Laurence J Orzell on Old Catholic dissent and disintegration

T he illiberal countenance of ‘liberal Catholicism’ once again manifested itself in late 2003, when members of the Old Catholic International Bishops’ Conference (IBC), meeting in Prague, narrowly voted to expel the US-based Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) from the Old Catholic Communion. The IBC announced that a ‘separation’ of the churches had occurred because the PNCC had refused ‘to maintain communion with those Churches of the Union of Utrecht, which have introduced the ordination of women’ — those of Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Although the principal cause of the split was the ordination of women, the decision reflected long-standing tensions over other ‘progressive’ Old Catholic positions.

In 1976 the IBC issued a ‘Declaration’ opposing the ordination of women, but a campaign to overturn that policy soon began within Western Europe. This effort partially succeeded in 1997, when the IBC, which ostensibly exercises authority in questions of faith and morals, essentially agreed to disagree. The bishops recognized that some churches would ordain women, although they did not — contrary to press reporting both at the time and afterwards — authorize them to do so. But they also acknowledged that this would cause a break in communion and decided to resolve the ‘situation’ no later than 2003. The precise nature of any resolution remained undefined. The PNCC, for its part, indicated that any attempt to ordain women priests would lead to a break in full communion.

Rather than withdraw from the Old Catholic Communion, however, the PNCC chose to redefine its relationship with those churches that had ordained women priests as one of ‘a very real, although imperfect, communion.’ This policy, embodied in a set of ‘Guidelines’ adopted iii 1997, placed several restrictions on communio in sacris with West European Old Catholics. The IBC initially welcomed the ‘Guidelines’, and the IBC’ s ‘Statute’ acknowledged that full communion no longer existed. But this apparent complaisance was deceptive. West European Old Catholic leaders hoped that the PNCC eventually would succumb to the modernist Zeitgeist or at least mitigate its policy so that they could claim that full communion had been restored. This the PNCC stubbornly refused to do, as the West Europeans forged ahead with other items on the liberal agenda.

Not surprisingly, the most significant of these was the acceptance of homosexual conduct as morally good and the blessing of homosexual unions. Despite the fact that

the IBC had not sanctioned this radical break with Christian morality, the Austrian Old Catholic Church formally introduced such blessings, and other West European churches seem poised to follow suit. In 2001 the West European-dominated International Old Catholic Theologians’ Conference declared that ‘homosexual partnerships’ can ‘experience God’s blessing’ and asked the churches to consider whether the ‘liturgical form’ for the latter ‘should be viewed as a sacrament’. In 2002 the PNCC’ s General Synod described homosexual practice as sinful and deplored the blessing of homosexual relationships.

Old Catholic ecumenical strategy represented another bone of contention. German

Old Catholics have unilaterally entered into an intercommunion agreement with Lutherans. Moreover, it is likely that the IBC will establish a formal relationship with either the Porvoo Communion as a whole or with individual Lutheran member churches (for example, Sweden). The PNCC, whose dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church has resulted in an arrangement on limited communio in sacris (1996), does not support sacramental sharing with ecclesial communities that do not stand in the Apostolic Succession.

In theory, however, the ‘situation’ of imperfect communion could have continued indefinitely. The PNCC’s Prime Bishop, Robert M Nemkovich, presented a ‘Statement’ at Prague that reaffirmed its position on continued membership in the IBC, despite what he termed ‘new and serious difficulties’ in the areas of morality and ecumenism. Though he ruled out any immediate restoration of full communion, he called for mutual respect. Implicit in the ‘Statement’ was the message that responsibility for the PNCC’s future within the Utrecht Union rested in the hands of the other Old Catholic bishops.

The West European response to this stance demonstrated that the Utrecht Union has degenerated into a Teutonic parody of ‘Affirming Catholicism’ that is even less credible — and more intolerant — than its English model. The West European bishops made it clear that while they did not require the PNCC to adopt their innovations, they did expect it to lift virtually all restrictions

on sacramental sharing. In other words, the touchstone of what it meant to be ‘Old Catholic’ was to be in a nominal relationship of ‘full communion’ rather than to share the same beliefs on faith, order, and morals. The PNCC’s representatives did not find this argument persuasive.

The West Europeans thereupon resorted to a sleight of hand in order to rid themselves of their conservative colleagues. According to the IBC’s ‘Statute,’ the only delicts for which a church can be excluded are serious errors in faith or morals or violations of the ‘Statute’ itself In light of their own conduct, the West Europeans realized that they would look ridiculous if they invoked one or more of these. Instead, they falsely claimed that the IBCs 1997 decision required a restoration of full communion by 2003. Because the PNCC refused to do so, they argued, it had created a ‘separation’. When put to a vote, this position was adopted by a vote of six to four, with one abstention. Immediately after the vote, the PNCC delegation withdrew from the conference, and the West Europeans made no effort to encourage its return.

The post-IBC Press Statement claimed that the ‘effect’ of the decision ‘will need to be considered over the next few months’. Prime Bishop Nemkovich did not require much time to conclude that the term ‘separation’ actually meant ‘divorce.’ He pointed out that ‘contrary to the provisions of the IBC’s “Statute” … a majority decided … to remove the PNCC from the Union of Utrecht.’ While expressing regret, he pointed out that ‘recent innovations adopted by the West European churches have altered the character of the Utrecht Union to such an extent that it is no longer the same communion’ that the PNCC had joined in 1907.

‘Progressive’ Old Catholics would doubtless concur with the latter assessment. With the expulsion the PNCC from the Union of Utrecht, the latter is now an exclusively European body, and even that has experienced an embarrassing defection since the IBC’s meeting in Prague. The Slovak Old Catholic Church broke with the Union in early 2004 after openly expressing disaffection with the modernist direction of the West Europeans. Meanwhile, the IBC not only appears uninterested in mending fences with the PNCC but actually has rendered a reconciliation even more unlikely. At their 2004 meeting in Switzerland the bishops openly endorsed a schism within the PNCC’s Canadian Diocese by offering to extend episcopal care to Canadian Polish National Catholics.

Laurence J Orzell is secretary of the PNCC’s Doctrine Commission.