The Old Catholics (1934)

SIGNIFICANCE doesn’t always go with size. In contemplating the edifying restorations of gigantic animals in the Natural History Museum it is a noteworthy fact that the majority of the enormous reptiles and mammals have given way. to less commodious fauna, and man, a rather insignificant biped, has come to dominate the universe. Nature’s bluff, so to speak, was called by a small biped. Nevertheless it is true that in many instances the bluff still works. Sheer size and overmastering dominations do possess a certain claim.to authority as they exert great power. In human history ideas germinating in the brain of some obscure thinker have been more potent in all respects than the dinosaur. Sheer size is not the all significant sign of greatness and power.

In matters moral the same parallel, holds. The rightness of what is right doesn’t depend solely upon the numbers of those who give their adherence to the right. Athanasius stood out once against the world, and’ the world was wrong and he was right. Our dear Lord Himself achieved His whole ministry of moral and personal leadership within the circle of an insignificant minority. The climax of His career was the lonesome Man dying alone on the cross save for two thieves on either side of Him, three believers below Him, and a sea of hatred all about Him. He was right and they were wrong.

GENERAL CONVENTION ratifies Lambeth’s declaration of intercommunion with the Old Catholics. Just what does this signify? On the continent there are several small groups of Old Catholic churches—in Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and scattered communities and individuals elsewhere. They all derive from two sources, Germany in the 1870s and Holland in 1770. Two streams have gone into the Old Catholic movement and it flows from a dramatic principle embodied in historic fact. When the alleged Jansenism of Jansenius was condemned by Rome, there were many who were convinced of the unrighteousness of the act. “Jansenism” at its best bore a stalwart and courageous witness against the practice of whittling down the austerity of the moral code of Christianity to the dimensions of human convenience. It was a needed corrective to the man-centered activism of the seventeenth century and the secondary place which God’s grace had come to occupy in the life of practical Latin Catholicism. There were many in France and others in the Low Countries who could not surrender their moral integrity to the policy of the Jesuits. Ultimately, when there was at stake the whole question of the freeing of Holland from subservience to Latin control, the Church of Utrecht achieved its independence. In this respect Dutch Old Catholicism was a kind of spiritual parallel to the wars of independence of Holland itself. The eighteenth century was not entirely a happy time for the little struggling Church of Utrecht, denounced by Rome as spuriously Catholic (since it was not in communion with the Pope) and by Protestants as equally spurious since it was too Catholic. With the most careful attention to the preservation of its own Catholic heritage, never succumbing to pressure and even persecution from the right and the1 left, the Old Catholic Church of Holland displayed a gallantry and courage the more significant because the less noticed.

FROM BEFORE the middle of the nineteenth century one group in Rome had been careful to see to it that only such bishops in Germany should be appointed as were “ultramontane.” German and Teutonic countries had been notoriously hostile to the extravagance of papal claims through the Middle Ages and after. The anti-Roman revolt, called the Reformation, found Germany and the Scandinavian countries the leaders in protest against the papacy and Rome. That spirit of criticism, of discriminating loyalty, and sturdy independence of moral integrity was characteristic of the Teutonic temper.

Plans had long been laid for the Council of 1870 at which the Pope was to be declared infallible. The coining event cast a long shadow before. Most illustrious and trenchant of opponents to the whole theory of Papal Infallibility was Prof. Döllinger of Munich. The German episcopate, as was so competently foreseen, was unwilling to express any opposition to the scheme. With innumerable Italian sees, some of them crowded for the purpose, arch-abbots and abbots galore, and a carefully prepared episcopate (especially in those countries where dangerous opposition was foreseen) the decree of Infallibility was proclaimed in 1870 despite the opposition of Döllinger and his few assistants. Secession from the Roman Church followed upon the proclamation of Infallibility. A not inconsiderable group of Catholics, especially in South Germany, were led by Döllinger out of the Roman obedience. In contradistinguishment to the novelties of modern Roman Catholicism they call their movement Old Catholicism.

Since the German group had no bishops they had recourse to the Utrecht Church in Holland in communion with whom they have ever since been. In the Kulturkampf they were used as pawns in Bismarck’s political game. Again, like their brothers of Holland, their lot has not been a happy one. In a country where Catholicism connotes Rome and the papacy, rejection of the papacy connotes Protestantism, and Protestantism connotes anti-Catholicism, the German Old Catholic Church has had a hard time securing public recognition of its character and quality. Both in Holland and in Germany Old Catholicism has had to survive by bracing itself constantly in two directions: against State subsidized Protestantism on the one side and powerful and aggressive Roman Catholicism on the other.

BY SHEER WEIGHT of majority opinion, if one were to put the question to a vote, Protestantism or Roman Catholicism might achieve a plurality. Roman Catholicism has grown enormously in Germany and Holland in recent years. Protestantism has had its ups and downs. Both have been strong and vigorous. If either is right then Old Catholicism must be Wrong.

Old Catholicism is willing to die and still more, willing to live for a principle. That principle is that Catholicism doesn’t need to be papal. In the lives of thousands of Old Catholics there must have come the question, which is more important, to be anti-Roman or to be Catholic? Social pressure has. been brought to bear for two generations past so intensely to sharpen the alternative that so constantly presses the Old Catholic: “If you really want to be anti-papal in the most effective fashion, become a Protestant”; “if you really value Catholicism why not become an adherent of the most effective Catholic organization in the world?” The innumerable scattered Old Catholic laymen have a very difficult time of it, for they never can escape the pressure of these alternatives. Some have to live in places where there is no accessible Old Catholic church and by virtue of their religious convictions they are excluded from the intimacies of social life. Very plausibly, they are assailed with the question, why don’t you be one thing or another—-either a Catholic or a Protestant? All praise to the courage of the Old Catholic laity!

Major persecution there has been little in recent years. In Austria they have suffered from minor disabilities, covert hostility, and incidental episodes of harsh treatment. In Switzerland the sturdy independence and desire for fair play of the Swiss temperament has offered a more congenial soil for the happiness of the small Old Catholic Church.

Now just how important are principles? Is the abiding witness to a principle, regardless of consequences, a thing of value to be highly esteemed ? The courage that led to martyrdom has been admired throughout centuries of Christian history. In the sharp paroxysm of acute persecution which issued in martyrdom, there is required a courage to die recklessly. But there is a twin brother to this kind of courage—the courage to live painfully. Only recently in Germany have the Old Catholics been free from petty tyrannies and minor persecution from Roman Catholicism. It takes courage of a high order to stick it out when there is not the exhilaration of severe persecution and the dramatic quality of an appeal to public opinion. This stedfastness and tough continuance under such disabilities has been a distinguishing mark of Old Catholic Church life.

The clergy have suffered even worse than the laity. There are not many of them in such large countries as Germany and Austria, still fewer in Switzerland. They live in comparative isolation from the life and society about them. Roman Catholics have little respect for a married priesthood, and on the whole the Protestant clergy do not welcome them to any fulness of fellowship. Their salaries are frequently pitifully meager. Their ideals are subject to misrepresentation and misunderstanding, sometimes due. to lack of interest and at other times to deliberate choice. As a whole the politicians and the important people regard the Old Catholic clergy and their Church as too insignificant to matter. The patience and persistence, the hidden devotion and sturdy loyalty, the lonesome-ness, and ofttimes isolation of the Old Catholic priest make him a dignified figure in the Christian world.

IN AMERICA there is a genuine branch of Old Catholicism, the Polish National Catholic Church. As an account of it has recently appeared in the columns of The Living Church (August 26, 1933) it is not necessary here to describe it further. Until some other groups of Old Catholics shall have organized themselves in America, this will be the only genuine Old Catholic communion in the United States. There are of course a number of so-called Old Catholic Churches and bishops. The test of genuineness is to be found in the fact of their being in communion with Utrecht. True Old Catholic bishops are bishops of a Church, not of a congregation. If ever you come into touch with a cleric who claims to be an Old Catholic but is not in communion with Utrecht or is a bishop or a priest in a vacuum you may be quite certain that he is not a genuine Old Catholic.

The episcopate and priesthood belong to the body of Christ. The hierarchy are as-much “members” as are any of the laity. A merely magical transmission of holy orders by a wandering bishop to a casual candidate hardly gives him the true status of a bishop or priest or deacon in the Church of God. Holy orders cannot be thought of as a mechanical transmission of some secret fluid by a person to a person: it is the commitment of a function of the body through its chief representative, the Bishop, to a member of that body for the service of other members thereof.

The Old Catholics have stanchly maintained this truth in theory and practice. They have been more than scrupulous in the tenacity with which they have held to and proclaimed newly recovered elements of the Catholic tradition. Centuries of Roman teaching, they discovered, inevitably had warped their perspective. Moreover, the movement has suffered devotionally from the circumstance that gave the movement birth. Continental Old Catholics, in restoring the Mass as the great popular act of worship, have not maintained the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice, The whole spirit of the Old Catholic liturgy—evinced first of all by its translation into the vernaculars—has manifested the revival of a Catholicism in worship much earlier than Trent or even the Middle Ages. The liturgy of the Old Catholics is of course of the Western type. But by virtue of re-emphasis and recovery it has become preeminently what the word Liturgy meant to express—the people’s service. It is said or sung with great deliberation so that the words have their own effect. While the Mass is a holy action, it is also a proclamation of the world. It might be well for us not to over-look the important truth here enshrined. Christ crucified and risen is offered—but He is also preached and proclaimed—in the Eucharist.

We hail our intercommunion with the Old Catholics with deep joy and thanksgiving: May the years to come result in ever closer relationships between us, as well personal as official, so that the Northern Catholicism in its Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon traditions, as well as in the Latin form of the Polish National Church, makes for constant fertilisation and stimulation to us all as members of the one body in Christ.

The Living Church, December 15, 1934, pp. 737-739.

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