An Old Catholic bishop has said that the dogmas of papal primacy and papal infallibility have led the Roman Church to a “dead end”.

– 150 years later, dogmas still cast “a long shadow on our sister Church”

July 18 marked the 150th anniversary of the promulgation at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) of the dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus.

That constitution taught, among other things, that the Pope enjoys “a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God” such that “both clergy and faithful… are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience” in matters both of faith and morals and discipline and government.

Pastor aeternus also taught that “when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra… he possesses… that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals”, such that the Pope’s teachings “are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable”.

But Matthias Ring, a German bishop in the Old Catholic Church that sprung up in opposition to papal primacy and infallibility, said in a pastoral letter to the mark the anniversary of Pastor aeternus that the dogmas, 150 years later, still cast “a long shadow on our sister Church”.

“The primacy of jurisdiction has led to extreme centralisation, which makes it difficult to allow plurality and the possibility of finding solutions to problems locally”, Ring observed.

The bishop noted that “even if the dogma of papal infallibility has only been used once, in 1950 [when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith – ed.], it promotes an understanding of Church doctrine that can hardly contemplate development”.

Ring added that “also, decisions that are not made ex cathedra in the sense of the Council’s definition now claim ultimate binding force”.

– Impasse “will lead to an erosion of the authority of the Magisterium”

These three consequences of the proclamation of the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility – centralisation in the Catholic Church, the near-impossibility of the development of doctrine and the extension of the ex cathedra-equivalent pronouncements have led the Roman Church “into one or two dead ends”, the Old Catholic bishop lamented.

“This becomes clear in the area of marriage and sexual morals, but also on the subject of ‘ordination of women'”, Ring recalled.

In the bishop’s opinion, the impasse caused by the controversial dogmas has the potential to cause even more damage in the Roman Church, since the stalemate will “lead to an erosion of the authority of the Magisterium in the long run if the people’s sense of faith and the fixed Church doctrine continue to diverge”.

– 115,000 members worldwide of a “synodal, reform-oriented, ecumenically-open and yet Catholic Church”

Despite the fact that he was critical of the two dogmas contained in Pastor aeternus, Ring in his letter nonetheless expressed his gratitude for “the ecumenical cooperation that is now possible with the Roman Catholic Church, at all levels”.

“In spite of all the differences and without sweeping them under the carpet, we should continue on this path of understanding and fellowship”, the Old Catholic bishop urged.

Though he recalled that “a division of the Church is no reason to celebrate”, Ring gave thanks too for “those who 150 years ago were ready to stand up for their convictions” and found the Union of Utrecht (1889) that consummated the separation from Rome and led, with the federation of Dutch, Swiss and German Catholic currents opposed to the papal dogmas, to the development of a new “synodal, reform-oriented, ecumenically-open and yet Catholic Church”.

Ring has been bishop of the Old Catholics in Germany since 2010. The diocese, with nearly 16,000 faithful and 100 priests in 55 congregations, is centred around the cathedral in the former Roman Catholic church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Bonn.

Concentrated in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic, membership of the Old Catholic Churches presently numbers around 115,000 faithful in total.

More articles on theology and papal authority, on Novena:

Austrian theologian: Catholics have no need to identify completely with all Church teachings

Novena guest article: “It is time for the Pope to apologise for the patriarchal sexism that has excluded women”

“The Pope is the Pope”: Italian cardinal denounces “increasingly harsh and insolent attacks” on Francis

German Bishops’ website promotes revision of “out of date” Catechism, recalls primacy of conscience


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.