Question: What is the Polish National Catholic Church? What is its connection to the Roman Catholic Church? May a member of the Polish Church receive Communion in the Catholic Church, and vice versa?
— M.M., St. Louis, Mo.
Answer: The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is a breakaway from the Catholic Church and was founded in the United States in the late 19th century. A sister church in Poland, also not in communion with the Catholic Church, is the Polish Catholic Church. It is estimated that there are about 25,000 members of the PNCC in the United States and Canada, with five dioceses. The headquarters are in Scranton, Pa.
The origins of the PNCC are less due to theological matters than to ethnic tensions experienced in the diverse communities that made up the Catholic Church in the Eastern United States at the end of the 19th century. During that period, many Polish immigrants to the U.S. began to feel that Polish communities and clergy were not being well treated by the leadership of the Catholic Church. There were, for instance, few Polish priests and no Polish members among the American episcopate, and there was a general sense that the Church was in the hands of the Irish and German clergy. Although the latter founded and led parishes for the Polish communities, the pastors generally did not speak Polish and the parishioners did not understand English. Tensions arose also over the question of the ownership of church buildings, especially in Buffalo, N.Y., and Scranton, Pa., with many parishioners seeking control over the Polish parishes. This was the immediate cause of the formation of the PNCC. Although the majority of the Polish population did not wish to separate from the Church, a significant number did.
The principal leader of the schism was Father Franciszek Hodur, a Polish immigrant to the U.S. In 1897, he became pastor of St. Stanislaus Cathedral in Scranton. The ethnic tensions came to a head in that year, with the result that a separate and independent ecclesiastical body was created with about 20,000 members. Father Hodur was consecrated a bishop in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1907 by three Old Catholic bishops. The PNCC regards Bishop Hodur as the founder of the denomination.
The PNCC generally adheres to the major doctrines of the Catholic Church. Bishops and priests are allowed to marry and the denomination is ruled by a General Synod with a prime bishop at the head. The PNCC maintained a close relationship for many decades with the Old Catholic Church in Holland, but ties were severed when the latter allowed the ordination of women.
Dialogue with the U.S. Catholic Church improved considerably in the 1970s — and most notably with the election of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. In 1996, ecumenical dialogue between the two Churches led to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the approval of the Holy See, sanctioning limited intercommunion between the Catholic Church and the PNCC. In exceptional circumstances Roman Catholics and PNCC clergy may mutually administer to their people the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Sacrament of the Sick. Obstacles to full communion between the two Churches include the role of the pope in Christianity and the involvement level by the laity in ecclesiastical government.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.