Vatican Councils: Vatican I

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When Pius IX decided to convoke an ecumenical council, his purpose, clarified by advice solicited from various bishops whom he regarded as trustworthy, was to complete the work of reacting against naturalism and rationalism. He had been pursuing this goal since the beginning of his pontificate by endeavoring to establish Catholic life and thought once again on the solid foundation of divine revelation. As a result of suggestions from the bishops he had consulted, he added to this purpose, first, defining the true nature of the relation between church and state while taking into account the new situation produced by the French Revolution and its consequences and, second, adapting church law in ways made necessary by the profound changes that had taken place during the three centuries since the last ecumenical council.

Preliminary Discussions

Despite the reservations of some in the Curia Romana, which caused him to delay for two years, Pius IX was encouraged by prominent members of the episcopate to announce his intention of convoking a council; on July 29, 1868, he officially summoned all the bishops of Christendom to come to Rome by December 8, 1869, along with others who had the right to attend (especially the superiors general of the major religious orders). During the preliminary consultations a number of bishops had suggested taking advantage of the council to try to renew contacts with separated Christians. Two apostolic letters, dated September 8 and 13, 1868, invited the Eastern prelates not in communion with Rome, the Protestants, and the Anglicans in order that they might be able to take part in the council. But this clumsy approach was considered very insulting by those addressed and may be regarded, from an ecumenical viewpoint, as one of the most distressing examples of a lost opportunity.

In the Catholic world the announcement of the council almost immediately intensified the opposition between currents of thought that had been in confrontation for several years: Neo-Gallicans and liberal Catholics, on the one hand, and ultramontanes and opponents of modern freedoms, on the other. The choice of the consultors who were to prepare the drafts of the conciliar decreesthe group included sixty Romans and thirty-six from abroad, almost all of them known for their ultramontane and antiliberal viewsdisturbed those who had been hoping that the council would provide an opportunity for bishops from the outer reaches of the church to open up the church somewhat to modern aspirations and who thought they could discern a strategy at work: namely, to prepare for the council in secret, with no challenges raised by debate and with the curial viewpoint alone represented, and then to have the fathers accept without discussion a series of ready-made propositions.

The unfortunate "Correspondence from France" that was published on February 6, 1869, in La civiltà cattolica, the organ of the Jesuits in Rome, seemed to confirm this expectation by predicting a definition of papal infallibility by proclamation and thus without any possibility of restatement or discussion by the fathers. The reaction was especially intense in the Germanic countries. In particular, Ignaz von Döllinger, the well-known professor at the University of Munich, whose hostility toward the Curia had been on the increase for a number of years, published under the pen name Janus a violent and one-sided polemic against the overemphasis on papal primacy and Roman centralization. Polemical articles, though more moderate in tone, were also published in the newspapers of France, where liberal Catholics regarded as inopportune the definition of papal infallibility for which the ultramontanes were calling. The question of papal infallibility, which had not come up in the initial program for the council, suddenly became a major issue during the months preceding the opening of the council. A number of prominent bishops, such as Victor Deschamps, archbishop of Malines, and Henry Edward Manning, archbishop of Westminster, asked insistently that advantage be taken of the council for a solemn definition of this truth, since it was now being publicly challenged. On the other side, at their annual meeting in Fulda (September 1869), the majority of the German bishops discreetly expressed clear-cut reservations with regard to such a definition.

Though unmoved by such theological discussions, a number of European governments did become apprehensive about possible conciliar decrees on civil marriage, the place of religion in public education, and the legitimacy of freedom of worship and the press. Such apprehensions could only be intensified by the desire that many bishops and some Catholic newspapers expressed, namely that the Syllabus of Errors (1864) be made the basis for the council's deliberations, a desire that seems to have been welcome in Rome. All those in the church who feared the triumph of the ultramontane party at the council did what they could to intensify this governmental mistrust in the hope of procuring diplomatic warnings and cautions. At one point, France considered appointing a special ambassador to the council, as it had at the time of the Council of Trent, while Prince von Hohenlohe, chancellor of Bavaria, attempted to have the European governments take joint steps. In the end, these governments chose to limit themselves to an attitude of distrustful ex-pectation.

Conciliar Debates

The council opened on December 8, 1869, in the presence of about 700 bishops, about two-thirds of those with the right to attend. Among them were 70 prelates of the Eastern rite who were in union with Rome, most of these being from the Middle East, and almost 200 fathers from non-European countries: 121 from the Americas (49 from the United States), 41 from Southern Asia and the Far East, 11 from Oceania, and 9 from the African missions, which were then in their infancy. One must remember that while the prelates from other parts of the world made up a third of the gathering, many of them were actually from Europe (the missionaries in particular) and that there was as yet no native bishop in Asia or Africa. This predominantly European gathering was also predominantly Latin. There was indeed a sizable English-speaking group (in which those of Irish origin were predominant) and about 75 Germans and Austrians. Spaniards and Latin Americans numbered barely one hundred; the French made up 17 percent of the gathering (the majority of the missionaries of that time were from France), and the Italians over 35 percent. In addition, two-thirds of the consultors, or experts, and all of the secretaries of the commissions were Italians, as were the five presidents of the council; of the primary leadership offices, only that of secretary general was not occupied by an Italian, namely, the Austrian Joseph Fessler.

The first three sessions of the council were spent on the election of the commissions. The most important of these was the doctrinal commission (Deputatio fidei ), from which all bishops suspected of being opposed to a definition of papal infallibility were excluded by the maneuvering of a pressure group of which Archbishop Manning was one of the main leaders. This maneuver, which many wrongly believed was ordered by the Curia, was a serious mistake for two reasons: first, it gave the impression that the elections were only a front, with the result that fathers in various groups now began to have doubts about the freedom of the council; and, second, it prevented a possible dialogue that might have reconciled the two opposing viewpoints.

On December 28 the council began at last to examine the first drafted constitution, which was directed "against the numerous errors deriving from modern rationalism." This draft, which was the work of the Jesuits Johannes Baptist Franzelin and Clemens Schrader, drew strong criticism because of its substance, which some found to be out of touch with contemporary forms of rationalism and too apodictic on points freely discussed among theologians, and especially because of its form, which was judged to be overly polemical and insufficiently inspired by pastoral concerns. After six meetings for discussion, which had the advantage of showing that the council would be freer than some had feared, the presidents announced on January 10 that the draft would be sent back to the commission for recasting and that meanwhile the council would tackle the drafts on church discipline. In this area twenty-eight drafts had been prepared that were rather tame and showed hardly any pastoral openness to the future; to these were added eighteen others, much superior in character, on the adaptation of canon law to the new circumstances of the religious orders and congregations. The discussion of the first four drafts that were distributed quickly got bogged down in details, especially since the time available to the speakers was unlimited. As a result, in order to speed up the pace of the work (as the great majority of the fathers wanted), the pope, on February 20, 1870, amended the regulations that had been distributed at the opening of the council. By and large, the modifications were to the good, but some fathers, who had already resented having a set of regulations imposed on them from above, saw in these modifications a new threat to full freedom of discussion.

While the examination of texts that had little chance of proving explosive was advancing with prudent caution in the council hall, the attention of both the fathers and the public was increasingly focused on the question of infallibility. Raised again by a clumsy statement of Bishop Felix Dupanloup in November 1869, the question soon led the fathers, who had initially tended to group together along national and linguistic lines, to form new groups that were inspired by ideological considerations.

On the one side, many fathers who were very hostile to their contemporaries' infatuation with liberalism were not at all reluctant to have the council restate the principles according to which, in classical teaching, the relations between church and state should be ruled in an ideal Christian society. Manyoften the samewanted a solemn definition of the personal infallibility of the pope. Even though they did not approve of all the centralizing steps taken by the Curia, they were convinced that the Gallican and Febronian theses, which tended to diminish the primacy of the pope in favor of the episcopate, were simply a departure from the ancient tradition to which, as they saw it, witness was given by certain scriptural texts (esp. Mt. 16:18), certain patristic formulas (e.g., the maxim "Rome has spoken, the question is closed"), and the whole body of great scholastic doctors from Thomas Aquinas to Roberto Bellarmino and Alphonsus Liguori. Those fathers met the historical difficulties of their adversaries with an appeal to the living faith of the church and were especially impressed by the almost universal acceptance, in the church of their time, of the thesis of the pope's personal infallibility, a thesis repeated on a number of occasions during the preceding twenty years by many provincial or regional councils. Reasons of a nontheological kind strengthened many of these prelates in their conviction: their veneration of Pius IX; their belief that an increased emphasis on the monolithic character of the Roman church could only draw to this church various non-Catholics who were distressed by the hesitancies and lack of resoluteness of the churches separated from Rome or by the contradictions of philosophical systems (Manning, a convert, laid great stress on this point); their concern to lend as much weight as possible to the principle of authority in a world weakened by aspirations toward democracy, a type of government they regarded as a mitigated form of revolutionary anarchy; and their desire, in the face of the religious crisis they saw growing before their eyes, to give an increasingly centralized form to the defensive and offensive strategy of the church.

A comparable mixture of doctrinal considerations and nontheological motives inspired other prelates to think that such projects would overthrow the traditional constitution of the church and might well threaten the most legitimate aspirations of civil society. Some bishops remained very attached to a conception of the ecclesiastical magisterium according to which the pope can never decide a point of doctrine independently from ratification by the body of bishops. More widespread seems to have been the concern to safeguard the second element in the divinely appointed structure of the hierarchy; to many of the fathers the proposed definition of papal infallibility seemed part of a program aimed at practically destroying the episcopate. In addition, the way in which the question of infallibility was presented in the most prominent ultramontane newspapers could only confirm in their views those who were convinced that "the intention was to declare the pope infallible in matters of faith in order thereby to make people think him infallible in other matters as well" (Leroy-Beaulieu), that is, in matters more or less related to the political order. But surely it was to be expected that the governments would not permit a development along these lines without reacting to it, to the great detriment of the local churches.

Over and above immediate tactical considerations there was a question of principle that greatly disturbed all those who believed that the future in the political realm belonged to liberal institutions and that the church had everything to lose by standing forth as the champion of autocratic authoritarianism. There were also concerns of an ecumenical kind: the proposed definition would render even more difficult any rapprochement with Eastern Christians; it would intensify the militant hostility of some Protestant groups; it might even lead to a new schism in German intellectual circles, which had been deeply impressed by Döllinger's campaign. Those who declared their opposition to the definition were less numerous than those in favor of itthus the designation of them as the "minority"but the most prominent among them enjoyed great authority by reason either of their theological competence or of the important sees they occupied: the entire Austro-Hungarian episcopate under the leadership of Cardinal Othmar Rauscher, a renowned patrologist and strong defender of the rights of the Holy See against Josephist, or liberal, claims; all the major sees of Germany; a sizable number of French prelates, including the archbishops of Paris and Lyons; several archbishops of North America; the archbishop of Milan, the most populous of the Italian dioceses; and three Eastern patriarchs.

The two groups had an opportunity to count heads as early as January. The infallibilist pressure group, again acting independently (but in close contact with the Jesuits of La civiltà cattolica ), circulated a petition asking the pope to put on the assembly's agenda a draft definition of papal infallibility, which the preparatory commission had preferred not to offer on its own initiative. The petition finally collected 450 signatures, and, despite a counterpetition signed by 140 bishops, Pius IX decided on March 1 to include the desired passage in the draft of the constitution on the church that had been distributed to the fathers some weeks earlier on January 21.

The minority, now deeply disturbed, busied itself organizing the resistance that had until then been scattered and unfocused. The real center of this opposition was a young layman, John Acton, who as a historian shared the prejudices of his master, Döllinger, against the dogma and who feared even more the indirect effects of the definition on the future chances of Catholicism in a society increasingly based on the idea of freedom. Conzemius's publication of the Acton-Döllinger correspondence (3 vols., Munich, 19631971) has made fully clear the important role, unsuspected until now, that Acton played in organizing the conciliar minority.

The leaders of the minority did not limit themselves to making personal appeals to fathers they hoped they could win to their side. Convinced as they were of the deadly effects on the church of the definition now being readied and of the legitimacy of taking all effective means to stop it, a number of them thought it necessary to rouse public opinion and so bring outside pressure to bear on the authorities of the council. Several of these fathers even tried to win governmental support, especially at Paris, because they knew how influential any mediation by Napoleon III would be, since his military and diplomatic support was indispensable in preserving what was left of the pope's temporal power.

Conciliar Constitutions

Amid the growing restlessness outside the council in the salons, newspapers, and chancelleries, the assembly itself was going ahead with its work. The draft of the constitution against rationalism, which had been recast by bishops Martin, Deschamps, and Pie with the help of the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen, came before the council again on March 18. The new version was favorably received by the fathers, and any discussion was now concerned only with individual points or improvements of details. On April 24 the council unanimously gave its solemn approval to its first dogmatic document, the constitution Dei filius, which responded to pantheism, materialism, and modern rationalism with a substantial exposition of Catholic teaching on God, revelation, and faith; this exposition was to be for almost a century the basis of the treatises which made up fundamental theology.

Chapter 1 condemns pantheist views and briefly sets forth Catholic teaching on providence. Chapter 2 defines, against atheism and traditionalism, the possibility of knowing the existence of God with certainty by the natural light of reason and, against deism, the absolute necessity of revelation if man is to have knowledge of the supernatural order. Chapter 3 defines the reasonableness of the act of faith as against the illuminism of some Protestants and against those who deny the value of the external motives of credibility, such as miracles. It states that faith is both a free assent and a gift of grace and reaffirms the obligation of believing all the truths the ordinary ecclesiastical magisterium proclaims to have been revealed. It asserts that the church, which proposes the truths to be believed, at the same time carries within itself the guarantee of its own divine origin and that with his grace God confirms believers in their faith. Chapter 4 explains the relations that should exist between faith and reason, science and revelation: there are mysteries that cannot be demonstrated by reason, but reason can legitimately reflect on supernatural truths. While claiming a proper freedom for science, the council warns against abuses of this freedom. Finally, it explains what true dogmatic development is and condemns systems according to which philosophy may give new and more perfect meanings to revealed dogmas.

It quickly became clear that, given the pace at which work was proceeding, the constitution on the church, the text of which had been distributed to the fathers on January 21, would not come up for discussion for several months; this was even more true of its eleventh chapter, which dealt with the special prerogatives of the pope. Consequently, as early as March, new petitions requested that this chapter, which made the council restive, be discussed out of its proper order as soon as the examination of the constitution against rationalism was concluded. Despite the reservations of three of the five presidents of the council, Pius IX, who was increasingly displeased at the opposition of the minority group, decided to alter the schedule. In order to avoid the anomaly of treating this chapter before the others, it was expanded into a short, independent constitution devoted entirely to the pope.

The general debate on the text as a whole began on May 13 but was reduced from the outset to a discussion of the opportuneness of the definition; at times the discussion was impassioned. After some fifteen meetings, the fathers went on to examine the details of the texts; this discussion focused essentially on the chapter devoted to the definition of papal infallibility. The proposed text, although the commission had already improved it by comparison with the original draft, did not yet take sufficient account of the legitimate role that belonged to the episcopate, alongside and in collaboration with the pope, in the supreme teaching office of the church. Fifty-seven speakers took the floor, emphasizing theological arguments or historical difficulties, as well as the practical advantages or drawbacks of a definition in the circumstances of that time. These debates, though often tedious, at least gave an opportunity to qualify certain expressions and led to the elimination of some opposition.

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes lobbying intensified. For, apart from the zealots of the majority and the partisans of unyielding resistance, the great majority of the fathers were men of moderation who were deeply grieved and troubled by all the agitation. Far from desiring to see their opponents crushed, they wanted only to find a compromise formula that would keep the divisions within the assembly from becoming public. This was especially true of the Italians, as Michele Maccarrone has clearly shown. By reason of their numbers these men, who had played no part in the initial steps taken to introduce the famous question, were a decisive bulwark of the informal "third party" that had been taking shape since the beginning and was finally able to win the day against the neo-ultramontane and anticurialist extremists.

There is reason for thinking that a much larger section of the minority would have finally accepted the nuanced solution that was gradually worked out if Pius IX had not been so intransigent. For recent research has also shown, with the help of previously unstudied documents, that the pope several times directly intervened on the side of the majority extremists as the discussion became protracted. Whatever the personal responsibility of Pius IX may have been, it is a fact that last-minute efforts to rally the opponents through small concessions proved fruitless, despite the good impression made by the recapitulatory explanation given by Bishop Gasser in the name of the theological commission (this authoritative commentary is of key importance for a grasp of the nuances of the conciliar text). When a final appeal of the minority to Pius IX had no result, some sixty bishops decided to leave Rome before the final vote in order not to have to cast a negative vote in the presence of the pope on a question that directly concerned him. The other members of the minority judged that the successive improvements of the text as well as Bishop Gasser's commentary had removed the principal substantive objections and they decided therefore to approve the final text. This text was solemnly accepted on July 18 by nearly everyone present.

Officially entitled First Constitution on the Church of Christ, the constitution Pastor aeternus expounds Catholic teaching on the privileges of the pope. After a lengthy introduction on the institution of the church by Christ and on the place therein of papal primacy as the foundation of the church's unity, chapter 1 asserts, against some Gallicans and Febronians, that Peter received directly from Christ, and not through the church, a primacy of jurisdiction over the entire church. Chapter 2 states that by Christ's will this primacy is to be continued perpetually in the successors of Peter, the bishops of Rome. Chapter 3 solemnly defines the nature of the pope's primacy: the pope has an ordinary, immediate, "episcopal" jurisdiction not only in questions of faith but also in matters of church discipline, and this authority, which does not depend on approval by an ecumenical council, is to be exercised over pastors as well as the faithful. The concern to provide explicit safeguards for the authority of the bishops is at the root of the third paragraph, the main point of which is that bishops govern their flocks as "true pastors" and are therefore not mere delegates of the pope.

The fourth chapter declares that authority as supreme teacher is included in the primacy and then recalls how over the course of time the popes had always exercised this function by drawing upon the faith of the universal church as expressed in particular by the teaching of the bishops. The chapter then goes on to define solemnly that this supreme teaching office has attached to it the prerogative of infallibility, provided the pope is speaking ex cathedra, that is, provided that "in exercising his office as teacher and shepherd of all Christians he defines, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority" (that is, with the intention of unequivocally putting an end to all discussion) "that a doctrine concerning faith or morals must be held by the universal Church; such definitions are irreformable of themselves and do not require ratification by the episcopate (ex sese non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae )." This final formula is a bit ambiguous, for, according to the commentary given by Bishop Gasser in the name of the doctrinal commission, while the words reject the consensus Ecclesiae as the source of papal infallibility, they do not mean to deny that the pope, as spokesman for tradition, must remain in constant close contact with the "mind of the Church" (sensus Ecclesiae ) in the exercise of his ministry.

After the vote taken on July 18 the council continued its work for two more months, but at a slower pace, since the majority of the fathers had left Rome for the summer. The occupation of Rome by the Italians on September 20 brought the work to a definitive end, and on October 20 the pope announced that the council was adjourned indefinitely.

The termination of the debates did not immediately bring a calm to all hearts. The agitation continued for some time, and there were sad apostasies, especially in the Germanic countries where the Old Catholic schism developed around some university professors who appealed to Döllinger's writings. Among the bishops of the minority a few, Hefele and Strossmayer among them, wavered for several months, but in the end none of them refused to accept the new dogma.

When the immediate results of the council were compared with its ambitious program (fifty-one drafts had still to be voted on) and especially with the great hopes the convocation of the council had raised, the First Vatican Council seemed to many to have been a failure, its principal outcome having been to aggravate the disunity among Christians. With the passage of time, however, people became aware of important results flowing from the intense intellectual ferment the convocation of the council had produced. The work done by the commissions which dealt with the improvement of church law was not wasted, nor were the many suggestions sent in writing by those at a distance. Extensive use was to be made of these materials in the encyclicals of Leo XIII and especially in the revision of the Code of Canon Law under Pius X. The first dogmatic constitution that had been passed in April 1870 exercised a clarifying influence on subsequent theological teaching, especially in the burning question of the relations between reason and faith. On the other hand, it also strengthened the tendency to enlarge the role of authoritative doctrinal interventions in the development of Catholic thought; this tendency was strengthened even more by the definition of papal infallibility.

While the solemn approbation given to the ultramontane movement, which continued to develop for another half century, did not bring about the revolution in church government that some opponents had anticipated, it did nonetheless lead to more numerous direct interventions of the Holy See in the dioceses and to an emphasis on Roman centralization. At the same time, however, it must be recognized that by defining very strictly the rare cases in which the privilege of papal infallibility comes into play, the council ruled out the exaggerated ideas that were beginning to spread abroad before 1870 under the influence of bishops like Manning and journalists like Veuillot. In the final analysis, the nuanced character of the definition, which was the result of impassioned discussion and satisfied the legitimate demands of many minority bishops, was the best safeguard against the excesses of what has been called "neo-ultramontanism," a fashion of excessive devotion, more sentimental than theological, to the pope.

See Also

Döllinger, Johann; Gallicanism; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Pius IX; Ultramontanism.


The main documents that inform us of the preparation and course of the council have been published in volumes 4953 of the S. Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio (Arnhem, 19231927). The two most detailed histories of the council are ten-dentious: Johann Friedrich's Geschichte des vatikanischen Konzils, 3 vols. (Bonn, 18771887), is excessively critical from an Old Catholic point of view; Theodor Granderath's Geschichte des vatikanischen Konzils, 3 vols. (Freiburg, 19031906), is a systematic defense by a Jesuit who refuses to allow any legitimacy to the reservations of the minority. Good presentations are Edward Cuthbert Butler's The Vatican Council, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London, 1965), and Michele Maccarrone's Il Concilio Vaticano I, "Italia Sacra," vols. 7 and 8 (Padua, 1966). A shorter presentation is my Vatican I (Paris, 1964).

Worthy of special mention among the studies of the national episcopates are James Hennesey's The First Council of the Vatican: The American Experience (New York, 1963); Frederick J. Cwiekowski's The English Bishops and the First Vatican Council (Louvain, 1971); Klaus Schatz's Kirchenbild und päpstliche Unfehlbarkeit bei den deutschsprachigen Minoritätsbischöfen auf dem I. Vatikanum (Rome, 1975); and Constantin Patelos's Vatican I et les évêques uniates (Brussels, 1982). Doctrinal commentaries on the constitution Dei filius include Alfred Vacant's Études théologiques sur les constitutions du Concile du Vatican d'après les actes du concile, 2 vols. (Paris, 1895), and on the constitution Pastor aeternus, Gustave Thils's La primauté pontificale (Gembloux, France, 1972), and the same author's L'in-faillibilité pontificale (Gembloux, France, 1969). August B. Hasler's Pius IX (18461878 ), päpstliche Unfehlbarkeit und 1. vatika-nisches Konzil, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1977), raises real questions but is spoiled by a lack of historical criticism. See also Giacomo Martina's "Pio IX e il Vaticano I, di A. B. Hasler, rilievi critici," in Archivum historiae pontificiae 16 (1978): 341369, and Joseph Hoffmann's "Histoire et dogme: la definition de l'infaillibilité pontificale à Vatican I," in Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 62 (1978): 543557 and 63 (1979): 6182. A very complete analytical and critical bibliography is J. Goñi Gastambide's "Estudios sobre el Vaticano I," Salman-ticensia 19 (1972): 145203, 381449.

New Sources

Bermejo, Luis M. Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion. Westminster, Md., 1992.

Costigan, Richard F. "The Consensus of the Church: Differing Classic Views." Theological Studies 51 (March 1990): 2549.

O'Gara, Margaret. Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I, and the French Minority Bishops. Washington, D.C., 1988.

Pottmeyer, Hermann Josef. Toward a Papacy in Communion: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I and II. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. New York, 1998.

Thils, Gustave. Primaute et Infallibilite du Pontife Romain a Vatican I et Autre Etudes d'Ecclesiologie. Leuven, 1989.

Thompson, Daniel Speed. The Language of Dissent: Edward Schillebeeckx on the Crisis of Authority in the Catholic Church. Notre Dame, Ill., 2003.

Roger Aubert (1987)

Translated from French by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography

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Vatican Councils: Vatican I

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