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Old Catholics

A movement in German-speaking Europe, especially Bavaria, which rejected the dogma of Papal Infallibility declared by the Vatican Council* (1870), and organized the Old Catholic Churches, in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, not in communion with Rome. The movement was motivated by Febronianism,* and then Jansenism,* when it associated with the already established Church of Utrecht by a common adoption of the Declaration of Utrecht* (1889). The First International Old Catholic Congress convened at Cologne (1890).

J.J.I. von Döllinger, excommunicated from Rome, led the initial break with Rome, joined by other scholars, including Johann Friedrich* and Johann von Schulte. A congress of 300 convened at Munich, September 1871, and began organization of a separate church. Their aim was to perpetuate true Catholicism, claiming the Vatican decrees and other modern enactments of the Roman Church had in fact created a new church; hence the name “Old Catholics.” Meanwhile Döllinger declined further participation. In 1873 they elected Joseph Reinkens* first bishop, with see at Bonn; he was consecrated by the bishop of Deventer of the Dutch Church of Utrecht. The Swiss elected a bishop in 1876, with see at Bern. The Bismarckian Kulturkampf supported the Old Catholics in a play against Rome, by making available subsidies and some church buildings.

Adoption of the Declaration of Utrecht effected a bond with the Church of Utrecht, which had broken communion with Rome (1724) over Jansenism, and gave the Old Catholics a definite doctrinal tradition. The Declaration accepted as valid “the faith of the primitive Church” as specified by the first seven ecumenical councils, before the schism of 1054. The bishop of Rome was acknowledged as historically primus inter pares. It rejected: the Vatican decrees (1870); the dogma of Immaculate Conception* of Mary (1854); certain encyclicals including Unigenitus (1714) against Jansenism; the Syllabus of Errors* (1864); the decrees of the Council of Trent* except as they concur with the primitive church; and transubstantiation.* In church government and liturgy also they differed from Rome. Bishops were elected by synods; clergy and laity enjoyed equality in synods, councils, and courts; priests were elected by parishs; clergy may marry; liturgies were in the vernacular; auricular confession was not obligtory.

An international Old Catholic congress has met regularly since 1890, with the archbishop of Utrecht as president. Some other autonomous churches have affiliated, including the Polish National Catholic Church, founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania (1897), and the Yugoslav Old Catholic Church (1924). The Philippine Independent Church (Aglipay) established sacramental communion with Old Catholics in 1965.

From the start, Anglicans have been close to Old Catholics. The bishops of Ely and Lincoln sent communications to the Munich Congress (1871) and attended the second at Cologne (1872). Anglicans participated in an international conference of theologians, convened at Bonn by Old Catholics, to discuss reunion of churches outside Rome (1874). Old Catholics recognized Anglican ordinations (1925) and achieved full intercommunion with the Church of England (1932) and most other Anglican churches thereafter. Old Catholics number (in 1957) approximately 350,000 mainly in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and North America.

J.J.I. von Döllinger, über die Wiedervereinigung der Kirchen (1872); J.F. von Schulte, Der Altkatholizismus (1887); C.B. Moss, The Old Catholic Movement, Its Origin and History (2nd ed., 1964).