Old Catholic Ecclesiology

Here I am importing a few articles from the old English Catholic blog.

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Looking for a new home?

This article by Bishop Roald Flemestad of the Nordic Catholic Church was published in this [December 2011] month’s New Directions, the magazine of Forward in Faith. The Nordic Catholic Church is a member of the Union of Scranton.

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What do you do when the ground slips under your feet and your life’s work crumbles away before your eyes? The appointment of a lady bishop back in 1993 confronted the high church movement in the Church of Norway with just this predicament. The sacramental structure of the Church was irreparably gone! In this situation one must look in two directions and ask: First, can I bear the costs of breaking up? Particularly for clergy with families, irresponsible action was and is ill advised. The next question is: Where to go?

In the second part of the 1990s these issues posed unpleasant challenges to laity and clergy in the Norwegian Church Union. In the end some stayed in the Church of Norway, while others went to Rome and yet others formed the Nordic Catholic Church. Ten years later I am the Bishop of the Nordic Catholic Church and I would like to present this alternative to you in case the game is up also in the Church of England after the meetings of the General Synod in 2012.

If looking for a new ecclesial home, most of us abhor the idea of creating a new church. Moreover, moving to a new place becomes easier if one can bring along the old furniture. These two conditions were responsibly met in our negotiations with the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC). In our initial talks in 1999, we as former members of the Church of Norway were allowed to bring with us «our Lutheran heritage to the extent that it has embraced and transmitted the faith of the Undivided Church». Having thus secured some basic elements of our patrimony, we committed ourselves to the doctrines of the seven Ecumenical Councils and other essential aspects of the Undivided Church. In short, we metaphorically took our furniture with us into a new home built on Catholic foundations. Looking back, this arrangement has served us and the PNCC well. Ecumenically important is that the validity of our ministry and sacraments is recognised by the Roman Catholic Church.

However, at the turn of the millenium the development within the Union of Utrecht took a sad twist. A new generation of Old Catholic bishops – many of them converts from the Roman Catholic Church – introduced a modernising agenda embracing the ordination and consecration of women to Holy Orders and solemnising of same-sex relationships. As the PNCC opposed these developments, she was expelled from the Union of Utrecht in 2003. Thus left alone as the only Old Catholic Church still to hold the Declaration of Utrecht as a normative document of faith, the PNCC began to prepare an alternative ecclesial structure.

In 2008 the PNCC Bishops unanimously signed the doctrinal basis for the so-called Union of Scranton. As a standard for future agreements with church bodies who wish to unite with the PNCC, this document restates the principles of the Declaration of Utrecht, adding a rejection of women clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. The document designates the new union as based upon a so-called eucharistic ecclesiology. Each member church is understood as a communion of people gathered around a bishop in apostolic succession as its center of unity. Doctrinally bound to the faith of the Undivided Church of the first millennium, each local church is seen as a complete church that carries out its tasks autonomously in that given place.

On this basis, there can be unity in diversity. Communion among the member churches does not require from each church in the union the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion or liturgical practice characteristic of the PNCC, but it implies that each church believes the other churches to hold the essentials of the Catholic faith.

The Nordic Catholic Church was the first to join in the Union of Scranton. Presently we have five parishes in Norway and a developing community in Stockholm, Sweden. Moreover, work is being initiated in Germany and elsewhere. Our activities outside Scandinavia take place in cooperation with the PNCC within the framework of the Union of Scranton.

Hopefully, my intention in presenting our work to readers of New Directions is plain to see. If Anglo-Catholics are not given a proper place in the Church of England, we invite you to consider the Union of Scranton as a way out of your predicament. It is a waste of time to lament things that have been irretrievably lost. It may take some hard effort to build a new home, but good constructive work keeps one happy. Moreover, the Christian promise gives us hope and the strength to live with imperfection.

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The Old Catholic Ideal

Perhaps I ought here to begin by characterising the fairly “conventional” category of Old Catholicism, not as membership of an institutional ecclesial body bearing that title but a Catholic vision transcending canonical boundaries. The Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht are now associated with the “progressive” agenda. There is also a whole “alphabet soup” of independent bodies, some viable Churches with integrity and doing God’s work – and others being little more than a single bishop.

Traditionally, Old Catholics have been thought of according to their positions of refusing certain Roman Catholic dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception, Papal infallibility and the Assumption. This attitude of negation would seem to be Old Catholicism’s greatest weakness. It is vital to affirm an identity, an ecclesial identity, that of the eternal Church, traditional (with a small “t”) Catholicism – or a kind of Catholicism where Tradition takes precedence over authority. Such ideas are very much those of Pope Benedict XVI, but hardly the “mind of the Church” (or most of the Church), at least at this time.

There is no golden age in the history of the Church, no one period that can be said to be “perfect” and a model for all ages. The primitive Church was thus, as St Paul said in I Cor 11: – For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not. Amazing, when you think of it. The “primitive church” utopia of certain forms of Protestantism never existed! They were at it hammer and tongs just as we are today!

There have always been divisions and sins in the Church. At the same time, there has been a consensus of faith throughout the history of Christianity. St Paul’s writings give us the key to understanding the Church as a communion of believers. The Church is manifest in the Eucharist which defeats sin by bringing together what is divided. Communion and relationship are at the core of human life. The Eucharist prefigures the restoration of all creation in a new covenant with God. It prefigures the reconciliation of one group of people that belongs to the Church with another and rival group of people that also belongs to the Church. Like the Eucharist, the Church can be visibly divided, yet conserve her unity. Some might call this the branch theory and stigmatise it, but it makes perfect sense to me. Broken relationships are repaired and the Church is a new communion where all discord is made into harmony and love. Communion is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. It aims to uphold the human person and helps that person to enrich the whole community. The Churches are already one through the Sacraments. It is for us to collaborate with that grace so that the unity and community may be visible. The first thing is to care for persons and bring them into love.

To prefigure and actualise this unity of the Church-Mystery, the Church needs a full sacramental life, which necessitates the Apostolic Priesthood: the Episcopate, Presbyterate and the Diaconate. Without the sacramental Mystery, the Church would have no connection in time with her apostolicity and origins in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Here there is no difference from any Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Christ lives through the Eucharistic Mystery and his whole work of redemption is present in each Mass.

The real difference in Old Catholicism is the participation of the faithful in the election of the bishop. Each diocese is a complete Church, but cannot exist in isolation from the other local Churches, for the bishop-elect is consecrated by the surrounding diocesan bishops forming the episcopal college. The other significant difference, colluding to a great extent with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, is collegiality in communion and ecumenism.

Old Catholicism in its distinctiveness represents ‘conciliar’ ecclesiology, placing more emphasis on the communion of the bishops between themselves than receiving their power of jurisdiction from the Pope. It is not simply a question of ecclesiastical jurisdiction but also communion and consensus in the Faith. The Declaration of Utrecht of 1889 begins with the famous quote of St Vincent of Lérins: Id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum. What is Catholic is what is held and believed everywhere, at all times and by all. In this notion is the Catholicity of the Church. This was the yardstick by which the minority at Vatican I judged that Papal infallibility violated Tradition and introduced something that would make the Church indefensible in terms of apologetics.

The “canon” of St Vincent of Lérins is not a literal criterion of truth, because there are developments in the Church’s history, a notion of growth and life. It is not a means to freeze everything in the Church or impede any change or reform. It appeals to Christians to stick with the mainstream in doctrinal terms in order to be one in faith. Until this unity is achieved, no single Church should unilaterally change the dogmas or introduce practices that would compromise the validity of the Sacraments. One legitimate Old Catholic church descended from the medieval diocese of Utrecht has survived such a unilateral change, as is the ordination of women, the Polish National Catholic Church and the Union of Scranton.

Conciliarity implies a number of notions, of which one refers to the fifteenth Ecumenical Council – Constance (1414-1418). It was called to deal with the Great Schism of the West. An earlier attempt at Pisa just made things worse – instead of getting one or both rival popes to step down, it created a third pope! The solution was to place the Ecumenical Council over the Pope, and assert that its authority came from Christ through the bishops. Constance was convened reluctantly by Pope John XXIII (antipope) because Emperor Sigismund put on the pressure. The three contenders to the Papal throne were all made to step down and Pope John fled (deposed for simony in 1415). The Council asserted itself to be valid even without ratification of the Pope. There is also a question of “reception”. This notion is of supreme ecclesial importance, because it confers validity on a Council, recognising it to be ecumenical (of the whole Church) or rejecting it. Historically, a Council is ecumenical because they are universally accepted, and not because they are imposed.

As I mentioned above the big problem with these criteria of universality is that the so-called “undivided” Church was very divided. This we know from biblical and historical scholarship. Still, this cannot be a pretext for innovating recklessly and imposing through arbitrary authority. There is also in the Church the criteria of consent, the consensus of the Fathers of the Church and a consensus of the present bishops of the Church. Consensus was traditionally achieved by excluding extreme opinions, and the goal was precision in doctrinal definitions, often motivated by a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, an idea that the “heretic” is trying to deceive us with words. These days, we try to find a “hermeneutic of trust”, trusting that the person is helping us to find better words to describe a mystery of faith.

Old Catholicism is in a certain way an earlier form of “traditionalism”. It is old as opposed to the new Catholicism of Vatican I and ultramontanism. Its conviction is that the Roman Catholic Church had introduced radical innovations (papal infallibility) that went against Tradition. Its arguments are actually quite close to traditionalists like the late Archbishop Lefebvre. Paul VI imposed his new “artificial” rites for Mass and the other Sacraments because he thought that, as Pope, he was above Tradition. The biggest ambiguity is conciliating this immobilism with necessary changes in the Church’s history. Nihil novandum nisi quod traditum est – “Nothing should be renewed except what has been handed down”. But there have been “organic” developments if we go along with the theory of John Henry Newman. Actually, if you read Newman, he makes a lot of sense. Life is not immobile: we have birth, growth, stability and death – and we also have succeeding generations and the capacity for humanity to learn from history. All this is both a linear and a cyclic movement.

In practical pastoral matters, it has proved important in history to depart from the idea of justifying the slightest adaptation by canonical jurisprudence and Tradition. Innovations are often necessary – establishing dioceses, parishes, chaplaincies and other institutions according to need. There has to be a sense of balance between liturgical innovation and respecting traditional rites for those who wish to keep them, establishing “fresh expressions” and “emerging churches” alongside traditional parishes and chaplaincies. There need to be innovations and initiatives, as long as the essential deposit of faith and the sacramental life of the Church are not touched.

The Ordinariate for former Anglicans is such a pastoral innovation by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and perfect for those prepared to accept the conditions and requirements. Some of us from Anglican backgrounds do not fit the required profile or have been loose cannons for too long. Other innovations and adaptations are possible to keep the Christian people together and allow the priests to continue in their vocations with little or no discontinuity. There is no “conversion” in the sense of rejection of what one is leaving to embrace conformity and uniformity, but rather a kind of “topping-up” to improve what was already there. Some of us will make every effort to produce something new, yet faithful to Catholic Tradition in the essentials. The alternative is “giving up”, which marks the final victory of the Enemy! This is what we have been doing through high-church Continuing Anglicanism, itself a form of Old Catholicism.

The aspiration to unity with the ancient Apostolic Churches must remain, and dialogue needs to be initiated and maintained. Despite the divisions in the Church of every period of history, more balance and fidelity to Tradition is found in the first millennium than the second. That is a long time, from which we can find, not a “golden age” or a utopia, but a standard on which Christianity in all eras can be based. It is not a question of imitating the ancient Church or devising archaeological reconstructions, but referring to the characteristic form of life of the undivided Church. This should be the reference point of Church unity between Old Catholics, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox and all other Christians.

One day, in God’s time, visible unity will be restored, and we should continue to work for that holy goal – ut omnes unum sint.

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Continuing Catholicism?

A few days ago, I brought up the subject of the Council of Constance in the fifteenth century which represented the universal Church in putting an end to the scandalous schism which had divided the Latin Church between rival claimants to the Papacy for almost forty years. It was able to do so by claiming and exercising authority superior over the Pope. Thus the body of the Church showed its authority to judge Popes or antipopes who thought they were above Tradition or the service of the Church’s communion.

This Council gave the precedent of a historical tradition of conciliarism, or  kind of constitutionalism that survived in mainstream Catholicism until 1870, when the monarchical papalist vision triumphed and became identified with Catholic orthodoxy. Over the centuries, conciliarism survived in Europe, especially in the Germanic countries – and finally in the lands where Protestantism prevailed in the sixteenth century. France managed to maintain a more Catholic constitution in its Gallicanism. In the first millennium of the Church’s history, the Ecumenical Council was the authority of the Church on those rare occasions when doctrinal disputes and disciplinary problems had to be settled. I find it normal that there should be a mechanism by which the head bishop, patriarch or whatever he is called can be judged, called to task and disciplined when his acts menace the common good of the Church and draw religion into disrepute.

Under a conciliarist ecclesiology, the Church would not have had the monstrously corrupt Popes of the early sixteenth century who to a large extent caused the Protestant Reformation. History would have been so different. What was needed was a Church under the control of synods of bishops rather than the more Lollard type of idea involving an early form of Protestantism and more reliance on the Word rather than the Sacraments. That being said, there needs to be a balance or sharing between the hierarchy of bishops and priests and the consent and consultation of the laity. Conciliarism underpinned the Council of Trent and launched the Counter-Reformation, and later survived in Josephinism, Febronianism and Gallicanism. The break of Utrecht from Rome was about a conciliar constitution of the local diocesan Church under pressure from the Jesuits in the early eighteenth century, certainly more than about the doctrinal subtleties of Jansenism.

The final massive offensive against conciliarism came with the movement leading to Vatican I, presented as a reaction against the threats against the Church such as liberalism, scepticism in theodicy and their perceived causes – too much freedom in the local Churches of Europe. Newman complained at the time that the polemics of the extreme papalists were driving away both the intellectuals and the simple people. Many of the polemics surrounding the second Vatican Council and the changes it heralded concerned conciliarism and episcopal collegiality. The term conciliar is often used (abused) by traditionalist Catholics in a derogatory way to describe liturgical abuses, bad theology and the like – even though some of those denounced characteristics are the effect of Paul VI thinking he was above Tradition.

I have for many years believed in the cause of conciliarism, as has been maintained in Eastern Orthodoxy, Old Catholicism and Anglicanism. Old Catholicism and Anglicanism have been seriously affected by the pathology of so-called liberalism, which of course has nothing to do with other people’s liberty. In our own time, the most conservative Catholicism is that which appeals to Papal monarchism. With Anglicanorum coetibus, many of us hoped that this was going to be something protected by the Pope against the arbitrary domination of diocesan bishops of progressive agenda out to make the whole scheme fail. It was not to be, for Pope Benedict XVI is clearly himself a conciliarist, which is why he such a clear-headed theologian! How ready were we to ride on the back of ultramontanism to promote a conciliarist agenda? There is the supreme irony! We failed through lack of coherence. We have to face it square on!

In order to formulate a credible continuing Catholic ideal (including Catholic-believing Christians of Anglican background), it would seem to me that we have to get this one right so that we don’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. We have to accept that conciliarist Catholicism has to live with a minority existence and try to teach through example. Our first task is to cease to be malcontents or disgruntled people, as some call us, but to present our ideal as something positive.

I have had comments telling me that Old Catholicism or conciliarism were discredited because of the way the Union of Utrecht has gone, very much like the Anglican Communion – the way of liberal Protestantism and contemporary political correctness. And, on the other hand, the little independent churches are discredited because such-and-such a bishop has not done a day’s seminary or has been involved with hanky-panky behind the sacristy curtains, or whatever. There are many silly, stupid and bad men around, but they no more discredit the ideal than do bad bishops in any Church.

We could come up with any number of guidelines, which are all fallible, but there are some things that make sense. In particular no church body should announce itself until it is big enough and organised enough to be viable and able to screen its own clergy by knowing them personally. That is why this will be a lot easier with family-like ecclesiastical structures with a minimum of bureaucracy or rigid methods. Two things would be very helpful to ensure the quality of the clergy, their serious formation via a distance-learning theology faculty coupled with weekend sessions in practical “priestcraft” and pastoral training. That, and insisting that each candidate should have had professional training and responsibilities whether in the caring / teaching professions, management or a trade. I think we would have fewer men tempted to play church!

As most of us have been doing in Continuing Anglicanism, and others in bodies that joined up with viable Old Catholic jurisdictions, we need to concentrate of fostering primacy of conscience, ecclesial collegiality and conciliarism. We should use our freedom to write and publish, to teach and guide by love and desire to share knowledge. We have also to lead by example in the question of married priests and bishops, as is our tradition in Anglicanism and Old Catholicism. The laity need to become instructed so that their being consulted becomes positive and enlightening.

I am sure we will rethink our desire for Church unity and a profound understanding of the role of the Pope. The notion of “unity by desire” needs to be developed so that Church unity can transcend the obstacles of mean-spirited bishops or spiritual misers or human sin simply. Actual canonical and visible unity may one day come about, but after a long process of meeting up for dialogue and explanations that would dispel prejudice and bigotry. As things stand, with some Catholics, we are still in the mid nineteenth century! That is intolerable and will delay visible unity for another couple of centuries.

And so we will continue, and learn from our errors, our own errors over the past few years and the errors of those who preceded us (Lord Acton for example) and whose unity efforts also failed. We are called to continue – with our freedom, our courage and our faith intact.

May God bless you all in this coming New Year.

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Döllinger on the Council of Constance

I have scanned this text from my copy of Ignaz von Döllinger’s The Pope and the Council. It is not intended by me as a polemical attack on the contemporary (to us) Papacy or the Roman Catholic Church, but simply as a document from a man who was acclaimed in his time as an excellent historian. For convenience in reading this html rendering, the author’s footnotes have been inserted into the text [between square brackets].

Naturally, the reference to John XXIII describes the antipope of the fifteenth century, not the good Pope John who reigned from 1958 to 1963.

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The Council of Constance.

To bring about the actual downfall of the system, it was necessary that it should be represented in the person of a Pope who was the most worthless and infamous man-to be found anywhere, according to the testimony of a contemporary. [Justinger, Bemer-Chronic. p. 276. “The worst and most abused man to be found, when his badness had been thoroughly exposed in the Council at Constance.”] This Pope, recognised up to the day of his deposition by the great majority of Western Christendom, was Balthasar Cossa, John XXIII. Now was the first real victory won, not only over persons, but over the Papacy, and for this was required such an assembly as was the Council of Constance (1414-1418), the most numerous ever seen in the West, at which, besides 300 bishops, there were present the deputies of fifteen universities, and 300 doctors, men who were not in the ambiguous position of having to reform abuses to which they owed their own dignities and emoluments. And this assembly had to introduce the new plan of voting by nations in place of the old one of voting by individuals, or all would have been wrecked through the great number of Italian bishops, the majority of whom considered it their natural duty to uphold the Papal system, the Curia, and the means of revenue thence accruing to the Italians. The corruption of the Church, and the demoralization which was its result, had penetrated deeper in Italy than elsewhere, and then, as afterwards, it was remarked, that the Italian bishops were the most steady opponents of every remedy and reformation.

With the Council of Constance arose a star of hope for the German Church. Well were it if she had possessed men capable of taking permanent advantage of so favourable a situation. The new Emperor, Sigismund, full of earnest zeal to help the Church in her sore distress, managed so skilfully to persuade and press Pope John, who was threatened in Italy, that he chose the German city of Constance for the Council, and came there himself, though not by his own goodwill. For three centuries the Germans had been thrust out by the Italians and French from all active part in the general affairs of the Church. They were the nation least responsible, next to the English, for the evils of the schism,—for the Curia had always been purely French and Italian, and had contained no single element of German representation. The German clergy were more sinned against than sinning. It is true that even in Germany the corruption of the Church had become intolerable, and cried to Heaven, but it was no native product of the German people; it had been imported from the south, like a foreign pestilence, and become permanent through the destruction of the organic life of the national Church.

In the famous decrees of the fourth and fifth sessions, the Council of Constance declared that “every lawfully convoked Oecumenical Council representing the Church derives its authority immediately from Christ, and every one, the Pope included, is subject to it in matters of faith, in the healing of schism, and the reformation of the Church.” The decree was passed without a single dissentient voice,—a decision more eventful and pregnant in future consequences than had been arrived at by any previous Council, and accordant in principle with primitive antiquity,—for so the Church held before the appearance of the pseudo-Isidore. But at the time it must have looked like a bold innovation; so strongly had the current set in the opposite direction for a lengthened period, and so loftily had the Popes towered above the humble attitude of the silent and submissive Synods from the third Lateran to the Council of Vienne. That the Council had a full right to call itself Oecumenical was obvious. The small and divided fractions of the other two Obediences could not prejudice its claims. Gregory XII and Benedict XIII had been deserted by their Cardinals, and all that could be held to constitute the Roman Church took part in the Council.

If a Pope is subject to a Council in matters of faith he is not infallible; the Church, and the Council which represents it, inherit the promises of Christ, and not the Pope, who may err apart from a Council, and can be judged by it for his error. This inference was clear and indisputable. But it was not the article in the decrees concerning faith, but that concerning reformation, which excited the suspicion of the Cardinals. That a Pope who became heretical fell under the judgment of the Church, and therefore of a Council, was the commonly accepted and admitted theory since the so-called canon of St. Boniface had been received into the codes, though it could not really be reconciled with the doctrine of infallibility assumed in the same codes of canon law, and disseminated by Aquinas. Yet the Cardinals dared not refuse their assent to the decrees I which were so menacing to the interests of the Curia.

These decisions of Constance are perhaps the most extraordinary event in the whole dogmatic history of the Christian Church. Their language leaves no doubt that they were understood to be articles of faith, dogmatic definitions of the doctrine of Church authority. And they deny the fundamental position of the Papal system, which is thereby tacitly but very eloquently signalized as an error and abuse. Yet that system had prevailed in the administration of the Church for centuries, had been taught in the canon law books and the schools of the Religious Orders, especially by Thomist divines, and assumed or expressly affirmed in all pronouncements and decisions of the Popes, the new authorities for the laws of the Church. And now not a voice was raised in its favour; no one opposed the doctrines of Constance, no one protested!

But the state of the Church had become so unnatural and monstrous,—the measure of human infirmity and sinfulness which must be reckoned upon in every, even the best, community was so largely exceeded,— and the habitual transgression of the laws of God and the ordinances of the ancient Church was so open and universal, that every one could perceive that the whole dominant system, rather than particular individuals, was responsible for this perversion of Church-government into a vast engine of finance and money-getting,— this transformation of a free Church arranging its affairs by common consultation into a subject empire under absolutist rule, and made the prey of an oligarchy. When the Cardinals said, in the letter they addressed to their Pope, Gregory XII., in 1408, that there was no soundness in the Church from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head,[Raynald. Annal. 1408.] they should have added, if they wished to tell the whole truth, “.It is we and our colleagues, and your predecessors, it is the Curia, who have gone on saturating the body of the Church with moral poison, and therefore is it now so sorely diseased.” There were certainly but few who clearly understood all the real causes as well as the greatness of the evil, but those few spoke out distinctly what every one dimly felt. Reform in the head and the members was the universal watchword throughout Europe, and was understood by every one to mean that the head, the Papal See, needed reform first of all, and that only then and thus would a reform of the members be possible. It was notorious to all that the good dispositions of this or that individual Pope, even if they continued, were utterly powerless, and that reformation in the present case meant an entire change of system. In face of this evidence all the wisdom of both schools—of the canonists and the monkish theologians—was dumb, built, as it was, on rotten foundations. They were reduced to silence, or had, like Tudeschi and many Dominicans, to assent to the decrees of Constance. The public opinion of the whole Christian world, directed and matured by the discussions carried on for the last forty years at Paris, Avignon, Rome, Pisa, and the German universities, was too strong for them.

Even the new Pope elected at the Council of Constance was obliged to declare himself in accord with this feeling. He had indeed been a zealous adherent of John XXIII., and had only at the last moment deserted him, and given in his adhesion to the Council. But he was now Pope by virtue of this deposition of his predecessor, which depended entirely on the decree passed at the Council, and therefore on the Episcopal system. John had not been deposed on account of his opposition to the Council, but only on account of his breaking his oath of obedience to it, and his crimes, after a formal investigation. An express confirmation of this decree by Martin V seemed at the time not only superfluous, but objectionable. It would have been like a son wanting to attest the genuine paternity of his own father, for this decree had made him Pope. Had he wished to assail its validity in any way he would have been bound at once to resign, and let the deposed Pope again take his place. It was clear to him that he could no longer act upon the right, claimed and exercised by his predecessors for 200 years, to be the ruler of the whole Church assembled and represented at the Council, and he distinctly said this in his Bull against the doctrine of Wycliffe, where he asserted the proposition that the supremacy of the Roman Church over the rest is no part of necessary doctrine, to be an error, because Wycliffe understood by the Roman the universal Church, or a Council, or at least denied the primacy of the Pope over the other particular Churches. [“Super alias ecclesias particulares,” i.e., no primacy over the universal Church or a general Council, in strict accordance with the decrees of Constance. So, again, in the questions addressed by Martin’s direction to the Wycliffites or Hussites, they were asked whether they believed the Pope to be Peter’s successor, “habens supremam auctoritatem in Ecclesia (not Ecclesiam) Dei,” and that every General Council, including that of Constance, represents the universal Church.]

He took occasion to declare, towards the end of the Council of Constance,-that he confirmed all its “conciliar” decrees, meaning by this phraseology to withhold his approval from two decrees, on Annates, and on a book by the Dominican Falkenberg, not passed by the Council in full session, but in the congregations of certain nations.[“Conciliariter” is opposed to “nationaliter.”] The two other Obediences also,[The adherents of Benedict XIII. and Gregory XII.— Tr.] in giving in their adherence to the Council afterwards, assented to its decrees, as is clearly shown by the Concordat of Narbonne, in the twentieth session, which enumerated the subjects coming within the competence of the Council in accordance with the decrees of the fourth and fifth sessions. After the deposition of John XXIII., and the resignation of Gregory XII., there occurred a significant division and struggle between the Latins and Germans. The Germans and English wanted the reformation of the Church, which was the most important and difficult task of the Council, to be undertaken before proceeding to the election of a new Pope. The experience of the Council of Pisa had proved that the election of a new Pope at once put an end to every scheme of reformation.

But the Cardinals, and with them the Italians and French —the latter from jealousy of the lofty position held by the German King Sigismund,—pressed for the election taking precedence of the reformation. Sigismund contended skilfully, bravely, and perseveringly for the interests of the Church, the Empire, and the German people, who then with good reason called themselves ” the godly, patient, humble, and yet not feeble nation.”[See De Hardt, Acta Conc. Const, iv. 1419]. Had they been somewhat less patient and humble, and had something more of that strength which union bestows, the ecclesiastical and national discomfiture of 1417 would not have been followed by the revolt of 1517, the religious division of the nation, the Thirty Years’ War, and many other disastrous consequences. But the Cardinals and Latins carried the day by gaining over the English, and corrupting some German prelates, as, for instance, the Archbishop of Riga, and the Bishops of Coire and Leutomischl [2 lb. iv. 1427]. And before the new Pope, Martin V, had been elected above a few weeks, the Curia and “curialism” were again in the ascendant. The new rules of the Chancery, at once published by Martin, must have opened the eyes of the short-sighted French, and have shown them that in the disposal of benefices the whole network of abuses and corrupt trading upon patronage was to be maintained [Aen. Silv. Commentar. de Rebus Basil. Gestis (ed. Fea. Rom. 1823), p. 39].

Only a few reforming ordinances came into force; the worst wounds and sores of the ecclesiastical body remained for the most part untouched. Martin understood how to divide the nations by pursuing a different policy towards each. His two Concordats, with the German States and the Latin nations, chiefly related to the possession of offices, and expressly reserved to the Pope what a long and universal experience had proved to be hateful abuses, as, e.g., the annates, which ‘were so demoralizing to the character of the clergy, and I compelled them to incur heavy debts. And most of the articles were so drawn as to leave open a door for the renewal of the abuse. In the life and practice of the Church, the Papal system, with all its attendant evils, was restored.

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Contemporary Old Catholic Ecclesiology

Our discussions are hampered by dilemmas being imposed by Roman Catholics and Continuing Anglicans in a kind of “either / or” way of thinking. Coming out of another one of those “dark episodes” of wondering whether I could continue to be a Christian believer, I cast my mind to the document Bishop Flemestad of the Nordic Catholic Church asked me to read. This is a doctrinal document containing a number of agreed statements between Orthodoxy and Old Catholicism – The Road to Unity.

Until now, Old Catholicism has usually had the reputation of denying Roman Catholic dogmas but having little to offer in the way of identity and a positive contribution to theological thought. We can be thankful that there is another view to things if we find that neither scholastic Roman Catholicism nor strict Prayer Book Anglicanism attracts us. Certainly, Old Catholicism has been seriously affected by liberalism – the Union of Utrecht ordains women, unites people of the same sex in pseudo-marriages and is in full communion with the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church. However, unlike in the Anglican world, a whole Church has pulled out of communion with Utrecht and has all the characteristics needed to be recognised as a Church in the ecumenical scene – the Polish National Catholic Church.

You should download and print The Road to Unity and study it carefully. However, I will offer just a few comments here on the section dealing with ecclesiology to provoke dialogue among us. We should be grateful to know that neo-infallibilist Roman Catholicism is not the only alternative to the largely discredited so-called Anglican Branch Theory.

Firstly, the Church is a mystery related to the mystery of the Trinity. There are images in the Scriptures that suggest the presence of God among his people and the community of believers. The Episcopate in the Church and its priestly and charismatic character of apparent in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch as early as the second century. Christ is united to God the Father by nature, and redeemed humanity by grace. This is the essential of the Church before anything else.

This sacramental view of the Church is prefigured in the Old Testament and it signifies the Incarnation – human nature taken by God for our Redemption. Thus, the Church is the Body of Christ, a divine-human community in which Christ’s real presence and Incarnation continue to abide ever since the Ascension and the day of Pentecost. The Church is both invisible and heavenly, on one hand, and earthly and visible on the other, a community and organism with a pastoral and priestly ministry, which is structurally linked with the Apostles, with abiding dogmatic and ethical principles and a constant ordered worship, a body in which clergy and laity are differentiated. We cannot advance a Protestant notion of the Church involving an invisible fellowship or an ideal and indefinable Church of which the individual churches are only imperfect images.

As all Christians who assent to the Nicene Creed, Old Catholics believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The Church has four marks, but there is diversity on how these four marks are recognised or authenticated. Nothing is more disputed than what constitutes the Church’s unity. The Orthodox position is somewhere between Rome’s “The Church is what we control” and the Protestant “The Church is invisible and everywhere“. There are signs by which the Church is seen and recognised, notably the unity of faith, the exercise of the Episcopate and the Priesthood and a limited diversity of liturgical expressions (generally uniformity of rite within the same diocese). However, the “economy” of the Church allows theological dialogue of diverse opinions not denying the essential dogmas of the faith and diversity of liturgy for pastoral reasons. Reading The Road to Unity, I see no particular originalities concerning the holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. Church Fathers like Vincent of Lerins and Cyril of Jerusalem are quoted. As in Roman Catholic teaching, the Church is indefectible (the gates of hell will not prevail…) and infallible in its authority to teach.

However, Old Catholic ecclesiology draws from the ressourcement movement of the twentieth century. The Church is a Church of Churches as Fr Jean-Marie Tillard OP, my old dogmatic theology professor, would have put it. The whole Church subsists in the local Church, which is a different vision than there being one big “true church” and local dioceses are only parts of it. Really, this notion of the Church is the exact opposite of the branch theory – each branch contains the whole tree. I prefer to use the analogy of the Blessed Sacrament – if broken up into pieces, each piece of the Host contains the real presence of the whole Christ. A hologram contains an image. If the hologram is broken into pieces, each piece contains the whole image. The tree and its branches are no longer a valid analogy, because a more profound reality takes its place. The problem comes when there are heresies and schisms. This problem is addressed when considering the “boundaries” of the Church.

The priority of the Old Catholic tradition is not all the local Churches in lock-step obedience to Rome, but the quality or their incarnating the Catholic Church. Of course, all the local Churches have to maintain communion with each other in the bond of the Catholic faith, apostolic church order and the liturgy / sacraments. No one Church is to meddle in the domestic affairs of another. For some questions, Churches need to work together, typically by holding synods and councils, the Ecumenical Council being the supreme authority in the Church, the instrument and the voice through which the Catholic Church speaks, whereby there is a constant effort to preserve and strengthen its unity in love.

We now come to the boundaries of the Church and the inevitable fact that not everyone is “in”. Whole Churches are divided internally and from each other. A spiritual “computer virus” got in there and “corrupted the files”. With a computer, you clean the hard disk and reinstall your software and data anew – not so simple with the Church! Does this mean there is no true visible Church and that the Church of the Apostles and Church Fathers no longer exists today? Does this mean that each Church just has a bit of the truth? Our Catholic belief tells us that this Church is still what it has always been, and is united.

Does Old Catholicism have any fresh intuition about this – where a Roman Catholic would say that if you are not in canonical union with the Pope (through your parish priest, abbot, diocesan bishop, etc.), you are simply outside the Church. Many Orthodox say the same thing and deny any grace operating outside the true Church – to the point of re-baptising people coming to them from other Orthodox Churches!

It is necessary to see the Church’s boundaries in a larger light. We cannot set limits to God’s power.

It can be considered as not excluded that the divine omnipotence and grace are present and operative wherever the departure from the fullness of truth in the one Church is not complete and does not go to the lengths of a complete estrangement from the truth.

All who are Christians are called to seek lovingly, sincerely and patiently to enter into dialogue with one another, and to pray unceasingly for the restoration of the Church’s unity in faith and full fellowship so that the Lord God may lead all to know the truth and to attain the fullness of unity.

This might seem vague for those accustomed to saying “Close down your sect and convert to the true Church, and don’t forget to bring us your money“!

What is the Old Catholic view of authority of and in the Church? The basis of all authority is Christ’s which he received from God the Father. The Lord Jesus Christ exercised this power and authority related to the work of salvation in his earthly life and passed it on to the Apostles after his resurrection – through them to the bishops – and the whole Church. No Christian would dispute that. This is Christ’s authority, so if torture and coercion are involved, the “authority” is not Christ’s. The Church’s authority is shown through the whole Church through collegial acts like synods and councils. Thus the Church has authority to teach and be believed to be reliable. Thus the Church interprets the Scriptures, which of course does not mean that individual Christians may not read the Bible and find their own inspiration in their spiritual lives.

This very day, the Holy Father Benedict XVI uttered these words in Rome:

For man, authority often means possession, power, dominion, success. For God, however, authority means service, humility, love. It means entering into the logic of Jesus Christ Who leans down to wash the feet of His disciples, Who seeks man’s authentic good, Who heals wounds, Who is capable of a love so great as to give His life, because He is Love.

The highest authority in the Church is Tradition itself. This is God’s word passed down through the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils, and through the Church’s traditional liturgies – Lex orandi lex credendi. The law of prayer fixes the law of faith – we believe as we pray. Insofar as this Tradition remains the highest authority of the Church and all authority is exercised to this end, the specific authorities in the Church are the Bishop of the local Church acting collegially with his priests – and the synods of the Church, notably the Ecumenical Councils. The latter have authority as far as they have the consent of the Church, which is represented by the assembled bishops.

Another aspect of Church authority is the consensus of the faithful. This is the importance of Episcopal authority being received by the faithful. How is this consensus apparent? It is chiefly the prophetic office of the Church, the great Saints and their witness, each in his or her own charisma as martyrs, confessors in the face of persecution, mystics, holy monks and nuns, holy lay people and examples of family life, and so many more. This is the mission given by the Sacrament of Confirmation of Chrismation.

Bad authority can be discerned because it violates the consensus of the people or attacks Tradition. And that is no authority at all. Authority must have a serving character and build up the Body of Christ.

It is sometimes said that Old Catholics do not believe in infallibility. Old Catholics and the Orthodox believe that the Church is infallible, not the Pope alone. The Church witness to the truth because this truth is of God.  This infallibility is not invalidated in its essence by the sin and error of the members, but it is the Church as a whole that is infallible. No individual member of the Church, even the Pope, a Patriarch or a Bishop, can claim infallibility. Thus Old Catholicism does not define itself by denying Papal infallibility, but rather by affirming the whole Church as a vehicle of God’s revelation and the authentic transmission of Tradition.

Ecumenical Councils (we all agree on the first seven) do not define dogmas for the fun of it, but when the  sound doctrine of the Church is threatened or when there is need for specific explanation and testimony to ward off heresy and schism and in order to maintain the unity of the Church. It is clear that infallibility only applies to matters of salvation. This means that we are talking about a correct understanding of the Incarnation and the Redemption in view to soteriology (which of course means more than who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell – another subject altogether).

I have already mentioned that a more conciliar and collegial view of the Church, what Vatican II tried to introduce into the dry bones of nineteenth-century Papalism, changes everything about our understanding of authority and infallibility. The sources of infallibility are clearly identified, that being the Holy Spirit and the instinct of remaining faithfu to Tradition.

Apostolic succession is absolutely vital to the Church, meaning the passing on of the grace of ordained ministry by the lawful laying on of hands, and in a broader sense, as apostolicity: the continuity and genuine preservation of faith handed down by the Apostles, as well as the continuous succession of the bishops from the Apostles onward. The former constitutes the basis, the latter is an essential characteristic of apostolic succession in that deviation from apostolic teaching destroys apostolic continuity and illicit ordination by unauthorized persons allows it to be broken.

It seems reasonable to believe that ordinations conferred in conditions of wonton irregularity or without reference to the Church community are invalid or at least questionable. Episcopi vagantes come in different types and shades. Perhaps some can be argued to represent the character of a Church, however small but open to communion and in dialogue with the wider Church. Insofar as that criterion is authentic and sincere, that particular Bishop may be endowed with the true Apostolic Succession, but bishops are not validly ordained simply because they can show documentation of unbroken lineages. It takes discernment, but I have often seen internet sites showing bishops with very grand claims, and the minimum conditions of their quality of a Church are not met. They are therefore impostors. The question correlates with the question of the boundaries of the Church.

Is the Pope of no consequence to Old Catholicism? The Pope has authority and a traditional Primacy of Honour because he is a Bishop. He is the successor of St Peter, but so is the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The two successors of Peter are not in communion. Both have authority in their Churches.

The notion of primacy of honour – primus inter pares – comes from the honour given to some of the Bishops in the early Church. In the words of The Road to Unity:

The Bishop of Rome enjoyed such an honorary position because the see of Rome took the first place in the order of episcopal sees: Rome was the capital of the empire and its Church preserved the apostolic tradition – still without any innovations; it brought the Gospel of salvation to peoples and nations who had not yet heard of Christ and it was rich in Church life and works of love. So the Bishop of Rome possesses the presidency of honour in the Church. But with regard to episcopal authority, he does not differ whatsoever from his brother bishops. The same is valid for the other bishops who hold honorary rank in the Church.

According to the teaching of the Orthodox and the Old Catholic Church, all the decrees of later dates therefore, which ascribe a monocratic and absolute authority over the whole Church to the Bishop of Rome and which regard him as infallible when he defines doctrine in the exercise of his office “as shepherd and teacher of all Christians” (ex cathedra), are regarded as unacceptable. With their unwavering striving for unity, both Churches hope that the existing difficulties and divisions will be overcome by the Head and Lord of the Church, so that according to his word those who believe in him may all be one and thus the world may come to faith.

May this little “fisk” bring you to reflect even if your ecclesial affiliations cause you to be in disagreement. Let us dialogue so that progress may be made from the black-and-white dilemmas which do not bind the more independent thinker.

* * *

The Grand Inquisitor

I have just found this dramatisation of Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor in the Karamazov Brothers. Obviously the Cardinal wears the biretta incorrectly, and so forth, which is irritating. Listen to the implications for religious freedom, and where we would be today without it.

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1 Response to Old Catholic Ecclesiology

  1. J.D. says:

    The Council of Constance has been of interest to me for some time. Thanks so much for all this fine information pertaining to it,and to Conciliarism. There is much to ponder here.

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