IIs it only the relatively small number of adherents of the Church that leaves the Old Catholics on the fringes of ecumenical interest, in the general realization at all – unlike the Protestant Church, for example? Since Speyer General Vicar General Andreas Sturm announced his conversion to the Old Catholic Church last month, interest in this reform movement, which emerged in the context of the First Vatican Council, has increased slightly again. The ordination of women, reduced papal authority and other controversial demands from the reform agenda in Catholicism, some of which are five decades old, had already been implemented. The old German Catholic diocese currently has about 15,000 members in sixty dioceses, which span larger areas such as diaspora communities. What is surprising is to note that there are similarities between the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church that most Protestants do not have in this form.
The answer of the ancient Catholic Bishop Matthias Ringe in 2017 to a question from “katholisch.de”, the official “news portal” of the Catholic Church, was significant: “The main obstacle to the ecumenical movement is not the different understanding of” the bishop replied: “I don’t think so. We The ancient Catholics believe in true perpetual existence, i.e. in the fact that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. We reject the so-called doctrine of transubstantiation as a special and binding illustrative model for this, but I personally tend to it. Otherwise, our understanding of service and the Eucharist – with the exception of the ordination of women – is identical to that of the Romans Catholics: Does not this apply only to the understanding of the Eucharist, but also to the understanding of the ministry?
After all, it doesn’t sound quite so simple beyond the label. The Church’s arrangement of the Utrecht Union of the Old Catholic Churches, known as the Synod Episcopal Church System, as the name reads in a historically correct derivation, provoked anti-hierarchical dynamics that brought them into new contrasts with the Roman Catholic Church. Titled Synod in the Old Catholic Church (in: The Physical Service of the Benchem Confessional Institute, Volume 73, No. 2, 2022 / De Gruyter), Andreas Krebs, Professor of Ancient Catholic and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Bonn, explores the weight of episcopal authority in his church. In doing so, he would also like to contribute to sharpening the concept of a synod, which is currently the subject of contentious controversy among Roman Catholics.
There is no jurisdiction for the bishop
Krebs first summarizes important ancient Catholic doctrinal developments in the context of the constitution of the Episcopal-Conciliar Church, which in the event of a conflict “finally demonstrates a clear dominance in favor of collegial structures”. In other words: the ancient Catholics had no authority over the episcopate in the Roman Catholic sense. “Although one can read in the present Church report that the ancient Catholic Church had a hierarchical structure of the Church, this is very far from reality. The preeminent position of a person in the episcopal office has above all a theological and moral, but not canonical, dimension.” The ‘voluntary restraint’ of the episcopal office which has recently appeared in the German synodal path also seems to point in this direction (the demotion of the statutory rank of the appointed office) with the aim of slowing down the jurisdiction established by law by the incumbent himself. A cunning fantasy against which the Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Cardinal Schönborn raised an objection on theological grounds of the Synod.
What are the ancient Catholic developments that Krebs would like to assert that would not have existed had it not been for the hegemony of the “Council” over the “Episcopal”? The first thing to note is that after isolated Episcopal declarations of allegiance to National Socialism, the old post-war Catholic Church had again developed into a cosmopolitan, dialogical, though small and versatile church. This includes reviving the ecumenical movement with the Anglican Communion and achieving a comprehensive doctrinal consensus with orthodoxy. The Fellowship of the Church with the Lutheran Church of Sweden has been in existence since 2017.