Old Roman Catholicism is simply the continuation of the doctrines of the Catholic Faith as they had been received from Apostolic times without addition or subraction and without developed dogma unproven by Scripture or Tradition.
It is important perhaps, in order to fully appreciate the Old Roman Catholic position to consider the difference between “doctrine” and “dogma”.
“Doctrine and Dogma”
A “dogma” is something which one must believe in order to be a “real” Catholic. A “doctrine”, on the other hand, is simply a teaching, an explanation, an explication. One of the purposes of a doctrine is to make a dogma comprehensible, more readily understood. Though a Catholic must believe a dogma, he may believe any given doctrine to be a good teaching tool, a clear way of relating to dogma. Then again, he may not. His rejection of a given doctrine does not abrogate his Catholicity, so long as he remains dogmatically sound.
The credal affirmation that Jesus Christ is the “only begotten Son of the Father”, coupled with the evangelical affirmation of the mystery of the “virgin birth”, constitute dogmatic belief. To some, this dogma implied the “Immaculate Conception” of Mary. At least it implied as much to Duns Scotus. However, St Thomas Aquinas and St Bernard of Clairvaux each rejected the doctrine.
Ultimately, one Pope of Rome, Blessed Pius IX took it upon himself to make this doctrine a dogma i.e. from a teaching to something necessary of belief, the dogma of the “Immaculate Conception” followed almost a hundred years later similarly by the “Assumption of Our Lady”, dogmatised in 1950 by Pius XII. Thus we come to that other example of dogmatisation, Papal Infallibility declared by Pius IX in 1870 and the First Vatican Council. Here it is important to note, that rather than having been a doctrine, i.e. a common teaching of the Church prior to it’s dogmatisation, the concept of Papal Infallibilty had been more a matter of attitude towards discipline regarding government in the Church, rather than a matter of pious belief.
It is of course, the definition of Petrine Ministry contained in the Vatican I document “Pastor Aeternus” that justifies the existence of the Old Roman Catholic tradition.
Convinced long before the Vatican Council  that the doctrines of papal infallibility and the universality of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome over the Church were absolutely erroneous, Old Roman Catholics did not allow that the simple fact of the dogmatization of these two errors by the pope and the majority of the Council was sufficient to transform them into truths – still less, divine truths; and after, as before, the 18th of July 1870, we rejected these two dogmas. It is hardly necessary to recall the proofs established by Old Roman Catholics of the falsity of these new dogmas – a falsity clearly shown up by the Scriptures, by universal tradition, by the history of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and by several other undoubted facts. Roman Catholic theologians have seriously refuted none of these proofs.
Old Roman Catholics, therefore, by rejecting these false dogmas, remained faithful to the Catholicism of the time before the Vatican Council. We did not leave the Catholic Church to form a new Church, we remained in the Catholic Church of which we had always formed a part; and we continue to set the ‘universal’ unvarying, and unanimous testimony of the Church in opposition to Roman innovations.
This attitude and the theological works, which we had had to produce to prove the truth of our cause, have led us to discover a number of errors made by Roman theologians and transformed into dogmas in the course of the ages. So that the protest against the false dogmas of the 18th of July 1870, has logically incurred on our part the protest against all the false dogmas previously promulgated by the papacy. [See especially W. Guettee, La Papaute schismatique, Paris, 1863, and La Papute heretique, do. 1874, and E. Michaud, La Papaute antichretienne, do. 1873].
This discovery of the errors of the Roman papacy from the 9th century to the present day, and in all the individual Churches under the jurisdiction of Rome, has given fresh impetus and considerable importance to the Old Roman Catholic movement. It is a complete history of Roman Theology, remade in accordance with authentic sources and contrary to the thousands of Roman falsifications pointed out recently by the most eminent theologians of the Churches, including even Roman theologians.
We may say that these new publications – this veritable resurrection of ancient documents believed to be buried in darkness – have created a new situation and started a thorough reformation of so-called Catholic theology.
After 1870, a truly General Council was no longer considered a remote possibility. The Old Roman Catholic Church [as it was now known] then resolved to bring about many desired reforms within its own organization. Until then it had kept fairly close to the traditional laws and liturgical customs of the Roman Church.
The chief aims of the Old Roman Catholic Church may be reduced to three:
- 1] theological reform;
- 2] ecclesiastical reform;
- 3] union of the Christian Churches.
This reform was not undertaken arbitrarily; nor is it conducted by each theologian according to his personal opinions on each of the disputed questions. A strict method governs all their actions, a method, which results especially in distinguishing dogma from theology. Dogma, which is the word of Christ as it is recorded in the Gospels, from theology, which is the explanation given by the apostles and scholars to secure the acceptance and practice of the precepts of Jesus Christ.
Christ, being ‘the way, the truth, and the life’, is the only Scholar, the only Master; He has declared it Himself to His disciples. It is therefore, He alone who, as the only Mediator and Saviour, possesses the words of eternal life, it is He alone who is the light of the world, and it is He alone who has the right to impose His doctrines, decrees, and dogmas on His disciples.
On the other hand, every disciple is entitled and even duty bound to try to understand the dogmas of Christ, to see their depth and beauty, and to derive profit from them for the sanctification of his soul. Dogma is the divine truth which is taught by Christ; theology is the explanation given by man – an explanation more or less luminous, which each one may judge according to the light of his reason, conscience, and knowledge: “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” [1 Th. 5:21].
This distinction between dogma and theology is made by the application of the Catholic test to every disputed point. The test is the one so well epitomized by Vincent of Lerins: “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all the Christian Churches is Catholic” [Commonitory, ii..6]. The Catholic faith is the universal, unvarying, and unanimous faith, because, even humanly speaking, all the Christian Churches cannot be making a mistake when they attest, as a fact, they have always believed or not believed, from their very foundation, in the doctrine which the apostle-founders of their particular Church has taught them or not.
It is not a question of settling an important discussion, but of making a simple statement of fact. As to the theological explanations, which may be given of the established doctrine, they depend, like all the explanations in this world, on reason, science, history, and the knowledge which humanity has at its disposal.
Thus faith and liberty are reconciled. The faith which depends not on any caprice or any school, but solely on the historical and objective testimony of the Churches; and liberty of criticism or of reason, which conscientiously speaking, belongs to the religious truths transmitted to all the Churches, to the best of the religious interests of each Church. Thus the faith is a depository. A depository of all the precepts confided by Jesus Christ to His disciples, a depository which does not belong exclusively to any one person, but to everybody, to the preservation of which all faithful Churches carefully attend, so that none of it may be suppressed, and also that no foreign doctrine may be surreptitiously introduced into it [depositum custodi]. And theology is a science which, like other sciences, belong to reason, to history, to criticism, and which also obeys fixed rules.
It is therefore neither a bishop nor a priest nor a scholar that is entrusted with the preservation of dogma, but all bishops, all priests, all scholars – in a word, all the faithful members of the Church. Christ being the only Master of His Church, there is no other rule than His; it is sufficient to guard His doctrine and precepts. The Church was not instituted to found a religion other than that of Christ, but merely to preserve it and spread it throughout the world [“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations”]. The Church is therefore a guardian of the teachings and precepts of Jesus Christ; its title, the ‘teaching Church’, means not that it has the right to teach any doctrines that it pleases, but that it is its duty to preach openly what Christ taught His disciples in secret.
Real theological reform should consist in communicating to all men the teachings of Jesus Christ, as they are collected in the Scriptures and recorded in the universal tradition of the Church – a tradition, which also belongs to all the members of the Church. It is the duty of pastors and scholars to explain them, and it is the duty of each member to study the explanation, which appear to them wisest and most useful. The good sense and the Christian spirit that prevail in the Church are sufficient to ensure the final triumph of truth over error; “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.
Since the Church is not a chair to which might be addressed all questions that arise in the minds of the inquisitive and the imaginative, it is not obliged to solve them or to prevent men from discussing among themselves matters which neither God nor Christ has thought fit to make clear. It is the work of scholars to elucidate the mysteries of science; the apostles have simply to preach the truths, which Christ thought sufficient for the edification and sanctification of humanity.
The fruitfulness of the faith does not consist in discovering new dogmas or in transforming the Church into a revealer, charged with completing the revelation made by Christ. The faith is fruitful, it increases, it grows by the closeness of its adherence to the word of Christ, and not by the proclamation of unknown dogmas. It is Christ alone who is the religious light and the religious life of the world – the Church must only be His humble servant.
This reform should consist in reminding the Church what Christ wished it to be. Christ established a hierarchy for the service of the faithful. That hierarchy, therefore, ought to serve, and not to rule. Its offices are a ministry, and not an authority. There is no imperium in the Church of Christ; “neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you”; and the obedience of the disciples must be reasonable, and not servile.
If any member wanted to be first, he had to be the first to serve his brothers, and not to give them orders – to feed the flock, i.e. to lead it into good pastures, and not to enslave it by false dogmas or exploit it by superstitions. The main duties of pastors are to arouse the conscience of the faithful, to enlighten it, to act as if each of them were another Christ. Christ took a firm stand against the Pharisees of His day, but He did not charge any of His disciples to rebuke his brothers, still less to excommunicate them or curse them.
The mission of the Church also is essentially religious and spiritual. Christ did not give it any worldly and temporal authority; He chose apostles and disciples only to lay the most strict duties on them, and thus to make examples of them for the flock. The early bishops or superintendents were only the overseers, and not master: “for one is your Master” [Matthew 23.8].
The primitive Church, then, was simply a gathering or reunion in which the first and only Chief was, in the eyes of the faithful, Christ himself. Pastor5s and people simply formed a school, a body and soul. This was the parish, and, if a dispute arose between any of the members, it was ‘the Church’ that restored peace: “Die Ecclesiae”.
Gradually bonds of brotherhood and charity were formed between the various local churches, and in this way synods came into being – special and very limited synods, before the idea of general councils were heard of. It is not only the idea of the true bishops, therefore, that has to be restored, but also that of the synod and the council.
Because the so-called ecumenical council was believed to be the representation of the whole Church, it was soon confused by the Church, and rights were assigned to it, which the Church itself hardly possessed. Under the pretext that the council was, as it were, the supreme jurisdiction of the Church, this jurisdiction was made a universal and absolute jurisdiction to which was soon joined the privilege of infallibility. The practical consequences resulting from this confusion and the numerous abuses arising from them to the detriment of the Church are well known.
Old Roman Catholics are engaged in restoring the true conceptions of pastor, bishop, synod, council, ecclesiastical authority, and even infallibility according to ancient traditions. The constitution of the Church is monarchical only because Christ is its only monarch. But, inasmuch as it is a society composed of men, the Church has been called from its very beginning a simple ‘church’ and it has been regarded in its universality, since the time when the question of universality arose, as a Christian ‘republic’. It would give a wrong idea of the early bishops to represent their actions as an aristocratic government; the words of St. Peter himself are opposed to that.
The episcopal see of Rome was not long in attaining a certain priority. Rome being the capital of the empire; but it was merely a priority of honour, and not of jurisdiction. Christ did not appoint a master among His disciples. When He told Peter especially to feed His lambs and sheep, it was to restore to him the function of which he had proved unworthy, and of which he had been deprived in denying Christ. As Peter repented, he deserved to be reinstated, and he was, but it is a mistake to transform this reinstatement as a simple apostle into exaltation above all the other apostles. Rome accomplished the alteration of the constitution of the Church by means of grossly erroneous interpretations of texts; the policy and the ambition of the bishops of Rome did the rest.
Such is the spirit in which Old Roman Catholics have set about restoring the true conception of the Church and realizing the ecclesiastical reform claimed for such a long time ‘in capite et in membris’.
Union of the Christian Churches
This reform of the Church would have been very imperfect if it had not from the very beginning implied the re-establishment of union among the separate Churches. It has been rightly said that ‘it is as difficult to see Christ behind the Church as to see the sun behind the darkness of night’. From the very start of our work we have made it one of our aims to study means of reviving this union. Our efforts during our international congresses, and our writings on this question in Revue internationale de theologie [1893 – 1910], are well known; great reconcilations have been effected among all the Churches that have taken part in these, and, if the union has not yet been sanctioned, it is because there are still administrative obstacles to be overcome, and especially prejudices of a hierarchical kind to be put down – a matter of time, which more favourable social circumstances will undoubtedly help to bring to a successful issue.
It is already apparent to all eyes that the ‘union’ aimed at is on the ‘unity’ which many had at first imaged. That the latter is not necessary; and that, moreover, it is impossible, considering the needs of various kinds which are prevalent among the nations and which form part of human nature itself. The chimera of a false unity being removed, matter-of-fact men will return to the real nature of spiritual union and the ‘bond of peace’ [Eph. 4:3], which will be sufficient to form real Christian brotherhood throughout the world.
A better understanding has already been reached as to the respects in which the Christian Churches ought to be one, and those in which they ought to remain distinct and all. When all are one in loving one another, in working together for the social well-being, in banishing from their theology every trace of anthropomorphism and politics, in becoming more spiritually-minded after the pattern of Christ, and in establishing the reign of God in every individual conscience, then the union in question will be very near being declared.
Acknowledgements: Bishop Raphael J Adams “Meet the Ultrajectines” and Fr Charles T Brusca “Old Roman Catholic Church: In the history of the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church“