Old Roman Catholicism is not a sect or schism as some of its self-constituted enemies may claim; it is an honored and historic part of the Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ. This Church emerged into public work on the first Pentecost in Jerusalem and is built upon the apostolic labors and sufferings of the glorious Apostles and Martyrs. Despite formidable opposition, the Church spread rapidly in the first century and functioned under four autonomous Patriarchates; in the East at Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, and in the West at Rome whence it reached out to the far-flung confines of the whole Empire.
Second century Old Roman Catholicism united and rightly organized, on a conciliar basis of ecumenical unity, the primitive and struggling churches of the post-Apostolic era. The Church successfully repelled the intrusions of schismatic irregulars and laid the conciliar and other foundations for that world structure of ecclesiastical order and organization on which grew and unfolded the Great Church of the Patristic age.
In 312A.D. When the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and persecution ceased, the Church was able to work openly and freely, and because of the prominence of Rome at the time as the great city of the West, the Bishop of Rome acquired great prestige and became leader of the Western Church. The union of Church and State which followed Constantine’s conversion led to many changes within the Church. Bishops were not always elected by the faithful over whom they were to exercise jurisdiction, and the Archiepiscopal and Patriarchal Sees were too often filled by favorites of ruling secular Princes, not by valid choice of area councils of the Church. This corruption of basic conciliar order and function, starting in the fourth century, still continues in many parts of the world. Conflict over ecclesiastical order and regularity was later to have far-reaching effects in the Church in the Netherlands.
In the ecumenical era, the five Patriarchal Sees of Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem were regarded as co-ordinate, and of equal status in the Church, but the Roman Patriarch, because of the historic position of that city, in the development of Christianity, was accorded the further title of ‘first among equals’ and a precedence of dignity. Gradually, however, the Roman Curia began encroachments upon the rights and privileges of the Eastern and other national and autonomous Churches. There was strenuous opposition to this by those who adhered to the Old Roman Catholic position of a conciliar basis of Christian unity. These defenders of the Apostolic order and regularity asserted their right to continue to choose their own bishops and to rule their local affairs under universally accepted Canons which could be changed only by decision of a General Council of the whole Church. The Council of Constance (1414-1418 A.D.) like other Councils, defended the rights of autonomous national Churches and affirmed that it had ?its authority immediately from Christ; and that all men, of every rank and condition, including the Pope himself, (was) bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith, the abolition of the schism, and the reformation of the Church of God in its head and it’s members?
The Old Roman Catholic Church, while affirming its historic continuity with the Apostolic Church of the first century, and while possessing a line of Holy Orders held in common with the Undivided Church of earlier centuries, traces its Apostolic Succession in more recent years through the ancient See of Utrecht in Holland. St. Willibrord, the Apostle of the Netherlands, was consecrated to the Episcopate by Pope Sergius I, in 696 A.D. at Rome. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he founded his See at Utrecht. One of his successors in that See was the great St. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany. The Church of Utrecht also provided a worthy occupant for the Papal See in 1552 in the person of Pope Hadrian VI, while two of the most able exponents of the religious life, Geert Groote who founded the Brothers of Common Life, and Thomas a Kempis who is credited with writing the Imitation of Christ, were from the Dutch Church.
For reasons which were for the most part political, the Jesuits began to invade the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Utrecht in 1592, and although they were more than once rebuked therefore by the Pope and ordered to submit themselves to the authority of the Archbishop, their machinations against the Church of Utrecht continued unabated. In 1691, the Jesuits falsely accused Archbishop Peter Codde, the occupant of of the See of Utrecht, of favoring the so-called Jansenist heresy. We say so-called Jansenist heresy because no one has ever yet succeeded in finding the repudiated heretical statements, either in substance or in form, in the Augustinus of bishop Cornelius Jansenius, where the Jesuits pretended to have discovered them.
Despite the Archbishop’s proved innocence of heresy, the influence of the Jesuits was so great that they persuaded the Pope to issue a secret brief suspending and deposing Archbishop Codde. Neither the names of his accusers, nor the charges made against him, were ever made known to him, nor was he permitted to offer any defence. This created a breach which was never healed, though Pope Clement XIV was favorably disposed towards the grievously wronged Church of Utrecht. We believe and maintain, as we have always done since 1691, that these irregular proceedings against the Church of Utrecht, based, as they were, upon charges which were proved at the time to have been groundless, were null and void, and that we have remained, and are still in actual fact, and not according to any fanciful or far-fetched theory, part and parcel of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1739 Dominique Marie Varlet, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ascalon, consecrated Peter John Meindaerts to fill the vacant See of Utrecht, without having asked for or received a Papal Bull authorizing the consecration. Since then, the Church of Utrecht, while retaining in every detail her worship and doctrine as formerly, became known as the OLD Roman Catholic Church of Holland. The name is significant as witnessing her fidelity to that “Old” Catholicism universally accepted throughout the world and her disavowal of the “New” Catholicism which involved innovations of doctrine and discipline so different from the Apostolic practise and tradition. Old Roman Catholicism is simply the the same Mystical Body of Christ as in the first Christian centuries. There have been no essential changes. The decrees of the Second Council of Utrecht held under Archbishop Meindaerts in 1763, are a monument of orthodoxy and respect for they Holy See. In a declaration made by Archbishop Van Os, and his two suffragans, to the Papal Nuncio who visited Holland in 1823, they said: “We accept without any exception whatever, all the Articles of the Holy Catholic Faith, We will never hold nor teach, now or afterwards, any other opinions than those that have been decreed, determined and published by our Mother, Holy Church… We reject and condemn everything opposed to them, especially all heresies, without any exception, which the Church has rejected and condemned… We have never made common cause with those who have broken the bond of unity.”
Thus the Old Roman Catholic Church received and still preserves not only the true Apostolic succession, but the doctrines and rites of the Church of Christ and the Apostles as well. This Church is called OLD because it rejects Modernism and every recent innovation of doctrine while adhering faithfully to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of Apostolic times. She is called ROMAN because the line of her Apostolic succession from the first century until 1739 was held in common with the Roman Catholic Church and also because she uses the Roman Rite without addition or change, employing the Pontificale, Missale and Rituale Romanum with great care and exactness as to matter, form and intention in the administration of the seven Sacraments. The Church is CATHOLIC because she is not confined to any one nation or place or time, but ministers to all men, in all places, for all time, teaching the same Faith once delivered by her Founder, Jesus Christ, to the Apostles. The honest inquirer must be cautioned not to confuse the Old Roman Catholic Church with those groups calling themselves “Old Catholic.” Much which, in this age, calls itself “Old Catholic” represents some compromise with Protestantism, or in wider digression, with such non-Christian cults as theosophy. Old Roman Catholicism has no affiliation with such groups as the Polish National Catholic Church, or the Utrecht Union of Churches, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Churches of the Continent or any of the various independent groups which abound in the United States and elsewhere. The heterodoxy of these groups makes union with them impossible.
In 1870, Dr. Ignaz von Dollinger brought the “Old Catholics” into being to offer resistance to the dogma of Papal Infallibility. In 1873, the Old Roman Catholic Church of Utrecht was prevailed upon to provide these “Old Catholics” with a bishop in 1889, an amalgamation took place between the Church of Utrecht and the “Old Catholics”. Though Utrecht was eventually to abandon Old Roman Catholicism, the Church was not to perish. Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew of England was consecrated to the Episcopate by Archbishop Gerard Gul of Utrecht at a time when Utrecht was still truly orthodox. At the time of Archbishop Mathew’s consecration at Utrecht, no serious inroads had been made upon the Catholic Faith by the Church of Utrecht, nor had she yet departed in any way from Catholic traditions and practise. By the end of 1910, however, the heterodox influence of the “Old Catholics” had proved too much for Utrecht, and had overwhelmed her, and so great and far-reaching were the changes which she was prevailed upon to make in her formularies and doctrinal position, that on December 29, 1910, Archbishop Mathew was forced to withdraw the Old Roman Catholic Church in England from Communion with Utrecht in order to preserve its orthodoxy intact. Utrecht is no longer Old Roman Catholic but simply “Old Catholic.” Thus it comes about that the ancient and glorious Church of St. Willibrord and St. Boniface has its continuation and perpetuation through the present day Old Roman Catholic Church which is compelled, in defence of its orthodoxy, to refuse to hold union with either Utrecht or the Continental “Old Catholics.”
The successor to Archbishop Mathew was Msgr Bernard Mary Williams who, by virtue of his perpetual coadutorship, immediately succeeded the deceased Archbishop on December 20th 1919. Being then the only active Old Roman Catholic Bishop in Great Britain, Msgr Williams considered the question of safeguarding the succession. He arrived at a mutual understanding with Msgr Carfora who had succeeded Archbishop de Landas Berghes (who had been consecrated by Archbishop Mathew) as Archbishop of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church, that, should either die without leaving a successor, the survivor would consecrated a duly elected person to fill the vacancy.
Old Roman Catholicism, as Archbishop Mathew rightly understood it, was different from Old Catholicism in the retention of ancient doctrines, formularies and praxis, yet different from Roman Catholicism by that same retention of the Catholic Faith as it had “always been believed, everywhere and by all” (St Vincent Lerins) without the additional dogmas decreed by Rome. Archbishop Mathew’s vision of Old Roman Catholicism was as a continuation of the true Catholic Faith that had always existed in the West akin to that Faith which the Orthodox Catholics had also maintained since the divide between East and West in 1054. To this end, Archbishop Mathew successfully approached and achieved communion with the ancient See of Antioch (Orthodox Patriarchate). This intercommunion was the first real heal of schism between Eastern and Western jurisdictions and was based upon the mutual recognition and maintenance of the ancient Faith of the Church.
Regrettably, in 1925 Msgr Williams issued a new constitution which repudiated the whole historical and doctrinal position of Old Roman Catholicism, the very position which Archbishop Mathew had stood firm. Disaffected by persistent persecution from the Anglican Communion as well as by Rome, Msgr Williams repudiated the objections of the Church of Utrecht to the Roman Church and renewed his acceptance of the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, all with the aim of creating a pro-Uniate Rite for eventual reconciliation with Rome. This concept spread to North America, but effectively ended in Britain with Msgr Williams’ death in 1952. Of the three remaining priests in the UK, Fr Gerard George Shelley was elected Archbishop and subsequently consecrated by Bishop Richard Marchenna, consecrated by Archbishop Carfora in the States. Thankfully, Archbishop Carfora had maintained a true witness to the Old Roman Catholic Faith in sympathy with Archbishop Mathew.
Sadly however, a few communities would not return to Archbishop Mathew’s original vision of the Church and after the death of Archbishop Carfora and during the reign of Pius XII, they would repudiate the Old Roman Catholic position entirely, and decide to cease consecrating and ordaining further Clergy and discourage the faithful from seeking their ministrations. This was however short lived. Realising the liberalising trend in Roman Catholicism that the reign of John XXIII seemed to encourage, some Old Roman Catholics, despite their professed acceptance of the Roman dogmas particularly concerning Infallibility, abandoned any hope of achieving Msgr William’s vision of a Uniate Rite in communion with Rome. Thus it is that some Old Roman Catholics believe in the Papal dogmas and some hold them as doctrine. What is important? That in either case, that which is recognisably Catholic Tradition is held firm and this is most often demonstrated by the adherence to the Tridentine Rite that all orthodox Old Roman Catholics maintain.
The Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly affirmed its recognition of the validity of the Orders and Sacraments of the Old Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. See Addis and Arnold’s Roman Catholic Dictionary, which says of this Church: “They have retained valid Orders… We have been unable to discover any trace of heresy in these books,” (i.e. Those officially ordered for use in the Old Roman Catholic Church). A Catholic Dictionary, by Donald Attwater, bearing the imprimatur of Cardinal Hayes of New York, states of the Old Roman Catholic Church: “Their orders and sacraments are valid.” A more recent statement concerning the Old Roman Catholic Church, appears in the work by Father Konrad Algermissen, Christian Denominations, published in 1948 and bearing the imprimatur of John Cardinal Glennon of St. Louis: “The North American Old Roman Catholic Church (has) received valid episcopal consecration…”(p. 363). In 1928, The Far East magazine, published by the St. Columban Fathers of St. Columban’s, Nebraska, answered an enquiry concerning the validity of orders conferred in the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. The magazine article mentions Archbishop Carfora favorably and states that: “these orders are valid…”(p. 16. Jan. 1928 issue).
Based on the writings of Archbishop Carfora,, edited by Canon J Lloyd OSJV