It began early on
The beginnings of the conflicts over the proper relationship between belief and ecclesial structure, between spirituality and power, go back to the earliest days of the Church. In the first millennium of the undivided church, the various local churches and bishops were autonomous, yet in communion with one another. However, unfortunately the controversy over church leadership in law and belief repeatedly flared up – the schism from the Orthodox in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation starting in 1517 are just two of the major examples, alongside numerous smaller, “intra-catholic” disagreements.
The Catholic Church in Utrecht (Netherlands) and its bishops were essentially autonomous of Rome until 1702: the Utrecht bishops were freely elected by the local chapter, which was made up of local clergy. Because of the confusion and chaos of the Reformation in the Low Countries, the church province of Utrecht was to be placed directly under the control of Rome and its existing autonomy dissolved. In spite of the inhibition of Utrecht's Archbishop Peter Codde in 1702 and the papal threat to "demote" the Utrecht province to a missionary territory – thus nullifying the Utrecht chapter's rights – the Utrecht chapter decided to assert its ancient rights in the Church Catholic, and in 1723 elected Cornelius Steenhoven as Archbishop. Steenhoven was then ordained as bishop by the French missionary bishop Dominique Varlet.
Autonomous Catholic church
The Old Catholic Diocese of Napa, along with the other dioceses of The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States, remains firmly in the tradition of the autonomous Catholic churches. Its first bishop, Jack Isbell, founded the Diocese of Napa in January 1999. Bishop Isbell was succeeded by the Diocese’s second bishop, Robert T. Fuentes, duly elected by the Diocesan Synod in April 2004.
The foundational element of the Old Catholic Church is today just as it was in the beginning: holding fast to the beliefs and practices of the early undivided Church, in whose midst and whose head is Jesus Christ.
The name “Old” Catholic thus came from the belief that Old Catholics were remaining with the "old" original teachings of the undivided catholic and apostolic church – as a way of denying the “new dogmas” being considered by the Church of Rome, which were believed to be a break with the continuity of tradition and could not be regarded as truly catholic in any sense.
When in 1870 Rome assembled the First Vatican Council and there promulgated as dogma the doctrine of papal supremacy (universal jurisdiction), and the doctrine of papal infallibility in questions of morality and tradition, many Catholics rejected these teachings as being neither supported by Scripture nor founded in Tradition. They continued to hold on to the "old" catholic and apostolic faith. Catholics – both lay and clergy – who could not in good conscience accept these new dogmas were excommunicated (that is, barred from the sacraments of the Church) and were thus compelled to form autonomous Catholic churches in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In 1889, the bishops of these national churches, along with the Archbishop of Utrecht, issued the Declaration of Utrecht, thereby forming the Union of Utrecht.
The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States, patterns itself after the ecclesiology of the Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht. No American Old Catholic church is a member of the Union of Utrecht.
The Old Catholic tradition has developed further since then. Not only is the bishop of the local church (that is a diocese) elected as in the early days, by representatives of all the parishes; today parishes along with the whole diocese are structured synodally. At the parish level, the parish assembly is the highest decision-making body – it elects the parish priest and diocesan council representatives. At the diocesan level, the Synod – with both lay and clergy representatives from the parishes – elects the bishop. The bishops of TOCUSSA affirm the election and consecrates the bishop-elect by the laying on of hands. The Synod is the highest legislative authority in the Diocese who decisions are carried out by the Bishop and the Diocesan Council, which meets between synods. The Synod also elects representatives to the National Assembly of TOCCUSA. The Diocesan Council has representatives from the parishes, both laity and clergy. The bishop is the chairperson of the Council and of the Synod.
While it is common to refer to this process as “democratic”, it is only correct up to a point. It is true in the sense that all members of the church are involved in the decision-making process, e.g. bishops and pastors are elected and not appointed and positions of authority in the church may be carried out by laypeople. The "baptized of the church" is thus also present in all branches of the church, and no one is excluded – women and LGBT persons may be ordained, LGBT persons may marry sacramentally, divorce persons may access the sacraments. It is in the end not fully appropriate, because the term “democratic” implies a political vocabulary of a multiparty system, where each party attempts to win a majority of seats to press its own interests. As Old Catholics, we stand firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, whose faith and beliefs are non-negotiable. The universal councils of the early Church are as ever the foundation of our faith and understanding of the church. Therefore the Synod is not the place where articles of faith or morals are debated. This authority belongs solely to a universal council.
“Synodal” describes more closely the challenge and the struggle for the common way as part of the Church Catholic; thus it also touches on the question of how we put this catholic-apostolic faith into action and how we live it in our lives.
“Episcopal” signifies that we believe that the Church cannot be outside the apostolic succession of the historic episcopate.
Therefore the term “episcopal-synodal” fits our model better than “democratic”, for it better describes the shared path of the faithful as a church.