An Historic Overview of the Old Roman Catholic Church

by The Most Reverend William Myers, SSM

The seeds for the movement that would become the Old Roman Catholic Church came to true fruition in 1723 when Bishop Dominique Marie Varlet, Roman Catholic Bishop of Babylon, consecrated a successor to the late Archbishop Codde of the Church of Utrecht. Furor had been building in the country since 1691, when the Jesuits accused Archbishop Codde of holding the so-called Jansenist heresy. The so-called Jansenist heresy was a reaction to the lax spiritual attitudes of clergy and laity. One major aspect of Jansenism is that contrition (sorrow for sins because of love of God) rather than just attrition (sorrow for sins for reasons other than love of God) is necessary for salvation. This doctrine was contrary to the Council of Trent, which held: "If any man assert that attrition . . . is not a true and a profitable sorrow; that it does not prepare the soul for grace, but that it makes a man a hypocrite, yea, even a greater sinner, let him be anathema." However, there was no proof that Codde held this belief. In fact, he was acquitted by a jury of 10 cardinals of Jansenism. In spite of this aquittal, strong forces were at work against Codde. The History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland says of the event "...the head of a great national Church suspended by the mere will of the Pope, his accusers never named, their charges never communicated, his faults not even specified in the instrument of his disgrace. It was a stet pro ratione voluntas which appears to have staggered the most thorough-paced advocates of Papal supremacy." Instead of electing Codde's successor, Theodore De Cock was appointed Pro-Vicar Apostolic. This broke with almost 600 years of tradition. The priests of the Cathedral of Utrecht had held the right to elect their bishop since 1145 and control their own affairs. This was re-affirmed in 1245 by the Fourth Lateran Council and in 1540 by Pope Leo X. Honoring this tradition the priests elected their own bishop who, in spite of Pope Clement XI's appointment, of De Cock, was consecrated by Bishop Varlet.

In 1853, Pope Pius IX restored the Roman Catholic hierarchy to the Netherlands. Since 1723, however, the Church of Utrecht had continued to manage its affairs, appoint bishops and minister the sacraments, as well as provide witness to the historic Catholic faith. They were called the "Old Roman Catholics," or "Ultrajectines" (after the Church of Utrecht), while the Roman Catholic clergy were the "new Catholics." They were joined in 1870 by Catholics who objected to the newly defined dogmas of universal papal primacy of jurisdiction, papal infallibility, and the Immaculate Conception. New churches sprang up in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and other countries. They received their apostolic succession from the Church of Utrecht, which consecrated bishops and ordained priests for them. They then chose collectively to use the name "Old Catholic."

In 1908, Bishop Arnold Harris Mathew was consecrated as Regionary Bishop for Great Britain by Archbishop Gul of Utrecht. Bishop Mathew was a former Roman Catholic priest who left that church. He set about building a church in Great Britain and had mixed success. In 1910, he issued a Declaration of Autonomy and Independence in which he stated that he was leaving communion with the Church of Utrecht. The primary reasons given were that the Church of Utrecht had ceased commemorating saints in the liturgy, the disuse of daily Mass, the absence of statutes and pictures, the admission of Anglicans to communion and eucharistic celebration, etc. He called his church the "Old Roman Catholic Church" after the original Dutch church, emphasizing the Roman Catholic heritage of the church while claiming descent from Utrecht. In 1911, the church became unified with the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch as an autocephalous church.

During Archbishop Mathew's tenure, he consecrated Prince-Archbishop Rudolph de Landas Berghes et de Rache, Duc de St. Winock. Archbishop de Landas Berghes eventually left Great Britain for the United States in 1914, owing to the fact that he was in the precarious position of being related to enemy royalty during the First World War. While in the United States, Archbishop de Landes Berghes consecrated a former Roman Catholic priest, Carmel Henry Carfora, to the episcopate in 1916. With the consecration of the first two bishops, Archbishops Carfora and Brothers, Archbishop de Landas Berghes had established the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. Archbishop de Landes-Berghes later submitted to Rome and died at an Augustinian monastery in 1920, less than one year after the death of his consecrator, Archbishop Mathew.

Archbishop Carfora set about establishing the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. This jurisdiction at one point claimed upwards of 50,000 people. The church, however, was split between various factions. Archbishop Carfora maintained a church composed of a variety of ethnicities and races, and consecrated bishops for each group. He was able to boast that his church had Ukrainian, Mexican, West Indian, Polish, Italian, and Lituanian (among others) parishes and clergy. Although this great conglomeration of people was a testament to Archbishop Carfora's pastoral abilities, it also lead to many schisms and splits. The various dioceses and groups were only ever loosely held together, and the bonds were often fragile. The first major split saw the Ukrainian contingent of the Church joining Ukrainian Orthodoxy. In 1958, when Archbishop Carfora died, most of the other groups separated into individual dioceses or parishes, joined larger communions, or did not perpetuate. Since that time, various groups have claimed to be the successor of Archbishop Carfora's church. No one group has a linear claim to the jurisdiction due to the fracture of 1958.

In the United Kingdom, Archbishop Mathew died in 1919. He was succeeded by Archbishop Bernard Mary Williams. Archbishop Williams did not intend for the church to continue, and had a policy of reunification with Rome as a "uniate" rite." At his death in 1952, there were no other bishops in the Church. The British Church elected a Bishop consecrated by the American Church, Archbishop George Gerard Shelley, as the head of the Church. He was succeeded by Archbishops Geoffrey Paget King, followed by Archbishop James Charles Headley Thatcher, Archbishop Denis St. Pierre, and the current head, Archbishop Douglas Titus Lewins, in 1993.

Several attempts have been made to bring together the Old Roman Catholic jurisdictions in America into partnering groups. This was first achieved in 1981, when the Council Old Roman Catholic Bishops was formed. This group has been one vehicle for greater cooperation. Included in these efforts were Archbishops Francis Facione, John Joseph Humphreys, Frederick Pyman, Theodore Rematt, and James Rodgers. Archbishop Lewins eventually also entered into visible unity with Archbishop John Joseph Humpreys of Caer Glow and the head of the Diocese of Florida.

In 2019, the Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain and the Old Roman Catholic Church English Rite entered into a partnership. This was followed in 2020, when the Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain partnered with the Old Roman Catholic Church Latin Rite.