced, gay or straight to partake in them. We believe that the 73 books of Sacred Scripture compiled as the Bible are the inspired word of God, but reject the ultra-literal interpretation that is so prevalent in the country today.
Our worship is Christ-centric, rooted in tradition thousands of years old, and focused in adoration on the Eucharist, that is the literal body blood soul and divinity of Christ present under the appearance of bread and wine, as the center of our lives.
Old Catholic History
Old Catholicism is based on Christian community life as it was practiced in the early, unified Church, before the first of several schisms would tear Christianity apart.
We hold the following as major aspects of early Christian community life:
- The Gospels are the definitive word on faith and morals AND they should be understood both from the Historical and Theological Perspectives.
- When major questions of faith (dogma) do arise, they are decided in general councils of bishops.
- The local bishop decides on liturgy and ordination practices but the Presiding Bishop has the final say on all liturgical practices.
- Women are ordained to the priesthood and can be consecrated to the Episcopacy.
- Clergy may marry, as the apostles had.
Our distinct identity as “Old Catholics” comes from our Catholic tradition and the history of Christianity in western Europe, which colors our church life.
The first historical event that gives Old Catholics their distinctiveness is the first schism in Christian history: the split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in A.D. 1054. Until that time there was only one Christian Church and it was led by five Bishops, those being of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome. On rare occasions, they would gather together with other bishops to consider major questions of faith.
Unfortunately, the schism of 1054 ended that unity. Four of the five patriarchs would lead what is now the Eastern Orthodox Church. One patriarch, the Bishop of Rome, became head of the Roman Catholic Church. The roots of what is now the Old Catholic Church are in the Roman Church.
At first, the Roman Catholic Church followed many of the practices of the early Church. For example, the local bishop had a great deal of discretion as to liturgy and other aspects of Church life. Indeed, Rome allowed many sees (jurisdictions of Bishops) to elect their own bishop when a vacancy occurred, just as the early church had always done.
As time passed, though, and the papacy became as much a worldly political power as a spiritual one. The popes ended these practices and denied the rights of bishops. There was one bastion of the old ways, however: the See of Utrecht in the Netherlands. This came to be known as the “Old Catholic” Church. Adhering to the old ways, the Church of Utrecht persevered and flourished independently of Rome. It maintained the Apostolic Succession in its successive bishops.
In 1870, Utrecht became the nucleus for reform. In Rome that year, the Pope declared himself infallible and that his decisions did not require “consent of the Church.” Many Roman Catholic bishops argued that this was not how the Church had been governed by the Apostles and early church leaders. They also protested other changes in dogma since 1054. These bishops, therefore, turned to the Church of Utrecht (Old Catholic) to organize themselves in the way the Apostles and their early successors had done.
The Old Catholics of 1870 wished to have friendship and dialogue with all Catholic Christians. Shortly after the events of 1870, the Old Catholic Church approached the Anglican Church to seek full communion between the two churches. This was realized in 1931.
As a result, there is a very close and collaborative relationship between the Anglican/Episcopal and Old Catholic Churches here in the United States and around the world.
An outside observer of the Old Catholic Church might describe it as undogmatic, unorganized, unled, and always in search of an identity. Although we have no one person making decisions for the whole Old Catholic Church, our local bishops make any necessary decisions and provide guidance, always working within the Gospel and the Catholic tradition of the early, unified Church. Financial matters and the assignment of the clergy to parishes are decided in most parishes by both the laity and clergy.
As a result of this decentralization, there can be differences in liturgical and ordination practices from one Old Catholic bishop’s see to another. This was also true in the early church, which produced many brave martyrs, accomplished saints, and entire nations of converts.
Validity – Are we validly Catholic?
If the Roman Catholic Church is your source of truth in these matters, see what the Roman Catholic Church teaches in it’s official document “DOMINUS IESUS,” issued during the reign of Pope John Paul II, June 16, 2000, and signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope-Emertus Benedict, August 6, 2000, refer to Section IV: Article 17:
“Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the [Roman] Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches 59.
Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church, since they do not accept the [Roman] Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.”60
It should be noted that our Bishops and all of our clergy have valid Apostolic Succession and this is what determines valid ordination.
What is “Old Catholicism”?
We know from history that the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ was united for a thousand years. Today, however, the Catholic Church is comprised of five sister congregations:
- Roman Catholic
- Old Catholic
- Anglican Catholic / Episcopalian
- Eastern Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox)
- Oriental (Coptic, Syrian, Nestorian)
These sister churches, together relating to each other in love, hold that through baptism, celebrated in our churches according to the faith handed down to us from the Apostles, we are each made members of the one Mystical Body of Christ.
For the most part, the sister churches interpret God’s plan of salvation essentially the same. But like all sisters in a family, there are differences: mostly administrative and disciplinary, and some theological.
Certain differences are expected and accepted. Nevertheless, each of the five churches is united with all or most of its sisters through the closest bonds, that is, by Apostolic Succession and a valid, mutually recognized Eucharist.
The Old Catholic Church recognizes the clergy and Eucharist of all four of its sisters. It’s own is recognized by all. The Old Catholic Church, collectively and through its bishops, look to the Holy Spirit for guidance and not to any one man.
A Call to Action
We are represented in many corners of the country. You may find one of our Fellowships near you today, or you may not yet be in a position we serve. If you are not, we invite you to contact us to work together in making that a reality. Either way, we invite you to join us in celebrating a life renewed in Christ!