First Vatican Council

First Vatican Council

Vatican Council, First, 1869-70, the 20th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church (see council, ecumenical), renowned chiefly for its enunciation of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Convening and Meetings

The council was convened by Pope Pius IX, who announced his intention in 1864. Because of the Italian political situation (the Papal States were the only bar to a united Italy), the advisability of having a council at all was questioned by the Catholic powers, who traditionally opposed strong action on the part of the church. In 1868 it was widely rumored in Europe that the enunciation of papal infallibility as a dogma was the purpose of the council and that it would confirm the papal denunciations of modernistic rationalism and liberalism. As a result there was a widespread attack on the prospective council in non-Catholic circles of France, Great Britain, and Germany. Within the church several prominent persons denounced the enunciation of infallibility as a dogma. Chief of these were Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, Lord Acton in England, and the comte de Montalembert in France.

The council was convened Dec. 8, 1869, in St. Peter's, and it was attended by some 600 of the higher clergy (patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, abbots, generals of orders, and theologians) from all over the world. The Eastern Churches in schism were invited, and the Protestants were officially informed. Late in 1870 the council was brought to a halt by the entrance of Italian soliders into Rome, and a month later the pope prorogued the council indefinitely; it was never reconvened.

Constitutions of Faith and Infallibility

Two constitutions were promulgated by the Vatican Council and confirmed by the pope. The first was on the faith, consisting of four chapters holding chiefly that God is personal, that man knows God by reason and revelation, that faith is a supernatural virtue, and that faith and reason are complementary, never contradictory. The second constitution concerned the papacy; after defining the primacy of papal jurisdiction it goes on to enounce definitively the dogma of infallibility. This, the one official statement of the doctrine, reads in its significant part as follows: "The Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office of his supreme apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses, in consequence of the divine aid promised him in St. Peter, that infallibility which the Divine Savior wished to have His Church furnished for the definition of doctrines concerning faith or morals; and that definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church's consent, irreformable." Past definitions are included in the statement.

In the council there was a long dispute over the enunciation. In the first vote it stood 451 in favor, 88 opposed, and 62 conditionally in favor; at the last vote 433 were in favor of the promulgation, two opposing, 55 abstaining. All the fathers of the council accepted the dogma as true. After the council a great deal of discussion of infallibility took place among non-Catholics; violent attacks were made on the pope, the church, and the council. Within the church the papal infallibility had been generally believed for many centuries. A few groups departed from the church. The most important was the Old Catholics in Germany, under Döllinger; in France a small group headed by Père Hyacinthe (Charles Loyson) also seceded. The political results were numerous: Otto von Bismarck gave the definition as the reason for the Kulturkampf, and Austria used it as an excuse to abrogate its concordat with the Holy See. The French government denounced it in a memorandum, which was acceded to by Britain, Spain, and Portugal. The anger of the states reflected the chief political effect of the enunciation of papal infallibility: since the doctrine made Gallicanism and similar claims obsolete, governments could no longer use them to interfere in church affairs.


See E. C. Butler, The Vatican Council, 1869-1870 (1930, repr. 1962); A. Ryan, ed., Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees (1962).

The First Vatican Council was summoned by Pope Pius IX by the bull Pastor Aeternus of June 29, 1868. The first session was held in Saint Peter's Basilica on December 8, 1869. It was the 20th ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. Nearly 800 church leaders attended. They met ninety-three times between December 8, 1869 and September 1, 1870.

The Pope's two primary purposes were to define the dogma of Papal Infallibility and to obtain confirmation of the position he had taken in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), condemning a wide range of positions associated with rationalism, liberalism, and materialism.

In the three sessions, there was discussion and approval of only two constitutions: Dei Filius, the Dogmatic Constitution On The Catholic Faith (which defined, among other things, the sense in which Catholics believe the Bible is inspired by God) and Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, dealing with papal primacy and infallibility.

The definition of papal infallibility was controversial, not because many did not believe the pope to be infallible when defining dogma, but because many who did so believe did not think it prudent to define the doctrine formally. John Henry Newman, for instance, thought such a formal definition might push away potential converts. Some feared it might lead to renewed suspicion of Catholics as having a foreign allegiance. This view was taken by two-thirds of the bishops from the United States and many from France and Germany.

About 60 members of the council effectively abstained by leaving Rome the day before the vote. Archbishop Antonio María Claret y Clará, confessor to the Spanish royal court and founder of the Claretians (Claretian Missionaries), strongly condemned the "blasphemies and heresies uttered on the floor of this Council," and was one of the strong defenders on the issue of papal infallibility and the primacy of the See of Rome. He was the only member of the council to be canonized as saint (beatified in 1934 and canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1950). He died in a Cistercian monastery in Fontfroide, France, in October 24, 1870. The discussion and approval of the constitution gave rise to serious controversies which led to the withdrawal from the church of the Old Catholics.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War interrupted the council. It was suspended following the entry of the Italian Army in Rome, the so-called capture of Rome, and never resumed. It was not officially closed until decades later in 1960 by Pope John XXIII, when it was formally brought to an end as part of the preparations for the Second Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council marked the triumph of the ultramontanist movement, which supported a central Vatican-based government of the Church. An increasing awareness of their own identity among Roman Catholics worldwide was detected, and the numbers of converts to Catholicism as well as the numbers of vocations to the religious and priestly life increased, along with clearly pro-Catholic political activity of Catholics in their native countries. Along with this, a stronger involvement of laymen in the outward working of the Catholic Church evolved, and the council would indirectly lead to the stimulation of the Liturgical Movement, which would particularly flourish under Pope Pius X.

See also

Further reading

  • Raffaele De Cesare, The Last Days of Papal Rome, Archibald Constable & Co, London (1909)
  • The Catholic Church in the Modern World by E.E.Y. Hales (Doubleday, 1958)
  • August Bernhard Hasler: HOW THE POPE BECAME INFALLIBLE: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion, Doubleday (1981) [translation of WIE DER PAPST UNFEHLBAR WURDE: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag (1979)].

External links

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