Catholics without Rome
Old Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and the Reunion Negotiations of the 1870s
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: History, Third Place
Catholics without Rome examines the dawn of the modern, ecumenical age, when “Old Catholics,” unable to abide Rome’s new doctrine of papal infallibility, sought unity with other “catholics” in the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches.
In 1870, the First Vatican Council formally embraced and defined the dogma of papal infallibility. A small and vocal minority, comprised in large part of theologians from Germany and Switzerland, judged it uncatholic and unconscionable, and they abandoned the Roman Catholic Church, calling themselves “Old Catholics.” This study examines the Old Catholic Church’s efforts to create a new ecclesiastical structure, separate from Rome, while simultaneously seeking unity with other Christian confessions. Many who joined the Old Catholic movement had long argued for interconfessional dialogue, contemplating the possibility of uniting with Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox. The reunion negotiations initiated by Old Catholics marked the beginning of the ecumenical age that continued well into the twentieth century. Bryn Geffert and LeRoy Boerneke focus on the Bonn Reunion Conferences of 1874 and 1875, including the complex run-up to those meetings and the events that transpired thereafter. Geffert and Boerneke masterfully situate the theological conversation in its wider historical and political context, including the religious leaders involved with the conferences, such as Döllinger, Newman, Pusey, Liddon, Wordsworth, Ianyshev, Alekseev, and Bolotov, among others. The book demonstrates that the Bonn Conferences and the Old Catholic movement, though unsuccessful in their day, broke important theological ground still relevant to contemporary interchurch and ecumenical affairs. Catholics without Rome makes an original contribution to the study of ecumenism, the history of Christian doctrine, modern church history, and the political science of confessional fellowships. The book will interest students and scholars of Christian theology and history, and general readers in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches interested in the history of their respective confessions.
About This Work
Note on Transliteration and Dates
1. Nineteenth-Century Ecumenism
3. The Vatican Council
4. Reactions and Rupture
5. Making Sense of Old Catholics
6. Establishing the Old Catholic Ecclesia
7. Intensifying Interest
8. Preparing for Bonn
9. The First Bonn Reunion Conference, 1874
10. The Second Bonn Reunion Conference, 1875
11. Ways Part
12. Explaining Failure
13. Aftermath as Conclusion
“This volume is a valuable, even a necessary, piece of the modern story of Christianity. I think such a marvelous work echoes some of the similar discerning outlook of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s splendid Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.” —Michael Plekon, author of The World as Sacrament
“The reader comes away with a clear and nuanced picture of the Old Catholic movement, a real appreciation for the depth of the ecumenical thinking it inspired, and a good grasp of interconfessional relations in the nineteenth century.” —Paul Valliere, author of Conciliarism
"This volume is readable and engaging, and it contains sufficient explanations to be accessible to the non-expert...a welcome contribution to the study of Christian history." — Reading Religion
"Geffert and Boerneke reveal themselves to be trusted mentors who themselves treat their sources with respect, critical acumen, and perspicacious contextual awareness." — Journal of Ecumenical Studies
They arrived by carriage, by train, by boat, and by ship, some from neighboring cities, some from neighboring countries, some from realms further East, and some from across the Atlantic.
They assembled the morning of Monday, 14 December 1874, in the music hall of the University of Bonn, in the province of Westphalia, Kingdom of Prussia, which, since Prussia’s defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, constituted the dominant state in the newly formed Deutsches Reich or German Empire.
All were men. Most were middle-aged or older. They hailed from Denmark, England, France, Greece, the Netherlands, North America, Russia, and Switzerland. None hailed from Roman Catholic Italy or Spain. Most were bilingual, some tri- or quadrilingual. A few worked comfortably in five or more languages.
They were, to a person, devout Christians, understanding their lives as lives in service to Christ, his kingdom, and his church. They insisted repeatedly that they did not at this gathering represent in any official capacity any particular Christian denomination or confession. Yet they each considered themselves faithful members of particular denominations, confessions, or churches, even though they could not agree on what, exactly, the term “church” meant.
Most belonged to one of three Christian confessions, none in communion with the other: Eastern Orthodox Christianity (visitors from Russia and Greece), Anglicanism (members of the Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States), and “Old Catholicism,” (former Roman Catholics, concentrated mostly in Germany and Switzerland, who had recently left, voluntarily or involuntarily, the church of Rome). A few members from other Protestant confessions attended as well.
They arrived at the invitation of Ignaz von Döllinger, a professor in the theological faculty at the University of Munich. To his contemporary admirers, Döllinger was “venerable,” “the most learned theologian of Catholic Germany,” “one of the greatest masters of history,” “one of the greatest living Catholic divines,” “the greatest Catholic theologian and the most learned Church historian in Germany during the present century,” “a marvel of intellectual precocity,” “a receptive genius in the highest sense of the phrase,” and the “greatest Catholic theologian of this or perhaps of any century.” The Episcopal bishop of Pittsburg gushed that “Dr. Döllinger impresses me more profoundly than any man I ever met—by his intellect so strong, clear and forcible; his learning—vast, accurate, ever ready for use; his accurate acquaintance with the great present as well as the great past of the Church of Christ.” The Church of England’s bishop of Winchester deemed him “the most eminent divine on the continent.” To later historians he was “Germany’s most internationally celebrated theologian” and “the first theologian of the day.” Even his opponents in the Roman Catholic Church, a church that had excommunicated him three years earlier, recognized his brilliance. A biting attack in the English Roman Catholic press conceded that Döllinger was “erudite.” The Catholic Encyclopedia—the monumental 1909 compilation of Roman Catholic orthodoxy—acknowledged his “profound learning and brilliant diction.”
But to Pope Pius IX, head of the Roman Catholic Church and claimant to the titles “supreme pontiff of the Universal Church” and “vicar of Christ,” Döllinger was a heretic, an enemy of Christ’s one and only church.
And for Döllinger, the papacy was an enemy of Christendom. Popes through the centuries had made claims, he insisted, no human could rightly make. Popes unilaterally formulated doctrine no right-thinker could formulate. Popes had sown discord and death through their support of the crusades. The papacy had “kidnapped” Christians in the borderlands between Eastern Europe and Western Russia, cajoling and bullying them into submission. The papacy demanded submission from Eastern Christians absent any basis for such demands. It encouraged Jesuits to persecute Poles. It bore responsibility for witch trials and the horrors of the Spanish and Italian inquisitions, what Döllinger termed “a pure … product of papal teaching on faith and morals.” It advocated torture. It demanded servility. (It seems Döllinger never recovered from the humiliation of kissing Pius IX’s foot during a visit to the Vatican in 1857.) And, worst of all, the papacy intended to divide Christendom. Döllinger could not bear the thought that popes, the promoters and purveyors of the falsehoods and indignities he cataloged with relish, could be infallible.
And yet, on 18 July 1870, bishops at the First Vatican Council in Rome had declared the pope infallible. Döllinger had warned the decision was coming. He objected when it did. He wrote impassioned rebuttals. He rallied forty-four fellow professors at the University of Munich to condemn the decree. And he wrote a letter to his own bishop—the archbishop of Munich—refusing to accept it.
The archbishop of Munich, with the pope’s almost certain consent, responded by excommunicating Döllinger in April 1871. The excommunication “stung Döllinger to the quick and wounded him to his inmost soul.”