Old Catholics, Christian denomination established by German Catholics who separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church when they rejected (1870) the decrees of the First Vatican Council, especially the dogma of the infallibility of the pope. The Old Catholic movement began publicly with a meeting of professors at Nuremberg (1870) under the leadership of Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger. By 1874, a new church had been established with a bishop consecrated by a Jansenist bishop (see under Jansen, Cornelis) of the Church of Utrecht, which had itself separated from Rome in an earlier (1724) schism considered to be a precursor of the Old Catholic movement. Church doctrines were codified by the Declaration of Utrecht (1889), which rejected communion with the pope and many Roman Catholic doctrines and practices; priests were allowed to marry and confession was made optional. Roman ritual was retained but was usually performed in the vernacular.
Old Catholicism spread to Switzerland and Austria and then to other nations, arriving in the United States as early as 1885. The Polish National Catholic Church of America, one of the most important early groups, was formed in 1897. Christ Catholic Church, established in 1968, is one of the newest. In 1990, U.S. membership in various Old Catholic churches numbered some 500,000. Other important Old Catholic groups include the Philippine Independent Church, with approximately 3 million adherents, and the German Old Catholics, with some 24,000 members. The German church began ordaining women in 1996.
See K. Pruter and J. G. Melton, ed., The Old Catholic Sourcebook (1983).