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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part Two
Religions of Judaic Origin

Chapter 17
Old Catholic Churches

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University

Old Catholic Churches

The origin of the Old Catholic movement goes back to Reformation times, and its theological principles derive from a Calvinist theory of grace. As a historical phenomenon the movement is sometimes described almost exclusively in terms of national aspirations that came into conflict with Rome. This is correct enough as a partial explanation, but fundamentally the issue was not a tension between groups of zealous Catholics in Belgium or the Low Countries striving to rise above their environment and inhibited by papal authority; it was mainly a clash of two opposing theologies of man’s relations with God, the Catholic, which holds that human nature has been elevated to a higher than natural order, and the Jansenist, which claimed that such elevation never took place, so that when Adam fell he lost for himself and posterity not the gifts added to nature but something essential to nature itself.

Although full-blooded Jansenism began with Jansenius himself, its antecedents were much earlier. They are traceable to Michael Baius (1513-1589), contemporary of Luther and Calvin and chancellor at the University of Louvain. Shortly after his appointment to Louvain, he announced his twofold intention to free dogma from the foreign elements that Scholasticism had introduced and that constituted the sole obstacle to the conversion of Protestants; and then to study the Catholic doctrine on grace in its true sources, not the anathemas of the popes but in the Bible and the writings of the early Fathers, especially of St. Augustine.

According to Baius, when man came from the hand of God he possessed perfect righteousness, which theology has called sanctifying grace but which is really a native human possession because it was Adam’s by right of nature. So far, Baius was teaching straight Calvinism. But then he added a clarification. Calvin implicitly denied that grace can be resisted, but he never fully explained what this meant. Taking Calvin’s principles, Baius postulated two kinds of love that necessarily attract the will: a vicious love and the love of charity, on the prior assumption that our will has been ruined by concupiscence and therefore capable of nothing but evil in the spiritual life. Charity does not rule in sinners, so that all their words and actions are sinful; in the predestined charity reigns, and they will be saved, but only because of irresistible divine action, and not for any merit or cooperation with grace on their part.

Baius was condemned by the Holy See and submitted formally, although his later writings show that he never actually gave up his opinions. His influence might have stopped at his death, except for Jacques Janson, his successor at Louvain, who discovered and encouraged one of his students, Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638), to carry on the work of the former chancellor.

Jansenius’ masterwork, the Augustinus, was not published until two years after his death. It was a bold defense of Baianism that profoundly stirred the theological world within months of its first appearance. In 1653 five propositions summarizing Jansenism and culled from Augustinus were condemned by Innocent X for heresy. Meanwhile the Jansenist cause became identified with opposition to papal authority and the Gallican theory that national churches are independent from Rome. As a result, Jansenists refused to accept the condemnation of their leader and protested that the five censured statements were certainly erroneous, but they had never been taught by Jansenius.

Three years later Alexander VII published a Constitution in which he solemnly defined that his predecessor’s condemnation was valid in fact and by law. “We declare and define,” the document read, “that the five propositions were taken from the book of the aforementioned Cornelius Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, whose title is Augustinus, and that they were condemned in the sense intended by the same Cornelius.” [1]

Still the tension continued, until nine years later when Alexander composed a formula of submission to his own and predecessor’s Constitutions, to be taken under oath, as a condition for ordination to the priesthood and consecration to the episcopate.

In spite of repeated censures, Jansenism not only continued in existence but spread to other countries. Under pressure from Louis XIV, Jansenius’ great disciple, Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694), took refuge in Holland, where his followers were supported by the sympathetic Calvinist government. When Spain lost control of the Netherlands, the Dutch Catholics had come under the administration of a vicar apostolic at Utrecht. Since 1688 this office was held by a Jansenist bishop, Peter Codde (1648-1710), who was deposed by Clement XI in 1702. During the resulting schism, Codde obeyed the papal injunction to the extent of not exercising his episcopal functions.

After Codde’s death, the schismatic party found another Jansenist prelate, Dominique Varlet, who befriended their cause and in 1724 consecrated the former vicar general, Cornelius Steenhoven, bishop of the new movement. Three others were consecrated by Varlet, but only the last, Peter Meindaerts, consecrated his own successor. Fearing that an episcopate which depended on a single place might be lost, Meindaerts consecrated Jerome de Bock bishop of Haarlem in 1742, and John Byevelt for the see of Deventer in 1758. All parties to the action were excommunicated by the pope, but until the present day the Church of Utrecht has continued in existence on the grounds of its possession of episcopal dignity.

In the early nineteenth century, the Dutch government would not recognize the titles of the bishops of “of” Utrecht, Haarlem, and Deventer, but only “at” those cities. At the same time Leo XII sent a nuncio to bring about a concordat with the civil authorities and, if possible, reconcile the Old Catholic Churches with Rome. In 1827, the nuncio, Monsignor Capaccini, invited the Archbishop of Utrecht (John van Santen) to a conference, which turned out to be the last formal attempt at a reconciliation.

Van Santen asked why the pope should attach so much importance to signing the Constitution drafted by Alexander VII as an affirmation that Jansenius actually taught the doctrines attributed to him. The nuncio answered he could not believe the prelate would defend his own opinion against the wisdom of the Church. There is a record of van Santen’s reply.

I do not wish to set my judgment above that of others. I only ask, let the Five Propositions be shown me in Jansen’s book, stated in the sense in which they were condemned---that is, not in the sense in which anything similar is found in St. Augustine, for the Pope never professed to condemn St. Augustine.
Am I to understand that His Holiness asks that I should call God to witness that I do believe what I do not believe, what the Pope knows that I do not believe, what Almighty God knows that I do not believe? Is Catholic unity to be maintained by perjury? [2]

Since the negotiations broke down, the Old Catholics in Holland continued under the jurisdiction of the three original sees, of Utrecht, Haarlem and Deventer, with episcopal succession continuing in unbroken line into the twentieth century. Meantime another protest movement arose on the continent, after the definition of papal infallibility by the Vatican Council in 1870.

Although the bishops of the Catholic world subscribed to the definition, the acceptance was not universal among the lower clergy in certain areas of Germany, Switzerland and Austria-Hungary. The churches under their care seceded from Rome and joined hands with the Jansenist groups in Holland. Three names stand out among the German segment: John Dőllinger, Joseph Reinkens and Franz Reusch.

John Dőllinger (1799-1890) was a prominent church historian and theologian, and author of numerous books on the Eucharist, the Reformation and comparative religion. After his excommunication in 1871 he became a leader of the critics of the Vatican Council, but more concerned with reuniting the separated Christian Churches than with advancing the Old Catholic cause. More dedicated to the movement was Reinkens (1821-1896), also a church historian, who had himself consecrated first bishop of the German branch of the Old Catholic Church in 1873 with his see at Bonn. The principal organizer was the Scripture scholar Reusch (1825-1900), who took a leading part in setting up the Reunion Conferences that were later held at Bonn. But when the Old Catholics abolished clerical celibacy in 1878, Reusch objected and retired into lay communion.

All the continental Old Catholics received their episcopal succession from the Church of Utrecht. Two years after Reinkens’ elevation, the first Swiss bishop, Eduard Herzog, was consecrated and given headquarters at Berne. Owing to the opposition of the government, bishops were not consecrated for the Austrian communities until much later. A bishop of Warnsdorf (Bohemia ) was consecrated in 1924 and of Vienna in 1925. In 1939 the three bishoprics of Bonn, Warnsdorf and Vienna were united into one Church.

The most significant event among the Old Catholics in the past century was the series of international conferences held at Bonn in 1874 and 1875 under the presidency of John Dőllinger. Their purpose was to foster reunion between the Churches which had retained the faith and order of historic Christianity. Their direction was in the hands of the newly formed branch of the Old Catholics, though Dőllinger never formally joined them.

Two main interests occupied the conferences: to clarify the basic position of the Old Catholic Churches, and arrive at some agreement between the Old Catholics on the one hand and the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans on the other. The fundamental statement of belief had to wait fifteen years, but the principles of reunion were broadly agreed upon in a series of declarations that have more than historic value because they paved the way for similar ventures in the ecumenical movement of the present century.

Outstanding among the fourteen articles of unanimous agreement with the Anglicans were the acceptance of the Protestant canon of the Old Testament, denial of real merit before God for good works performed, rejection of “works of supererogation” in the practice of the counsels, belief that five of the seven sacraments are the fruit of later theological speculation, acknowledgment of the unbroken apostolic succession in the English Church, denial of the Immaculate Conception and that the Eucharistic celebration is a “repetition or renewal” of the sacrifice of Calvary.

Concord with the Orthodox centered around the procession of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, which included the admission the “Holy Spirit does not issue out of the Son, because in the Godhead there is only one beginning.” The Anglicans did not universally accept this compromise with the Orthodox. Among others, Edward Pusey of Oxford Movement fame was quite intransigent in his opposition to any tampering with the Western tradition on the Filioque in the Nicene Creed.

When the Declaration of Utrecht was drafted in 1889, the Old Catholics settled on eight principal doctrines which, they said characterize their concept of Christianity. Most important were the rejection of the Roman primacy and the acceptance of the Council of Trent in its dogmatic decisions “only so far as they are in harmony with the teaching of the primitive Church.”

As now constituted, the Old Catholic Churches include not only the Jansenist bodies of Holland and the groups that refused to accept the decrees of the first Vatican Council but a number of national churches in the Slavonic tradition that came into existence the late 1800’s. Minor groups were organized among the Czechs and Yugoslavs, but the largest contingent was formed among the Poles in the United States. Their bond of union with the Old Catholics was a common grievance against the Roman primacy.

The Polish National Church had two independent beginnings within two years. In 1895 the Chicago priest, Antoni Kozlowski, organized an independent parish and two years later was consecrated bishop by the Old Catholic prelate, Herzog, at Berne in Switzerland. Before his death in 19007, Kozlowski had established more than twenty parishes scattered from New Jersey to Manitoba.

In 1897 another Catholic priest, Francis Hodur, followed the same course at Scranton, Pennsylvania. He also went to Europe to have himself consecrated, receiving episcopal orders from the archbishop of Utrecht in 1907. During the interim, the two national groups had merged with Hodur at the head. Until his death in 1953, Francis Hodur developed the Polish National Church into a dominant partner of the Old Catholic family, with a communicant membership exceeding that of all the other affiliates combined.

Typical doctrinal positions of the Polish nationals are their concepts of original sin and the sacraments. “We do not teach,” their Catechism states, “original sin as in the Roman Catholic Church---that it comes down to us from the origin of the human race, and that we inherit it through Adam.” The Eucharist is said to contain “the mystical Body and Blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine,” and in the ritual the stress is on the Eucharist as spiritual food rather than sacrifice.

In 1946 the Polish National Church joined with the Church of England and the American Episcopalians, on the basis of the Bonn agreement which the Anglicans had made with the Old Catholics about fifteen years earlier. The foundation of their intercommunion rested on three cardinal points that have since played a major role in deepening the bond between two ostensibly different religious bodies.

  • Each Communion recognizes the catholicity and independence of the other, and maintains its own.

  • Each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participation in the Sacraments.

  • Intercommunion 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 essential of the Christian Faith. [3]

The Anglican communions in England and America accepted the Poles as associate members. Each group then appointed a Joint Intercommunion Committee to meet from time to time for discussing mutual problems and needs. After their first meeting the delegates reported that “the two Churches are dealing with a situation which has never before existed. Their separation is not due to schism. They are in fact two National Churches which, maintaining the doctrine and fellowship that have come down to them from the Apostles, find themselves in the same territory through the accident of immigration combined with the barrier of language.” [4] At the Lambeth Conference in 1948, this achievement of full intercommunion was noted “with satisfaction and approval.” Besides clarifying the nature and spirit of the Old Catholic movement, this merger also sheds light on the ecclesiastical structure of the Churches which stem from the English Reformation.

Chapter 17 - Old Catholic Churches


[1] Constitution, Ad Sacram Beati Petri Cathedram, Oct. 16, 1656.

[2] J. M. Neale, History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland, pp. 363-364.

[3] Theodore Andrews, The Polish National Church, London, 1953, p. 90

[4] Ibid, p. 91. Also Lambeth (1949) Resolution 67-b.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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