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Historical Roots

Revolt Against Doctrine of Papal Infallibility and Schism

The Orthodox Catholic Church had its modern day roots in the Old Catholic Church founded in the aftermath of the I Vatican Council (Dec. 8, 1869- Oct. 20, 1870).  This Council hastily defined papal primacy and Infallibility as a 'divine law' within a significant political context.  Unification of the many states of Italy had been progressing for more than a decade, but it was on September 20, 1870, that Victor Emmanuel II, king of Piedmont and Sardinia, captured Rome and annexed the remaining Papal States into the unified Kingdom of Italy.  Left as sovereign over only the small acreage of Vatican City, Pius IX declared himself a 'prisoner of the Vatican' and remained there without any appreciable civil authority.  Dissolution of the 'Imperial church' with all its political power and the erosion of papal political authority imposed a heavy and humiliating fate on the pope.  This gave rise to a more pronounced papalism under the sign of Restoration and resulted in an atmosphere of doom and rising pressure to accentuate the power of papal primacy and moral authority within the Church (Angell & Helm, 1988).
The movement toward schism began when many theologians, including famous Church historian Johann von Dollinger, warned of a serious danger to the church's integrity if a dogma was made out of the necessity of more power for the realization and exercise of the papacy.  Their cautions not heeded, they were accused of being disloyal to the Church.  However, many theologians attending the Council persisted, refusing to accept that the pope acting by himself was infallible with supreme and universal Jurisdiction over the Church.  They believed this power resided with the College of Bishops (Desseaux, 1984).  Many had previously been alienated from the Church by the publication of the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, which set the Church against most of the progressive movements of the day (Whalen, 1981).  Dollinger led the resistance to papal infallibility and was excommunicated, but refused to promote a schism (Angell & Helm, 1988).  However, three hundred priests and lay followers left the Church en masse, naming themselves 'Old' (meaning authentic) Catholics.

Present century Roman Catholic Church history texts laud Vatican I (and the 1918 Code of Canon Law) as the "glorious peak of an almost two thousand-year history of the Church of Christ" (Kung, 1971, p. 89).  Why Roman Catholic historians and theologians denied the effects of Roman ecclesiastical policy and theology, with their destructive consequences for the unity and credibility of the Church as a whole?  Why did they display so little anxiety about the legitimacy of the whole process?  This is too complex a point to discuss here.  Suffice it to say, that immediately after the declaration of infallibility "a veritable papal cult started to bloom, which frequently approached tastelessness and blasphemy" (Fries & Rahner, 1985, p. 60).  Kung (1971) suggested that Pius IX was heretical because he "abandoned communion with the Church by his arbitrary rule, and because of the sparse testimonies of tradition" (p. 111) for declaring himself infallible.  If this were true, then the Roman Church would be the heretical Church.

Old Catholic Church:

Beginning of Apostolic Succession and Growth

Apostolic succession of the Church began In 1873 when Casparus Rinkel, a German Old Catholic priest, was consecrated Bishop by Bishop Haemanus Heijkamp of Utrecht, Holland.  Old Catholic communities soon developed in Germany, Holland, France, England and Switzerland.  A 1889 international conference of Old Catholic bishops issued an 'Utrecht Declaration,' which rejected Vatican decrees on infallibility but acknowledged a 'historical papal primacy' because several ecumenical councils and the early Church Fathers had recognized the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares (first among equals)@ (Kung, 1971, p. 96).  Today there are about 1,200,000 Church members.

In the United States
The Old Catholic Church came to the United States in 1931 as the 'American Catholic Church'.  As new Bishops were consecrated, other lines of Apostolic succession merged, including the Orthodox Russian Church, and the Syrian-Malabar and Greek Malachite rites (Newman, 1983).  One of its Bishops, Carlos Florido, envisioned a Church more concerned for prayer and contemplation, able to give greater service to the poor, be more involved in ecumenical cooperation, less institutionalized, authoritarian and hierarchical in structure, and with a deeper rootedness in Gospel values.  The Orthodox Catholic Church was born as an embodiment of this vision.  The word 'Orthodox' is derived not only from the Eastern non-uniate Churches, but is also used to denote the etymological meaning of the word, which is 'authentic' or 'right-thinking'.

Church Identity and vision

The Church experiences itself as "a Christian fellowship of clergy and laity whose core value is to give expression to life in the divine ... It aims to form a community of faith with love, devotion and abandonment to God as our foundation" (Florido, 1981, p. 1).  The name reflects the merging of Eastern and Western lines of apostolic succession as reflected in the Eucharistic Liturgy, Sacramental rites and spirituality.  Holy Orders are open to both men and women and celibacy is optional.  The offices of bishop, priest and deacon exist to serve members and provide them with spiritual guidance, sacraments and Eucharistic liturgy, which is derived from both Western and Eastern traditions.  "Contemplative prayer, meditation, spiritual healing, teaching and counseling form an integral part of the life of our congregations and members" (Florido, 1981, p. 1).  Revelation, or understanding of the divine, is accepted as coming from the Holy Spirit as revealed and inspired through tradition, theology, scripture, public sources and from personal encounter with God.  This reliance on the Spirit is a characteristic of the Orthodox tradition in which the Church finds many of its roots.

The Church seeks in its ministry of Love to be a witness and enabler of community growth.  Priests minister and create 'parishes' with parishioners in such venues as nursing homes, apartment complexes for the elderly and where persons with AIDS live, as well as in more traditional Church settings.
The kind of hope Jesus had was inclusive.  It refused to set bounds to God's mercy.  In the end, it would be fair to say that was why he was killed.  His refusal to set any limits, to declare anyone "out" was a threat to the very foundations of the religious and social systems.  He walked through Galilee and Judea - and in Gentile territory - smashing barriers like matchwood, apparently unaware many times, of the damage he was doing.  He included lepers, women, notorious public sinners, people whom sickness marked as punished by God, foreigners and pagans.  To personally accept God's love is to accept God's love for others and to share that love.  Bishop Carlos recently spoke of his experience and vision of what the Church is and can better become: “Our spiritual foundations include adoration of God alone, a deep devotion for the Eucharist, and the seeing of Christ as ever living and each person's energies as coming from God.  We are the energy of God.  Everything I do celebrates the divinity of God and godliness of others; our mysticism is a simple love that permeates our whole being.  I see our Church as having a total ecumenical look.  Examples include inviting clergy from other denominations to celebrate and preach at our liturgies and in ministry, the sharing of social needs among and by the Churches.” (Personal conversation March 1991).

In addition to its inclusivity and interfaith outreach, other aspects of the Church's founding statement have not only been adhered to, but continue to deepen and expand in praxis.  Derived from the inclusivity in membership is the drive in the Church toward social justice, as it is directly expressed in the ministries of its bishops, priests and other members, both in the United States and in Asia.  The Orthodox Catholic Church seeks to have a preferential option for the poor, trying to counteract in society and in other churches what Dorothy Day described as:  The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, no responsibility for the poor, the worker, the Negro, the Mexican, the Filipino, - and the consenting to their oppression by our industrialist capitalist order ... There was plenty of charity, but too little justice (1963, p. 93).

The Future of the Orthodox Catholic Church

A New Paradigm
Wuthnow (1988) understood religion to have changed in America since World War II by a process he called 'restructuring'.  The concept of paradigm embodies more creativity than does 'restructuring' and allows for more 'new life' and more transformational realities.  Kuhn (1970) used this concept of 'paradigm' to describe how radical changes, discoveries and even transformations were usually made in organizations, disciplines and systems by newcomers who were unconditioned by traditional, more encrusted ways and who could be more creative and free than those already embedded in the structure.  At a recent conference, David Tracy (1990) and his colleagues discussed how individuals and churches of recent origin are creating new paradigms in theology today.  The Orthodox Catholic Church seems to be one such new paradigm of Christianity.

Sources of the New Paradigm

In the Roman Catholic Church, in the Eastern Church and in twentieth century America, the Church's roots exist in the New Testament.  The documents of Vatican Council II, which endorsed freedom of thought in the church, were influential in developing a vision of who we were and what we desired to become.  They also emphasized the Church's prophetic as well as priestly and institutional reality, recognized the priesthood of the laity and their role in development of doctrine, fostered religious liberty and renunciation by the church of privileged status and acknowledged positive consequences of human solidarity in Christ=s Mystical Body.  Vatican II energized common responsibility for all peoples of the world, fostered Christian unity, encouraged dialogue and real communication between people and pastors, endorsed cultural adaptation of worship forms including introduction of vernacular languages and advocated diminution of pomp and pageantry.  Such documents also supported bishops in their roles as informed teachers, servants to the people and witnesses of faith, rather than rulers or administrators (Hennessey, 1981).  Sadly, these documents have not been adequately translated into action (DeBoy & Trenkle, 1991).

"Christian assumptions are in serious trouble today ... Christian accountability is in bad shape ... the leaders of the Christian churches have insisted on loyalty to what Christianity has been, with relatively little attention to what Christianity may become" (Meagher, 1990, p. 5).  There had to evolve "a yet more excellent way" (Marshall, 1985, p. 9) in which the Church could provide an environment and be a community of faith where broken and divided humanity could bind together eternal truth (the Transcendent) and present realities (the Immanent).  "God is always the Transcendent pervading the immanent and rendering it transparent" (Boff, 1988).

For the Church, the new paradigm was nourished by the individual and collective pain suffered by early members in their former Churches, from vision borne of prayer and on-going dialogue with others.  The Gospel, the early Church history, Eastern and Western tradition, and modern day sources were, and continue to be, creatively reinterpreted for the needs of the late twentieth century zeitgeist.

Cautions for the Future
Arbitrary institutionalization of churches will always be present as long as there is a religious faith shared by any group of people.  To be avoided is that bureaucratization which can so easily lead to the loss of the vision of what 'Church' is, and particularly "of what the performative imperatives are for the ecclesiastical institution" (Gustafson, 1968, p. 31).  One of the church's foundations is collegiality or the notion of shared responsibility; service and decision-making shared with all clergy.

Sociologically and organizationally, there can be an inherent danger of moving away from this initial vision.  The Church must be carefully guarded against this possibility.  Another possible danger, to the initial vision, could be the tendency towards activism of church members without a similar commitment to the 'mysticism, contemplative prayer and meditation' of which the founding statement speaks.  An authentic practice of Christianity as a transformative religion will require practical techniques, such as contemplative prayer.  We are witnesses to the unprecedented phenomenon of a religion that is rapidly becoming desacralized.  Thus genuine religion in the present and presumably, in the future differs from that of the past in that it integrates from within rather than from without (Mahaffey, 1986, p. 139).

The possibility exists that, under the pressures and stresses of being a minority Church, experiencing non-acceptance by some other Churches, a tendency may be developed to want to 'prove' itself.  There is danger in a passive, non-deliberate reaction to and adoption of a social enculturation that values action over prayer and accomplishments over witnessing to the Transcendent as well as the Immanent.  On the other hand, will what Roof & McKinney (1987) say of 'mysticism' be true for the Orthodox Catholic Church: "America produces religious individualists in great numbers, but few real mystics in any classical sense"?  (p. 246).  As the Church becomes more organized and 'communal', the need and even the room for, this element of its brief tradition could diminish.

Hope For the Future

On a more positive note, there is promise of growing, collaboration with and possible re-union with the entire Christian church.  Several priests in the Church have celebrated liturgy and studied scripture with Episcopal priests, and Methodist and Lutheran ministers.  Orthodox Catholic Church priests have often minister to people of other Christian churches and faiths and have regularly counseled men and women of all faiths.
This interfaith cooperation appears to increasingly be a characteristic of American life (Herberg, 1983) that received impetus from the work of John Mott in the early twentieth century (Marty, 1987).  Attempts at ecumenical dialogue and reunion have ebbed and waned over the last several years, since the strong impetus provided by Vatican II.  Prior to that, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical instructed (Roman) Catholics to prefer to associate with Catholics, and Mott's efforts at the 1910 World Missionary Conference gave rise to what most people date as the rise of the modern ecumenical Christian-unity movement to have as an ultimate goal the winning of non-Catholics over to (Roman) Catholicism (Kraut, 1990).  Although Vatican II repeated without restrictions the Vatican I doctrine of primacy (mentioned earlier), it did move away from that doctrine by declaring that the Pope cannot be described in his functions without the College of Bishops (Fries & Rahner, 1983).  Whelan (1981) wrote that because reunion of separated Christian Churches has been a major long-range goal of the Second Vatican Council and the ecumenical movement, "It now appears that one of the most likely reunions will involve the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Churches" (p. 117).  Rome seems to have abandoned its demand that Old Catholics assent to the papal bull of 1713, condemning Jansenism (which played a strong role in the eventual schism).  Old Catholics seem also to be willing to re-examine "the role of the papacy, the concept of collegiality and the renewal of Roman Catholicism" (Whelan, 1981, p. 117).  The Russian Orthodox Church still seemingly opposes re-union, as it refuses to participate in any meaningful ecumenical dialogue or discussions about unification, Patelos, (1978).  Berger (1990) is pessimistic about re-union.  Conversely, Faus (1989) pleaded a strong historical and theological cause for such reunion.  Avis (1990) while pleading for unconditional mutual acceptance by all Churches grounded on a common baptism into the Body of Christ and need for visible expression of this baptism in a common Eucharist, lamented how the official Roman Catholic Church is still opposed to Joining the World Council of Churches.

Most in the Orthodox Catholic Church were born into and grew up in the Roman Catholic Church.  They had to find their way in working through the ecumenical issue and learn to approach their non-Catholic brothers and sisters as members of the one body in Christ.  The Church does not seem to have yet arrived at a consensus about its role in the ecumenism of the future.  This indecisiveness may reflect the diverse opinions extant in Christendom on whether individual churches will become more unique, while not avoiding ecumenical dialogue; or whether there will be eventual re-unification of Christian Churches into a Church where there would be room for broad dissent and openness to on-going revelatory growth.

Ordination of Women

A potent obstacle to reunion of Christian Churches continues to be the ordination of women.  Avis (1990) argued that this issue needs "a reform of ministry" (p. 74), while Brown (1975, 1979), a pre-eminent Roman Catholic Scripture scholar and theologian, provided an insightful examination of why the ordination of women to the priesthood must be seriously considered.  He proposed that female priests might be necessary to the authenticity of the Church Jesus envisioned and essential if the needs of ministry today were to be met.  In the Orthodox Catholic Church, there is now a female bishop, five women priests and a deaconess.  Clearly, within the Church, the 'inclusiveness' as preached by Jesus includes women.

Discursive Community

We are presented with an opportunity for the Church to become a more discursive community (Gustafson, 1968, p. 35).  If an initiative can be first taken in reflection and then in action, it can become even more of an initiating community, rather than a reactive one; truer to its initial roots and vision, rather than having that vision dissipate; more of a community supporting each other as members of the Christ who adores and praises the Father, as well as who serves humanity.
An area that seems important to consider seriously and prayerfully is the meaning of 'Church'.  The New Testament, Torres & Eagleson (1981) and Brown (1979) can provide help in discerning this issue.  'Church' encompasses two main dimensions, the ecclesial-religious area, or institution; and the church as an ecclesial-sacramental area, or sacrament, sign and instrument of salvation.  The Orthodox Catholic Church and others (including Boff, 1981) believe that the ecclesiastical dimension must support the ecclesial -sacramental area.  Only then can the institution evangelize, revealing Jesus and his message, and have an authentic prayer and sacramental life.  The church is not ready-made, but a fruit of a specific history.  In the ecclesiastical-religious area, the Church can be conditioned, limited, and even corrupted by variables that include power struggles, philosophical and theological rigidity.  We are reminded of what Boff (1981) called "society's mode of production" (p. 127): the power bases in the culture and oppressive relationships within and between classes of society the church is in danger of being in conflict between these dimensions even at this early time in its history.  Brown (1979) demonstrated how soon after the deaths of Peter, Paul and James of Jerusalem around 60 AD; the message of Jesus became subordinate to philosophical, theological, ethical and power conflicts in many segments of the early Christian church and how that diminishment of the gospel continues today.

In the struggle with what should be the parameters of Episcopal power and the function of priest and laity, Brown (1979) warned: “In this day when Catholics quarrel about how much respective authority pope, bishop, priest and lay person should have, when Christians quarrel about whether a woman should be an ordained minister of the Eucharist; the Apostle John's voice cries out its warning: the greatest dignity to be striven for is neither papal, Episcopal, nor priestly; the greatest dignity is that of belonging to the community of the beloved disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Since Vatican Council II, some religious communities have led the way in demonstrating that authority is a function of the entire community.  Rejected is any appropriation of power by one individual or a small group of persons because of the belief that the leadership of the Holy Spirit is manifested strongly through 'koinonia'

The Orthodox Catholic Church could embrace this same kind of decision-making policy.  In that way the entire church and the whole community would be empowered and be even more ministerial, responding to issues and needs that emerge.  Roles in the church would exist only for service; the church becomes Christ Servant for its members and for society at large.  For this 'service attitude' to become more deeply rooted, the Church's pastoral activity would avoid any kind of involvement with power bases' (Boff, 1981), whether they be political, cultural, economic or ecclesial.

The process of trying to grasp, distinguish and articulate what is necessary to the nature and mystery of Church from what is time bound and accidental can be painful.  Grappling with the developing incarnation of the gospel message and its enfleshment within a given cultural framework demands an on going scrutinizing of all aspects of a Christian community.  This includes frequently re-examining the paradigm it represents and its present day vision "flowing from our relationship with the risen Christ" (Nesti, 1990, viii), the various belief systems shared, how members are called by each other to be prayerful people and, finally, how each invites the other and others to ministry.  This process has innate difficulties: “One must recognize wherein lies his or her own responsibility for the shaping of the future, that the possibilities opened up for us by the past be read accurately, and most of all, that we make the right distinctions between what is God-given or divinely decreed and what is fallible human fumbling after the authentically human as enhanced by God's continuing grace...  There is no basis for assuming that the disorder of sin is not to be found within church structures.” (Hellwig, 1990, p. 63).

The proclamation of Christ's message to the poor, to other churches and indeed to all of humanity by the Orthodox Catholic Church will emanate from the personal and communal holiness of its members enriched by the fertile streams of Eastern and Western spirituality that is its heritage.  The witnessing proclamation will continue to have uniquely 'American' features, i.e., "projecting a beneficent image of a concerned and loving God; a fundamentally positive appreciation of the human condition; a genuine valuing of the world as created, redeemed and sustained by a God who calls people to responsible action in unveiling the Kingdom" (McCarty, 1988, p. 120).

In continuing to work at putting the 'vision ahead of the institution' (a favorite phrase of Bishop Carlos), the Church will continually grapple with issues of authority versus collegiality; enculturation versus evangelization; activism versus contemplation and a preferential option for the poor, with lives witnessing to this choice versus adoption of middle class values.  The ideal would be that each dichotomy could be integrated with its opposite; the reality is that one or the other will suffer and/or diminish in the struggle.

Those committed to the new paradigm that is the Orthodox Catholic Church have a marvelous privilege as well as a tremendous responsibility imposed not by Church but by the Spirit who has called them forth.  May that Spirit fill them with the wisdom, the discernment, the courage, the peace and the joy to respond as a faithful, covenanted community of the Lord Jesus to the glory of God!

Most Rev. Carlos Florido- Founding Bishop

Most Rev Donna du Bois, OSF- Presiding Bishop

 Most Rev Charles Smith, OSF, Vicar General

Most Rev. Marilyn L. Sieg, S.T.D. - Presiding Bishop Emeritus

Synod of Bishops- See membership list


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