Meet the Ultrajectines

A Brief Introduction to Old Catholic Thought

The Most Reverend Raphael J. Adams


When I was in high school, I was still a child. So I thought like a child. By force of circumstance, I was perhaps farther along the road to adulthood than most of my peers, but in no sense better equipped for the journey. More than experience is necessary for maturation. The brain's structure has to be reconfigured according to its genetic timetable, and it takes time for the hard-wiring of childhood thought to be upgraded to conceptualization. This neurophysiological developmental progression from concrete thinking to abstraction takes a decade or so. Some people don’t complete the process until they're in their 30s. Some never arrive. Some never begin. So it's not surprising that in adolescence, I often thought like a child trapped in (kidnapped to) a man's body. But when I became an adult, I put away childish things. I put away the paradigms of childhood. I began to think like an adult. To think about all sorts of things, even the faith of my childhood.

When I was still in high school, in religion class, I viewed a diagram that made a lasting impression. That was, after all, its purpose. It was a pictorial representation of the history of the "Christian" Churches. ("Christian" here was understood to mean those Churches which claimed to be Christian but had no right to, since the Roman Catholic Church alone was the "one, true Church". All the others had "broken away.") A tall, columnar tree, mostly winter-bare of foliage, stood starkly center page. Printed vertically along its trunk was the legend, "The Catholic Church: the one, true Church". Along either side of the trunk, severed limbs hovered in the air. This pictographic device intended to show that the limbs had once been part of the living tree, but were now "cut off", waiting like so much kindling to be thrown upon the fire (presumably of Hell). From top to bottom, each of the limbs was labeled with the name of a "non-Catholic" denomination. The one nearest the ground was labeled "Eastern Orthodox". It had a number of branches: Greek, Russian, Ukrainian. The other limbs with their occasional branches were arranged in ascending chronological order of their "breaking away": Lutheran on the bottom, Anglican above Lutheran, and so on. Each had a date inscribed in the space between the trunk and the severed limb, vaguely reminiscent of the date of death inscribed on a tombstone. The topmost of the severed limbs, suspended just beneath the tree's crown, was labeled "1870. The Old Catholics". At the tree's crown, there was a vigorous eruption of living foliage. Oddly perched on one of the branches was a white dove (an allusion to the Holy Spirit in residence?).

When I was in high school, in religion class, I was still a child. Simplistic explanations made sense to me. When I became an adult and put away childish things, I put away childish thinking as well. I realized the wonder and challenge of complexity, and of relativity. I understood, for instance, that the popular history of any conflict was always written by the winner and never by the loser; hence, "we" were always the winners (and the good guys). So it stood to reason that, from the viewpoint of the losers, the winners' great heroes were arch villains. Such realizations frequently lead to a more objective (and honest) appraisal of circumstances. Graduate education certainly facilitated-even required-this openness to multiple perspectives and points of view. I began to recognize bias in history, prejudice in polity, and spin-doctoring in politics. I'm talking about the Church.

The truncated tree model of Church history is sadly representative of curial Catholic-Ultramontane-simplistic thinking. (-Ultramontane-is derived from Latin and means "beyond the mountains"-in this case, the Alps, where Rome lies.) It embodies a monistic-even monolithic-rather than pluralistic approach to defining Catholic identity. The use of the term "pluralistic" here does not imply that there are different definitions of Catholicity. It does imply that there is more than one aspect to Catholicity. It suggests a vibrant identity, a richness of diversity, a variety of gifts. It implies an inherent tension, an evolving dynamic as different perspectives and points of view diverge and intertwine.

Still, the tree model is salvageable if one recognizes and corrects its biases, prejudices, and distortions. One would then represent it as a full-bodied, many-branched, fruitful, living tree rather than a tall, ugly, scarred post with a few sprigs and a bird on top. (The whole image now evokes a Jeff Foxworthy-like association: "If your family tree does not fork, you could be a curial Catholic.") That said, every branch that failed to bear fruit should have been pruned from the tree. However, some of these branches were quite vibrant and productive back when they were metaphorically hacked off. In the new diagram, that fact needs to be acknowledged. Despite the floral butchery evident in the old diagram, in the new one, other branches are still quite firmly attached to the trunk. Many people would take issue with the vertical legend along the trunk, with its suggestion of unbroken continuity, pointing out that practices and opinions the Church has embraced at one point in its history it has eschewed at another. I would also like to suggest that the tree started branching a long time ago, possibly even sending up multiple shoots from its rootstock.

As entertaining (to me at least) as making these diagrammatic revisions might be, even a corrected diagram would still be a somewhat simplistic representation (though certainly an improvement). It would fail to demonstrate the rich diversity of Catholic Tradition (note the capital "T") and the dynamic development and interactivity of different traditions within the Church. One of those traditions (small "t") is the Ultramontane-the papal-curial tradition that, for a millennium or so, has aspired to exclusivity. But it is not the sole tradition, even in the Western "branch"of the Church Catholic. Another tradition can lay claim to the same characteristics of legitimacy which Ultramontanism asserts to be singularly its own: historicity, continuity, authenticity. This alternate tradition is "Ultrajectinism". Old Catholicism springs from Ultrajectinism in the way that curial Catholicism does from Ultramontanism. The "break"of 1870 (occasioned by Vatican I's declaration of the "dogma" of papal infallibility) was not a sudden, traumatic separation. It was the culmination of a long-developing divergence of traditions that differently experienced and understood (and therefore defined) various aspects of Catholicity. These two major Catholic traditions, separated by geography and culture, and influenced by different exigencies of history grew from the same rootstock and were nurtured from the same Wellspring. Both can rightly claim the name "Catholic". But they certainly differ in their interpretation of what the term "Catholic" means, and what it means to be a Catholic.

The purpose of this brief essay is to introduce Ultramontane Catholics to Ultrajectine Catholicism, to acknowledge that we are certainly similar to each other in many ways (we are, after all, related), but that we are different as well. For this to occur at all, one obstacle must first be eliminated: the ingrained tendency of Ultramontanists to interpret everything from an idiosyncratic perspective. While it is expedient to occasionally employ comparisons in order to aid comprehension, it is essential for you Ultramontane readers to understand that our points of difference are genuine differences. These differences are not merely points of disagreement with Ultramontane polity, some type of deviation from the Ultramontane norm. We are not objecting or reacting to some Ultramontane premise. Ultrajectine Catholics are not just like Ultramontane Catholics except for some things that we don't like and therefore don't do. Our identity is not abreactive. We do not define ourselves in relation to you in your Ultramontane Catholicity. We define ourselves in terms of our own history, our own perceptions, our own distinct Catholic tradition -- our own unique identity. We understand that this is a difficult thing for you to accept. Nonetheless, we must insist. Please read the italicized statement over several times and give it ample reflection before proceeding, or simply stop reading now. To continue would be a waste of time. You would not understand.

For the time being, during this little metaphoric visit, I would like to begin to introduce Ultramontane Catholics to just a couple of cherished Ultrajectine Catholic principles. After all, we differ from one another primarily in principle. Principles have a strong attitudinal component. One might legitimately hypothesize that one hallmark characteristic of Ultrajectine Catholics is that we have quite a bit of "attitude". This is correct. We do. We also believe that attitude matters. How you see things has a lot to do with what you see; just as what you see determines what you do. I would suggest that those things which Ultramontane Catholics notice and point to as "differences" are only obvious, superficial differences (the things we "do" differently): married clergy; rejection of papal infallibility as an absolute; an assumed proclivity toward "Modernist" tendencies, to name just a few. What people need to understand is that these differences in practice are merely the superficial evidence (product or by-product) of a more essential, fundamental difference-a different attitude, a different set of principles and operating premises. The major difference between Ultramontane and Ultrajectine Catholics is that, for a millennium or more, we have felt and thought differently about things. About such things as Christian doctrine, about ourselves, and about each other.

One of the things we have felt differently about could be labeled the "proliferation of dogma" brought about by the Ultramontane tendency to "dogmatize doctrine". A "dogma" is something which one must believe in order to be a "real" Catholic. A "doctrine", on the other hand, is simply a teaching, an explanation, an explication. One of the purposes of a doctrine is to make a dogma comprehensible, more readily understood. Though a Catholic must believe a dogma, he may believe any given doctrine to be a good teaching tool, a clear way of relating to dogma. Then again, he may not. His rejection of a given doctrine does not abrogate his Catholicity, so long as he remains dogmatically sound.

At the risk of offending Ultramontanists, I shall live dangerously. If one has to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, one has to break a few doctrines to clarify the nature of the dogmatic. The credal affirmation that Jesus Christ is the "only begotten Son of the Father", coupled with the evangelical affirmation of the mystery of the "virgin birth", constitute dogmatic belief. To some, this dogma implied the "Immaculate Conception" of Mary. At least it implied as much to Duns Scotus. However, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux each rejected the doctrine. Ultimately, Ultramontanists declared the Immaculate Conception a dogma. This is only one example of the Ultramontane proclivity for dogmatizing doctrine. There are others. The council of Trent was awash with them. But this one example should suffice.

At this point, someone may attempt a "gotcha" maneuver, pointing out that some Old Catholics (alleged Ultrajectines) celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, constituting an obvious inconsistency! One more time, now. Pay attention. Our ways are not your ways. We don't think like you do, so get over yourselves. Maintaining that a doctrine is not dogmatic does not "de-doctrinize" it. It's still a doctrine, though not a dogma. To say that one need not affirm it as dogma does not necessarily mean that one may not relate to it, even liturgically, as doctrine.

This principle of dogmatic minimalism and attitude of doctrinal relativism is not some recently acquired foible. We've felt this way for a while-indeed, for about fifteen hundred years, give or take a century. The principle was enunciated by St. Vincent of Lérins in a concise formula subsequently named the Vincentian Canon. This affirmation provides three criteria for dogmatic validity, asserting that Catholic beliefs are held "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus": "everywhere, always, by all". Given this standard, new doctrines may be perennial. The concept of a "new dogma", on the other hand, is an inherent contradiction. Given that a dogma is essential to Catholic identity, we are moved to ask how God might have neglected to tell us about something we absolutely needed to know for , say, nearly 1900 years. The "dogma" of papal infallibility, for example, which wasn't declared until 1870. This was one "dogmatic" declaration that we Ultrajectines found particularly offensive, for a number of reasons. It violates several of our principles at once. One of them has to do with maintaining the distinction between doctrinal and juridical matters.

Desiderius Erasmus was perhaps the most vocal Ultrajectine in this regard. In addition to being a classicist, a scripture scholar, an able satirist, and the poster boy for Christian humanism, Erasmus was also a priest of the diocese of Utrecht (in Latin, Ultrajectensis. See the connection?). Erasmus was representative of the characteristic Ultrajectine attitude. He took issue with attempts to manufacture some contrived theological rationale for clerical celibacy when there, in fact, was none. He was appalled when he heard that in one diocese, a young priest had been condemned, tortured, and executed for marrying his mistress, whereas if he had maintained her as a concubine, there would have been no consequence. He criticized forced marriage, the contrivance of "marital indissolubility", and refusal of divorce in any circumstance as vehicles for the enslavement of women. He was scandalized by the militant papacy with its expansionist policy and will-to-power. He viewed these tendencies as a distortion of the role that the papacy had historically occupied. He maintained that the "government"of the Church was, by nature, collegial and conciliar: the pope acting in union with the bishops, not the other way around. Collegiality and conciliarism made room for divergence, disagreement, and debate (in charity). None of these Erasmian ideas, clearly elaborated in the fifteeenth century as the platform of the Catholic Reformation (a.k.a. the "Ultrajectine" position) were innovations. They were grounded firmly in scripture and tradition. Erasmus knew his tradition. He was imbued with it. He cited his sources well.

Present day Ultrajectine Catholics, applying the same principles as Erasmus and with the same attitude, are moved to ask, for instance, how papal decrees about contraception have somehow been elevated to the level of doctrine, and even betray pretensions to dogmatic legitimacy! This is because the philosophia Christi, the Christian humanism of Erasmus, left a lasting impression. Though the magisterium of the Church may struggle collegially to come to terms with scientific developments and to interpret them, it has no divine right to control thought or knowledge, to suppress them, or to redefine them contrary to evident fact. For example, the earth does, indeed, rotate about the sun rather than vice versa. In regard to the contraception issue, consider that Aristotle, whose thought Augustine melded with his own theology, was not even a Christian; that Augustine thought that married intercourse was at best a venial sin; that Scholasticism’s ideas of human biology were, by today's standards, ludicrous; that none of these people knew anything about latex or better living through chemistry; and that there is no such thing as a homunculus (the tiny, fully formed infant that medievalists believed "Da" implanted in "Mum's" womb. Since maleness was the divine pattern, the homunculus was always male, unless the woman/incubator did something to create a hostile environment, in which case the child was born defective--i.e., female!). Given these and other facts, and in keeping with our principles and tradition, we would suggest that contraception is an open question-curial pretensions of superior knowledge notwithstanding.

By way of iteration, the purpose of this essay is to introduce Ultramontane Catholics to Ultrajectine Catholicity, not to provide a comprehensive apologia. Much more could be said about Ultrajectine history, philosophy, theology, and spirituality; and about such abiding principles as primacy of conscience. (And it will be in subsequent issues of NP!) For the present, my purpose is simply to begin to introduce our tradition, to make a first impression and set the tone for what might follow. So I want to start by stating unequivocally that we do have "attitude". We have our standards and we have principles. These include dogmatic essentialism, doctrinal relativism, uncompromising loyalty to scripture and tradition, openness to knowledge and human experience, and absolute Christo-centrism. Several of these principles have been briefly addressed in this introduction. My primary agenda herein, however, is to impress upon Ultramontanists the awareness that we Ultrajectines are not defined by their stereotypes of us. Nor do we define ourselves in relation to their frame of reference rather than our own. We define ourselves according to our own authentic, living Catholic tradition. We have our own distinctive character, our own attitude about things, our own way of thinking. We have our own identity, born of the same origins as the Ultramontane tradition, forged in a history often marked by adversity but preserved through continuity. Given our "attitude", we maintain that our Ultrajectine tradition is the more "authentic" of the two branches of western Catholicism: Truer to our origin and closer to the ever-renewing Source, unencumbered by the accretions of Ultramontanist medievalism.