Who are the Old Catholics? They are a federation of several independent national Churches which are definitely Catholic in faith and worship, and are also non-Papal. Amongst them, the Archbishop of Utrecht holds a Primacy of honor not dissimilar from that accorded in the Anglican Communion to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Wherever they are found they are the Church of a minority of the people, but smallness of numbers does not mean that they are an unimportant Church. On the contrary, they occupy a very definite place in Catholic Christendom and they are in communion with almost all the Churches of the Anglican Communion.
Old Catholicism results from the fusion of two separate and distinct movements away from the Church of Rome. The first of these was caused by Jesuit intrigue which in the eighteenth century drove the See of Utrecht into separation from the Roman Obedience. This Mother-diocese of the Netherlands had been founded by St. Willibrord, a missionary from Northumbria, in A.D. 696.
The schism in the Church of the Netherlands arose, when the Pope deposed Archbishop Petrus Codde and appointed a new bishop, which was contrary to church law. Part of the Church remained loyal to the Chapter of the Archbishop (the Old Catholics) and the others took the side of Rome (the Roman Catholics).
The Church of Utrecht was not prepared to bow before the Jesuit-Papal striving after power. It maintained its rights and elected Cornelis Steenoven Archbishop of Utrecht (1723). He was consecrated by the Roman Catholic Bishop Dominicus Maria Varlet. In separation from Rome (and with the revived Sees of Haarlem and Deventer) Utrecht retained a valid Apostolic Succession in its ministry and continued to be Catholic in faith and worship.
For Utrecht the Scriptures and Tradition were and are the sources of the Catholic faith, in such a manner that Tradition can never add anything to, or take away from, the Scriptures. For Rome, Tradition came to stand above the Scriptures and was finally embodied in the Pope (1870).
The Vatican Council of 1870 killed any hope of reconciliation with Rome. The same Vatican Council produced another separation from Rome, a secession of some magnitude, which occurred in Central Europe where its leader was the celebrated Dr. Ignatius von Dollinger, a Theological Professor of the University of Munich.
His followers came to be called Old Catholics because they rejected the new doctrines of the Papal Church and appealed to the standard of faith and worship in the Undivided Christian Church. Excommunicated by Rome, they sought and obtained recognition by the See of Utrecht, and in consequence enjoy Orders which even the Roman Church admits as valid.
The Old Catholic Churches have revised doctrine, worship and discipline and there are differences between the different Churches in these matters, but all are united on the basis of the Declaration of Utrecht, as agreed in 1889. A translation of that Declaration can be found here.
From 1870 onwards, the Old Catholic Churches have been in close touch with the Anglican Churches. The Old Catholics responded to the Lambeth Appeal of 1920 with regard to Christian Unity. In 1925, the Old Catholics declared their unqualified acceptance of Anglican Orders and Sacraments. At Bonn, in 1931, terms of intercommunion were agreed upon, and have since been ratified on both sides.
Members of either Communion may, therefore, obtain hospitality in matters spiritual in the Churches of the other. Since the Union conferences held in Bonn in 1874 and 1875 under the leadership of Von Dollinger, excellent relations have been maintained with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. These bonds were strengthened by the presence of official Eastern Orthodox delegates at several international Old Catholic congresses.
Finally it may be noted that from the very beginning the Old Catholic Churches have taken a great interest in the work of the ecumenical movement. This is the logical consequence of their conviction that they are the continuation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and that, with a view to the Roman Catholic aberrations on the one hand and those of the Protestants on the other hand, it is their duty to bear witness to the faith of the one and undivided Church.