The formation of the Old Catholic communion of Germans, Austrians and Swiss began in 1870 at a public meeting held in Nuremberg under the leadership of Ignaz von Döllinger, following the First Vatican Council. Four years later, episcopal succession was established with the consecration of an Old Catholic German bishop by a prelate of the Church of Utrecht. In line with the "Declaration of Utrecht" of 1889, they accept the first seven ecumenical councils and doctrine formulated before East–West Schism 1054, but reject communion with the pope and a number of other Catholic doctrines and practices. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that since 1925 they have recognized Anglican ordinations, that they have had full communion with the Church of England since 1932 and have taken part in the ordination of Anglican bishops. Some orders are still recognized by the Roman Catholic Church although not any female priests.
The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who did not recognize any infallible papal authority. Later Catholics who disagreed with the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council (1870) had no bishop and joined with Utrecht to form the UU. These Old Catholic churches today are found substantially in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria and Czechia. Union of Utrecht Old Catholic churches are not generally found outside of Western Europe.
Old Catholic theology views the Eucharist as the core of the Christian Church. From that point the church is a community of believers. All are in communion with one another around the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as the highest expression of the love of God. Therefore, the celebration of the Eucharist is understood as the experience of Christ's triumph over sin. The defeat of sin consists in bringing together that which is divided.
Old Catholics believe in unity in diversity and often quote the Church Father Vincent of Lérins's Commonitory: "in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all."(p132)
Four disputes set the stage for an independent Bishopric of Utrecht: the Concordat of Worms, the First Lateran Council, and Fourth Lateran Council, and confirmation of church procedural law by Pope Leo X. Also relevant was the 12th century Investiture Controversy over whether the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope could appoint bishops. In 1122, the Concordat of Worms was signed, making peace. The Emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration. The Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II ended the feud by granting one another peace. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council canon 23 states that the duty to elect a bishop for a cathedral within three months devolves to the next immediate superior when that duty is neglected by electors. In 1517 Pope Leo X, in Debitum pastoralis officii nobis, forbade the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Hermann of Wied, to rely on his status as legatus natus in summoning Philip of Burgundy, his treasurer, and his ecclesiastical and secular subjects to a court of first instance in Cologne. John Mason Neale explained that Leo X only confirmed a right of the church but Leo X's confirmation "was providential" in respect to the future schism.(p72) This greatly promoted the independence of the diocese, so that no clergy or laity from Utrecht would ever be tried by a Roman tribunal.
Old Catholicism's formal separation from Roman Catholicism occurred over the issue of Papal authority. This separation occurred in The Netherlands in 1724, creating the first Old Catholic church. The churches of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Switzerland created the UU after Vatican I (1871) over the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. By the early 1900s, the movement included groups in England, Canada, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, United States, the Philippines, China, and Hungary. The Polish National Catholic Church was the UU member church in America until recently. It left the UU in opposition to the ordination of women by other member churches.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was persecuted and the Holy See appointed an apostolic vicar to govern the bishop-less dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal. Protestants occupied most church buildings, and those remaining were confiscated by the government of the Dutch Republic, which favoured the Dutch Reformed Church.