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 Church of Utrecht also provided a worthy occupant for the See of Rome in 1552 in the person of Pope Hadrian VI, while two of the most able exponents of the spiritual life, Geert Groote, who founded the Brethren of the Common Life, and Thomas à Kempis, who is credited with writing the Imitation of Christ, were both from the Dutch Church.
In 1145, granting the petition made by the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, and Bishop Heribert of Utrecht, Pope Eugene III gave the See of Utrecht the right to elect its own bishops. This privilege was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1520, the autonomy of Utrecht was strengthened when Pope Leo X conceded to the 57th Bishop of Utrecht (Philip of Burgundy), that neither he nor any of his successors, nor any clergy or laity from Utrecht, should ever be tried by a Roman tribunal. This papal concession was of the greatest importance in the later defence of the rights of the See of Utrecht. During the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church was persecuted and the Dutch dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal were suspended by the Holy See. Protestants had 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: homes, farm houses and even sheds. German and Flemish missionaries helped the persecuted Catholics. 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 from trial 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 a complete acquittal. However, in 1701 Clement XI decided to suspend Codde and appoint a successor. The Dutch Catholics refused to accept the replacement, and Codde continued in his office until he resigned in 1703.
After Codde's resignation, Cornelius van Steenoven, was elected as his successor. Van Steenoven was consecrated by a missionary bishop Dominique Marie Varlet, who was visiting the Netherlands. Although the See of Utrecht informed the pope of Van Steenhoven's election and ordination, the latter was done without papal permission. Van Steenoven appointed and consecrated bishops to the sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen. Although the pope was duly notified, Rome still regarded these sees as being vacant, and the pope 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 Rome and with the apostolic vicars appointed by the pope. However, due to prevailing anti-papal feeling among the powerful Dutch Calvinists, the Church of Utrecht was tolerated and even congratulated 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 Roman Catholic hierarchy 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 that of Roman Catholicism. According to Roman Catholic theology, the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht has maintained apostolic succession, and its clergy thus celebrate valid sacraments.
After the First Vatican Council in 1870, considerable groups of Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the teaching on papal infallibility, 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 church historian and priest Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890), who had already been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church over the affair. Despite never formally becoming a member of the Old Catholic Church, Döllinger requested and received last rites from an Old Catholic priest.
The convention decided to form the "Old Catholic Church" in order to distinguish its members from what they saw as a novelty (the doctrine of papal infallibility) in the Roman Catholic Church. At their second convention, they elected their first bishop, who was ordained by the non-Roman Archbishop of Utrecht. In 1874 they abandoned the requirement of clerical celibacy. Although it 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 in place of Latin. The vernacular was slowly introduced into the Liturgy by the 1870 Old Catholic churches, until it completely replaced Latin in 1877. 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 Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s and 1880s. In Austrian territories, Pan-Germanic nationalist groups, like those of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, promoted the conversion of Roman Catholics to Old Catholicism (or Lutheranism). Liberal politicians and philosophers also sympathised with the Old Catholic movement.
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/innovations such as open communion. Its liturgy has departed more than that of the Roman Catholic Church from the Tridentine Mass, as shown in the English translation of its German Altarbook (missal) provided on its website In 1994 the German bishops decided to ordain women as priests, and put their decision into practice on 27 May 1996; similar decisions and practices followed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. It allows those who have been civilly divorced to have a new religious marriage and upholds no teaching on birth control, leaving decisions about it to the married couple.
The "Catholic Diocese of the Old Catholics in Germany" (Katholisches Bistum der Alt-Katholiken in Deutschland) is
Based on critical examination of the historical witnesses of early Christianity, the leaders of the Old Catholic movement developed an episcopal, synodal church structure, which incorporates the historic episcopal and priestly offices into democratic structures at all levels.
Many independent Old Catholic bishops in the United States claim to trace their apostolic succession to Arnold Harris Mathew. Mathew was consecrated bishop on 28 April, 1908, by Utrecht Archbishop Gerhardus Gul, assisted by the Old Catholic bishops of Deventer and Berne, in St. Gertrude's Old Catholic Cathedral, Utrecht. Only two years later, Mathew declared his autonomy from the Union of Utrecht, with which he had experienced tension from the beginning. Bishop Mathew sent missionaries to the United States including the theosophist Bishop J. I. Wedgwood (1892 - 1950) and Prince (Bishop) Rudolph de Landas Berghes et de Rache (1873–1920).
Bishop de Landas arrived in the United States on 7 November, 1914, hoping to unite the various independent Old Catholic jurisdictions under Archbishop Mathew. De Landas contributed greatly to the growth and of the independent Old Catholic movement, ordaining and consecrating others including William Francis Brothers and Carmel Henry Cafora.
In the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joseph Rene Vilatte began working with Roman Catholics of Belgian ancestry, who tended to be isolated from Roman Catholic 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. After ordination, Fr. Vilatte worked diligently on behalf of his congregations in Wisconsin, providing the only sacramental presence in his very rural part of the state.
In time, he asked the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to be consecrated a bishop so that he might confirm children, but his petition was not granted. Determined to meet the spiritual needs of his people, Vilatte sought opportunities 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. One of the bishop involved in the ordination of Vilatte is a Saint at present in the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church. Today, the largest of the Old Catholic communities in the United States is the Polish National Catholic Church. The PNCC 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 PNCC traces its apostolic succession directly to the Utrecht Union and thus PNCC orders and sacraments are recognised by Roman Catholicism. Since late 2003 the PNCC is no longer a member of the Utrecht Union. Among the reasons for disaffiliation are Utrecht's acceptance of the ordination of women together with a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality, both of which the PNCC rejects.
Excluding the PNCC, estimates of the number of people who consider themselves Old Catholic in the United States are below 25,000.
With the PNCC no longer a member of the Union of Utrecht, the Union's International Bishops Conference asked the Episcopal Church, its ecumenical partner in the United States, to initiate discussions among various Old Catholics concerning how they identify as Old Catholics, the ecclesiology of various Old Catholic bodies, and whether these various churches 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 asked the Episcopal Church to host a consultation of these American bishops.
In May 2006, four American Old Catholic bishops gathered at the Bethsaida Spirituality Center in Queens Village, New York. These four bishops were 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. The IBC sent as an observer to this consultation, 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 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, which incorporated the ecclesiological understanding of the Union of Utrecht and which all new members must subscribe to, states:
Assembled at St. Paul’s Cathedral Center in Los Angeles, California, on the seventh day of November, 2006, we commit ourselves to these goals:
1. To place Jesus Christ as the head and center of this Conference of Bishops.
2. To conform to the gospel of Jesus and his call to serve God and to serve our neighbor.
3. To call upon the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to bless, sanctify and guide this Conference.
4. To form this Conference of Bishops as an office, a voice and a center of Old Catholicism in the USA.
5. To model our Conference on the International Conference of Bishops (IBC) of the Union of Utrecht, as outlined in the Preamble of the Statutes of the International Bishops Conference of the Union of Utrecht.
6. To work collegially and cooperatively to form one National Old Catholic Church or a Communion or a Federation of American Old Catholic Churches.
7. To study and discuss Old Catholic documents and history, in order to determine how these documents are to promote the work toward unity.
8. To indicate those elements which identify our churches as Old Catholic.
9. To pray and work for unity among the bishops and the churches we represent.
10. To convene at least two face-to-face meetings each year for consultations on subjects of common interest.
We commit ourselves to these understandings:
1. In order to begin, nurture and perfect a more complete and satisfactory union, we have formed the CNAOCB, basing our cooperation upon the tenets of the Bonn Accord of 1931 between the Old Catholic and Anglican Churches, which states:
A. Each Communion recognizes the Catholicity and independence of the other, and maintains its own.
B. Each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments.
C. Full Communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith.
2. We acknowledge and accept the Union of Utrecht’s Four Ecclesiological Points, namely,
A. Ecclesiology of the Local Church: The fullness of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church resides in the local church, understood as the local diocese.
B. The Role of the Bishop and Apostolic Succession: Apostolic succession belongs to the church. Bishops are servants of the church, elected by the church, for ordained office in the church. Apostolic succession refers to the passing on of the faith of the apostles in and through the church under the leadership and oversight of the bishop of the local church, ordained for his or her office of bishop through the laying on of hands and prayer. Apostolic succession is not the personal possession of a bishop that can be passed on to others in separation from the office of bishop in the local church. There cannot be a church without a bishop; conversely there cannot be a bishop without church. Here the expression “local church” refers to a community of faith that can best be described as a diocese, which in turn consists of a communion of parishes and missions. Bishops without churches are outside of the apostolic succession, even though they may have been ordained with the proper ritual and the proper intention.
C. The Theology of Communion: Even though the fullness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church resides in the local church, the local church cannot remain alone. The church’s catholicity must express itself, which it does through communion with other local churches. The bishop of a local church stands at the intersection of where the local church meets with the other churches in communion. The bishop represents the local church to the other churches in communion, and represents the churches in communion to the local church. The bishop brings concerns of importance for the local church that may have consequences for the entire communion to the attention of the other bishops of the communion, and brings the concerns of the bishops of the communion to the attention of the local church.
D. Synodality: Synodality permeates all levels of the church. Members of the local congregation meet and make joint decisions about how to implement the mission, pastoral care and finances of the parish. It elects the pastor from qualified candidates. It elects a parish committee of lay people to govern the temporal affairs of the parish and minister side by side with the pastor. It elects representatives to the Diocesan Synod. Old Catholic dioceses are governed synodically by a synod of elected lay people and clergy. The Diocesan Synod elects the bishop. An elected Synodical Council assists the bishop in the governance of the diocese between diocesan synods.
3. We accept the Declaration of Utrecht (1889), The Munich Declaration (1871), and The Fourteen Theses of the Old Catholic Union Conference at Bonn (1874).
4. The clergy candidates are to be educated as professionals at the university level or at the discretion of the local bishop, candidates with sufficient pastoral experience may also be ordained. Whenever possible, candidates will normally attain a Master’s Degree or its equivalent in theology or ministry.
5. The church is open to all the baptized. Any baptized member who is qualified may be elected to and called to holy orders with the laying on of hands for ministry in the church.
Given at Los Angeles, California, 7th of November, 2006
The first signers of the Unity Statement are Bishop Charles Leigh (Apostolic Catholic Church) and Bishop Robert T. Fuentes (Old Catholic Diocese of Napa. The American Catholic Church of New England joined the Conference in July 2007. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion signed the Unity Statement in September 2007. Both the Apostolic Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Catholic Church have resigned from the Conference.
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 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. However, the success of the CNAOCB, and the degree of unity among the American churches, rests with the American bishops, both present members and those that will join, and the churches they represent.
In 2006, the Old Catholic Church of British Columbia was invited to a meeting of the International Bishops Conference, the beginning of possible communion with the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht; however, the British Columbian church is not a member of the Union of Utrecht.
Independent Old Catholics in the United States interpret and understand Catholicism and the Gospel in different ways. Some are more conservative, adhering to the theological and moral positions of the Roman Catholic Church before the First Vatican Council. Some more closely follow the foundational documents of the European Old Catholics, namely the Munich Declaration, the Fourteen Theses, and the Declaration of Utrecht, while others find these foundational statements dated, or not in conformity with their views of catholicity. Others are more liberal, acknowledging female ordination and morally condoning homosexuality. Of these independent Old Catholics, many have participated in the Liturgical Movement started in the 1940s.