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Old Catholics seek identity at the margins

NCR Staff
Orange, Calif.

In the city of Orange in Southern California in a nondescript mall where commerce is king, a church is scarcely typical. The Church of St. Matthew is less typical still. It is an Old Catholic church.

Old Catholics have lurked at the edge of Christian life for more than a century. The name is so similar to what we call ourselves, it can be a source of confusion. Yet beyond the confusion, the story is intriguing. In the tumult of today’s changing church, there may be a cloudy mirror here in which we can see part of ourselves.

“One of the difficulties we’ve had is to properly identify ourselves,” says Bishop Peter E. Hickman, sitting in the corner of St. Matthew. He is an open, eager man who uses words like schism unselfconsciously.

The schism in question began in Holland God knows when. Some of the several Old Catholic sites on the Internet hark back to 1145 when Pope Eugene III, at the request of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III, granted the see of Utrecht the right to elect its own bishops. Utrecht has played the independence card ever since. In 1520, a Pope Leo X bull gave bishops of Utrecht “the right of adjudication of its own affairs without reference to the tribunals of the Holy See.” All this came home to roost in the wake of the First Vatican Council of 1870 at which Pope Pius IX muscled through the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Dissension grew among Catholic communities, especially in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Many local churches broke away. Ignaz von Döllinger, a professor of church history at the University of Munich, provided theological ballast and leadership. The movement spread to England and beyond, though ironically it fared poorly in England because the Anglican church insisted it had the franchise on disagreement with Rome.

The Union of Utrecht became the Vatican for Old Catholics, except that the union was never able to keep its daughter churches on such a short leash as its prototype by the Tiber. Yet Utrecht is vitally important to Old Catholics in one regard: It is seen as source and guarantor of apostolic succession, that unbroken line that, Catholics insist, must go back to Jesus and the apostles. The name Old Catholic is seen by members as more confusing than helpful except for that all-important implication of proper pedigree.

Soon Old Catholics trickled into America. Hickman describes the early leaders as charismatic but autocratic: “They sought to build a rival empire to the Roman Catholic church.” They were monumentally unsuccessful. One obstacle was formation. They had no seminaries. At first they were able to get capable former priests who had left the Roman church, disgruntled over infallibility or other matters.

Obsessed with the need for apostolic succession, priests got themselves consecrated bishops on a grand scale. But in most such cases they had no flock, no priests. The best-organized exception, says Hickman, was the Polish National Catholic church headquartered in Scranton, Pa. This continues to be ethnically based and therefore exclusive.

It’s very difficult to estimate numbers since there is “no connecting membrane,” said Patricia McElroy, a deacon. She figures that 600,000 Old Catholics nationwide is a conservative estimate. To get out of this twilight zone of isolation, McElroy explained, St. Matthew plans to have a booth and do heavy networking at the conference of the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests in Atlanta next August.

A personal search

Even in the unusual milieu of the Old Catholic church, Hickman is atypical. His personal search helps explain why the Old Catholic church survives as friendly port in a storm for a variety of tempest-tossed souls.

He studied at Fuller Theological Seminary and became a Baptist minister — the American, not the Southern kind, he is eager to point out. He got involved with the charismatic movement, “which opened my vision to ecumenism and also to the immanence of God in us. ... So sacramentalism became very attractive.” Thus the Baptist pastor began to get liturgical, until higher-ups told him that wasn’t very Baptist.

He tried the Lutherans, but when he got to telling them about the Eucharist, they said he sounded more like a Roman Catholic. So he talked to Roman Catholics, but they said he’d never make it all the way to Rome. For one thing, he was going through a divorce. His friends suggested he try the Old Catholics, of which he had never heard.

That’s when the search got really exotic. He found a small Old Catholic community in East Los Angeles, led by an aging bishop. Eventually he was ordained an Old Catholic priest. Hickman wanted to start a community in Orange County. There are no Old Catholics there, the old bishop told him. There’s potential, Hickman responded.

He wanted “to be able to speak Catholic without an accent,” so he went to work on books by Fr. Hans Küng, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, Thomas Merton and others. As a Baptist pastor he had learned that “a good 40 percent” coming to any new church are Roman Catholic. They were searching for a place they felt welcome, especially those under a Roman cloud because of divorce and remarriage, birth control and such. Yet they found the Baptist church inadequate: They wanted a sacramental church.

Hickman put ads in local papers, such as, “Do you want a Catholic wedding but can’t be married in the Roman Catholic church?” The local Roman churches, not surprisingly, saw the ads as poaching on their territory. But the response from the needy faithful was “overwhelming.” Hickman had to engage priests from CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood, to take the overflow.

After nine months, in November 1985, Hickman opened his Old Catholic church — in a mortuary chapel rented for $50. He was encouraged when 40 people showed up. But the congregation soon dwindled to six. The 40, he said, came out of curiosity or even goodwill, but he has noticed that once Roman Catholics “leave,” disillusion or anger make it hard to get them back on a regular basis.

After a short struggle with this lack of success, he decided to give up. Then, one morning in the shower, and “in a very dark place,” he saw the faces of the six and heard in his head the familiar words, “To whom shall they go?” He decided to forget results and numbers.

They needed a bishop

Soon he was back to 40 again. “I think people were attracted by my sincerity,” he said with striking sincerity. Former Roman Catholic priests joined up, as did a couple of former Lutherans. Now there are 17 priests associated with St. Matthew. As they grew, they decided they needed a bishop. They found one but cut him adrift after two years for being too conservative.

The community then voted to make Hickman bishop. He was consecrated in 1995 by three Old Catholic bishops.

St. Matthew now has 297 families on record. The diocese, now expanded to five parishes, is working on a constitution. “In our experiment — and that’s what it is — pastors have much power,” the bishop says. The community plans to own no property, “and therefore nothing to be ambitious for.” A leaflet spelling out the “distinctiveness” of St. Matthew throws down the gauntlet to the church of exclusion: “All the baptized are welcome to receive and to celebrate the sacramental life of Christ at our church.”

They have two female deacons and plan to have women priests — “if God sends them.” The local Roman Catholic diocese of Orange worries, he says, that people might be confused. “We agree. We, too, want people to know that we’re different.” He was called for one visit to the local chancery. “It was a very negative experience. ... They have an easier time sitting down with a group of Protestant ministers than with us.” He asks that Old Catholics be viewed not as competition but as a complementary ministry.

Although many members come from church backgrounds that left them disgruntled, Hickman refuses to see his community as a church of discontent but rather as a community of healing. “We never say anything negative about the Roman Catholic church.” Old Catholics recognize “the importance of the pope in his role as a sign of unity. ... We pray for him in our liturgy.”

Yet Old Catholics do not pull back from the century-old critique: “The doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, though an effort to create unity within the church, has had the opposite effect. It now stands as an immense obstacle to the unity of the church.”

Without structures or seminaries to create continuity, “the Old Catholic movement has become a refuge for every kind of Catholic schismatic for all kinds of different reasons,” Hickman concedes. This honest self-appraisal, in sharp contrast to the frequent defensiveness of their Roman Catholic cousins, is refreshing and to many a sign of hope, an easy door to walk through. “This is a healing place,” the bishop said.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999