The Old Catholic and Polish National Churches

ROME, FEB. 14, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: I understand that under unusual circumstances, such as a crisis, or being isolated from access to Catholic sacraments, that it is acceptable, from the Catholic point of view, to receive the sacraments from an Orthodox priest because their ordination is valid as their bishops have remained in apostolic succession. Given the same urgent conditions or isolation, may a Catholic receive valid sacraments from the Old Catholic Church or a Polish National Catholic Church — which my friend says are still in apostolic succession? He seems to think there might be an issue because of ordination of women. Does the Catholic Church still recognize these Churches as being in apostolic succession? — L.Q., Watertown, Wisconsin

A: The situation is not the same with respect to the “Old Catholics” whose historical center is in Utrecht and the “Polish National Catholic Church” based in North America. Both groups were in communion until relatively recently.

For several reasons, the Diocese of Utrecht separated from the Catholic Church after 1703. This Church later ordained independent bishops for other Dutch dioceses. After the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870, several groups of mostly German-speaking Catholics split from the Church. They were supported by the independent bishop of Utrecht, who ordained some of them to the episcopate.

Until now they have maintained the legitimate apostolic succession and valid sacraments. However, they have some strong doctrinal differences with the Catholic Church and after 1996 have begun to ordain woman as priests.

Unless these Churches eventually accept woman bishops, they will maintain the apostolic succession. However, the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of orders conferred upon a woman and, as a consequence, a Catholic could never request the sacraments from such a minister.

For these reasons, although in a grave emergency a Catholic could receive the sacraments from a validly ordained Old Catholic priest, the doctrinal differences are such that it would normally be inadvisable to receive Communion or other sacraments in one of their celebrations in the cases foreseen in Canon 844 below.

The Polish National Catholic Church was established in the United States in 1887 as a result of a series of pastoral misunderstandings and property disputes. One of its leaders, Father Franciszek Hodur, was ordained bishop by three Old Catholic bishops in Utrecht in 1907 and later ordained other bishops so as to assure the apostolic succession. This Church established communion with the Episcopal church and with the Old Catholics.

In 1978 it terminated intercommunion with the Episcopal church, and with the Old Catholics after 1996. In both cases, the reason was the decision of these churches to admit woman to the priesthood — a position totally rejected by the Polish National Catholic Church.

Relations between the Polish National Catholic Church and the Catholic Church have improved somewhat from the 1970s. In 1996 the U.S. bishops’ conference reached an agreement, approved by the Holy See, which placed this Church in a position similar to that of Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Therefore, the provisions of Canon 844 of the code of Canon Law are applicable to ministers of the Polish National Catholic Church. To wit:

“Canon 844 §1. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone, without prejudice to the prescripts of §§2, 3, and 4 of this canon, and canon 861, §2.

Ҥ2. Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.

Ҥ3. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.

Ҥ4. If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.

“§5. For the cases mentioned in §§2, 3, and 4, the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops is not to issue general norms except after consultation at least with the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.”

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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