by The Most Reverend Richard G. Roy, OSJD
Broadly speaking, Independent Catholics are those Christians who accept the early Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, the sufficiency of Sacred Scripture, a sacramental theology and liturgical life, and who recognize the historic episcopate with its three distinct orders of bishop, priest and deacon, but who are not under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff - the Pope. This would include major church bodies such as the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church.
More often, it refers to those churches that are able to trace the lineage of their Holy Orders (Apostolic Succession) back to the independent See of Utrecht (Holland), commonly called the Old Catholic Church. While there are many other independent lines, including some branches of Orthodoxy, the majority of independent jurisdictions can trace their beginnings to the Old Catholic Church; we will, therefore, confine our discussion to jurisdictions of that tradition.
While formally established in the 19th century, Old Catholicism has its roots in 17th century European history. Our story begins with the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), leader of a mystical movement within the Roman Catholic Church, whose followers (Janesenists) had established a stronghold in Port Royal, France following his death. The Jansenists were forced to flee to Protestant-dominated Holland to escape the persecution of Rome, which condemned their teachings, and the Jesuits, with whom they were bitter enemies.
When the Pope demanded that the Archbishop of Utrecht, John van Neercassel, openly condemn the Jansenists, he refused, feeling that they were religious refugees in need of sanctuary, despite his disagreement with their opinions. Following the archbishop’s death in 1686, and even more controversial episcopate under Peter Codde, the Pope declined to name a new archbishop for Utrecht in retaliation for their open defiance.
The See of Utrecht was now without episcopal oversight, having no bishop to confirm the faithful or ordain priests. Priests were sometimes ordained secretly by an Irish bishop to serve the local churches of Utrecht while Rome was constantly petitioned to relent and end this situation, to no avail. This state of affairs persisted until Amsterdam was visited by Dominique Marie Varlet, the newly consecrated Bishop of Babylon, in 1719.
Persuaded by local clergy to confirm more than 600 children, Varlet was suspended from office for this action and took up residence in Amsterdam. Wishing to provide the See with its own bishop, Bishop Varlet consecrated Cornelius van Steenhoven the new Archbishop of Utrecht on October 15, 1724. Rome, of course, condemned the consecration as illicit, but never challenged its validity. (The Augustinian theological tradition of the church holds that a single bishop, consecrating another bishop, when both hold the right intention regarding the sacrament, transmits valid orders; and there have, in fact, been several consecrations of Roman Catholic bishops where just such actions have occurred.) This independent line of validly consecrated bishops persists to this day.
The next important historical event was the First Vatican Council of 1870. It was this council which declared that the Pope could not err on matters of faith and morals when speaking "ex cathedra", in his role as Supreme Pontiff. This teaching was rejected by many European intellectuals as not having any basis in Sacred Scripture and causing the church to break with apostolic tradition. They felt that to remain true to the deposit of faith that a break had to be made with the Church of Rome. Turning to the independent See of Utrecht, their first bishop, Joseph Hubert Reinkens, a professor of church history, was consecrated at Deventer, Holland in 1873 and an International Synod of Bishops was established. That synod is now presided over by the Archbishop of Utrecht.
The Old Catholic Church enjoyed considerable growth in Germany and Austria. Then, in 1896 Pope Leo XIII, in his Bull Apostolicae Curae declared all Anglican orders to be invalid, thus creating an especially acute problem for Oxford Movement clergy who stressed the importance of ordination within apostolic lines for the bishops and clergy. This opened the way for the introduction of Old Catholicism into England in the person of Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919), causing considerable controversy between "high" and "low" church factions.
Old Catholicism was brought to America by Archbishop Joseph Rene Villate (1854-1929), a native of France. While still in England, it had subdivided, and that trend continued here in the United States, with various bishops sharing in the apostolic succession forming their own jurisdictions (the most notable being the Polish National Catholic Church).
There are, today, dozens of churches who have their origin in the Old Catholic Church and many others who have similarly obtained orders as autocephalous Orthodox bodies. They all have in common the shared tradition of apostolic succession, whereby they can trace their orders of bishops, priests and deacons back to the Roman Catholic Church or another church whose lines are indisputable, ultimately connected to the first Apostles and Our Lord Jesus Christ.
These independent churches vary widely in their interpretation of doctrine and their positions with regard to issues of morality and church discipline. Some have a more inclusive and ecumenical nature, building on the reforms and vision of the Second Vatican Council, and allowing a married and female clergy. Others are quite conservative, viewing even Roman Catholic orders as invalid and claiming that no authentic Pope has occupied the Chair of Peter since Pius XII.
The National Catholic Church and the Independent/Old Catholic Movement
The National Catholic Church of America participates in this Independent/Old Catholic tradition by virtue of the fact that its Primate has received episcopal consecration through Old Catholic, Orthodox and Roman Catholic lines. The latter derive from the late Carlos Duarte Costa, former Roman Catholic Bishop of Botucatu, Brazil, who formed an independent church in the late 1940’s. Of historical note, Bishop Salomeo Ferraz, consecrated by Costa following his separation from Rome, was eventually received back into the Roman Catholic Church in 1960, as a married bishop, without any "reconsecration", and was an active participant in the Second Vatican Council.
This primer is offered as a brief introduction to the history and development of Old Catholicism and the Independent Catholic Movement. It is by no means a comprehensive treatment of it, and the reader is encouraged to consult the works cited here (and their bibliographies) for an extensive and scholarly treatment of the subject.
J. Gordon Melton, (ed) The Encyclopedia of American Religions, third edition, 1989. Gale
Research, Inc. Detroit, Michigan.
Karl Pruter & J. Gordon Melton. The Old Catholic Source Book, 1983. Garland Publishing, Inc.
New York, NY.
J.M. Neale. A History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland, 1858, John Henry and James Parker, Oxford and London. Republished 1970 by AMS PRESS INC. New York, NY.
Karl Pruter. Bishops Extraordinary, 1985. St. Willibrord Press, Highlandvile, MO.