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Vatican I

Reckoned by Roman Catholics to be the twentieth ecumenical council, the First Vatican Council was convened by the papal bull Aeterni Patris on 29 June 1868. It sat from 8 December 1869 until 18 July 1870. The closure of the third session was precipitated by the withdrawal of French troops from Rome, due to the outbreak of war between France and Prussia, and by the occupation of the city by Italian troops.

In assessing the council it is necessary to take into account the political, cultural, and theological background. Politically the pope was still viewed as a temporal prince. Admittedly the Papal States had been taken over by the new Italy, and after 1860 only Rome remained. But across Europe there were grave suspicions that the concern for papal primacy and infallibility marked a reassertion of the old claims of the dominion of church over state. Culturally it was the period when Romanticism was in the ascendant and anti-intellectualism was strong-an opportune moment for a firmly traditional council.

Theologically the scene was set for a decisive step forward (though the minority was to consider it a long step backward). Already the pope had promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception* in 1854. Ten years later he had issued the Syllabus Errorum,* the reactionary trumpet blast against every manifestation of liberal or progressive thinking. The time had come in the judgement of Pius IX* and his supporters to put the coping stone on the edifice of papal absolutism gradually built up over a period of centuries via the forged pseudo-Isidorian decretals and the claims of such powerful medieval popes as Gregory VII,* Innocent III,* and Boniface VIII.*

The two theories which clashed in the Vatican debates carry the names Gallicanism* and Ultramontanism.* The Gallican theory went back via J.B. Bossuet (1627-1704) to the great conciliar theologians D'Ailly* and Gerson,* who at the time of the Council of Constance* asserted the supreme authority of a general council. Gallicanism did not go so far as the Protestant Reformers, but nevertheless it did reject the temporal claims of the papacy, subjected the pope to a general council, and denied that his decrees were beyond reform. The Ultramontane theory-this word meaning “across the mountains”-presented a traditional Italian and strongly papal position. Its classical exponent was the sixteenth-century cardinal Bellarmine,* and in the mid- nineteenth century there were advocates like the editor of the Dublin Review the English convert W.G. Ward, and the French editor of L'Univers ouis Veuillot, who would have pushed the theory to its ultimate limits. In any event, Vatican I saw the decisive defeat of the Gallican theory and the triumph of Ultramontanism.

The key figure in the council was the pope himself. Pius IX succeeded to the papal throne in 1846. He began by favoring liberal ideas and Italian nationalism, but the revolution of 1848, his flight to Gaeta, his restoration to Rome by the French army in 1850-all these were a prelude to a thoroughly reactionary policy for the rest of his long reign (he died in 1878). Hans Küng* rather scathingly assessed him as being “without a trace of churchmanly or theological critical self-reflection.” He himself made his own convictions clear in his famous reply to one dissident bishop—“Tradition? I am tradition.”

The composition of the council helped the pope's ambitions. The 276 Italian bishops outnumbered the 265 from the rest of Europe. The 195 nondiocesan bishops were particularly dependent on the pope. Many of the bishops were theologically mediocre and so were open to the pressures of the majority party. The leaders of the latter were not unduly scrupulous about the methods used. Archbishop Manning* from England, exulting in the fact that he was the only “convert” at the council, and dedicated to the task of pushing through the decree, described the council as “a running fight” in which his group aimed “to watch and counteract” what the minority bishops were doing. By skillful intrigue he succeeded in packing the Deputation-the commission responsible for drawing up the doctrinal statement-so that every opponent was excluded.

The minority party included many outstanding leaders, such as the great historian Hefele,* two Austrian cardinals, Dupanloup* of France, Moriarty of Ireland, and many others. From outside the council they were supported by such notable figures as J.H. Newman* and Döllinger,* one of the foremost Roman Catholic theologians. They resisted the decree on various grounds-that it was unbiblical and unhistorical, that it denied the status of the bishops, that it made future councils redundant, that it was inopportune-this last objection coming from the Eastern Catholics from Orthodox lands and those from the Protestant nations.

But the resistance was in vain. On 13 July 1870 the placets (“ayes”) numbered 471, 88 voted non-placet, 62 agreed in principle but not in detail, while 76 abstained. On 13 July 1870 the constitution Pastor Aeternus was passed by 533 placets to two non-placets. The rest abstained, many leaving Rome to avoid having to vote against the pope. Newman might query the validity of the decree because of the lack of unanimity, the Old Catholic* breakaway movement might claim many adherents, but the decree was a fact. Döllinger was excommunicated. The bishops who had fought so hard gradually capitulated. To the outsider they appeared as beaten men prepared to go against their conscience, but to a Roman Catholic commentator like Butler they appeared as good Catholics ready to sacrifice private judgment to the supreme authority of their church.

Vatican I dealt with other matters, including the promulgation of the Constitution on the Catholic Faith, but it is remembered chiefly for its formulation of the papal primacy and infallibility. Its dogmatic definitions present a major problem today to the New Catholicism.

L. Jaeger, The Ecumenical Council (1961); C. Butler, The Vatican Council (1962); W.S. Kerr, A Handbook on the Papacy (1962); H. Küng, Infallible? an Inquiry (1971).