Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Understanding the Old Catholic Church (Part 1)

This is the first of three posts featuring excerpts from my friend Robert Caruso’s recently-released book, The Old Catholic Church: Understanding the Origin, Essence, and Theology of a Church that is Unknown and Misunderstood by Many in North America.

It’s a highly accessible book and one that has been described as a “well-researched and passionately argued presentation of the Old Catholic understanding of the dynamic nature of what the Nicene Creed describes as the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.’”

I have to say that the more of the Old Catholic Church that I experience, the more I recognize it (ironically enough) as a truer embodiment of Vatican II’s understanding of church than that offered by the current expression of Roman Catholicism – mired as it is in a sad and sorry state of retrenchment and reaction. (More about this in Part 3.)

Oh, and don’t let the “Old” part fool you. The Old Catholic Church is a very dynamic and progressive expression of Catholicism - one that is accepting and welcoming of women and gay people. How welcoming? Well, here’s what Fr. Caruso (who’s a partnered gay man) had to say about this matter when I
interviewed him for The Wild Reed in September 2007:

The Old Catholic Church welcomes all to the full participation in the life, mission, and worship of the local church. This means that gays and lesbians are not just welcome to the table at Eucharist, but are welcome to fully participate in the gospel ministry of Christ’s church sharing his or her diverse gifts with the local eucharistic fellowship.

The Church (in general) must be reminded of its eschatological nature that it has forgotten about in its preoccupation of idolizing heterosexual marriage (specifically marital procreation) as the foundational model of God, Christ, and the pilgrim Church on earth. Same-sex couples show all Christians just how truly queer Christianity is. “In Christ there is no male or female (Galations 3:23)…In heaven there is no marriage (Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:35).” Gay and lesbian couples may help the Church recover its vision of heaven, through our mutual covenant bond in baptism and the celebration of Eucharist together. This quintessentially speaks to the eucharistic ecclesiological Old Catholic nature of unity in diversity.

Robert Caruso is pastor of Cornerstone Old Catholic Community in St. Paul, and after this community’s weekly Mass on Saturday, September 19, Robert presented a short but fascinating lecture on Old Catholicism. The images that accompany this post were taken at this event – one that was held at St. Paul on the Hill Episcopal Church.


The Old Catholic Church is a path that enriches the complex history of the universal church through the ages. The historical complexity of Old Catholicism involves the three different movements that compose the current unified European Old Catholic churches known as the “Union of Utrecht.” Each national church belonging to the Union of Utrecht is rooted in its own historical situation and epoch, which testifies to the diversity and independence Old Catholics generally value.

The Old Catholic churches throughout the world are independent national churches that disagreed with the absolute power of the papacy and the claims of papal infallibility after the Council of Trent (1545-63). This opposition occurred in three separate and distinct historical movements. First, the Old Catholic church of Holland (1724); second, the churches of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Czech-Slovakia at the first Vatican Council (1869-70); and lastly, church groups located in North America, Great Britain, Philippines, and the Slavic nations in the twentieth-century leading to the present day. The novelty about these revolutionary movements against the Roman papacy is that they occurred from within the Roman rite (the principal ancient liturgical and canonical) tradition of the Latin rite Western Church. This implies that the genesis of Old Catholicism occurred as a Roman Catholic revolt against papal supremacy in all its forms. It must be clearly understood that Old Catholics never sought to create another church. The difference between Old Catholics and the churches born out of the Reformation is one of local church rights (Old Catholic) verses theological doctrinal differences (Reformation). This stated, Old Catholics still to this day “. . . do not wish to deny the historical primacy which several Ecumenical Councils and Fathers of the ancient church have attributed to the Bishop of Rome by recognizing him in title as Primus inter pares (first among equals).”*

The Old Catholic churches are distinctly different from the Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican churches because the genesis of the Old Catholic movement occurred after the late fifteenth to early sixteenth-centuries’ Counter-Reformation and Council of Trent (1545-63). These events uniquely established and defined the Roman-rite (i.e., liturgical, canonical, monasticism) of the Catholic church for close to four centuries thereafter (ca., 1563-1869). This stated, Old Catholicism maintained much of its distinctive Roman-rite characteristics in its liturgies and customs (e.g., the centrality of the seven sacraments and the celebration of Eucharist as the summit of the Christian life); and today, Old Catholic communicants, especially those who convert from the Roman church, are content being Old Catholic because of its liturgical similarities with the Roman-rite. It is very much a pietistic affection that is experienced in the heart of every Catholic, which in turn effects how one lives his or her life in the Eucharistic community of the local-universal church (the Body of Christ).

* The Declaration of Utrecht, 1889, para. 2. parenthesis added (English text).

NEXT: Part 2

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome
- An interview with Robert Caruso.
Robert Caruso’s Scholarly Introduction to Old Catholicism
The Declaration of Utrecht
Robert Caruso on the Pentecost Rainbow Sash Presence at the Cathedral


Richard Demma said...

These are all very important posts, Michael. I just spent an hour reading the extensive comments on your posting on the Declaration of Utrecht (when I should have been correcting papers for my Performance and Theater class). I hope to comment/reflect on this at a later date.

Terence Weldon said...

Michael, the more I learn about church history, the more I find myself in sympathy with these ideas. To my alarm, the older I get the more I find I am becoming that man I used to warn against, the conservative theologian: conservative, because I want to revert to the really old church, in its closeness to real Gospel

My only quibble with Fr Caruso is whether this is viable in smaller splinter groups, or whether we should persevere nominally within the broad tent of the greater Roman church: a quibble which remains unresolved in my mind.

Richard Demma said...

My own inclination - or sense of calling - would be to attempt to remain within the broad tent of the greater Roman Church, but I'm not sure how this is to be done. An irreconcilable tension (for the moment) which I've commented on indirectly at GayMystic. But I do believe some folk are called to set up camp just outside the tent. The comments under the posting 'Declaration of Utrecht' made my head spin, but at some point we have to rely upon spiritual discernment and trust. Not everyone will be called to the same witness. My respects to Father Caruso.

Anonymous said...

'I have to say that the more I experience of the Old Catholic Church, the more I recognize it (ironically enough) as a truer embodiment of Vatican II’s understanding of church than that offered by the current expression of Roman Catholicism – entrenched as it is in a sad and sorry state of retrenchment and reaction. (More about this in Part 3.)'

Michael - may I ask you to quote actual portions of VC II's documents, in context, to show how the OCC is in line with VCII? Does the "Old Catholic Church" affirm Lumen Gentium in its entirety?

Bob Caruso said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think your statement is an important one. I believe Michael was alluding not to a specific doctrine of the Vatican II Council, but more the spirit of elevating the importance of the priesthood of the baptized and the entire Body of Christ, not just the clergy and bishops per se. Indeed Vatican II was a council driven by the Holy Spirit b/c its doctrines (teachings) transformed and reformed many things in the Roman Church, including how Catholics understand their faith and spirituality in the Eucharist. I concur with Michael Bayly that the Roman Pontiff John Paul II and his protege Pope Benedict continue to systemically dismantle much of what Vatican II created -- at least its spirit. It is too much to go into greater detail here. That is, it cannot be accomplished in an adequate and informed manner.

There is much agreement between the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht and the document of "Lumen Gentium." There is a section within L.G. in Ch.2 where it makes a clear the understanding of respecting the Pope's "primacy" among other Catholic Churches, not his jurisdictional supremacy inherited deceitfully at Vatican I, i.e. the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The quote reads,"Moreover, within the Church particular Churches hold a rightful place; these Churches retain their own traditions, without in any way opposing the primacy of the Chair of Peter, which presides over the whole assembly of charity (11*) and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time assuring that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute toward it. Between all the parts of the Church there remains a bond of close communion whereby they share spiritual riches, apostolic workers and temporal resources. For the members of the people of God are called to share these goods in common, and of each of the Churches the words of the Apostle hold good: 'According to the gift that each has received, administer it to one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God'."(123)Lumen Gentium

The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht would not disagree with this statement in my opinion because the Declaration of the Union of Utrecht of 1889 (an authoritative document for Old Catholics) clearly states that there is a high regard for the primacy of the pope in his relationship with the Catholic Churches throughout the world b/c Rome is where Peter and Paul were martyred. This does not mean, nor does this quote allude to, the pope is guaranteed jurisdictional supremacy over all other Catholic Churches.

At the heart of this debate is the infallibility doctrine of the pope. Old Catholics do not view themselves as a "splinter group" but the Catholic Church. Rome has created a new Catholicism, something altogether novel to Church tradition and history. Old Catholics and their theology move embrace a theology of communion and "koinonia" in restoring the Catholic Church before it became the "Roman Catholic Church".

Again, it is difficult to write about these complex topics here without falling into generalized statements on the subject.

~Bob Caruso

Mark Andrews said...

Bob, what to make of the many groups which use the "Old Catholic" label in the U.S.? That doesn't strike me as emblematic of a "restored Catholicism prior to Roman Catholicism."

Bob Caruso said...

Dear Mr. Andrews,

Your observation concerning so-called independent Old Catholic groups in North America is well taken. I dedicate an entire chapter (ch. 3) to "The North American 'Old Catholic' predicament." In this chapter I compare and contrast the theology and eucharistic/trinitarian ecclesiology of the local Church Catholic of the Union of Utrecht with the ind. groups who label themselves as Old Catholic in the U.S.

My conclusion about the U.S. ind. groups who label themselves Old Catholic is that they do so falsely. Meaning, most ind. groups have no real theological concept of what it means to be Old Catholic apart from being Roman Catholic. Further, most of the U.S. ind. groups are comprised of clergy and bishops having few if any lay involvement. This is a serious issue from an Old Catholic (Union of Utrecht) ecclesiological perspective when defining the essence of the local-universal Church.

All in all, there is no canonical Old Catholic Church in the U.S. The canonical (and already established) local Church for Old Catholics in the U.S. is the church in communion with the Union of Utrecht: The Episcopal Church, USA. I go into greater detail about this subject in my book.

Lastly, I never stated that Old Catholicism has "restored" Catholicism prior to Roman Catholicism (way too many "Catholicism's" in one sentence, ha), but rather allude to the Old Catholic theological process of "restoring" the Church Catholic apart from universal papal supremacy through "koinonia" centered ecclesial relationships that are of the Spirit (i.e. relationships fostered out of authentic mutuality, hospitality, and interdependence constituted in freedom and love).

Carol said...

As a fairly new participant/member of the Cornerstone community, and coming from the Episcopal side of things - I remain an Episcopalian - I would like to mention that many of the reformation churches did not start out with the idea of being a separate church. Certainly Luther did not, and the Anglican church to this day traces it's roots back to Celtic Christianity prior to Roman influence. Interesting to me that a Celtic Bishop converted Utrecht in the 7th century, talk about circles.

Anyway, I very much agree with and appreciate the theology I hear Bob articulating in his book and talking with him.

I am personally very drawn to the Orthodox Church but cannot convert with integrity due to their stance on gay/lesbian relationships. How can we all be a part of this body of Christ and not recognize each other? Such a sad thing, with everyone claiming to have their roots in the "real" church, and everyone seeing the other as the ones who broke off or went astray. How does one recognize the work of the Spirit? All I can do is affirm communities in which the love of God is intentionally extended to all and our oldest understandings of Christ and the Trinity are lived.