Old Catholics vs. the pope

Since I’m always complaining at all of those awful stories with headlines such as “Catholics To Ordain First Female Priest,” I knew I had to highlight a story that does a good job of explaining how a group can have the word “Catholic” in its name but not be under the Bishop of Rome.

It comes from a professional whose work seems to get raves from many people inside and outside journalism — Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune. It’s possible that being based in a city such as that has helped her be careful about doctrinal distinctions and respectful of different views.

In any case, here’s how the story begins:

Archbishop Michael Seneco, of Washington, D.C., is a gay man who plans to marry his longtime partner in September.

Bishop Jim Morgan, of Ogden, is also gay and has been with the man he considers his husband for 30 years.

In this faith, the bishops’ marital relations haven’t caused a ripple among the clergy or the laity. No protests. No outraged believers. No furious voting.

You see, both priests practice a little-known brand of Catholicism, with elements most Catholics wouldn’t recognize. It’s called the North American Old Catholic Church and, according to its website, it preaches openness, tolerance and interfaith dialogue as “an essential way to build a more holistic and loving world in accordance with the Gospels.”

The hook for this story is that the Old Catholics are holding their annual meeting in Ogden and Fletcher Stack goes from there to show what Old Catholics believe, in their own words.

And it’s a beautifully nice and respectful story that manages to be that without being disingenuous about whether they’re formally a part of the Catholic Church under the papacy:

North American Old Catholics, members say, “are redefining what it means to be a universal catholic church in a modern world needing prophetic voices.”

In this incarnation of Catholicism, priests and nuns may marry whomever they wish, every baptized person (including divorced members) is welcome to take communion and women can be priests. Their faith statements read like a litany of progressive concerns — the environment, anti-torture, gay rights, women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, reproductive justice.

The Old Catholics oppose abortion but don’t believe their view should be codified in civil law. And there is no allegiance to Rome. Indeed, the movement started with the question of papal infallibility.

I do want to point out that when the dogma of papal infallibility was formally defined in 1870 under Pope Pius IX, many Catholics in good standing opposed that measure. Remember Lord Acton’s statement “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”? He made that statement after traveling to Rome to argue against papal infallibility and losing.

The story provides a nice description of what led to the split, related to how the episcopate interacted with Rome. We learn that Old Catholics sent a priest to Milwaukee to launch the U.S. branch of the church in 1902. There’s a really interesting tidbit about how that priest rebelled against his European leaders and how that led to a fragmented U.S. church — until recently. We learn that the Old Catholics, now sort of reorganized, has fewer than 10,000 members in 21 states, mostly in small congregations.

There are more details on how they worship and a sidebar explaining their beliefs.

Just a nice story about an interesting group of people. And all without pretending that they report to the Vatican. She makes it look easy. But considering how many stories we see that follow the other template, I’m assuming it’s not so easy.

Oh, I wanted to point out the headline, too. I thought it was handled well.

Utah’s ‘Old Catholics’ embrace new movements
Faith sticks with liturgy, but opts for same-sex marriage, women priests.

It makes it clear we’re talking about a separate group while also explaining just a bit about their worship and practice. Nicely done.

Print Friendly

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Old Catholic orders are usually behind splinter churches on the Catholic right as well. Go into that maze at your own risk!

  • http://1minutedailyword.com Steve Martin

    There are many versions of Catholicism going on out there.

    It’s good to know who and what they are, even though I am not a Roman Catholic.

    Thanks for examining the story.

  • Spencerian

    You see, both priests practice a little-known brand of Catholicism, with elements most Catholics wouldn’t recognize. It’s called the North American Old Catholic Church and, according to its website, it preaches openness, tolerance and interfaith dialogue as “an essential way to build a more holistic and loving world in accordance with the Gospels.”

    As Catholicism has a far greater theological unity in all of its rites (Latin, Eastern, Byzantine, et al.) through a united teaching authority and defined state of rules (The Catechism, the Code of Canon Law), than most other faiths that GetReligion has noted in many, many articles (Lutherans and Anglicans are good examples where fractures are very visible), there a nit to be picked here.

    Catholic bishops do have the authority to note to an organization that claims to uphold Catholic principles whether or not they can use the term “Catholic.” While the word “Catholic” isn’t a copyrighted term, the suggestion that any organization sets an example by use of the term requires bishops to ensure their awareness of any group that claims to uphold Catholic (Holy See) principles. Otherwise, in the case of this hospital in Oregon and this hospital in Phoenix, a bishop can declare that a facility is not Catholic in doctrinal practice.

    For a group that does not recognize the Bishop of Rome that uses the term “Catholic”, the proper phrasing here should have been “schismatic”–a breakaway sect, as are other quasi-Catholics such as the Society of St. Pius X. It seems the article implies a denomination difference, whereas the Catholic Church isn’t a denomination (something that springs from some other faith) any more than the Orthodox Church.

  • Julia

    a little-known brand of Catholicism

    Spencerian is spot on. Very good explanation.

  • carl jacobs

    When I first saw the headline of ‘Old Catholics vs the Pope’ I thought this story was going to be about Traditionalist Catholics ( e.g. “Feeneyites”) who reject the innovations proceeding from Vatican II. It was a great disappointment to discover the story was about yet one more instantiation of liberal religion. It is a story about 10,000 people pretending to redefine RCism, and I wonder why it warrants a story at all. If this had been a small Protestant sect, would it have been covered?

    There may have been no mention of allegiance to Rome in the story but that lack of mention becomes the dog that didn’t bark. It’s the ever-present if unstated context of defying Rome that gives this group any standing to be heard at all. They have relevance only because they call themselves Catholic and obey the Zeitgeist. Otherwise, the might as well be a small sect of Episcopalians, and who would care?

    carl

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    carl,
    The story was important to cover since the newly organized organization is having a national convention in the paper’s back yard.
    That’s just good journalism. Cover what’s happening in your area on your beat.

  • carl jacobs

    Mollie

    The fact that a church organization holds a convention does not imply that the convention deserves coverage. However, my contention is not simply that this convention didn’t deserve coverage. My contention is that it received coverage only because the ‘Old Catholics’ may be presented as the anti-Rome. It has nothing to do with the news value of the organization itself – which is frankly nil. ‘One more insignificant liberal religious organization holds convention’ is not news. But liberal Catholics! That’s a different matter altogether. The ‘Old Catholics’ may be used as a mirror to reflect all the things that our post-modernism world rejects in pre-modern religion. And what is more pre-modern than Rome?

    carl

  • Bill

    Let’s see… they’ve claimed the brand, kept the ceremonies and chucked the doctrine. They’ve boldly gone where the Catholic Church has never been and added Old to the label to give it the heft of history.

    Their website is revealing, although their coat of arms is a puzzle. (Why the shamrock?) It reads as a litany of liberal social themes with God invoked.

    http://www.naoldcatholic.com/

    Are they really against abortion? Their policy statement on abortion, er…excuse me, reproductive justice is a souffle of progressive wonk words:

    Reproductive Rights
    Our religious tradition values all life and considers the life of all beings sacred.
    Our faith celebrates our ability to generate new life and our tradition teaches us to sustain and abundantly care for all life.
    We believe procreation should occur responsibly and thoughtfully and that contraception and access to medical care should be accessible to all mothers and families.
    We believe reproduction is a moral decision requiring the support of the community.
    We believe that God understands the human condition and as a result understands and affirms those decisions around reproductive justice that act to prevent further impoverishment, abuse, neglect, and exploitation in a world that limits its resources and often overlooks those we are called to serve.

    Calling themselves Old Catholic might or might not be clever marketing, but it is surely deceptive labeling.

  • Chris

    Why coverage? Here’s one conjecture:

    The dominant faith in SLC has had its church equated with a small offshoot in rural AZ sanctioning unapproved practices because its fits a narrative and gains readership.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I agree with Spencerian and Julia in the use of the name. One thing is the way the organization uses the name and makes its claims vis-a-vis the name. The other is the way those claims are presented by a reporter. The Old Catholics are not an “incarnation of Catholicism,” which would be perhaps more true of say Carmelite monks versus charismatic Franciscans or something. Once you jettison Catholic doctrine and ecclesial authority, it is no longer Catholic.

  • asshur

    The article contains at least a serious factual error (in the Döllinger schism of 1870 NO bishop joined them; they rather coopted the -already irregular- “jansenist” bishop of Utrecht), and IMHO does not clarify the relationship of this american reunion (?) with the Union of Utrecht (the “real” “Old Catholics”), nor how a conservative split becomes today an exaggerated copy of the TEC …

    For my part, I’ve sent more than once one so called “liberal catholics” to explore this denominations, and give up scandalizing the rest of us …

  • Conchúr

    nor how a conservative split becomes today an exaggerated copy of the TEC …

    Essentially it wasn’t a conservative split to begin with. The Döllinger Schism was liberal Gallican in nature.

  • Julia

    For anybody wanting to know more about the original Old Catholics. Recall the news articles about Catholic women being “ordained” as priests – often Old Catholic bishops are involved.

    Another reason the Old Catholics might be newsworthy. The existence of this schismatic group with authentic bishops/apostolic succession is another explanation of why Benedict is going to so much trouble to get the SSPX with its authentic bishops back in the fold.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Catholic_Church

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11235b.htm

  • Jay

    I understand why they got coverage. But the story doesn’t explain what makes them “Catholic”.

    In the 16th or 17th century, if you asked “What do you call a Catholic doesn’t recognize the Pope?” the answer would be simple: “A Protestant.” How is that any different for 19th or 20th century break-aways?

    In fact, their theology seems indistinguishable from ELCA or TEC. (They may have a view of sacraments that would mark them as distinct from UCC, another socially liberal group). And phrase “prophetic voices” is a TEC catchphrase.

    Maybe Pope Bennedict can trade TEC for some disaffected Anglicans seeking to join the Ordinariate.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I have to say calling this a “brand of Catholicism” is just wrong. I hope the Roman Catholics will see that this is just as cringe-worthy as descriptions linking the FLDS to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or using “Mormon” to describe people outside “the Mormon Church”.

    Of course Fletcher is even more off base because there are really differences between the various rites of Catholicism, especially whether married priests are generally allowed or not.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Calling the FLDS an offshot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actually inaccurate at best. The FLDS are an off-shot, extremist off shot at that, of the Apostolic United Brethren. The AUB practice polygamy as do the FLDS, but they do not live in communes, and they allow people to chose their spouse, something that Warren Jeffs decided should be his choice. Of course, since they do not encorage underaged marriage the AUB have not been the focus of criminal prosecuations lately. In the 1930s it was a different story, and if I remember correctly the FLDS break from the AUB post-dates the Short Creek raid of 1952. The AUB and the FLDS both have about 10,000 mewmbers (well, the FLDS did until Warren and friends excommunicated about 20% of the members) so they are evidently about the size of this specific church in question.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Reproductive Rights
    Our religious tradition values all life and considers the life of all beings sacred.
    Our faith celebrates our ability to generate new life and our tradition teaches us to sustain and abundantly care for all life.
    We believe procreation should occur responsibly and thoughtfully and that contraception and access to medical care should be accessible to all mothers and families.
    Re: We believe reproduction is a moral decision requiring the support of the community.
    We believe that God understands the human condition and as a result understands and affirms those decisions around reproductive justice that act to prevent further impoverishment, abuse, neglect, and exploitation in a world that limits its resources and often overlooks those we are called to serve.

    I’m not sure what in that list counts as explicit affirmation of abortion rights. I’d never use the term ‘reproductive justice’ because *in practice* it’s usually used by the pro-choice camp, but one can in principle support family planning and some sort of ‘reproductive justice’ by affirming contraception, not abortion. It’s quite possible (and depressing) that these people do support abortion right, but I don’t think that statement proves it.

    Re: In the 16th or 17th century, if you asked “What do you call a Catholic doesn’t recognize the Pope?” the answer would be simple: “A Protestant.”

    No, that’s not true either. There have been tons of Christian heresies since the first century, none of which acknowledged the authority of Rome, and the term ‘Protestant’ only applies to one or at best a couple of those schisms (and their subsequent offshoots). I’m perfectly content with saying that these folks shouldn’t be called ‘Old Catholics’, but nor should they be called ‘Protestant’. My own branch of the church calls itself ‘Anglo-Catholic’ mostly as a reaction against Protestantism, and I think if people stopped referring to Anglicanism as ‘Protestant’, then people on the A/C side of the aisle would probably drop their insistence on the Anglo-Catholic terminology. There really should be a better third term for people like Old Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the PNCC, etc.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X