Independent Catholicism

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Independent Catholicism refers to the movement of clergy who enjoy valid lines of apostolic succession and of laity who self-identify as Catholic, despite a lack of affiliation with other Catholic churches, including the Roman Catholic Church. Independent Catholicism has an estimated 28 million members, many of whom choose Independent Catholicism as an alternate means to live and express their Catholic faith, outside of and despite the perceived failures of the Roman Catholic Church. The structures, beliefs and practices of Independent Catholicism often closely align with those of other Catholic and Christian churches.

Independent Catholics view themselves as part of the larger Independent Sacramental Movement, in which clergy and laity of various faith traditions–including the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion and various non-Catholic Christian churches–have separated themselves from the institutions with which they previously self-identified. Within the Independent Sacramental Movement, various independent churches have sprung from the Eastern Orthodox Church, from which the Roman Catholic Church separated in 1054 A.D., but the members of these independent Orthodox groups most often do not self-identify as Independent Catholics.

Because the history of Independent Catholicism is closely tied to the birth of the Old Catholic Church in Utrecht, Netherlands, many Independent Catholics mistakenly consider themselves to be "Old Catholic."


Beginning in 1724, Dominique Marie Varlet, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Babylon, consecrated four successive men as Archbishop of Utrecht. The Cathedral Chapter of Utrecht, which elected these men, had previously obtained an opinion from Zeger Bernhard van Espen and two other doctors at the University of Louvain, which noted that the chapter had the right, in special circumstances, to elect its own archbishop and have him consecrated without the consent of the pope, and that, in the case of necessity, one bishop alone might consecrate another. Nineteen doctors of the theological faculties at Paris, Nantes, Rheims and Padua approved of this opinion. This caused a theological controversy within the Roman Catholic Church, which now possessed bishops who were validly consecrated without the permission of the pope. Varlet was excommunicated as a schismatic, along with the archbishops who were consecrated by him, and along with their followers. This schism marked the birth of the movement that would later be known as the Old Catholic Church (a term coined in 1853 for the Catholics of Utrecht), and it marked the beginning of an era in the western Church, in which validly-consecrated bishops enjoyed apostolic succession but were not subject to the structures and strictures of the Roman Catholic Church.

The sharing of apostolic succession in the west outside the Roman Catholic Church was largely confined to the Church of Utrecht for over a century. After the First Vatican Council in 1870, many Austro-Hungarian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the declaration of papal infallibility, and their bishops, inspired by earlier acts in Utrecht, decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church to form their own churches, independent of the Roman Catholic Church. Now independent of the pope, these bishops were sometimes referred to as autocephalous bishops or episcopi vaganti. These validly-consecrated bishops enjoyed apostolic succession, and they continued to share apostolic succession with the priests and deacons they ordained. In 1889, they formally united as part of the Utrecht Union of Churches (UU).[1]

Bishop Arnold Mathew being ordained a bishop by Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul at St. Gertrude's Cathedral, in Utrecht, on 28 April 1908

In 1908, Independent Catholicism left continental Europe when Arnold Harris Mathew was consecrated in Great Britain by Archbishop Gerardus Gul of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. Mathew believed that Old Catholicism might provide a home for disaffected Anglican clergy who reacted to Pope Leo XIII's suggestion that Anglican orders were null and void, and the Union of Utrecht incorrectly believed that Mathew had a significant following in the United Kingdom. Before separating from the Union of Utrecht, Mathew consecrated several several bishops and ordained several priests who would lead their own churches.

Joseph René Vilatte,[1] an Old Catholic priest,[2] is credited with being the first person to bring Independent Catholicism to North America. In 1892, Vilatte traveled to India, where he was consecrated a bishop by the Oriental Orthodox bishops of India. During the following 28 years, Vilatte consecrated a number of men to the episcopacy, and they and their successors went on to found many Independent Catholic jurisdictions in North America.

Belief and Practice

Virtually all members of the independent movement worship according to a set liturgy, usually derived from a mainstream historical Christian rite, such as the Syriac, Byzantine, or Roman. Sometimes they use a liturgy that is a combination of two or more of these historical liturgies or one that is unique to the group in question. (It was not uncommon for leaders of the various churches in early Christianity to develop rites such as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, the Milan Rite and the Byzantine Rite.) By definition, all such groups are episcopal in polity, being led by bishops and priests who are assisted by deacons. All hold to a sacramental understanding of the Christian faith related to that broadly held in common by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, and traditional or high church Anglican and Anglo-Catholic churches (low church or evangelical Anglicans are more Reformed in their understanding). Independent Catholicism also affirms the text of the Nicene Creed, but interpretations vary widely based upon how many councils are recognised by the independent Catholic Church in question.

Independent Catholic communities espouse a variety of doctrines and beliefs, ranging from neo-gnostic and theosophical beliefs, to extremely tradition Catholic positions. Within the movement of Independent Catholicism, views vary widely on such issues as the ordination of women, homosexuality, divorce, issues of conscience, and other issues that are also controversial in other Catholic and Christian churches. Independent Catholic communities, often being quite small, tend to be internally fairly homogeneous on these and other issues, such that divisions are more often between Independent Catholic community and not within Independent Catholic communities.

A number of liturgical churches are sometimes regarded as independent Catholics but do not fit neatly in the category. Traditionalist Catholic groups that are in irregular standing with the Holy See (such as the SSPX, not Traditionalist groups in full communion with the Pope, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter) are sometimes regarded as independent Catholics, but they do not see themselves in this manner; rather they regard themselves as being the true church, believing that Catholicism has embraced teachings which are schismatic, or even heretical since the Second Vatican Council. A similar controversy exists regarding the Old Calendar Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and bodies that split from mainstream Orthodoxy specifically in order to maintain the Old Liturgical Calendar. There have been attempts to construct broader categories to include many of these groups, such as the Independent Sacramental Movement, but most of the groups would be uncomfortable with such a characterization.[citation needed]

Some churches, such as the Antiochian Catholic Church in America, describe themselves as Catholic and claim that their doctrine is based, with variations, on that of a church unrelated to the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.[citation needed]

The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is occasionally referred to as an independent Catholic church; however, the PNCC rejects the designation. The PNCC derives its orders from the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht but is no longer in communion with Utrecht or the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The relationships ended because the PNCC rejects the ordination of both women and sexually active homosexuals. Whilst no longer in communion with any other body, the PNCC remains a relatively substantial denomination, maintaining active dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It is also a member of the World Council of Churches.[3]

Very few independent groups are as large as either the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, with 27 congregations in the United States and 6 in Europe,[4] or The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States with 13 congregations or the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, with 10 congregations;[5] most consist of one or two bishops, a few priests and deacons, and a small number of adherents. In numerous cases, bishops have been consecrated without having any priests under their jurisdiction.[citation needed] Some bishops have received multiple (sequential) consecrations (see below), often as conditional consecrations, in an attempt to secure a more widely recognised claim to apostolic succession, for example, Bishop Hugh George de Willmott Newman.

Holy Orders

The notion of apostolic succession has played an important role in the history of the western Church since since the Donatist controversy in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. According to this view, a validly-consecrated bishop shares apostolic succession with the bishops s/he consecrates and the priests and deacons s/he ordains. Some theologians argue that this view is mechanical and reductionist, and that episcopal consecration is for service within a specific Christian community; according to this view, the consecration or ordination of an individual with no reference to a community is without effect. Many Independent Catholic clergy reject this view, arguing that bishops are consecrated for service, and that priest and deacons are ordained for the service of others, whether they are part of a defined community or jurisdiction, or more broadly defined.

Many of the person who argue for valid lines of apostolic succession within the Independent Catholic movement point to the lines of apostolic succession shared by Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa and Roman Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who consecrated and ordained people outside the Roman Catholic Church, thus sharing with them valid lines of apostolic succession. Duarte Costa served as a Roman Catholic Bishop for more than twenty years before withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church over over his opposition to its position on clerical celibacy and divorce and his suspicions of the Roman Catholic Church's Fascist sympathies. Duarte Costa founded the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church in 1945, and he shared valid lines of apostolic succession with several bishops and priests within the Independent Catholic movement. Milingo served as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia, for 14 years. As such, he enjoyed valid lines of apostolic succession from the Roman Catholic Church, and he continued to share those lines of apostolic successions with others outside the Roman church, despite later being married in the Unification Church. Many within the Roman Catholic Church have attempted to disparage the validity of Milingo's subsequent consecrations and ordinations by questioning his theology and/or by suggesting that he was "elderly" at the time, with obvious implications. Several Independent Catholic clergy trace their apostolic succession through the Duarte Costa and Milingo lines.

Many hierarchs within the Roman Catholic Church have argued against the consecrations and ordinations that have been celebrated within the Independent Catholic movement. Some have argued that such consecrations and ordinations are "without canonical effect," but the Roman Catholic Church has refrained from pronouncing these consecrations and ordinations invalid. Canonically, the Roman Catholic Church has said "...the [Roman] Church does not recognise their ordination nor shall it do so, and she considers them, as regards all legal effects, in the state which each one had beforehand..."[6][7] The clause "in the state which each one had beforehand" suggests that the Roman Catholic Church views these consecrated and ordained individuals as lay persons–rather than as the clergy they are within the Independent Catholic tradition–whose claim to be clergy is based on the ordination in question and whether the individual was ordained and/or consecrated by a bishop with valid lines of apostolic succession.[8]

Conditional Consecrations & Ordinations

Because the claim of apostolic succession has traditionally been viewed as a primary determinant of the validity of the Church's sacraments, some Independent Catholic clergy, particularly in the early days of the movement, underwent more than one ordination or consecration, to ensure the possession of valid lines of apostolic succession. According to liturgical theology, these lines of apostolic succession are shared by bishops with the persons consecrated or ordained by them, and, due to the indelible nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders, once a person is ordained or consecrated, s/he can never be ordained or consecrated again. Rather, subsequent ordinations and/or consecrations are considered "conditional" (or sub conditione) and have no effect unless no valid ordination or consecration was previously received by the recipient.

See also


  1. ^ a b Kemp, Alan R. (ed.). "A brief history of Independent Catholicism in North America". Ascension Alliance. Archived from the original on 2013-09-28. Retrieved 2014-06-15. 
  2. ^ Old Catholic SourceBook - General info[dead link]
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Parishes in the United States". Orange, CA: Saint Matthew Ecumenical Old Catholic Church. Archived from the original on 2014-03-02. Retrieved 2014-06-16. 
  5. ^ "Parishes & missions". Herndon, VA: Catholic Apostolic Church in North America. Archived from the original on 16 June 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2014. 
  6. ^ Sacra Congregatio pro doctrina Fidei (1976-09-17). "Decretum circa quasdam illegitimas ordinationes presbyterales et episcopales" (PDF). Acta Apostolicae Sedis (in Latin) (published 1976-10-31). 68 (10): 623. ISSN 0001-5199.  Translated in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1976-09-17). "Decree concerning certain unlawful priestly and episcopal ordinations". L'Osservatore Romano (published 1976-09-30). p. 1. Archived from the original on 2012-01-04. Retrieved 2014-06-15 – via 
  7. ^ Sacra Congregatio Sancti Officii (1951-04-09). "Decretum de consecratione episcopi sine canonica provisione" (PDF). Acta Apostolicae Sedis (in Latin) (published 1951-04-21). 43 (5): 217–218. ISSN 0001-5199. 
  8. ^,

External links

  • Independent Sacramental Movement Database
  • Catholic Church of the Americas
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