Independent Catholic Tradition.
Independent Catholicism is a collection of hundreds of Catholic jurisdictions (denominations) throughout the world. There is no one authority over all the churches, and the theologies and liturgies of independent communities are quite varied. 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. This page seeks to explain some features shared by most of these churches and to point the way to resources for further exploration.
Some common questions are addressed on various pages around the site. If you’re curious about married priests, women priests, GBLT priests and ordination in general, see Holy Orders/Vocations. To find a Reformed Catholic Church or clergyperson, see Communities.
Independent Catholic churches are Catholic congregations that are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or any other churches whose sacraments are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (such as the Eastern Orthodox and some Oriental Orthodox and Anglican churches). Virtually all groups in the Independent Catholic movement claim to have valid apostolic succession for their bishops
What Is Independent Catholicism?
The Independent Catholic movement is a group of hundreds of Catholic jurisdictions (denominations) around the world that are separate from mainstream Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and canonical Eastern Orthodoxy. Most are very small, with each denomination having hundreds or dozens of members and many parishes having only a handful of members. Independent Catholic communities run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal, with a variety of different theologies and liturgical traditions.
For a more detailed look at the whole movement, I recommend The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement by John Plummer. Apocryphile Press has recently reprinted a number of books significant in the movement’s history, including Leadbeater’s Science of the Sacraments, Moss’s The Old Catholic Movement, and so on.
You might notice that the term “Independent Catholic Church” is never used to describe the movement on these pages. That is because no one denominational structure or organization exists to encompass the whole of Independent Catholicism. Rather, there exist hundreds of denominations and other bodies, some large (the Polish National Catholic Church has thousands of members and some very small (fewer than a dozen members). One of the largest and fastest growing communities, however, is the Reformed Catholic Church national and international offices centered in Toledo, Ohio.
This is both a strength and a weakness of the movement. On the one hand, small individual communities can be very responsive to their environment and provide a home for unchurched, underchurched and oppressed people. Clergy and laity often have a great deal of autonomy and the freedom to explore numerous paths to God. On the other hand, the situation of numerous small churches is often the result of fractitiousness, with priests choosing to leave one bishop’s jurisdiction for another (or they obtain episcopal consecration and thus autonomy) rather than staying and working out differences.
So it can be difficult to speak generally of the movement because of these divisions. No one can give even a ballpark figure for how many denominations exist or how many people are involved in the movement — when speaking about Independent Catholicism as a whole, words like “some” and “many” are more common than “most” and “all” (as the reader will no doubt note on this page). A large number of churches exhibit the features described on this site, but one must still be careful about over-generalizing.
Rome and the Pope
As one might expect from the label “Independent,” the Independent Catholic movement does not come under the authority of the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church. However, independent churches still claim the label Catholic, which comes from a Greek word, katholikos. This word means ‘universal’ and describes any community that takes part in the universal church under Jesus Christ. It also often suggests a particular approach to Christianity — sacramental, ecclesial, led by bishops, and concerned with tradition in addition to Scripture. There are several precedents for this kind of autonomous Catholicism, not least of which being Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox claim to be (part of) the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” by confessing the Nicene Creed, and they are self-governed, looking to several significant Patriarchs (especially the Patriarch of Constantinople) for guidance. The Anglican Church, which began as the Church of England under Henry VIII, is also part of the Catholic tradition and has a long history of independence from any one governing authority.
Many churches in the Independent Catholic movement trace their history to the Utrecht Union in the Netherlands. This church began walking apart from Rome in the 18th century over the election of bishops, which previous Popes had allowed them to choose themselves. The split became final during the years leading up to Vatican I in the 19th century, and many independent churches were formed by the Old Catholics of Utrecht or obtained episcopal consecrations from that church.
Christian unity is an important concern to Independent Catholic communities, by and large, so eucharistic fellowship with Roman Catholics is something those communities hope for. However, very few Independent Catholics are willing to give up their doctrinal and liturgical freedom to be accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Typically, churches in the movement welcome individual Roman Catholics to participate in Communion and other sacraments, but unity with the Roman Catholic Church as an institution is unlikely to occur.
The Independent Sacramental Movement
Independent Catholicism is part of a much larger movement which includes Independent Orthodox and Independent Anglican churches. This is often called the independent sacramental movement. All three groupings are very broad, including traditionalist groups that have left Roman Catholicism, canonical Orthodoxy, or the Anglican Communion because they believe these churches have drifted too far to the left, and including churches very far to the left, some of whom identify as Gnostic or Pagan. Just as with Independent Catholicism, there are no authorities accepted by the movements as a whole, so a great deal of diversity can be found among the churches that identify with Independent Orthodoxy or Independent Anglicanism.
It is also important to note that the barriers between Independent Catholicism, Independent Orthodoxy, and Independent Anglicanism are much more permeable than the borders between their canonical cousins. It is not uncommon to find priests who began as Independent Anglicans but now practice as Catholics under Independent Catholic bishops. There are also some jurisdictions and parishes that straddle the line, describing themselves as “Catholic Orthodox” and incorporating elements from both liturgical or theological traditions.
Virtually all independent Catholic Churches 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 some combination of two or more of these historical liturgies or one that is unique to the Church in question. By definition, all such Churches are episcopal in polity, being led by bishops and priests who are assisted by deacons. Virtually all hold to some type of sacramental understanding of the Christian faith closely related to that broadly held in common by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, and Anglican Churches. Virtually all also affirm the text of the Nicene Creed, usually with the filioque, but interpretations vary widely.
However, they disagree on ordination of women, ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, acceptability of same-sex marital unions, abortion, contraception, divorce, and other issues that are controversial also in more mainstream sections of Christianity, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, or Orthodox. However, unlike most of their more conventional counterparts, these Churches, 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 Churches, not so much within them. The Reformed Catholic Church supports ordination of women, ordination of gays / lesbians and transgender, acceptability of same-sex marital unions and marriages, on the matter divorce we recognize the a marriage can be spirituality falter we hope the couple will receive counseling, we do recognized the 2nd marriage valid.
These Churches represent a variety of doctrine. Some independent Catholic Churches, such as the Liberal Catholic Church and the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch – Malabar Rite (the "Church of Antioch") are characterized by a theosophical or New Age orientation. Others are quite conservative, following extremely traditionalist Catholic or Old Calendar Orthodox positions. Others describe themselves as "Evangelical Catholic" and are more or less High Church Lutherans.