About the Old Catholics

Christians in the Catholic tradition, Christians of today

The name “Old Catholic” can be confusing. Most people hear “Catholic” and think of Rome, the Pope, the Vatican – “Roman Catholic”, in other words. “Old Catholic” sounds to some like “conservative” or “old-fashioned”. However, Old Catholic views are quite different.

We would like to present a brief overview of what the Old Catholics really are all about.

It began early on

The beginnings of the conflicts over the proper relationship between belief and ecclesial structure, between spirituality and power, go back to the earliest days of the Church. In the first millennium of the undivided church, the various local churches and bishops were autonomous. However, unfortunately the controversy over church leadership in law and belief repeatedly flared up – the schism from the Orthodox in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation starting in 1517 are just two of the major examples, alongside numerous smaller, “intra-catholic” confrontations.

The Catholic Church in Utrecht (Netherlands) and its bishops were essentially independent of Rome until 1702: The Utrecht bishops were freely elected by the local chapter, which was made up of local clergy. Because of the confusion and chaos of the Reformation in the Low Countries, the church province of Utrecht was to be placed directly under the control of Rome and its existing independence dissolved. In spite of the inhibition of Utrecht's Archbishop Peter Codde in 1702 and the papal threat to "demote" the Utrecht province to a missionary territory – thus nullifying the Utrecht chapter's rights – the Utrecht chapter decided to assert its ancient rights in the Church Catholic, and in 1723 elected Cornelius Steenhoven as Archbishop. Steenhoven was then ordained as bishop by the French missionary bishop Dominique Varlet.

Independent catholic church

The Old Catholic Church in Germany remains firmly in the tradition of the independent catholic churches. Its first bishop, Josef-Hubert Reinkens, was ordained on 11 August 1873 as bishop by Hermann Heykamp, Bishop of Deventer from the Dutch Old Catholic Church. In that same year, he was recognized as bishop by the governments of Prussia, Baden and Hesse, with the same rank and privileges of any other Catholic bishop.

The leitmotif of the Old Catholic Church is today just as it was in the beginning: holding fast to the beliefs and practices of the early undivided Church, in whose midst and whose head is Jesus Christ.

The name “Old” Catholic thus came from the belief that Old Catholics were remaining with the “old” original teachings of the undivided catholic and apostolic church – as a way of denying the “new dogmas”, which were believed to be a break with the continuity of tradition and could not be regarded as truly catholic in any sense.

When in 1870 Rome assembled the First Vatican Council and there promulgated the as dogma the doctrine of papal supremacy (universal jurisdiction), and the doctrine of papal infallibility in questions of morality and tradition, many Catholics rejected these teachings as being neither supported by Scripture nor founded in tradition. They continued to hold on to the "old" catholic and apostolic faith. Catholics – both lay and clergy – who could not in good conscience accept these new dogmas were excommunicated (that is, barred from the sacraments of the church) and were thus compelled to form an independent catholic church under the leadership of their first bishop, Josef Reinkens.

The Catholic Diocese of Old Catholics in Germany is an independent church recognized by statute, and is a member of the Union of Utrecht.

Episcopal-synodical church

The Old Catholic tradition has developed further since then. Not only is the bishop elected as in the early days, by representatives of all the parishes; today parishes along with the whole diocese are structured synodically. At the parish level, the parish assembly is the highest decision-making body – it elects the parish priest and diocesan representatives. At the diocesan level, the Synod – which is made up roughly of 2/3 lay representatives from the parishes – has the right to elect the bishop.

While it is common to refer to this process as “democratic”, it is only correct up to a point. It is true in the sense that all members of the church are involved in the decision-making process, e.g. bishops and rectors are elected and not appointed, women can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, and positions of authority in the church may be carried out by laypeople. The "people of the church" is thus also present in all branches of the church, and no one is excluded. It is in the end not fully appropriate, because the term “democratic” implies a political vocabulary of a multiparty system, where each party attempts to win a majority of seats to press its own interests. As Old Catholics, we stand firmly rooted in the catholic tradition of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, whose faith and beliefs are non-negotiable. The universal councils of the early Church are as ever the foundation of our faith and understanding of the church. Therefore the Synod is not the place where articles of faith or morals are debated. This authority belongs solely to a universal council.

“Synodical” describes more closely the challenge and the struggle for the common way as part of the Church Catholic; thus it also touches on the question of how we put this catholic-apostolic faith into action and how we live it in our lives.

“Episcopal” signifies that we believe that the Church cannot be outside the apostolic succession of the historic episcopate.

Therefore the term “episcopal-synodical” fits our model better than “democratic”, for it better describes the shared path of the faithful as a church.

Ecumenical church

We are open for communion with all Christians, including at Our Lord’s Table.

We have been in full communion with Anglicans since 1931 under the terms of the Bonn Agreement. We take part in Anglican bodies such as the Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council, and maintain relations with Anglican churches around the world.

With the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), in 1985 we signed a joint agreement inviting one another's members to partake in Communion. Our position on intercommunion is as follows: All baptized, who wish to partake in Communion and believe with us in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the gifts of bread and wine, are welcome to receive Communion in both kinds. It is not the priest or the church who invites us to the Table, but rather Christ Himself, who gathers us together and gives Himself to us. He calls us to the Eucharist, to communion with one another and with Him.

We are also a founding member of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen (ACK) in Germany, a council of churches of various denominations.