The Vatican Council of 1869–1870

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The Vatican Council of 1869-1870



Challenges to the Church. Not since the Reformation of the sixteenth century had the Roman Catholic Church felt as threatened as it did during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the mid nineteenth century, many of the conservative governments that had allied themselves with the papacy following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were threatened by revolutionaries who wanted to remake the established order. To many liberals, socialists, and nationalists imbued with the spirit of reform, the Roman Catholic Church appeared as an obstacle to progress. Equally disturbing to Christianity in general, and to the Roman Church in particular, was the spread of new scientific doctrines that questioned traditionally accepted truths concerning the age of the earth and the origins of life. Furthermore, the emergence of new approaches to the study of the past led many people, even in Catholic countries, to question the validity of historical dogmas and the authority of the Pope. Alongside these intellectual challenges were practical problems that confronted the papacy. Between 1859 and 1866, Italian patriots determined to unify Italy were able to secure four fifths of the lands once controlled by the papacy, leaving only Rome and its environs in papal hands. In the midst of these troubling times, Pius IX answered the anti-clerical forces that challenged the Church by calling of the Vatican Council.

Preparations. Also known as the twentieth ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican Council of 1869-1870 was the first such gathering held since the adjournment of the Council of Trent in 1563. The three-century interval between that meeting and the Vatican Council of 1869-1870 was the longest gap between councils in the more than 1,500 years since the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the first Christian council at Nicaea in the year 325. In December 1864, five years before the opening of the Vatican Council, Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878) published his well-known Syllabus of Errors, a list of eighty modern ideas that the Pope considered dangerous to the life of faith, including pantheism, socialism, communism, liberalism, secret societies, civil marriage, and indifference to religion. At the same time, Pius began working with the cardinals on preparations for an ecumenical council. War between Austria and Prussia in 1866 and the subsequent withdrawal of the French troops occupying Rome and protecting the Vatican temporarily interrupted these preparations, but after the return of the French army in 1867, planning for the council resumed. Invitations were sent not only to Roman Catholic bishops and heads of religious orders but also to Protestant and Eastern Orthodox bishops. Since the invitations included the demand that all who attended should acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, none of the non-Roman Catholics accepted the invitation. Secular princes, who had attended previous councils, were not invited, and for the first time bishops from outside Europe were included.


The First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christy approved by the Vatican Council on 18 July 1870, includes the following language about the authority of the Pope:

On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

Purpose and Pronouncements. The central purposes for the council were to define and condemn contemporary “errors” that threatened the Church and to give further definition to Catholic doctrines. Many of the attendees wanted to give formal approval to two dogmas: the infallibility of the Pope in spiritual matters and the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary (the doctrine that Mary’s body as well as her soul ascended to Heaven). Papal infallibility emerged as the dominant concern of the council, and its final resolution was the greatest accomplishment of the Vatican Council. After great debate, the declaration was favored by a large majority, with 522 voting for the declaration and only 2 against. More than 100 other

bishops, however, abstained from voting. Papal infallibility was particularly controversial among French, Austrian, and German bishops, who were reluctant to allow a Pope to determine Church dogma without the concurrence of an ecumenical council, and among the American bishops who feared a negative reaction to the notion of papal infallibility in democratic America. The second issue was not decided because the council ended suddenly and prematurely, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870. The dogma of the bodily assumption of the Virgin was not formally approved by the Roman Catholic Church until 1950, when it was affirmed by papal bull rather than conciliar action.

The Work of the Council. Between its opening on 8 December 1869 and the final meeting of the full council on 18 July 1870, the Vatican Council discussed and approved a profession of faith and two constitutions known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith and First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ. The profession affirmed traditional Catholic doctrines, including beliefs that separated Catholics from Protestants, such as the acceptance of the seven sacraments (as opposed to the two, baptism and holy communion, recognized by Protestants), the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine served at communion become the body and blood of Christ), and the belief in the existence of purgatory and in the power of indulgences. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith condemned the doctrines of rationalism that “plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism,” affirmed the authority of Scripture and the authority of only the Catholic Church to interpret it, and forbade the acceptance of scientific conclusions that were contrary to doctrines of faith; it also included a list of anathemas for embracing condemned beliefs. The final and most important work of the Vatican Council was the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ. This decree, which was promulgated by the Pope “with the approval of the sacred council,” affirmed that because Christ had given Peter charge over the Church, Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome (who later became known as Popes), held primacy over the Universal Church. The decree also asserted that there was no valid appeal to decisions by the Roman pontiffs, thus affirming the superiority of the pope over ecumenical councils. The climax of the document was the declaration that the Pope, when speaking ex cathedra (in the exercise of his office), possesses the “infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith and morals.”

The Legacy of the Vatican Council. In taking this action, the Vatican Council ended all debate within the Roman Catholic Church regarding the supreme authority of the Pope, both as the administrative head of the Church and as the custodian of the faith. This action made less likely future reconciliation between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions. By rejecting the validity of State interference to Church affairs, the Vatican Council also sharpened the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the nation-states of the nineteenth century. It caused a minor schism in areas of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where opponents of the council broke from Rome to found the Old Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church, however, emerged from the Vatican Council as a more tightly coordinated body under the authority of a single administrative and spiritual head. The confident and definitive pronouncements of the Vatican Council gave solace to Catholics who sought to defend their faith against the hostile forces of rationalism, materialism, atheism, and Protestantism, but at the same time it gave ammunition to those who charged that the Church was out of step with the modern world.


James J. Hennesey, The First Council of the Vatican (New York: Herder & Herder, 1963).

Margaret O’Gara, Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I, and the French Minority Bishops (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1988).