Pope's Infallibility Declared, Old Catholics Split

May 03, 2010
Pope's Infallibility Declared, Old Catholics Split

There was no question how the vote would go. On this day, July 18, 1870, the First Vatican Council declared by an overwhelming majority that "the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his church should be endowed."

In other words, the pope is "infallible" under certain conditions. The decision was sent to the faithful in a letter titled Pastor aeternus.

The vote may have made sense to the Vatican Council but to others it was not so obvious. Protestants world-wide denied its claim. So did a small percentage of Catholics. To political analysts, the doctrine seemed politically motivated. The ideas of the Roman Church were under attack. Italy had confiscated lands long controlled by the popes. The pope had even fled from the Vatican for a time. To some analysts it seemed that because the church could not assert its supremacy in political matters, it was throwing down a gauntlet in the spiritual realm.

One of the Roman Church's most gifted historians, Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger wrote a long letter in which he said that he could not accept the pope's infallibility "as a Christian, a theologian, a historical student and a citizen." His strong opposition was echoed by several bishops, although all of these others yielded when the church put heavy pressure on them.

Other scholars and about 60,000 Catholic lay-people did not yield. They withdrew from the Roman Church, and called themselves Old Catholics. To them it was a matter of truth. They documented instances when popes, speaking authoritatively, had made mistakes; a couple popes had even been condemned by church councils as heretics.

Dollinger never joined the Old Catholics. Nor did he return to the Roman Church. He was urged to do so on his death bed but replied, "Ought I (in obedience to your suggestion) to appear before the Eternal Judge, my conscience burdened with a double perjury?" He went on to add, "I think that what I have written so far will suffice to make clear to you that with such convictions one may stand even on the threshold of eternity in a condition of inner peace and spiritual calm."

The Old Catholics made overtures of friendship toward the Church of England and Orthodox churches. They adopted an episcopal form of government.

At the Council of Utrecht in 1889, Old Catholics laid out the guidelines of their theology. They agreed that the pope is "first among equals," but rejected "the decrees of the so-called Council of the Vatican, which were promulgated [issued] July 18th, 187O, concerning the infallibility and the universal Episcopate of the Bishop of Rome, decrees which are in contradiction with the faith of the ancient Church, and which destroy its ancient canonical constitution [divisions of power in old church laws] by attributing to the pope the plenitude [full range] of ecclesiastical powers over all dioceses [areas that bishops control] and over all the faithful."


  1. Baumgarten, Paul Maria. "Old Catholics." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  2. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2000.
  3. Dollinger, Johann Joseph Ignaz von. The Pope and the Council, by Janus. London, Rivingtons, 1869.
  4. "Infallibility." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. McGovern, James J. Life and Life-work of Pope Leo XIII. 1903, source of portrait.
  6. "Old Catholics; a historical sketch." http://www.oldcatholic.com/ochistory.html
  7. Sugrue, Francis. Popes in the Modern World. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961.
  8. Toner, P. J. "Infallibility." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

Last updated June, 2007.


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