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Vatican I:
The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church

by john w. o’malley
belknap, 320 pages, $24.95

In 1860 Pope Pius IX lost the papal states, which had been held by his predecessors for a thousand years. Four years later he issued the Syllabus of Errors. The eightieth and final error condemned was: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Newspapers, magazines, even national governments quickly ridiculed the Syllabus, especially this last entry about progress, liberalism, and modern civilization. Pius later admitted that some of the propositions were “raw meat needing to be cooked.” But the deed was done. Pope Pius had seemingly rejected any adjustment to modern civilization.

John O’Malley’s Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultra­montane Church shows how false this view is. At Vatican I (1869–1870), Pius convened a council that was quite modern, even radical. A multifaceted and decades-old reform movement of clergy, bishops, and ­laity supported a papal initiative to restore the liberty and independence of the Church. True enough, the council reached a result that baffled and distressed liberals, who expected ecclesiastical bodies to merge with rising nationalisms. But it proved successful in protecting the unity of the Church over several decades in which nations were fragmented by war and bent by ideology.

With this book, O’Malley completes his trilogy on the three “modern” councils: Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. Of these three, Vatican I is most often overlooked. It lasted a mere eight months and produced only two documents: Dei Filius, on faith and reason, and Pastor Aeternus, which asserted the pope’s universal jurisdiction and defined papal infallibility. O’Malley gives an accessible, even-handed overview of the council with a minimum of interpretive gloss. He excels in describing the ways in which the council initiated deep changes that still affect the everyday lives of Catholics.

Vatican I opposed aspects of modernity in a thoroughly modern way. Summoned three hundred years after Trent, it was the largest, most international, longest-lasting human assembly in the nineteenth century. Pius decided not to invite lay sovereigns, thereby breaking a tradition nearly 1500 years old. (He told a British diplomat that even Catholic sovereigns were no longer Catholic.) Though the council defended papal prerogatives, it was to a considerable extent instigated by laymen. These “ultramontanes” ­appealed to the pope’s power because they were dissatisfied with the rough and negligent treatment of Catholic institutions by local civil authorities and clerical hierarchies tied to national powers. The populist tone of ­laymen and young clergy was so strong that Félix Dupanloup, the bishop of Orléans, worried that the council would take on the appearance of a plebiscite.

Far from rejecting modern modes of communication, Pius and his advisers made the case for infallibility and universal jurisdiction through the new media—telegraph, news­papers, magazines—rather than in the usual venues of scholars and canonists and court bureaucracies. And Pius, who had become the first celebrity pope, did not hesitate to use his image to influence ecclesiastical debate. But the greatest indication of the ­council’s modernity was its fundamental ­mission. What could be more modern than an assembly convening to claim natural and divine rights against state despotism?

As O’Malley puts it, when the council voted in favor of Pastor Aeternus in the summer of 1870, “something momentous in the history of the Catholic Church had occurred.” First, it solved a problem that had been simmering since the investiture controversy. To whom do bishops belong? Regalists would have said, “to the crown”; moderate regalists would have said, “to the apostolic college as supervised by the external bishopric of the crown”; the revolutionaries of 1789 said, “to the people constituted as a nation.” The council of 1870 said that they belong to the whole Church in which the pope exercises universal jurisdiction. The effect was immediate. At the death of Leo XII in 1829, 555 of 646 bishops in the Latin Church owed appointments to state patronage. In 1871 and 1872, Pius chose 102 new bishops. The papacy lost its dominions, but gained a Church.

O’Malley argues that the council “unwittingly further eroded the confessional-state model.” This is only half correct, for the erosion was not unwitting. Pastor Aeternus guaranteed that in whatever ways church-state relations might evolve, there would not be a restoration. In fact, although the Syllabus of Errors condemned the proposition that “the Church ought to be separated from the State and the State from the Church,” the preceding thirteen sections unmistakably condemned the familiar legal devices of establishment. The French statesman Émile Ollivier estimated the situation ­clearly when he remarked, “I know that Rome earnestly wishes to separate itself from the State, but She does not want the State to separate itself from Her.” He was right. Vatican I implied a one-way separation, and virtually all of the European cabinets understood that this was the opposite of a restoration. It determined what cannot be done, namely the subsumption of the Church to the state; it left indeterminate what relations the Church may wish to have with particular temporal governments. Joseph de Maistre once bragged that “if Providence erases, it is no doubt in order to write.” This was a new script.

The reform movement for ecclesial liberty against the states was long in the making, and it transcended our categories of liberal and conservative. In fact, the papacy was late to get on board, in part because popes held dual jurisdictions in the papal states. Pius jumped on the caboose of reform only after losing his own temporal dominions. Jurisdictional primacy was supported by a remarkably wide range of intellectuals. Joseph de ­Maistre, Félicité de ­Lamennais, Henri-Dominique ­Lacordaire, Charles de ­Montalembert, Antonio Rosmini, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, John Henry Newman, Dom Guéranger, Henry Manning, Matteo Liberatore, and other Catholic luminaries of the nineteenth century disagreed on many things, including the definition and opportuneness of infallibility, but all believed that the first step toward reform was liberating the Church from every species of subjection to the state, or ­Gallicanism.

Newman worried that this movement would “destroy every eccles­iastical power but the Pope,” but he agreed with the final result of the council. He concluded that “it was necessary to have been done, once and for all, with Gallicanism,” which he viewed as a form of Erastianism, “the mother of all heresies.” The only influential Catholic intel­lectuals who outright rejected the assertion of papal jurisdiction on principle were ­Ignaz von Döllinger and Lord Acton. While infallibility generally receives more attention, jurisdiction had greater practical importance. Infallibility has been invoked only once since 1870, but universal papal jurisdiction is used constantly and pervasively to this day.

Not all at once, but quickly enough, the Holy See became “not where things come together, but a source from which things flow.” After 1870, a flood of pontifical and curial teaching on ecclesial matters of every sort issued from the Holy See. This was chiefly an effect of universal jurisdiction rather than infallibility. If the internal solidarity and political coherence of the Church require universal jurisdiction, then the magisterial office must include prudential as well as strictly doctrinal teachings. As Leo XIII put it,

The political prudence of the Pontiff embraces diverse and multi­form things, for it is his charge not only to rule the Church, but generally so to regulate the actions of Christian citizens that these may be in apt conformity to their hope of gaining eternal salvation. Whence it is clear that, in addition to the complete accordance of thought and deed, the faithful should imitate the practical political wisdom of the ecclesiastical authority.

What O’Malley characterizes as a new Holy See—“a source from which things flow”—included not only the formal powers of jurisdiction but equally important customary powers that came with the new arrangement. One example will suffice. Since 1870, popes have usually announced several themes for their pontificates. (For Francis, they include mercy and integral human ecology.) Conferences of bishops worldwide immediately organize committees and workshops to study, advertise, and implement the pontifical themes. Today we take such cooperation, which goes well beyond what is demanded by doctrine or law, for granted. But something like this would have been scarcely ­imaginable to Pope Gregory XVI, who believed that limited access to railroads was necessary to protect social life in the cities and villes of the papal states. Imagine the Belgian bishops holding workshops on that theme in 1835, when the Belgian government opened the first continental railroad in ­Europe.

Döllinger rejected the doctrine of jurisdictional primacy. He complained that the ultramontane movement would “take possession of the whole organic life of the Church.” After the council he lamented, “They have made a new church.” He was right on every point except the most important one. Namely, the older organic life of the Church had already been destroyed by religious wars, revolutions, and exaggerated state sovereignty. Though the council’s documents were imperfect, Pastor Aeternus was issued in the nick of time. The Church maintained its unity in the midst of the disintegrating forces of World War I and its sequelae. Pius was more modern than Döllinger. However reluctantly, the pope became the reformer. The professor was condemned to play the role of the shortsighted conservative.

If we use Isaiah Berlin’s classification of the hedgehog and the fox, the council was a hedgehog. It knew one big thing very well, which was how to protect the unity of the Church. Under its influence the Church not only survived but flourished in letters, philosophy, and theology. It initiated the largest system of lay education in the history of Christendom. It drew too close to right-wing political regimes, but it emerged from World War II on the side of the new social democracies. Indeed, the aggiornamento of the 1950s and 1960s was led by Catholics, ­clerical and lay, who were born, raised, and educated in a system ­created by Vatican I. And the main ligaments of Vatican I remained intact even after Vatican II.

If Vatican I was the single-minded hedgehog, Vatican II was the fox that knows many things. It delighted in multiple and novel points of view, reading the signs of the times, and offering an exuberantly non-systematic approach to modern life. Even so, its emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops and the pope enhances rather than diffuses the result of the older council. The episcopacy was more clearly included in the jurisdictional claims that Vatican I had made for the Church against the state. One might doubt, however, that this ­participative primacy significantly changed for the better either the institutional or the spiritual habits of the episcopacy.

In the concluding chapter, O’Malley notes that the “untrammeled” pontifical power over the appointment of bishops “made for a more monochrome episcopacy that was more docile in all spheres.” He seems to suggest that this problem belonged to the post-1870 regime rather than to our own. Disappointingly, O’Malley is content to fall back upon the comfortable narrative that Vatican II revised and completed Vatican I. This story is familiar to everyone. Resistance to secular forces gave way to reconciliation, and emphasis on jurisdictional issues was directed toward the sacramental, the papal to the episcopal, the hierarchical to the collegial.

Is the episcopacy no longer supine and mediocre? Are reports about the daily thoughts, writings, interviews, and actions of the pontifical office ever eclipsed by parish or diocesan news? Since when are the works of theologians not fixed upon the current papal program? To which conciliar regime should we attribute the fact that bishops entered the twenty-first century on virtually every continent discredited by scandal and astonishingly incompetent government?

The Second Vatican Council aimed to repristinate the Church from within its proper spiritual resources. The Church promised to come home to itself, so to speak, to an interior domain of natural and evangelical virtue deeper than any institutional or legal apparatus. A half-century later, this still has not happened. The Church stubbornly refuses to see itself in terms other than political programs and journalistic clichés. Conferences and synods grind out more pedestrian documents. Its own failures of faith, reason, virtue, worship, and holy poverty are self-inflicted wounds that amount to twenty-first-century versions of Antonio Rosmini’s Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church. Because the promise of Vatican II has gone unfulfilled, we still live with the problems created by Vatican I, without its clear-eyed successes. 

Russell Hittinger is Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.