“Christ-Catholic Church” read the name on the board outside. Puzzling. This was in Bern, capital of Switzerland. Venturing inside, it seemed a normal, turn-of-the-century Catholic parish church in the Romanesque style. Blessed Sacrament, children’s banners, a conservatively reordered sanctuary with the altar facing the congregation, candles on sale before a statue of the Sacred Heart statue.

            Yet something seemed slightly odd. The noticeboard displayed items of parish news, but none of the usual Third World or Caritas notices, nor information about missionary religious orders.

            Then I picked up a leaflet left in the prayer benches at the back. “Why not become Christ-Catholic? Change of denomination: a difficult step.” Reading it, I realised I was in a church of the Old Catholics, who split away from Rome after the First Vatican Council. They are still present in small numbers in Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

            In Switzerland, they call themselves “Christ-Catholic” rather than “Old Catholic”. They have only 12,000 adherents in 36 parishes, and Bern is actually their cathedral church. They have their own theological faculty in the Bern University, for the training of priests.

            The historical genesis of the Old Catholics goes back to 1870, in a protest movement, led by the theologian Döllinger, against the proposed dogma of papal infallibility, defined by the First Vatican Council the following year. University professors formed the nucleus of the movement, joined by academicians and the middle classes. It was never a popular grass-roots movement. It remained restricted to urban areas with the progressive liberal mentality.

            In August 1870, more than 1300 Rhineland Catholics protested against the Vatican Council. Their first Congress was held in Munich in September 1870. 32 professors in Nuremberg appealed to “an ecumenical council, true and free, and therefore to be held not in Italy but on this side of the Alps.” Shades of Luther indeed.

            After the 1871 definition of papal infallibility (which even Newman felt was inopportune, although he accepted it), the movement went into schism. Döllinger, its original leader, warned against the danger of division and remained a Roman Catholic. A Breslau professor, Reinkens, was consecrated to the episcopate by a bishop of the Church of Utrecht in the Netherlands, itself descended from the Jansenist schism of 1720.

            As in the case of Archbishop Lefebvre, once a schism has acquired episcopal orders, it can be perpetuated indefinitely. The Old Catholics reached their peak in Germany in the 1870’s with about 60,000 members. They were much favoured by Bismarck, the Prussian Chancellor, in his Kulturkampf (war of culture) against the Roman Church. The Iron Chancellor handed many parish churches over to the Old Catholics, and had ideas of a German Church independent of Rome, just as did Luther and later, Hitler.

            The Swiss “Christ-Catholic Church” held its first formal synod at Olten in 1875. Herzog became its first bishop the following year. In 1889 the German, Swiss, Austrian and Dutch national churches joined the Union of Utrecht. They claim to accept the historic Christian faith of the first millennium, without its medieval and modern “distortions” -  hence the name, Old Catholic.  At an early date they attempted ecumenical talks with the Orthodox and the Anglicans.

            These bore fruit in 1931, when they established full communion with the Anglican. Indeed, the English connection became quite close. Many high Anglo-Catholics vicars hastened to have themselves (re)ordained by Old Catholic Bishops. They were distressed by doubts about the validity of their own priestly orders, derived from the reformation and the Cranmerian ordination rites of Edward VI’s time, which totally excluded any concept of the Mass as a sacrifice and transubstantiation.

In seeking (re)ordination, they were in fact confirming Leo XIII’s judgment in Apostolicae Curae which concluded that Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void.” These Anglo-Catholic ministers wanted to make sure that they had the full Sacrament of priestly orders and could offer the sacrifice of the Mass. After all, Holy Orders do not even rank as a Sacrament in the 39 Articles.

Historic Anglican orders may be valid – as Archbishop Carey hotly contends - in terms of Anglican theology, but they are certainly not valid in terms of Catholic theology, as Dominus Iesus recently re-iterated.

            However Bishop Graham Leonard, I believe, was an example of one who may have acquired valid orders via the Old Catholic connection: he is said to have had documentary proof of an Old Catholic bishop’s participation at his ordination to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate. Therefore the Vatican insisted upon only a conditional re-ordination when he came into full communion with Rome.

            The alterations in Old Catholic doctrine since their split with Rome are instructive. In fact, they are paralleled by the demands of groups such as We are Church.

            The Swiss church is run by a synod, two-thirds laity. The executive council has four clerical and six lay members. Presumably the bishop’s authority is subservient to this synodal council. Parishes are autonomous and self-governing.

            Old Catholic priests are allowed to marry: celibacy is optional, not compulsory.  The offices of deacon, priest and (in theory) bishop have recently been opened to women. The divorced can remarry in church. They have, however, retained the Mass (in the vernacular) and the seven Sacraments.

            We often hear that similar changes are what the Catholic Church needs. If that were true, one would expect bodies such as the Old Catholics to be flourishing, drawing in the hundreds of thousands of alienated and disaffected Roman Catholics, and indeed making great headway in the evangelisation of their society. This does not seem to be the case. 12,000 members out of seven million Swiss does not seem to indicate a recipe for spiritual success.

            Photocopies of a rather plaintive article were left at the back of the Bern church. The writer (Denise Wyss) appeared to spend some of her time poaching for converts from Roman Catholicism. She bewailed the rarity of conversions from among disaffected liberal Catholics. They seem to prefer to stick with their own parish and family communities, even if they disagree with aspects of Catholic doctrine. Or else they try to refashion the Church from within, rather than opting out, and hope that the next Pope will pander to their wishes. Those who are more alienated from the Church, aren’t concerned with  belonging to any denomination at all.

            For all their talk of ecumenism, the Old Catholics have not lost their resentful edge against Rome and the Papacy. They accuse the Catholic Church of proclaiming a God of force, restrictions and oppression, of presenting sexuality as irreconcilable with the spiritual life and as something degrading, of regarding women as second class citizens.

            Anyone who is well informed in Catholic theology will recognise such talk for the parody that it is. Is it not hypocritical to talk of ecumenical efforts, while in the next breath criticising God’s intended centre of Church unity, the successor of Peter? We need to recognise that the Catholic Church stands at the very centre of the ecumenical enterprise, because within her is the focus of unity, the Eucharist and the Papacy.

Any statement which is unfairly critical of Rome is, in fact, an anti-ecumenical statement, because it promotes disharmony and untruth within the household (oikumene) of Christ. The anti-Roman complex – common among many Catholics - is the enemy of ecumenism.

The state of the Old Catholic churches is a convincing demonstration that the liberal recipe for the Church’s future, as formulated by We are Church and others, would be a disaster.



P.S. Correction to last week’s article: The Patriarch of Constantinople at the 1054 schism was Michael Caerularius (1043-58), not Photius (858-886).