Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions
|Return to: Home > Archives Index > Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions Index|
The Polish National Catholic Church
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Defections from the Catholic Church are as old and familiar as the Church itself, going back to the first century of the Christian era. In the United States the problem of leakage is recognized as an established fact and appropriate measures are being taken to control it. While the number of defections is not so great as the Protestant Press would have us believe, it is large enough to merit serious consideration.
In the present study we shall examine one example of such defection for which accurate figures are available. Although rather unique (because it concerns the specialized problem of a single ethnic group), the Polish National Catholic Church is a fair specimen of at least one phase of the leakage question which deserves investigation. It involves a large number of people - over a quarter million at the present writing. Its gradual decline in doctrinal integrity is a modern object lesson in the development of schism into formal heresy. Moreover, the current immigration to the States of thousands of displaced persons from Catholic countries in Europe should make us careful to forestall the possibility, however remote, of their absorption by schismatic organizations whose raison dêtre is to cater to national prejudices and needs. Finally, what especially commends the study of this group at the present time is the death in 1953 of the original founder of the Polish National Church, who for more than fifty years was the spearhead of its opposition to the Catholic faith.
The History of the Polish National Catholic Church
The Polish National Church in the United States had two independent beginnings within two years. In January, 1895, Rev. Antoni Kozlowski, assistant at St. Jadwigas Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, organized the independent parish of All Saints, composed of Polish immigrants who were out of sympathy with what they regarded as leaders with little understanding of their thought and ways. Under pressure from his people, Kozlowski successfully appealed to the Old Catholics in Europe for Episcopal consecration. He was consecrated at Berne in Switzerland on November 13, 1897, by Bishop Herzog of that city. Before his death in 1907, Kozlowski had organized twenty-three parishes, scattered from New Jersey to Manitoba, his group being known as the Polish Old Catholic Church. It is significant that shortly after his consecration the new bishop tried to establish intercommunion with the American Episcopal Church. The Episcopalian Bishop of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, cooperated in this attempt, but to no satisfactory agreement.
Two years later, March 14, 1897, the schismatic parish of St. Stanislaus was begun in Scranton, Pennsylvania, under the direction of Rev. Francis Hodur, former pastor of Holy Trinity Church at Nanticoke, a few miles out of Scranton. The circumstances leading to the schism were similar to those in Chicago, except that the issue here was more clearly defined. In the previous autumn, a delegation of laymen had called on Father Aust, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, with a demand that some of their number be represented in the management of parish affairs. This demand was denied and then followed by a statement from the Bishop of Scranton, William OHara, reproving the men for their disobedience and bidding them submit to the Church authorities. One day the controversy was climaxed by an open fight in front of the church, when some twenty persons were arrested and given sentences of varying severity.
Principles of the Movement
Francis Hodur sympathized with the malcontents and out of their number formed the nucleus of his new parish. Soon afterwards he began editing a weekly paper, The Sentinel, which crystallized the opposition and set forth the three principles on which the movement was founded: 
The following year, Hodur made a trip to Rome where he requested the concession that his people be granted a large degree of property control in the parishes to which they belonged. His appeal was refused and the same year he was excommunicated by the Holy See.  However, it was not until December 16, 1900, that the Parish Assembly of St. Stanislaus decided on a definite break with the Catholic Church in matters of doctrine and worship as well as organization. The first expression of this was the adoption of the vernacular for all the church services, the Mass being sung in Polish for the first time on Christmas Day of that year.
By 1904, several congregations in New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts became affiliated with the Scranton unit. In September a Synod was held at Scranton in which 147 clerical and lay delegates, representing 20,000 adherents, drew up the first constitution. Noteworthy are the following points: 
The turning point in the movement came with the death of Bishop Kozlowski (January 14, 1907), when Francis Hodur was accepted by the Polish Old Catholic Church as their bishop, and the Archbishop of Utrecht of the Old Catholics agreed to consecrate him. The ceremony took place at Utrecht in the Netherlands on September 29, 1907. 
Shortly after the bond of unity between the laity was strengthened by the founding of the Polish National Union in America. This is a mutual benefit society as well as a fraternal organization. Its immediate purpose was to supplant the Catholic societies to which the schismatics had belonged and in which they forfeited their insurance payments and resulting benefits since their membership agreements carried provisions to that effect. Although set up on parish lines and functioning as adjuncts of parochial life, the members are not required to belong to the National Church in order to share in the insurance benefits. A similar problem led to the opening of special burial grounds, generally for all the parishes of a city or territory. Refused Catholic burial and unwilling to be buried in unconsecrated ground, new cemeteries were laid out for their exclusive use.
In 1914 a reform movement among some Lithuanian congregations in Pennsylvania led to the establishment of the Lithuanian National Catholic Church. At first they adopted only a few general principles of the Polish group, but later on they became, and remain to this day, officially united with the Polish National organization. 
One of the most effective means for assuring the continuance of his church was the General Synods which Bishop Hodur periodically convened and to which were invited clerical and lay delegates from the member congregations. The first Synod, as previously noted, was held at Scranton in 1904, and formulated the basic principles of doctrine and worship. Five years later in the same city, an urgent appeal was made to the Protestant Episcopal Church, requesting some kind of affiliation, but there were no tangible results.
The Third General Synod in 1913, convening in Chicago, accepted a new Confession of Faith for the National Catholic Church, which all subsequent synods have consistently ratified. It is used at Mass in a shortened form on special occasions, although the Nicene Creed is the one ordinarily said.
The Fourth General Synod, held at Scranton in 1921, took action on several matters that witnessed to the growing strength of the sectaries. First it authorized the formation of the Polish Mission, with a view to stabilizing the schismatic church in Poland which had been founded two years before. Moreover, the Synod elected four priests to serve as additional bishops, to be consecrated as soon as the Prime Bishop (Hodur) should find it feasible. He waited four years before proceeding with the consecration, which occurred at St. Stanislaus Cathedral on two successive days, August 24-25, 1925. Consecrator was Bishop Hodur, alone, after the Episcopalians refused to furnish him with co-consecrators.  Among the four new bishops, one was consecrated for the Mission in Poland and another for the Lithuanian congregations. The third significant innovation of the 1921 Synod was the official approval given for the marriage of the clergy. Ironically the lay delegates strongly attacked the move when first proposed, on the grounds that it might soften unduly the lives of the priests. But the committee had anticipated the objection by drawing up a historical defense of married clergy, from early antiquity to modern times, except under the Papacy. Even though the measure was passed, for several years few of the clergy availed themselves of the concession because of the strong opposition of their lay parishioners.
Growth of the Movement
With the increased episcopate, the Church grew still more rapidly. From 1926 to 1936 its membership increased threefold, from 61,874 to 186,000 - a much higher rate of growth than that of the Polish-American population as a whole. In 1904, the year of the First General Synod, the number of members was estimated at less than 16,000.
For some years, Bishop Hodur had been training young men privately for the Churchs priesthood. Out of this informal training developed the Savonarola Seminary, with Hodur as its Rector and Dean. In 1927 he bought a small residence near the Cathedral in Scranton for the new school. Located on a rather noisy corner, the three-story house managed to provide accommodations for classrooms and living quarters for about sixteen students. The course of studies remained strictly practical, planned to fit the candidates for ministering to the people in their own language, since many of the younger men cannot do this without much preparation. The curriculum is divided into six courses: Scripture, Philosophy, Church History, Polish History, Moral and Doctrinal Theology. No Latin, Greek or Hebrew is given in the regular courses, all of which are taught in Polish. Candidates are required to study at the seminary for three years, with an optional fourth year sometimes allowed. After examination by the Prime Bishop, the men are ordained deacons (usually on Trinity Sunday), and are immediately afterwards advanced to the priesthood.
Since the first beginnings of the Church were due to disagreement over policy and government rather than doctrine, the drafting of a Confession of Faith was an afterthought, but, in the main outline, it is quite similar to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The main points of difference will be presently analyzed.
Teaching on Source of Authority
A mans salvation is said to depend solely on a living faith and the actions which follow there from. However the object of faith is exclusively the Scriptures, which men have a right to interpret according to the convictions of their conscience. Faith is also declared to be helpful to man toward his salvation, though not absolutely necessary. 
In accord with the Old Catholics of Utrecht, papal authority in matters of faith and morals is explicitly rejected. Of the twenty Ecumenical Councils, only the first four (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon) are formally accepted. The next three are also admitted but held to be non-essential. Beyond these, only the General Synods of the Polish National Church are recognized as authoritative.
Teaching on the Nature of God
The first article of the Confession of Faith, drawn up by Hodur and incorporated in the Constitution of the Church, declares: 
I believe in God Almighty, the Cause of all existence; a Being whos Spirit permeates the whole universe, and is the source of its life and evolution, material (physical) as well as spiritual and moral.
In relation to man, God manifests Himself in His creative power, His inexpressible wisdom, His provident influence on the formation of the destiny of the individual man, of nations, of states, and of humanity as a whole.
In a more particular way, God as Spirit of Life, Holiness and Goodness influences chosen spirits of the peoples; who at given epochs in human evolution are the creative agents in the building of the Kingdom of God upon earth. This immediate influence of God is not confined to any one nation or epoch; but is found in all nations and at all times, for the purpose of bringing life, evolution, and the attainment of the highest degree of culture to individual nations and states, and to humanity as a whole. It is an influence from the action of Divine powers upon humanity; and is the effective use of these powers by individuals, states, and humanity as a whole.
Several details in this article should be noted and briefly explained, as indicating the tendentious character of the Creed: The description of God as the source of life and evolution in the universe is an unwarranted commitment to an evolutionary hypothesis, which is thus made a part of divine revelation. Also, the reference to Gods manifestation of Himself in nations and states is an arbitrary nationalistic interpretation of the workings of divine providence.
More important, however, in the light of Bishop Hodurs other writings, is the veiled reference to chosen spirits who at different times are the creative agents of the Kingdom of God. The Confession explains that this immediate influence by religious geniuses is not confined in time or place, which is hard to reconcile with the selective revelation of Judaeo-Christianity. More specifically, in the Introduction to the Constitution of the P.N.C.C., Hodur expressly defends a theory of national religions. According to him, all the great religious leaders - Christ, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Wyclif, Hus, Luther and Calvin - worked primarily for their own people or nation. Only secondarily, if at all, did they influence other national groups. Hodur has been charged with injecting a false messianism into religious thought. Certainly his equating Moses and Christ with Buddha and Mohammed justifies calling him the freethinking Hodur, and his peculiar form of Christianity anti-Catholic rationalism. 
Hodur's Concept of the Church
The concept of the Church differs in one important point from Catholic teaching. According to the Confession, the Church is basically an invisible institution, whose members are united with the Divine Founder in faith and life proceeding from this faith. There is no question, therefore, of a man having a title to any special graces from God for professing any particular form of religion. So-called privileges which issue from differences of faith are not blessings but a great evil, and, consequently, may no more be claimed by men than are they conferred by God. To make this position unmistakable, Hodur stated in the preamble to the Constitution that, Those Churches which assert that a man may be saved only within their own circle lie and deceive the people; since Christ taught otherwise. 
Teaching on the Sacraments
The sacraments are correctly defined as outward signs of Gods invisible grace, instituted by Christ for our salvation. But the number and meaning of the sacraments has been changed. Instead of Baptism, the first sacrament is said to be: Baptism and Confirmation. While retaining the Sacrament of Baptism and prescribing its reception by infants, the doctrine of original sin is not admitted. Writes the author of the modern P.N.C.C. Catechism: 
We do not teach 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 our descent from Adam. We do not teach that man is born with a depraved nature.
We do teach that man is born with an inclination to do evil; but that is not original sin in the Roman Catholic sense.
Consistent with this denial, the rite of Baptism has been changed. Where the Roman ritual says: Depart from him, thou unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the schismatic version reads: Receive the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, promised by Jesus Christ. 
The second sacrament is The Word of God, read, expounded or listened to. This is Hodurs own invention, though the idea was clearly borrowed from Protestant sources. More than merely sacramental, the Word of God is called a great Sacrament of the Christian National Church. Accordingly, those who reverently teach and explain the word of God are fulfilling the highest duty attainable by man, because they are proclaiming the very will of God. This is the active administration of the Sacrament; on the passive side, they who worthily listen to the Word become united with Christ and in Him are born again. 
The Sacrament of Penance has also been radically changed. Nominally it is defined as a sacrament in which all our sins are forgiven through sorrow, confession and a firm resolve to amend our lives for the future. But the oral and private confession of ones sins to a priest is declared not to be essential. Either public or private confession is acceptable. Children up to the age of twenty are expected to confess privately to a priest. Adults may also satisfy their obligation by a public declaration of sinfulness and by receiving the absolution which precedes every Mass, for the benefit of communicants at the Mass. Anyone accustomed from early training to make a private and detailed confession of his sins, may do so, and priests are available for the purpose.
According to the Polish National Catholic Church, the Eucharist is said to contain the mystical Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the forms of bread and wine, in which He gives Himself to us as food for our souls.  In the formula of consecration at Mass, the words of the Roman Missal are retained without mutilation. However, elsewhere in the rite of the Mass the emphasis is upon the function of the Eucharist as spiritual food rather than as sacrifice. Certain phrases in the Roman Missal which stress the sacrificial aspect have been removed or altered. The more generic term oblation has been substituted for sacrifice at least twice in the words of the Mass.
The priesthood is conferred as in the Catholic Church, through four minor and three major orders. Likewise, matrimony is regarded as a sacrament. Divorce with remarriage is forbidden, but the Prime Bishop may annul a marriage, in which case a new union is permissible. Extreme Unction is defined as a sacrament in which, through the anointing and prayers of a priest, a sick person receives Gods grace in his soul, and sometimes health in body.  It is given only in danger of death, from illness or accident; yet doctrinally it is not regarded as a preparation of the soul for death. 
The doctrine on the Last Things has also been substantially changed. It is admitted that a persons conduct upon earth somehow determines his lot after death. Nevertheless, all men will eventually attain to the goal of heavenly union with God. Only the degree of union is dependent on fidelity to the will of God before death.
Corresponding to this revived Origenism, the Polish National Church repudiates the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. Hodur was so emphatic on this point that he directed a large section of his book, Eleven Great Principles, to its exposition.  Faced with the Scriptural term aiônios, he explained that it does not mean eternal but only lasting through an aeon, or the period of an age. He says it would show a lack of confidence in the justice and mercy of God to hold the doctrine of eternal punishment. The final triumph of Gods providence, therefore, will consist in the overcoming of all sin by His righteousness. Before that can prevail, however, sinful man must undergo an, intrinsic metamorphosis, through penance on earth and purgation after death; whereupon he will attain to bliss everlasting.
Relation with Episcopalians
The most significant event in the ecclesiastical structure of the Polish National Catholic Church took place in 1946, when it became affiliated with the Church of England. On October 18 of that year, the delegates at the General Synod, representing 136 parishes, accepted the principle of intercommunion between their Church and the Anglican Communion - which, of course, included the Episcopal Church of America. The basis of union was the so-called Bonn agreement of 1931. It is worth quoting, with minor omissions, the letter which Bishop Hodur addressed a few days later (October 22) to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America: 
It gives me great pleasure and deep spiritual satisfaction to be able to communicate to Your Grace, that on October 18, 1946, during the last session of the Polish National Catholic Church Synod, which was represented by 136 Parishes of the United States, that the Synod Body accepted unanimously and with great enthusiasm the principle of Intercommunion between the P.N.C. Church of America and Poland with the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, based on the foundation of Intercommunion between the Anglican, Episcopal and Old Catholic Churches in 1931 at Bonn, Germany. The foundation of this Intercommunion is based on the three cardinal points as follows:
Informing Your Grace of this very important fact, I express great joy and inner satisfaction not only for myself, but also for all of my Bishops, Clergymen and Faithful . and I assure you of our willingness to cooperate in the endeavour to unite all Christendom in the above-mentioned principles With sincere and brotherly love,
Bishop Francis Hodur, Prime Bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church.
The Anglican communions in England and America accepted the P.N.C.C. as an associate member. Each group then appointed a Joint Inter-communion Committee which should meet together from time to time to discuss mutual problems and work toward an ever closer co-operation. After the first meeting of this committee in 1947, the delegates reported: 
The two Churches are dealing with a situation that 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.
This statement, which claims for the two Churches a continuity of apostolic teaching, can scarcely be reconciled with the doctrinal basis on which they established intercommunion.
Since 1946 when this new relationship was begun, there have been many acts of fellowships between the Polish National and Episcopal Churches. As of 1952, the Polish bishops have actively participated in the consecration of at least three bishops of the Episcopal Church. An Episcopalian has been lecturing on Church History at the Savonarola Seminary. On many occasions members of the clergy have preached at the parish services of the other communion, and delegates have been sent to synods and conventions held by the respective religious bodies. Bishop Jasinski, of the Buffalo-Pittsburgh Diocese for the Polish Nationals, was trained in a seminary of the Episcopal Church. Lately a set of printed instructions has been drawn up by the Joint Committee for the convenience of mixed congregations as to how they should conduct themselves during church services. These instructions embody the following: 
To P.N.C. members attending the Episcopal Church: That confession is a part of the service; that the Sacrament is administered under two kinds; that they shall receive Holy Communion on the tongue.
To members of the Episcopal Church attending the P.N.C. Mass: That confession is a separate service with an assigned penance; that fasting before Communion is a strict rule; that Holy Communion is administered in but one kind.
Growth and Decline
The Polish National Church is divided into four dioceses, one mission.
In December, 1953, the total membership of the P.N.C.C. was listed as 265,879, which represents a net increase of 15,000 over the previous year. The present number of parishes is 156, an increase of ten since 1952. With the death of Bishop Hodur (February 16, 1953), the number of bishops was reduced to four, three of whom are known to have been consecrated by Hodur. Two others, also consecrated by him, are no longer exercising Episcopal jurisdiction. One is retired and now serving as pastor of a local church, and other was deposed by the man who consecrated him, the main charge being that he acted with undue independence. 
But the numerical growth of the Polish National Church has been accompanied by a doctrinal decline. It began as a schismatic movement, not unlike the situation of the Church of England at the time of the Reformation. The original divergences from Roman Catholicism were not strictly dogmatic: worship in the vernacular, elimination of distinctively papal features in the liturgy, abandonment of clerical celibacy, objection to monastic orders. In fifty years, the schism has become open heresy. Errors in doctrine cover the gamut of Christian revelation, from the rejection of original sin to the denial of eternal punishment. It is instructive, therefore, and surprising to hear the observation of one of its clergy: We have a double task to perform. While we strive to minister to our people the pure Gospel of Christ, we are confronted with the continual opposition and detraction of the Roman Catholic Church, which we must nerve our people to endure.  The palpable fact is that by its opposition to the Vicar of Christ, the Polish National Church has lost and is no longer giving its people the pure Gospel of Christ.
* Father Hardon will be remembered for his three-part series, Protestantism in America, appearing in the February, March and April issues of 1955.
 Andrews, Theodore, The Polish National Church, London, 1953, p. 29. The author is an Anglican doing parish work in New Jersey. His book is the first scholarly work on the subject in English.
 October 22, 1898.
 Andrews, op. cit., p. 31.
 The Old Catholics were organized in German speaking countries to combat the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Their rise may be traced from the excommunication of Ignatz von Döllinger, historian, priest and theologian, on April 18, 1871, for refusing to accept the dogma defined by the Vatican Council.
 In 1953, the Lithuanian National Catholic Church had three parishes in the United States, with an aggregate membership of 5,672. For three years (1925-1928), they were governed by a bishop consecrated by Hodur. Since the formers death, the Lithuanian churches are under the care of a clerical administrator, and visited by P.N.C.C. bishops.
 It was reported that Hodur decided on consecrating alone after he discovered that John Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore, had been consecrated at Lulworth Castle chapel, by Charles Walmsley, Vicar-Apostolic of England, acting alone. Walmsley, of course, received the necessary authorization from Rome. Modern canonical teaching on the point is that: omnino certa videtur sententia docens validam semper esse ordinationem (consecrationem episcopalem) ab uno Episcopo factam. A Coronata, Institutiones Iuris Canonici, Torino, 1945, vol. II, p. 24.
 U.S. Census of Religious Bodies, 1926, Gvt. Bulletin 82-161, p. 10.
 Andrews, op. cit., p. 109.
 Algermissen, Konrad, Christian Denominations, St. Louis, 1945, p. 362.
 Zielinski, T. F., quoted by Andrews, op. cit., p. 51.
 Introduction to Constitution of the P.N.C.C., IV, Scranton, 1935.
 Prayer book of the P.N.C.C. (Scranton, 1939), quoted by Andrews, op. cit., p. 47.
 By making the Word of God an eighth sacrament, Hodur elevated the factor of nationalism to the sphere of revelation. For a person to receive this sacrament he must understand in his native language the meaning of the divine message spoken to him by the preacher. In historical context, this meant that unless the immigrant heard the word of God preached in his mother tongue, he would be deprived of a sacrament instituted by Christ and necessary for salvation.
 Zielinski, T. F., A Short Catechism of the P.N.C.C. (in English), Scranton, 1936. Lesson XIII, pp. 68-74.
 Ibid., Lesson XIV.
 Andrews, op. cit., p. 49.
 First published by the National Union Press, Scranton, 1923, this work was given wide circulation as an official statement of the principles of the P.N.C.C. and the reasons for its distinctive beliefs. Besides the Eleven Great Principles, Hodur is author of Our Religion, 1900; Articles of Faith, 1904; Arise, 1920; Christ and His Church, 1922; Apokalipca 20th Century, 1930; Thirty-Three, 1933; and Threshold at Forty, 1940.
 Andrews, op. cit., p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 91. At the Lambeth conference in 1948 (Resolution 67-b), this achievement of full intercommunion was noted with satisfaction and approval. One of the bishops of the P.N.C.C. was present at the conference.
 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid., p. 82.
 Andrews, op. cit., p. 94.
Homilitic and Pastoral Review
Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica
What's New Site Index
Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives
Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters