The Independent Catholic Movement, ANCC, and Succession Planning

Father Lehman

I have been part of the Independent Catholic Movement (ICM) for 20+ years. In the ANCC as well as in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, my previous jurisdiction, my job as Vicar for Ecumenism was to get to know the many ICM jurisdictions and look for those who might be legitimate: open and inclusive in attitude, appropriate screening and education of clergy, having more laity than clergy, and a variety of ministries.

What I found was there were very few jurisdictions who met these benchmarks and with whom we could talk. For the ICM and the ANCC to survive into the next generation, there has to be adequate training and a clarity of identity. When jurisdictions are too small, have too many bishops, or have no real ministries, they often fracture or cease to exist after 5-10 years. This also can happen when they transition power to the next generation of bishops.

The Independent Catholic Movement

How did the ICM come about, and how did it reach the point where it now is?

It began in the 1800’s. The atmosphere in Europe at the time was very volatile. The French Revolution had espoused the principles of Freedom and Equality. Many of the kings in Europe had been driven from their thrones.

Pius IX

Rome had to respond to protect its own authority and in 1864 Pope Pius IX issued a Syllabus of Errors which listed those modern concepts condemned by the Church and prepared the way for the Vatican’s consolidation of power six years later. Some of the ideas condemned by the Syllabus included:

(15) Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true. (55) The church ought not to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church. (63) It is lawful to refuse obedience to legitimate princes, and even to rebel against them. (77) In this age of ours it is not any longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be regarded as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of any other religions. (78) Hence it has been wisely decided by Law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship. 

We accept these ideas as normal and are surprised to see them condemned as heretical, but they were.

In 1870, the bishops of the world gathered in Rome for the First Vatican Council convened by Pius IX. The steady consolidation of Vatican power that had been building was capped when the Council considered the proposition, endorsed by the pope, of papal infallibility:

The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra…is…infallible… therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. [emphasis added]

The first Council vote on infallibility occurred on July 13 and had the following results: 451 yes, 62 with reservations, 88 no, and 80-90 abstentions. This meant that almost one third of the voting bishops initially had reservations or abstained. The final vote was on July 18, with 533 yes and 2 no. By that time, over 140 bishops had left Rome before the vote so as not to embarrass the Pope with their negative votes. Although the majority of the bishops voted for papal infallibility, there was an imbalance in representation; for example, 700,000 Italians were represented by 62 bishops, and 1,700,000 Poles by a single bishop. In addition, Archbishop Henricus Loos of Utrecht had not even been invited to the First Vatican Council because of continued disagreements about the way bishops were elected in Utrecht. An ancient tradition of the church was the involvement of diocesan clergy in the election of their bishop. The Diocese of Utrecht in Belgium was one of the last Roman Catholic ones to elect its bishop, and Rome wanted to end this process as a further consolidation of its power.

Many Christians in Europe and around the world saw the new dogma of papal infallibility as an abuse of power. By 1889, opposition to both it and the Vatican’s consolidation of power had led to the formation of the independent-from-Rome Old Catholic Church and the Union of Utrecht under the Archbishop of Utrecht. The movement led to the formation of national Catholic churches in a number of European countries, and a concordat with the Church of England. By 1914, what became known as the Independent Catholic Movement had arrived on the shores of this country.

Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa

In addition to Archbishop Loos, the other individual who influenced the ICM was Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa of Brazil. In the 1930s, he began to stand up for the poor in Brazil and against the institutional church which had aligned itself first with the repressive secular government and then, in the 1940’s, with the Nazis of Germany. Eventually Duarte Costa was excommunicated by Rome, whereupon he founded the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church. ANCC Bishop George’s succession as a bishop comes through the Duarte Costa line.

The Roman Catholic Church views ICM bishops in both lines as “valid,” because their apostolic succession can be traced back to Roman Catholic lines, but “illicit,” because Rome did not give permission for the consecrations. (As Independent Catholics, we view valid apostolic succession essential for our celebration of the sacraments and the Sacred Orders of Deacons, Priests and Bishops.)

Because of a lack of organization and oversight by the Archbishop of Utrecht, too many men were consecrated abroad and in the United States as Old Catholic bishops, and the movement, predictably, became fragmented. The same is also somewhat true of the Duarte Costa line. Today there are hundreds of Independent Catholic bishops in this country that trace their apostolic succession to these two lines. Together, the two lines incorporate roughly 1 million Catholics.

This has resulted in a sometimes confusing degree to which ICM bishops vary in their theology and understanding of what it means to be church. Similarly, the jurisdictions they lead also vary in their requirements for the education and formation of their clergy. As a consequence, the term “Catholic” in the ICM has unfortunately taken on too many different connotations, and liturgies across jurisdictions often lack uniformity. Additionally, many of these new jurisdictions attracted angry former Roman priests and parishioners who tended to define themselves in terms of their dislike of Rome rather than their fidelity to Catholicism. These new jurisdictions tended to fracture over identity issues and power struggles.

The ANCC within the ICM

The American National Catholic Church was formed in 2009 with a desire to live out the vision of John XXIII and Vatican II. It is the ANCC’s conviction, in fact, that if the changes brought about by Vatican II had continued, Rome would be where the ANCC is now. The ANCC is a “national” Catholic church, led by bishops elected by their people, as was the custom in many jurisdictions before Vatican I’s consolidation of papal power.

The ANCC is approaching the important moment of passing on succession to the next generation. The above history has made clear that within the broader ICM, this can be a difficult and complicated process. It’s additionally complicated for us because our parishes are so scattered geographically. As we proceed, it will be important for parishes to affirm a clear understanding of what it means to be Vatican II Catholics, to attract new clergy who possess Catholic identities and are open to the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ persons, to continue to discern how to form clergy who are hundreds of miles apart rather than localized in a single seminary, and to sustain our small parishes staffed by worker priests. All of these issues impact our succession planning, for the issues are both local, looking at the survival of the parish, and national, looking at transitioning to new leadership/bishops.

Both as a jurisdiction and as individual parishes, we need to begin to look at issues of succession planning and we are left with a number of challenges. If a parish has one priest, what will happen when that person retires or can no longer perform ministry? Where will we get new clergy? Will they have the skills needed to continue to lead our parishes? At some point, we will look at the election of our next bishop, but if we have not addressed these and other questions of succession planning in our parishes, the election of a new bishop will be almost meaningless, as the ANCC will be shrinking.

I believe as Vicar for Ecumenism we need to reach out and make friends with others in the ICM as we begin this important discussion of succession planning. We will all be stronger when we work together, but we must work together with those who are like us in our understanding of Church and what it means to be Catholic.


Rev. James Lehman

Holy Family ANCC (Las Cruces, NM)

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