Independent Catholic churches

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Independent Catholic churches are small[citation needed] Christian groups that identify with Catholic tradition but in communion neither with the Roman Catholic Church nor with any other churches whose sacraments are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (such as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches).

Virtually all groups in the independent Catholic movement claim to have valid apostolic succession for their bishops. The bishops of independent Catholic churches are sometimes referred to as episcopi vagantes ("wandering bishops") because of their lack of affiliation with a larger communion of churches.


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

Although the term Old Catholic was first used in 1853 to describe those Catholics belonging to Utrecht, Netherlands, most scholars date the "modern" Old Catholic movement to the 1870s. After the First Vatican Council in 1870 considerable groups of Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the declaration of papal infallibility and left to form their own churches independent of the pope. These churches were supported by the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht who ordained their priests and bishops. Later they united more formally under the name Utrecht Union of Churches.[1]

The "independent" Catholic movement came to Great Britain in 1908 when Arnold Harris Mathew[2] was consecrated a bishop in the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. Utrecht incorrectly believed that Mathew had a significant following in the United Kingdom, and also that there would be a wave of clergy wanting to leave the Church of England as a result of Pope Leo XIII's declaration that Anglican orders were null and void. Mathew believed that Old Catholicism would provide a home for these disaffected clergy; however, the mass conversions failed to occur. Before breaking with the Union of Utrecht, Mathew ordained several individuals to the episcopacy and priesthood, from whom a number of new churches quickly developed, including the Liberal Catholic Church, the first bishop of which was James Wedgwood, consecrated by F. S. Willoughby, who had in turn been consecrated by Mathew.[1]

Joseph René Vilatte,[1] an Old Catholic priest,[3] is credited with being the first person to bring the independent movement to North America.[citation needed] In 1892 Vilatte travelled to India where he obtained ordination to the episcopacy by the Oriental Orthodox bishops in India. Over the following 28 years Vilatte consecrated a number of men to the episcopacy. These bishops, or their successors, went on to found many different jurisdictions in North America.


Many, but not all, independent Catholic clergy claim descent from the Old Catholics of Utrecht, although Utrecht does not officially accept their orders. Like Orthodoxy, Utrecht holds that ordinations can only be done within the church as a whole and with appropriate authority. Some independent groups in North America began life as Protestant and/or Charismatic congregations; for example, the Charismatic Episcopal Church came into being when charismatic fellowships rediscovered both sacramentalism and the historical apostolic succession. Another group, the Evangelical Orthodox Church, found its way into mainstream Eastern Orthodoxy: one part joined the Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in 1987, other parishes later entered the Orthodox Church in America, whilst a remnant, which does not claim traditional apostolic succession, kept the name EOC and continued as an independent communion. Since the orders of the EOC were not regarded as valid by the Orthodox bishops, the reception of clergy into mainstream Orthodoxy was always accompanied by ordination.[citation needed]

The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church was founded in 1945 by Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa, who withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church, opposing its position on clerical celibacy and divorce and accusing it of Fascist sympathies, which he saw evidenced in documents such as Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Divini Redemptoris.[4] Duarte Costa went on to consecrate other bishops in Europe as well as North and South America. Several independent Catholic bodies trace their apostolic succession through Duarte Costa, including the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America.[citation needed]

A number of liturgical churches are sometimes regarded as independent Catholics, but do not fit neatly in this category. Continuing Anglican Churches are sometimes included in this grouping, but this is controversial, especially with regard to the larger Anglican bodies, and these Continuing Churches do not count themselves as being within the independent Catholic movement. 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 FSSP) 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 which 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, for example the Independent Sacramental Movement, but most of these groups would be uncomfortable with such a characterisation.[citation needed]

Evangelical Catholic groups such as the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church (formerly the Evangelical Community Church-Lutheran) describe themselves as Lutheran, rather than Catholic, because of their Lutheran heritage and the fact that they accept those clauses of the unaltered Augsburg Confession which agree with their understanding of the Roman Catholic magisterium. Others, such as the Antiochian Catholic Church in America, do describe themselves as Catholic, while claiming that their doctrine is based, with variations, on that of a church that has been unrelated to the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.[citation needed]

The Polish National Catholic Church is occasionally referred to as an independent Catholic church; however, the PNCC rejects this 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. These 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.[citation needed]

A very few independent groups have grown to a larger size (e.g. the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, with 27 centres in the United States and 6 in Europe, and the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, with 10 centres) but the majority 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 undergone several consecrations in an attempt to secure a more diverse claim to apostolic succession.[5]

Faith and practice[edit]

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.

However, independent groups disagree on the ordination of women, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, divorce, and other issues that are controversial also in more mainstream sections of Christianity. Unlike most of their more conventional counterparts, these groups, usually being quite small, tend to be internally fairly homogeneous on these and other issues; in other words, divisions on these and other questions are between these groups, not so much within them.

These independent congregations represent a variety of doctrines. Some, such as the Liberal Catholic Church, the Free Church of Antioch, the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch—Malabar Rite (the "Church of Antioch"), and the recently formed Young Rite are characterised by a theosophical orientation. Other independent groups are quite conservative, following extremely traditionalist Catholic or Old Calendar Orthodox positions; still others describe themselves as "Evangelical Catholic" and High Church Lutherans.

Holy orders[edit]

Independent clergy have often received multiple ordinations/consecrations in an attempt to ensure a broad and diverse claim to apostolic succession. Though perhaps less prevalent than in the past, the practice continues; for example, Archbishop Peter Paul Brennan of the African Orthodox Church, one of four who were conditionally ordained to the episcopate by the excommunicated Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo on 24 September 2006, claims to have been first consecrated on 10 June 1978, and subsequently conditionally re-consecrated a number of times[6] prior to the ceremony conducted by Archbishop Milingo.[7] Also, in 2007, various independent Catholic bishops in the UK underwent multiple mutual reconsecrations "as a gesture of unity".[citation needed]

The claims of many within the independent movement to continuity with holy orders as found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy are based at least in part on an understanding of apostolic succession that has been held by some within the Latin Church since the time of the Donatist controversy in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. According to those who hold this view, a person becomes a bishop if consecrated in an approved rite by another (validly ordained) bishop even when he is outside the boundaries of Catholicism. However, some contemporary Roman Catholic theologians consider this view to be mechanical and reductionist; teaching that such ceremonies have no effect on the grounds that ordination is for service within an established Christian church. Therefore an ordination ceremony that concerns only the individual himself does not correspond to the understanding of ordination held by the Roman Catholic Church and is subsequently without efficacy.[citation needed] Independent clergy reject this characterisation, seeing their bishops as always ordained for the service of others and for the Christian community, whether in a defined jurisdiction or more broadly. As for the Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht, the Coptic Church and the various Orthodox churches, they completely reject the validity of the ordinations of heretics or schismatics, and thus do not recognise the orders of independent clergy, to whom they apply these categories.

Whilst the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has more than once declared that certain episcopal consecrations have no canonical effect, it has occasionally stated that it was not thereby expressing a judgement on the validity, but merely on their canonical efficacy (see also Valid but illicit). Thus, when it declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted by Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục for the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face group on 31 December 1975, it refrained from pronouncing on its validity.[citation needed] It made the same statement with regard to later ordinations by those bishops, saying that, "as for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognise their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the ... penalties remain until they repent" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decree Episcopi qui alios of 17 September 1976 - Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1976, page 623). The clause "as still in the state in which they were before" indicates that the Holy See views as juridically laymen those whose sole claim to be clergy is based on the ordinations in question.[citation needed]

The Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church did not question the validity of the consecrations that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre performed in 1988 for the service of the followers of the Traditionalist Roman Catholic Society of St. Pius X that he had founded. Lefebvre was capable of forming the necessary intention whilst questions were raised regarding the mental capacity of Archbishops Ngô and Milingo to perform ordinations according to the understanding of the Catholic Church.[citation needed] Ngô was advanced in age and possibly suffering from dementia and Milingo had undergone a marriage conducted by the Unification Church which would raise questions about his theology; the Vatican statement concerning Milingo also refers to him as "elderly", with obvious attendant implications.[citation needed]

The official view of the Eastern Orthodox Churches may be summarised as follows: "While accepting the canonical possibility of recognising the existence (υποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself, (the Eastern Orthodox Church) questions their validity (έγκυρον) and certainly rejects their efficacy (ενεργόν)."[8] It sees "the canonical recognition (αναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church (as referring) to the validity of the sacraments only of those who join the Orthodox Church (individually or as a body)."[8] It is therefore clear that the Orthodox Communion does not, and will not, accept as valid any ordination ceremonies of clergy not accepted into their own communion.

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