R. Joseph Owles
A Sheep Among Wolves
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What Caused the Rift between the Old Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church?

If the Old Catholic Church is not some break-away group or Protestant church, why isn't it "Roman" Catholic? Earlier I made the smartalecky statement that the Roman Catholic Church has a history of breaking away. It broke away from the church that was centered in Constantinople, and as far as Old Catholics are concerned, it broke away from itself.

The issue that fostered the “schism” was that of Papal Infallibility, which was in itself the result of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin so that she could become the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. Original Sin is the sinful nature that we inherit from Adam and Eve that was passed down to all of their descendants. The Doctrine of Original Sin states that we are stained by the sin of our first parents even before we ourselves commit any sin of thought, word, or deed. The Immaculate Conception presented as logical line of reasoning to explain how Jesus could be free from sin, yet born of a woman who herself was stained with Original Sin. Either Original Sin is passed down through the male, or Mary must have somehow been free of that sin in order to give birth to Jesus, who was free from all sin–original or otherwise.

In the year 1476, Pope Sixtus IV established a feast day for the Immaculate Conception. This was his right to do. Members of the Roman Catholic Church were left to themselves to decide if this was something they wanted to accept. The doctrine was not forced on anyone, and that’s how it remained for nearly four hundred years.

This changed in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared that the Immaculate Conception was a dogma of the church. The pope ordered Catholics to accept the Immaculate Conception. He decided that the doctrine was infallible; therefore, all Catholics must accept it. When asked why he considered the doctrine infallible, he answered that it was infallible because he could speak without error on such matters of church doctrine. So the popes logic was: “The doctrine is infallible because I say so, and because I say so, it is infallible.”

So the issue of Papal Infallibility came about because a pope wanted to force all Catholics to accept an optional feast as a core teaching of the faith. When challenged about doing that, he countered by declaring himself infallible on matters of doctrine. It was a circular logic: since the pope was infallible on matters of doctrine, the pope could infallibly declare himself to be infallible; and after declaring himself infallible, he could then declare that the optional Feast of the Immaculate Conception be required by all Catholics as a core component to Christian faith.

This did not happen without a fight. A group of bishops met together at the First Vatican Council to discuss this and other matters. It soon became apparent that the council was stacked with Italian bishops who supported the decree of the Italian pope. When it became evident that Papal Infallibility was going to pass regardless of debate and dissent, a group of bishops walked out. This is why the issue passed by nearly unanimous consent–all the bishops who opposed it walked out before the vote.

Many of the bishops who walked out of the First Vatican Council went to the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, which was officially independent even though it was Catholic, and asked to join their communion. This is how the Old Catholic Church was born, and it is also why they call themselves “Old” Catholics, as opposed to those “New” Catholics who accept new doctrines an dogmas like the Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility.

So again, the Old Catholic Church never broke away from anyone. If anyone broke away, Old Catholics feel it is the Roman Catholic Church–it broke away from its own history and tradition to grant infallible power to the Bishop of Rome and remove it from Ecumenical Councils, which the Catholic Church–the whole Catholic Church, not just the Roman version of it–has always affirmed.




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