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Independent Catholic churches are Catholic congregations that are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or any other churches whose sacraments are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (such as the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox or Old Catholic). Virtually all groups in the Independent Catholic movement claim to have valid apostolic succession for their bishops. Bishops in Independent Catholic Churches are sometimes referred to as episcopi vagantes ("wandering bishops") because of their lack of affiliation with a larger communion of churches.


Bishop Arnold Mathew being ordained a bishop by Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul at St. Gertrude's Cathedral, in the city of Utrecht, on 28 April 1908.

Although the term Old Catholic was first used in 1853 to describe those Catholics belonging to Utrecht in the Netherlands, most scholars date the "modern" Old Catholic movement to the 1870s. After the First Vatican Council in 1870 considerable groups of Austrian, German and Swiss Catholics rejected the declaration of papal infallibility and left to form their own churches independent of the pope. These churches were supported by the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht who ordained their priests and bishops. Later they united more formally under the name Utrecht Union of Churches.[1]

The Independent Catholic movement came to Great Britain in 1908 when Arnold Harris Mathew[2] was consecrated a bishop in the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. Utrecht incorrectly believed that Mathew had a significant following in the United Kingdom, and also that there would be a wave of clergy wanting to leave the Church of England as a result of Pope Leo XIII's declaration that Anglican orders were null and void. Mathew believed that Old Catholicism would provide a home for these disaffected clergy but, however, the mass conversions failed to occur. Before breaking with the Union of Utrecht, Mathew ordained several individuals to the episcopacy and priesthood, from whom a number of new churches quickly developed, including the Liberal Catholic Church, the first bishop of which was James Wedgwood, consecrated by F.S. Willoughby, who had in turn been consecrated by Mathew.[1]

Joseph René Vilatte,[1] an Old Catholic priest,[3] is credited with being the first person to bring the independent movement to North America , in 1892 Vilatte travelled to India where he obtained ordination to the episcopacy by the Oriental Orthodox bishops in India. Over the following twenty-eight years Vilatte consecrated a number of men to the episcopacy. These bishops, or their successors, went on to found many different jurisdictions in North America.

Independent Catholic groups

Many, but not all, Independent Catholic clergy claim descent from the Old Catholics of Utrecht, although Utrecht does not officially accept their orders and considers them to be invalid. Like Orthodoxy, Utrecht holds that ordinations can only be done within the church as a whole and with appropriate authority. Some independent groups in North America began life as Protestant and/or Charismatic congregations; for example, the Charismatic Episcopal Church came into being when charismatic fellowships rediscovered both sacramentalism and the historical apostolic succession. Another group, the Evangelical Orthodox Church, found its way into mainstream Eastern Orthodoxy: one part joined the Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in 1987, other parishes later entered the Orthodox Church in America, whilst a remnant, which does not claim traditional apostolic succession, kept the name EOC and continued as an independent communion. Since the orders of the EOC were not regarded as valid by the Orthodox bishops, the reception of clergy into mainstream Orthodoxy was always accompanied by ordination.

The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church was founded in the 1940s when Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa withdrew from the Catholic Church in protest against that church's perceived support of Nazis who had fled to Latin America. Duarte Costa went on to consecrate other bishops in Europe as well as North and South America. Several Independent Catholic bodies claim to trace their apostolic succession through Duarte Costa.

A number of liturgical churches are sometimes regarded as Independent Catholics, but do not fit neatly in this category. Continuing Anglican Churches are sometimes included in this grouping, but this is controversial, especially with regard to the larger Anglican bodies, and these Continuing Churches do not count themselves as being within the Independent Catholic movement. Traditionalist Catholic groups are sometimes regarded as Independent Catholics (i.e. not in communion with the pope), but they do not see themselves in this manner; rather they regard themselves as being the true Church, believing that Catholicism has embraced teachings which are schismatic, or even heretical since the Second Vatican Council. A similar controversy exists regarding the Old Calendar Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and bodies which split from mainstream Orthodoxy specifically in order to maintain the Old Liturgical Calendar. There have been attempts to construct broader categories to include many of these groups, for example the Independent Sacramental Movement, but most of these groups would be uncomfortable with such a characterisation.

Evangelical Catholic groups such as the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church (formerly the Evangelical Community Church-Lutheran,) describe themselves as Lutheran, rather than Catholic, because of their Lutheran heritage and the fact that they accept those clauses of the unaltered Augsburg Confession which agree with their understanding of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. Others, such as the Antiochian Catholic Church in America, do describe themselves as Catholic, while claiming that their doctrine is based, with variations, on that of a Church that has been unrelated to the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

The Polish National Catholic Church is occasionally referred to as an Independent Catholic church; however, the PNCC rejects this designation. The PNCC derives its orders from the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht but is no longer in communion with Utrecht or the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. These relationships ended because the PNCC rejects the ordination of both women and sexually active homosexuals. Whilst no longer in communion with any other body, the PNCC remains a relatively substantial denomination, maintaining active dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It is also a member of the World Council of Churches.

A very few Independent groups have grown to a larger size (e.g. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion) but the majority consist of one or two bishops, a few priests and deacons, and a small number of adherents. In numerous cases, bishops have been consecrated without having any priests under their jurisdiction, and some bishops have undergone several consecrations in an attempt to secure a more diverse claim to apostolic succession.

Faith and practice

Virtually all members of the Independent Movement worship according to a set liturgy, usually derived from a mainstream historical Christian rite, such as the Syriac, Byzantine, or Roman. Sometimes they use a liturgy that is a combination of two or more of these historical liturgies or one that is unique to the group in question. By definition, all such groups are episcopal in polity, being led by bishops and priests who are assisted by deacons. All hold to some type of sacramental understanding of the Christian faith related to that broadly held in common by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, and Anglican Churches. Many also affirm the text of the Nicene Creed, but interpretations vary widely.

However, Independent groups disagree on the ordination of women, the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, the acceptability of same-sex marital unions, abortion, contraception, divorce, and other issues that are controversial also in more mainstream sections of Christianity. Unlike most of their more conventional counterparts, these groups, usually being quite small, tend to be internally fairly homogeneous on these and other issues; in other words, divisions on these and other questions are between these groups, not so much within them.

These Independent congregations represent a variety of doctrines. Some, such as the Liberal Catholic Church, the Free Church of Antioch, the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch – Malabar Rite (the "Church of Antioch"), and the recently formed Young Rite are characterised by a theosophical or New Age orientation. Other independent groups are quite conservative, following extremely traditionalist Catholic or Old Calendar Orthodox positions; still others describe themselves as "Evangelical Catholic" and High Church Lutherans.

Many have embraced the model of parish organisation in which a bishop, not a priest, is the pastor of a parish. This model enables those who wish to become bishops to rationalise the process even when there are no other members of the clergy in the group. Thus, a high percentage of Independent clergy end up seeking ordination to the episcopacy. Congregations tend to be minuscule and sometimes even non-existent.

It is rare to find Independent clergy who are supported financially in their work. In the United Kingdom there are several who make a substantial income by conducting marriages and/or funerals, from high church to humanist or even pagan in character, leading to the charge that these people see ministry as a career rather than as a vocation. However, most Independent clergy pursue their ministry as a part-time, volunteer calling, whilst engaging in some other occupation in order to support themselves and their families.


Independent clergy have often received multiple ordinations/consecrations in an attempt to ensure a broad and diverse claim to apostolic succession. Though perhaps less prevalent than in the past, the practice continues; for example, Archbishop Peter Paul Brennan of the African Orthodox Church, one of four who were conditionally ordained to the episcopate by the excommunicated Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo on 24 September 2006, claims to have been first consecrated on 10 June 1978, and subsequently conditionally re-consecrated a number of times [4] prior to the ceremony conducted by Archbishop Milingo.[5] Also, in 2007, various Independent Catholic bishops in the UK underwent multiple mutual reconsecrations "as a gesture of unity".[6] This understanding of holy orders is completely unacceptable to the leaders of Utrecht, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy whose churches are universally regarded as the guardians of apostolic succession (they all recognise one another's orders); for them one is either ordained or not, and there is but one line of apostolic succession not several.

The claims of many within the Independent movement to continuity with holy orders as found in the churches mentioned are based at least in part on an understanding of apostolic succession that has been held by some within the Latin Church since the time of the Donatist controversy in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. According to those who hold this view, a person becomes a bishop if consecrated in an approved rite by another (validly ordained) bishop even when he is outside the boundaries of Catholicism. However, today Catholic theologians consider this view to be mechanical and reductionist; thus, they teach that such ceremonies have no effect on the grounds that an ordination is for service within a concrete Christian Church. Therefore, an ordination ceremony that concerns only the individual himself does not correspond to the understanding of ordination held by the Catholic Church and is subsequently without efficacy. Naturally, Independent clergy reject this characterisation, seeing their bishops as always ordained for the service of others and for the Christian community, whether in a defined jurisdiction or more broadly. As for the Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht, the Coptic Church and the various Orthodox churches, they completely reject the validity of the ordinations of heretics or schismatics, and thus do not recognise the orders of Independent clergy, to whom they apply these categories.

Whilst the leadership of the Catholic Church has more than once declared that certain episcopal consecrations have no canonical effect, it has occasionally stated that it was not thereby expressing a judgement on the validity, but merely on their canonical efficacy (see also Valid but illicit). Thus, when it declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted by Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục for the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face group on 31 December 1975, it refrained from pronouncing on its validity. It made the same statement with regard to later ordinations by those bishops, saying that, "as for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognise their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the ... penalties remain until they repent" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decree Episcopi qui alios of 17 September 1976 - Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1976, page 623). The clause " still in the state in which they were before.." would, however, indicate that the Vatican continued to view them as being laymen.

With regard to Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo's episcopal ordination of four men - all of whom, by virtue of previous Independent Catholic involvement, claimed already to be bishops - on 24 September 2006: the Catholic Church, as well as stating that, in accordance with Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, all five men involved incurred automatic ("latae sententiae") excommunication through their actions, declared that "...the Church does not recognise and does not intend in the future to recognise these ordinations or any ordinations derived from them, and she holds that the canonical state of the four alleged bishops is the same as it was prior to the ordination."[7] It is therefore clear that the Holy See is of the belief that these four men remain lay persons and are not clergy; by this statement Catholicism follows the same theological line as the Utrecht and Orthodox churches in its understanding of ordination. It is highly significant that any Independent clergy who have been granted reconciliation with the Holy See have been welcomed as lay persons rather than as priests or bishops.

In contrast, the Holy See did not question the validity of the consecrations that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre performed in 1988 for the service of the followers of the Traditionalist Roman Catholic Society of St. Pius X that he had founded. Lefebvre was capable of forming the necessary intention whilst questions were raised regarding the mental capacity of Archbishops Ngô and Milingo to perform ordinations according to the understanding of the Catholic Church. Ngô was advanced in age and possibly suffering from dementia and Milingo had undergone a marriage conducted by the Unification Church which would raise questions about his theology; the Vatican statement concerning Milingo also refers to him as "elderly", with obvious attendant implications.

The official view of the Eastern Orthodox Churches may been summarised as follows: "While accepting the canonical possibility of recognising the existence (υποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself, (the Eastern Orthodox Church) questions their validity (έγκυρον) and certainly rejects their efficacy (ενεργόν)."[8] It sees "the canonical recognition (αναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church (as referring) to the validity of the sacraments only of those who join the Orthodox Church (individually or as a body).".[8] It is therefore clear that the Orthodox Communion does not, and will not, accept as valid any ordination ceremonies conducted for members of the Independent Catholic movement.

In the final analysis, it may be said that the evaluation of Independent Catholic sacraments is solely a matter for these groups themselves. The views of other denominations e.g. the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and Utrecht churches may be of interest but these churches hold no authority over the independent groups. Yet, others would argue that the views of Utrecht, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy are of significant importance as is it they who are universally regarded as having been the guardians of the definition of apostolic succession. The claims of the Independent movement to apostolic succession are rejected by the very churches which the Independent clergy accept as guardians, and to which they appeal.


See also

External links

Umbrella organizations

  • Ecumenical Free Catholic Communion The Ecumenical Free Catholic Communion is a grouping/gathering/umbrella organization/friendly association/communion/family of ecclesiastical jurisdictions, led by validly consecrated bishops within the Apostolic Succession, all of which are completely autocephalous or self-governing. The EFCC has come together for purposes of unity, collegiality, friendship, comradery, fellowship, and support. The communion attempts to pool and share resources like a “clearinghouse” and is trying to gather particular benefits that can only be secured through being part of a larger group than any one of the associate member jurisdictions are by themselves.
  • Independent Catholic Churches International
  • Independent Liberal Catholic Fellowship An ecumenical, independent fellowship of clergy and denominations in the liberal Catholic tradition
  • The World of Autocephalous Churches Go-to site for information and links regarding independent Catholic Churches, especially those in North America.
  • Independent Movement Database - A database of information on the Independent Movement.
  • The Sophia Circle Non prescriptive circle of esoterically-minded bishops