On 18 July 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago, the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) approved the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, issued by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in the solemn yet nervous atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The political situation around the Pontifical State was extremely tense and the prospect of the end of an era was felt as imminent. In fact, at the battle of Sedan (1-2 September 1870) the Prussian army defeated Napoleon III, the principal defender of the pope, thus leaving the pope without the French military protection from which he had benefited in the past. Napoleon III’s capture meant the end of French support and paved the way to the “breach of Rome”, i.e. the entry of the Italian army in the city of Rome (20 September 1870) and the proclamation of Rome as the capital city of the Italian kingdom. The Council was therefore abruptly interrupted and suspended. It is striking – if not tragically ironic – that as the Pontifical State was about to collapse, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church felt it necessary to proclaim a new dogma, i.e. the infallibility of the pope. The initiative was largely driven by political concerns. That doctrine was elevated to a dogmatic status (i.e. being part of core, revealed, unchangeable and binding teaching) and used as an identity marker and a symbolic weapon to fight against a political and cultural enemy.
A Window on the Council
A recent book by John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2018), focuses on the historical context of the Council and the theological significance of the discussion that took place around the infallibility of the pope. The Jesuit historian O’Malley is not new to writing re-assessments of pivotal events of modern Roman Catholic history. One can think of his important volumes on What Happened at Vatican II (2010) and Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013), which have proven to be trend-setting in their interpretation of present-day Roman Catholicism. In this new book on Vatican I it is as if he has completed the trilogy on the three modern councils.
More negative readings of Vatican I than O’Malley’s have been provided by A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (1981), and H. Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (1983). O’Malley’s strength lies in the comprehensiveness of his historical reconstruction, whereas his reading of the doctrinal significance of the Council is only mildly critical and within the “progressive” side of Roman Catholic studies. He signals that the basic problem of Pastor Aeternus is its “historical naïveté” (p. 197), i.e. that it ignored historical differentiations and froze every possible development in the institutional outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that a century later Vatican II (1962-1965) softened the mode of papal authority but did not (could not) change its basic theological framework.
What Happened at Vatican I
There were external and internal pressures that drove the Roman Catholic Church to issue the dogma of papal infallibility. As for the former, in the 19thcentury the Papacy had to face two staunch adversaries that were able to challenge its survival. On the political level, there was the absolutism of the princes and European states that claimed authority over the Church, thus bringing into question the difficult balance between powers that had been struck in previous centuries. The popes were perceived as being part of the Ancien Régime (Old regime) which the modern world would soon overcome on many fronts.
On the philosophical front, the spread of the French Enlightenment clashed with the traditional worldview of the Papacy. The insistence on the prominence of “reason” over the “superstition” of religion, the growing importance of evolutionary theory over more static accounts of reality, and the diffusion of socialist ideas against mere protection of the status quo caused popes to react strongly in order to safeguard their share in the established system of power. This negative attitude reached a climax in 1864 when Pius IX issued the Symbol of Errors, a list of statements that were condemned as incompatible with Christianity. Apart from banning modern philosophical ideas, religious freedom, and the activities of Bible societies, the Symbol included the following statement that the pope rejected: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (80).
The clash could not have been more strident. In O’Malley’s words, papal infallibility was seen “as the only viable answer to the cultural, political and religious crisis ignited by the French Revolution and its pan-European Napoleonic aftermath” (p. 3).
As far as the internal pressures are concerned, O’Malley surveys the confrontation between two tendencies that were especially strong in France (but had ramifications all over Europe) and polarized the debate: “Gallicanism”, stressing the freedom of particular churches over against Rome, and “Ultramontanism”, exalting the central authority of the pope over national churches. Fearing that “Gallican” positions – marked by the questioning of centralized power structures – would make inroads in the Roman Church, Pius IX pushed the consolidation of the pope’s absolute authority as the source from which everything else flowed. His conviction is well captured by Joseph de Maistre’s words: “The pope governs and is not governed, judges and is not judged, teaches and is not taught” (p. 65).
The Meaning of Papal Infallibility
The cultural siege mindset was the background of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). O’Malley speaks of “an anxiety-ridden defensiveness” (p. 227). The felt danger of being assaulted by the modern world pushed Pius IX to insist that the Council clearly specify the juridical primacy of the pope as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned and proclaim the infallibility of his teaching under certain conditions. After issuing Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution against atheism, pantheism, and materialism (and making them originate from Protestantism!), the Council was ready to address the ecclesiastical issue of papal infallibility. Here is what Vatican I declared:
“If anyone, then, shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the Pastors and the faithful; let him be anathema” (III).
- The pope’s authority is “full and supreme over the Universal Church”, no mere oversight or moral leadership: it is a political role.
- Its comprehensive scope, i.e. not only faith and morals, but also discipline and government: it entails the whole of life instead of accepting limitations and checks and balances.
- Its “fullness”: you either accept it in total or you deny it.
As to papal infallibility, Pastor Aeternus defines it this way:
“We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: 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, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone — God forbid — should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema” (IV).
- The emphatic subject “we”, i.e. the pope as head of the Church; no higher authority is invoked because on earth there is none;
- The theological framework, i.e. “supreme Apostolic authority”: the papal office is mainly characterized in terms of “power”;
- The dogmatic content, i.e. “infallibility”; a divine prerogatory is attributed to a man;
- Its scope, i.e. when the pope speaks “from the chair”, i.e. exercising his ultimate prerogatives;
- Its unchangeable nature, i.e. “irreformable”: it is a permanent mark of the Roman Church;
- and the issuing curse on those (e.g. Protestants) who do not accept this doctrine: they are still under that curse issued by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level with an irrevocable dogma.
These are strong terms that committed the Church of Rome to an extremely awkward doctrine that no “ecumenical” reading can soften. The only Biblical argument given to support this dogma is the citation of Luke 22:32 (Jesus says to Peter: “I prayed for you, so that your faith will not falter”). Yet, this citation does not support any of Pastor Aeternus’s definition in that Jesus in no way warrants Peter’s future infallibility and absolute power, and even less so the infallibility and powers of future popes, admitting and not granting that there is a relationship between Peter and subsequent leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. As it is the case with much of the doctrine of the papacy, this last doctrinal formulation is also founded on extra-Biblical arguments.
The First Vatican Council provided the most comprehensive and authoritative doctrinal statement on the papacy in the modern era. Instead of taking into account the Biblical remarks legitimately offered by the Protestant Reformation, and instead of listening to certain trends of modern thought that advocate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, Vatican I further solidified the nature of the papal office as a quasi-omnipotent and infallible figure. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest doctrinal authority, i.e. the promulgation of a dogma, a binding, irreversible, unchangeable truth, to cement the institution of the papacy by furthering its absolute nature.
When Was Papal Infallibility Implemented?
Only a month after the solemn pronouncement, Rome was no longer under papal control and the Council left an unfinished work. However, what it did decide upon proved to be of great significance, the greatest result of which is that the “Ultramontane Church” (i.e. pope-centered, Rome-led) became the present-day Roman Catholic Church (p. 242). After documenting the different phases leading to the promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, O’Malley deals with the aftermath of Vatican I. There were of course political consequences that needed decades to be settled in different national contexts. Another lasting consequence was that “The popes achieved a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer” (p. 240). After being declared “infallible” and at the center of an absolutist power system, “an almost personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue”. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture attached to the papal office and to the person of the pope that spilled over into the 20th century.
There is yet another important observation that O’Malley omits but that is necessary to make. Vatican I restricts the pope’s infallibility to when he speaks “ex cathedra”, i.e. from the chair. The question is: When did he speak in such a way? What are the papal pronouncements – among the dozens of 19th and 20th century papal encyclicals and documents – that are endowed with the “infallibility” that Pastor Aeternus grants to the pope? Even in Catholic theological circles the issue of the extension of infallibility is debated.
Logically speaking, Pastor Aeternus must be one of them. The papal document defining papal infallibility must be considered infallible, otherwise the whole argument undergirding it collapses.
While there might be different opinions about the exercise of infallibility, there is at least one clear example of a subsequent papal teaching that Roman Catholics must take as infallible.
It was in 1950 that Pius XII issued the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary as a binding belief for the Roman Catholic faith. With the dogmatic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Rome committed to it:
“We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (44).
This is clearly the formula of a papal infallible, “ex cathedra” statement. No Roman Catholic theologian can question it. In passing, the Bible is not interested in the final days of Mary nor in the way she died. She must have died like anyone else, and yet here we are confronted not with an opinion but with a dogma. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest magisterial authority to formulate a belief that the Scriptures are silent on, to say the least.
On the basis of a non-biblical dogma, i.e. the pope’s infallibility, another non-biblical dogma, i.e. Mary’s assumption, was built, thus becoming part of the binding and irreformable teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Biblically speaking, one could say: from bad to worse; but this is what Rome is committed to and will continue to be committed to, in spite of all “ecumenical” developments and friendlier attitudes. The flawed Roman Catholic theological system operates in this way: not reforming what is contrary to Scripture, but rather consolidating it with other non-biblical doctrines and practices. After the 150 years since Vatican I, the only hope for change is a reformation according to the biblical gospel that will question and ultimately dismantle and reject papal infallibility.