The term Old Catholic Church was used from the 1850s by groups which had separated from the Roman Catholic Church over certain doctrines, primarily concerned with papal authority; some of these groups, especially in the Netherlands, had already existed long before the term. These churches are not in full communion with the Holy See. Member churches of the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches (UU) are in full communion with the Anglican Communion, and some are members of the World Council of Churches.
The formation of the Old Catholic communion of Germans, Austrians and Swiss began in 1870 at a public meeting held in Nuremberg under the leadership of Ignaz von Döllinger, following the First Vatican Council. Four years later, episcopal succession was established with the consecration of an Old Catholic German bishop by a prelate of the Church of Utrecht. In line with the "Declaration of Utrecht" of 1889, adherents accept the first seven ecumenical councils and doctrine formulated before the East–West Schism of 1054, but reject communion with the pope and a number of other Catholic doctrines and practices. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that since 1925, they have recognized Anglican ordinations, that they have had full communion with the Church of England since 1932 and have taken part in the ordination of Anglican bishops. According to the principle of Ex opere operato, ordinations out of communion with Rome are still valid, and for this reason the validity of orders of Old Catholic bishops has never been formally questioned by Rome, although not any female priests.
The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who did not recognize any infallible papal authority. Later Catholics who disagreed with the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council (1870) were hereafter without a bishop and joined with Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches (UU). Today these Old Catholic churches are found chiefly in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria and Czechia. Union of Utrecht Old Catholic churches are not generally found outside of Western Europe.
Though not possessing any relationship with the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches, numerous Independent Catholic clergy in the English-speaking world mistakenly self-identify as "Old Catholic," which likely signifies that, independent of the Roman Catholic Church, they see themselves as part of the Old Catholic tradition.
Old Catholic theology views the Eucharist as the core of the Christian Church. From that point the church is a community of believers. All are in communion with one another around the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as the highest expression of the love of God. Therefore, the celebration of the Eucharist is understood as the experience of Christ's triumph over sin. The defeat of sin consists in bringing together that which is divided.
Old Catholics believe in unity in diversity and often quote the Church Father Vincent of Lérins's Commonitory: "in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all." 
Four disputes set the stage for an independent Bishopric of Utrecht: the Concordat of Worms, the First Lateran Council, and Fourth Lateran Council, and confirmation of church procedural law by Pope Leo X. Also relevant was the 12th century Investiture Controversy over whether the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope could appoint bishops. In 1122, the Concordat of Worms was signed, making peace. The Emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration. The Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II ended the feud by granting one another peace. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council canon 23 states that the duty to elect a bishop for a cathedral within three months devolves to the next immediate superior when that duty is neglected by electors. In 1517 Pope Leo X, in Debitum pastoralis officii nobis, forbade the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Hermann of Wied, to rely on his status as legatus natus in summoning Philip of Burgundy, his treasurer, and his ecclesiastical and secular subjects to a court of first instance in Cologne. John Mason Neale explained that Leo X only confirmed a right of the church but Leo X's confirmation "was providential" in respect to the future schism.  This greatly promoted the independence of the diocese, so that no clergy or laity from Utrecht would ever be tried by a Roman tribunal.
Old Catholicism's formal separation from Roman Catholicism occurred over the issue of Papal authority. This separation occurred in The Netherlands in 1724, creating the first Old Catholic church. The churches of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Switzerland created the UU after Vatican I (1871) over the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. By the early 1900s, the movement included groups in England, Canada, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, United States, the Philippines, China, and Hungary. The Polish National Catholic Church was the UU member church in America until recently. It left the UU in opposition to the ordination of women by other member churches.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was persecuted and the Holy See appointed an apostolic vicar to govern the bishop-less dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal. Protestants occupied most church buildings, and those remaining were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic, which favoured the Dutch Reformed Church.
The northern provinces, that revolted against the Spanish Netherlands and signed the 1579 Union of Utrecht, persecuted the Catholic Church, confiscated church property, expelled monks and nuns from convents and monasteries, and made it illegal to receive the Catholic sacraments. However, the Catholic Church did not die, rather priests and communities went underground. Groups would meet for the sacraments in the attics of private homes at the risk of arrest. Priests identified themselves by wearing all black clothing with very simple collars. All the episcopal sees of the area, including that of Utrecht, had fallen vacant by 1580, because the Spanish crown, which since 1559 had patronal rights over all bishoprics in the Netherlands, refused to make appointments for what it saw as heretical territories, and the nomination of an apostolic vicar was seen as a way of avoiding direct violation of the privilege granted to the crown. The appointment of an apostolic vicar, the first after many centuries, for what came to be called the Holland Mission was followed by similar appointments for other Protestant-ruled countries, such as England, which were likewise become mission territories. The disarray of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands between 1572 and about 1610 was followed by a period of expansion of Catholicism under the apostolic vicars, leading to Protestant protests.
The initial shortage of Catholic priests in the Netherlands resulted in increased pastoral activity of religious clergy, among whom Jesuits formed a considerable minority, coming to represent between 10 and 15 percent of all the Dutch clergy in the 1600–1650 period. Conflicts arose between these and the apostolic vicars and the secular clergy In 1629, the priests were 321, 250 secular and 71 religious, with Jesuits at 34 forming almost half of the religious. By the middle of the 17th century the secular priests were 442, the religious 142, of whom 62 were Jesuits.
The fifth apostolic vicar of the Dutch Mission, Petrus Codde, was appointed in 1688. In 1691, the Jesuits accused him of favouring the Jansenist heresy. Pope Innocent XII appointed a commission of cardinals to investigate the accusations against Codde. The commission concluded that the accusations were groundless.
In 1700, Pope Clement XI, summoned Codde to Rome to participate in the Jubilee Year, whereupon a second commission was appointed to try Codde. The result of this second proceeding was again acquittal. However, in 1701 Clement XI decided to suspend Codde and appoint a successor. The church in Utrecht refused to accept the replacement and Codde continued in office until 1703, when he resigned.
After Codde's resignation, the Diocese of Utrecht elected Cornelius Steenoven as bishop. After consultation with both canon lawyers and theologians in France and Germany, Dominique Marie Varlet, a Roman Catholic Bishop of the French Oratorian Society of Foreign Missions, consecrated Steenoven as a bishop without a papal mandate. What had been de jure autonomous became de facto an independent Catholic church. Steenoven appointed and ordained bishops to the sees of Deventer, Haarlem and Groningen. Although the pope was notified of all proceedings, the Holy See still regarded these dioceses as vacant due to papal permission not being sought. The pope, therefore, continued to appoint apostolic vicars for the Netherlands. Steenoven and the other bishops were excommunicated and thus began the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
While the religious clergy remained loyal to Rome, three quarters of the secular clergy at first followed Codde, but by 1706 over two thirds of these returned to the Roman allegiance. Of the laity, the overwhelming majority sided with Rome. Thus most Dutch Catholics remained in full communion with the pope and with the apostolic vicars appointed by him. However, due to prevailing anti-papal feeling among the powerful Dutch Calvinists, the Church of Utrecht was tolerated and even praised by the government of the Dutch Republic.
In 1853 Pope Pius IX received guarantees of religious freedom from King William II of the Netherlands and re-established the Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands. This existed alongside that of the Old Catholic See of Utrecht. Thereafter in the Netherlands the Utrecht hierarchy was referred to as the "Old Catholic Church" to distinguish it from those in union with the pope. According to Catholic Church interpretation, the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht maintained apostolic succession and its clergy celebrated valid sacraments. The Old Catholic Diocese of Utrecht was considered schismatic but not in heresy, but the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht that the Holy See sees as the continuation of the episcopal see founded in the 7th century and raised to metropolitan status on 12 May 1559.
After the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), several groups of Catholics in Austria-Hungary, Imperial Germany, and Switzerland rejected the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals and left to form their own churches. These were supported by the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht, who ordained priests and bishops for them. Later the Dutch were united more formally with many of these groups under the name "Utrecht Union of Churches".
In the spring of 1871 a convention in Munich attracted several hundred participants, including Church of England and Protestant observers. Döllinger, an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest and church historian, was a notable leader of the movement but was never a member of an Old Catholic Church.
The convention decided to form the "Old Catholic Church" in order to distinguish its members from what they saw as the novel teaching in the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. Although it had continued to use the Roman Rite, from the middle of the 18th century, the Dutch Old Catholic See of Utrecht had increasingly used the vernacular instead of Latin. The churches which broke from the Holy See in 1870 and subsequently entered into union with the Old Catholic See of Utrecht gradually introduced the vernacular into the liturgy until it completely replaced Latin in 1877. In 1874 Old Catholics removed the requirement of clerical celibacy.
The Old Catholic Church within the German Empire received support from the government of Otto von Bismarck, whose 1870s Kulturkampf policies persecuted the Catholic Church. In Austria-Hungary, pan-Germanic nationalist groups, like those of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, promoted the conversion of all German speaking Catholics to Old Catholicism and Lutheranism.
In 1908 the Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul, consecrated Father Arnold Harris Mathew, a former Catholic priest, as Regionary Bishop for England. His mission was to establish a community for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. During his time with the Old Catholics, Mathew attended the Old Catholic Congress in Vienna in 1909 as well as acted as co-consecrator of Archbishop Michael Kowalski of the Mariavite Church in Poland. In 1910, Mathew left the UU over his allegation of their becoming more Protestant and called his church the "Old Roman Catholic Church".
In 1913, Mathew consecrated Rudolph de Landas Berghes. At the beginning of World War I, Berghes emigrated to the United States in 1914, hoping to consolidate various independent Old Catholic groups under Mathew. Berghes, in spite of his isolation, was able to plant the seed of Old Catholicism in the Americas. He consecrated an excommunicated Capuchin Franciscan priest as bishop: Carmel Henry Carfora. From this the Old Catholic Church in the United States evolved into local and regional self-governing dioceses and provinces along the design of St. Ignatius of Antioch - a network of Communities.
Joseph René Vilatte worked with Catholics of Belgian ancestry living on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin and with the knowledge and blessing of the Union of Utrecht and under the full jurisdiction of the local Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Vilatte was ordained a deacon on 6 June 1885 and priest on 7 June 1885 by Bishop Eduard Herzog, of the Christian Catholic Church of Switzerland. Vilatte's work provided the only sacramental presence in that particular part of rural Wisconsin [under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, WI].
In time, Vilatte asked the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to be ordained a bishop so that he might confirm, but his petition was not granted because UU recognized the Episcopal Church as the local catholic church. Vilatte solicited the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches to consecrate him. He was made a bishop in India on the 28 May 1892 under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. Over the years, hundreds of people in the United States have come to claim apostolic succession from Vilatte; none is in communion with, nor recognised by, the Old Catholic See of Utrecht.
The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is no longer in communion with the Old Catholic churches but considers "the Declaration of Utrecht as a normative document of faith" and part of its ecclesiology. The Polish National Catholic Church began in the late 19th century over concerns about the ownership of church property and the domination of the U.S. church by Irish bishops. The church traces its apostolic succession directly to the Utrecht Union and thus possesses orders and sacraments which are recognised by the Holy See. In 1993 a pastoral agreement was concluded on the basis of can. 844 § 2 CIC permitting members of the PNCC to receive the sacraments from Roman Catholic priests. In 2003 the church voted itself out of the UU because the UU accepted the ordination of women and has an open attitude towards homosexuality, both of which the Polish National Catholic Church rejects.
The Old Catholic Church of Slovakia was accepted in 2000 as a member of the Union of Utrecht. As early as 2001, some issues arose concerning future consecration of Augustin Bacinsky as old-catholic bishop of Slovakia, and the matter was postponed. Old Catholic Church of Slovakia was expelled from the Union of Utrecht in 2004, because the episcopal administrator Augustin Bacinsky had been consecrated by an episcopus vagans.
The only recognized group in America that is in communion with the Union of Utrecht is the Episcopal Church. However, independent Old Catholic groups with recognized apostolic succession have attempted to seek recognition from the UU. These are listed in the sections below.
In 2006, the Old Catholic Communion of North America (OCCNA) was formed by Archbishop Michael Nesmith. The purpose was to provide a means for Old Catholic churches which embraced the theology and beliefs of the undivided Church to come together in communion while remaining fully autocephalous. As of January 2016, OCCNA has grown to a point where it has been established as a church with provincial structure with parishes, missions, and other ministries in Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana, Delaware, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Oregon, and Nevada. OCCNA clergy have also served as priests in charge with the Anglican Province of America and have clergy licensed to serve in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).
The OCCNA fully believes the intent of the founders of Old Catholicism was for the Western Church to return to the faith of the undivided church prior to the Great Schism of 1054. The OCCNA believes this intent is fully expressed in the Declaration of Utrecht, the Fourteen Theses of Bonn and other documents from the time at the beginning of the Old Catholic churches in Europe. Therefore, the OCCNA embraces the theology of the undivided Church, which in practice means it does not ordain women, does not bless same-sex unions, and rejects Roman Catholic dogmas defined after the Great Schism in 1054 (the Immaculate Conception of Mary, papal infallibility, and the Assumption of Mary). It is the desire of the OCCNA to continue to bring about unity among like-minded Old Catholics and therefore actively seeks to establish dialog or communion with any Old Catholic churches or Anglican churches which embrace the orthodox theology of the undivided and early Christian Church.
After the PNCC separated from the UU, the UU's International Old Catholic Bishops' Conference (IBC) asked The Episcopal Church (TEC) to survey the groups self identifying as Old Catholics about how they identify as Old Catholics, their understanding of Old Catholic ecclesiology, and whether they ordain women. The results were reported at the IBC's 2005 annual meeting. In May 2006, four American Old Catholic bishops, Peter Paul Brennan, Peter Hickman, Charles Leigh, and Robert T. Fuentes, met in Queens Village, New York, with Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia Bishop Michie Klusmeyer, the TEC liaison to the IBC; Tom Ferguson, TEC deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations; TEC Old Catholic theologian and TEC priest ordained in the Old Catholic Church of Austria, Bjorn Marcussen; and, IBC representative Gunther Esser. They discussed Old Catholic Church ecclesiology, "highlighted in the Preamble" of the IBC Statutes. Three days later the four bishops – Brennan, Fuentes, Hickman, and Leigh – formed the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops (CNAOCB), modeled on the IBC. The group's "central goal" was "the tangible, organic unity among American Old Catholic jurisdictions. Klusmeyer, without an open dialogue with the Conference members or other viable Old Catholic jurisdictions, declared that there was not enough interest to form an American Old Catholic Church which could be a member of the UU. Many jurisdictions within the United States would like the UU to reconsider their decision, but there is also a feeling that, given the different charisms, union might not be feasible.
In November 2006, the CNAOCB "bishops who remained engaged" met in Los Angeles and agreed on a Unity Statement, rules of order, and criteria for joining the CNAOCB. The Unity Statement, "to which all members subscribe" "incorporated the ecclesiological understanding of the" UU.
In the United States of America, Communion of Catholic Evangelical Episcopal Churches ( CEEC ) ( Archbishop Charles Travis ) was established in 1995 and is part of the Old Catholic Churches and his Official liturgy is The Latin liturgy , through which the Apostolate of St. Francis in the Middle East, North Africa and Egypt and In September 2010, CNAOCB members signed the Plan of Union, which created The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States (TOCCUSA). This federation of CNAOCB members was a step in realizing the goal of a national church modeled on UU ecclesiology. TOCCUSA bishops invite Old Catholic bishops not yet a part of TOCCUSA to enter into dialogue, with the hopes that deeper unity may be accomplished. CNAOCB still exists as an ecumenical arm of TOCCUSA and Old Catholic jurisdictions not able to unify themselves to TOCCUSA are encouraged to join CNAOCB in order to foster greater cooperation.
As of 2016, there are 115,000 members of Old Catholic churches.
Immediately after forming the UU, Old Catholic theologians dedicated themselves to a reunion of the Christian churches. The Conferences of Reunion in Bonn in 1874 and 1875 convoked by Döllinger, a leading personality of Old Catholicism, are famous. Representatives of the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches were invited. They discussed denominational differences as the ground for restoring the church communion. They assumed the following principles for participation:
Acceptance of the Christological dogma of First Council of Nicaea and Council of Chalcedon; Christ's foundation of the Church; the Holy Bible, the doctrine of the undivided Church, and the Church fathers of the first ten centuries as the genuine sources of belief; and Vincent of Lérins's Commonitory as a preferred method for historical research.
Reunion of the churches had to be based on a re-actualization of the decisions of faith made by the undivided Church. In that way the original unity of the Church could be made visible again. Following these principles, later bishops and theologians of the Old Catholic churches stayed in contact with Russian Orthodox and Anglican representatives.
Old Catholic involvement in the multilateral ecumenical movement formally began with the participation of two bishops, from the Netherlands and Switzerland, at the Lausanne Faith and Order (F&O) conference (1927). This side of ecumenism has always remained a major interest for Old Catholics who have never missed an F&O conference. Old Catholics also participate in other activities of the WCC and of national councils of churches. By its active participation in the ecumenical movement since its very beginning then, the OCC demonstrates its belief in the necessity of the continuation of this work.
Old Catholicism values apostolic succession by which they mean both the uninterrupted laying on of hands by bishops through time and the continuation of the whole life of the church community by word and sacrament over the years and ages. Old Catholics consider apostolic succession to be the handing on of belief in which the whole Church is involved. In this process the ministry has a special responsibility and task, caring for the continuation in time of the mission of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.
Christ-Catholic Swiss bishop Urs Küry dismissed the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation because this Scholastic interpretations presume to explain the Eucharist using the metaphysical concept of "substance". Like the Orthodox approach to the Eucharist, Old Catholics, he says, ought to accept an unexplainable divine mystery as such and should not cleave to or insist upon a particular theory of the sacrament.
Because of this approach, Old Catholics hold an open view to most issues, including the role of women in the Church, the role of married people within ordained ministry, the morality of same sex relationships, the use of conscience when deciding whether to use artificial contraception, and liturgical reforms such as open communion. Its liturgy has not significantly departed from the Tridentine Mass, as is shown in the translation of the German altar book (missal).
In 1994 the German bishops decided to ordain women as priests and put this into practice on 27 May 1996. Similar decisions and practices followed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The UU allows those who are divorced to have a new religious marriage and has no particular teaching on abortion, leaving such decisions to the married couple.
An active contributor to the Declaration of the Catholic Congress, Munich, 1871 and all later assemblies for organization was Johann Friedrich von Schulte, the professor of dogma at Prague. Von Schulte summed up the results of the congress as follows:
- adherence to the ancient Catholic faith
- maintenance of the rights of Catholics
- rejection of new Roman Catholic dogmas
- adherence to the constitutions of the ancient Church with repudiation of every dogma of faith not in harmony with the actual consciousness of the Church
- reform of the Church with constitutional participation of the laity
- preparation of the way for reunion of the Christian confessions
- reform of the training and position of the clergy
- adherence to the State against the attacks of Ultramontanism
- rejection of the Society of Jesus
- claim to the real property of the Church
- Liberal Catholic Movement
- Independent Catholic Churches
- King's Family of Churches
- Liberal Catholic Church
- Old Catholics for Christ
- Willibrord Society
- German Catholics (sect)