Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Old Catholics

The sect organized in German speaking countries to combat the dogma of Papal Infallibility

Click to enlarge

Old Catholics, the sect organized in German speaking countries to combat the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Filled with ideas of ecclesiastical Liberalism and rejecting the Christian spirit of submission to the teachings of the Church, nearly 1400 Germans issued, in September, 1870, a declaration in which they repudiated the dogma of Infallibility “as an innovation contrary to the traditional faith of the Church“. They were encouraged by large numbers of scholars, politicians, and statesmen, and were acclaimed by the Liberal press of the whole world. The break with the Church began with this declaration, which was put forth notwithstanding the fact that the majority of the German bishops issued, at Fulda on August 30, a common pastoral letter in support of the dogma. It was not until April 10, 1871, that Bishop Hefele of Rotten-burg issued a letter concerning the dogma to his clergy. By the end of 1870 all the Austrian and Swiss bishops had done the same.

The movement against the dogma was carried on with such energy that the first Old Catholic Congress was able to meet at Munich, 22—September 24, 1871. Before this, however, the Archbishop of Munich had excommunicated Dellinger on April 17, 1871, and later also Friedrich. The congress was attended by over 300 delegates from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, besides friends from Holland, France, Spain, Brazil, Ireland, and representatives of the Anglican Church, with German and American Protestants. The moving spirit in this and all later assemblies for organization was Johann Friedrich von Schulte, the professor of dogma at Prague. Von Schulte summed up the results of the congress as follows: Adherence to the ancient Catholic faith; maintenance of the rights of Catholics as such; rejection of the new dogmas; adherence to the constitution of the ancient Church with repudiation of every dogma of faith not in harmony with the actual consciousness of the Church; reform of the Church with constitutional participation of the laity; preparation of the way for the reunion of the Christian confessions; reform of the training and position of the clergy; adherence to the State against the attacks of Ultramontanism; rejection of the Society of Jesus; solemn assertion of the claims of Catholics as such to the real property of the Church and to the title to it. A resolution was also passed on the forming of parish communities, which Dellinger vehemently opposed and voted against. The second congress, held at Cologne, 20—September 22, 1872, was attended by 350 Old Catholic delegates, besides one Jansenist and three Anglican bishops, Russian clergy, and English and other Protestant ministers. The election of a bishop was decided on, and among the most important resolutions passed were those pertaining to the organization of the pastorate and parishes. This was followed by steps to obtain recognition of the Old Catholics by various governments; the general feeling of that time made it easy to obtain this recognition from Prussia, Baden, and Hesse. Professor Reinkens of Bonn was elected bishop, June 4, 1873, and was consecrated at Rotterdam by the Jansenist Bishop of Deventer, Heydekamp, August 11, 1873. Having been officially recognized as “Catholic Bishop” by Prussia, September 19, and having taken the oath of allegiance, October 7, 1873, he selected Bonn as his place of residence. The bishop and his diocese were granted by Prussia an annual sum of 4800 Marks ($1200). Pius IX excommunicated Reinkens by name, November 9, 1873; previous to which, in the spring of 1872, the Archbishop of Cologne had been obliged to excommunicate Hilgers, Langen, Reusch, and Knoodt, professors of theology at Bonn. The same fate had also overtaken several professors at Braunsberg and Breslau. The fiction brought forward by Friedrich von Schulte that the Old Catholics are the true Catholics was accepted by several governments in Germany and Switzerland, and many Catholic churches were transferred to the sect. This was done notwithstanding the fact that a decree of the Inquisition, dated September 17, 1871, and a Brief of March 12, 1873, had again shown that the Old Catholics had no connection with the Catholic Church; represented, therefore, a religious society entirely separate from the Church; and consequently could assert no legal claims whatever to the funds or buildings for worship of the Catholic Church.

The development of the internal organization of the sect occupied the congresses held at Freiburg in the Breisgau, 1874; at Breslau, 1876; Baden-Baden, 1880; and Krefeld, 1884; as well as the ordinary synods. The synodal constitution, adopted at the urgency of von Schulte, seems likely to lead to the ruin of the sect. It has resulted in unlimited arbitrariness and a radical break with all the disciplinary ordinances of Catholicism. Especially far-reaching was the abolition of celibacy, called forth by the lack of priests. After the repeal of this law a number of priests who were tired of celibacy, none of whom were of much intellectual importance, took refuge among the Old Catholics. The statute of June 14, 1878, for the maintenance of discipline among the Old Catholic clergy has merely theoretical value. A bishop’s fund, a pension fund, and a supplementary fund for the incomes of parish priests have been formed, thanks to the aid given by governments and private persons. In the autumn of 1877 Bishop Reinkens founded a residential seminary for theological students, which, on January 17, 1894, was recognized by royal cabinet order as a juridical person with an endowment of 110,000 Marks ($27,500). A house of studies for gymnasial students called the Paulinum was founded April 20, 1898, and a residence for the bishop was bought. Besides other periodical publications there is an official church paper. These statements, which refer mainly to Germany, may also be applied in part to the few communities founded in Austria, which, however, have never reached any importance. In Switzerland the clergy, notwithstanding the very pernicious agitation, acquitted themselves well, so that only three priests apostatized. The Protestant cantons, above all Berne, Basle, and Geneva, did everything possible to promote the movement. An Old Catholic theological faculty, in which two radical Protestants lectured, was founded at the University of Berne. At the same time all the Swiss Old Catholic communities organized themselves into a “Christian Catholic National Church” in 1875; in the next year Dr. Herzog was elected bishop and consecrated by Dr. Reinkens. Berne was chosen as his place of residence. As in Germany so in Switzerland confession was done away with, celibacy abolished, and the use of the vernacular prescribed for the service of the altar. Attempts to extend Old Catholicism to other countries failed completely. That lately an apostate English priest named Arnold Mathew, who for a time was a Unitarian, married, then united with another suspended London priest named O’Halloran, and was consecrated by the Jansenist Archbishop of Utrecht, is not a matter of any importance. Mathew calls himself an Old Catholic bishop, but has practically no following. Some of the few persons who attend his church in London do so ignorantly in the belief that the church is genuinely Catholic.

The very radical liturgical, disciplinary, and constitutional ordinances adopted in the first fifteen years gradually convinced even the most friendly government officials that the fiction of the Catholicism of the Old Catholics was no longer tenable. The damage, however, had been done, the legal recognition remained unchanged, and the grant from the budget could not easily be dropped. In Germany, although there was no essential change in this particular, yet the political necessity which led to a modus vivendi in the Kulturkampf chilled the interest of statesmen in Old Catholics, particularly as the latter had not been able to fulfill their promise of nationalizing the Church in Germany. The utter failure of this attempt was due to the solidarity of the violently persecuted Catholics. In many cases entire families returned to the Church after the first excitement had passed, and the winning power of the Old Catholic movement declined through-out Germany in the same degree as that in which the Kulturkampf powerfully stimulated genuine Catholic feeling. The number of Old Catholics sank rapidly and steadily; to conceal this the leaders of the movement made use of a singular device. Up to then Old Catholics had called themselves such, both for the police registry and for the census. They were now directed by their leaders to cease this and to call themselves simply Catholics. The rapid decline of the sect has thus been successfully concealed, so that it is not possible at the present day to give fairly exact statistics. The designation of themselves as Catholics by the Old Catholics is all the stranger as in essential doctrines and worship they hardly differ from a liberal form of Protestantism. However, the prescribed concealment of membership in the Old Catholic body had this much good in it, that many who had long been secretly estranged from the sect were able to return to the Church without attracting attention. On account of these circumstances only Old Catholic statistics of some years back can be given. In 1878 there were in the German empire: 122 congregations, including 44 in Baden, 36 in Prussia, 34 in Bavaria, and about 52,-000 members; in 1890 there were only about 30,000 Old Catholics, on account of a decided decline in Bavaria. In 1877 there were in Switzerland about 73,000; in 1890 only about 25,000. In Austria at the most flourishing period there were perhaps at the most 10,000 adherents, today there are probably not more than 4000. It may be said that the total number of Old Catholics in the whole of Europe is not much above 40,000.

It seems strange that a movement carried on with so much intellectual vigour and one receiving such large support from the State should from bad management have gone to pieces thus rapidly and completely, especially as it was aided to large degree in Germany and Switzerland by a violent attack upon Catholics. The reason is mainly the predominant influence of the laity under whose control the ecclesiastics were placed by the synodal constitution. The abrogation of compulsory celibacy showed the utter instability and lack of moral foundation of the sect. Dollinger repeatedly but vainly uttered warnings against all these destructive measures. In general he held back from any active participation in the congresses and synods. This reserve frequently irritated the leaders of the movement, but Dollinger never let himself be persuaded to screen with his name things which he considered in the highest degree pernicious. He never, however, became reconciled to the Church, notwithstanding the many efforts made by the Archbishop of Munich. All things considered, Old Catholicism has practically ceased to exist. It is no longer of any public importance.

For accounts of the movements and tendencies that led up to Old Catholicism see Dollinger; Gunther; Hermes; Infallibility; Lamennais; Syllabus; Vatican Council.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!