Review: Vatican I more Catholic than the pope?

Photo by David Iliff (Wikimedia)

With Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John O’Malley, S.J, the worldwide dean of church historians, has completed his trinity of works on church councils. His books on Trent (2013), the Second Vatican Council (2008) and now the First Vatican Council are all inspired by the course he taught for years called “Two Great Councils,” and by friends who urged him not to overlook the “middle child” between Trent and Vatican II. In answering that call, O’Malley completes his masterclass in church history and ecclesiology of the last 500 years, telling us as much about the church now as then. As usual, his history never forgets the story: We hear the yelling and strategizing on stage and off as proponents and opponents of infallibility virulently used the popular press during Vatican I to make their partisan cases. These fights resonate in today’s church: imagine if Döllinger and Newman could tweet.

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Vatican Iby John W. O'Malley

Belknap Press. 320p $24.95

Discussions in Rome in 1870 about power and authority, rooted in the first era of the church and wrangled over during her medieval centuries, hardened positions about loyalty to the very person of the pope. This conception of the papacy clashed with Gregory the Great’s model of a servant leader who holds an office that is always greater than any particular successor of Peter, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI demonstrated with his resignation in 2013.

Imagine if Döllinger and Newman could tweet...

O’Malley notes the booster rocket for the ultramontanism simmering beneath infallibility debates was the loss of the papal states. At the same time, the global authority and prestige of the papacy rose, culminating in what papal historian Eamon Duffy described as the pope’s role as the oracle of God. The resulting centralization and even cult of the papacy—Duffy termed it “papalotry”—has long turned some in the church away. In recent decades, the disillusioned have been those attracted to Vatican II’s promises of episcopal collegiality and lay participation, even as that very same centralization attracted new or returning Catholics who embraced the monarchical magisterium of St. John Paul II.

But in promulgating the doctrine of infallibility, what did Pius IX and Vatican I really accomplish? In the end, is not soft authority in place of hard, defined power more lasting, loving and evangelizing, because it invites by witness rather than imposes and demands? Vatican I introduced disillusion more than clarity, and led to the language of crisis, even fear-mongering and character assassination at its worst, that were as dangerous in the 19th century as they are today—ironic for a faith whose central belief in the Resurrection preaches hope and communal love.

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Leo Sprietsma
5 months ago

Was Vatican 1 more Catholic than Vatican 2?

German Otalora
5 months ago

Excellent article. Congratulations. Only God´s Word is infallible. Any human is subject to human weakness inherent in the human condition. My faith has been fortified by the comments. Both Trent and Vatican I are a response to temporal problems of the times in which they worked. We are now in the 21st Century and as St. John XXIII said in calling for Vatican II, let us open the windows of the Church and let fresh air renew our minds and hearts.

Edward Gallagher
5 months ago

John O'Malley's study of Vatican I is an extraordinary tour de force. In his initial chapters, he traces in detail the origins and significance of the Gallican/Ultramontane divide within the church between those who valued the independence in certain matters of national churches and those who ceded all authority to Rome. These two adversarial camps constituted the opponents and the supporters of Pius IX's efforts to have the council declare the doctrine of papal infallibility. O'Malley's detailed description of the bishops of the minority and the majority, of their positions, and of their manoeuvres reveals a fractured Catholic hierarchy. O'Malley describes the firm control exerted by Pius IX on the workings of the council, his overt animosity toward prominent opponents of infallibility, and the quite extraordinary and concerted efforts of the Jesuits in support of the pope's position. Such sustained control meant that if at the beginning of the council there were 150 bishops in the minority out of 700 council fathers, before the end many in the minority had simply left Rome. In fact, only 2 bishops voted against the dogmatic constitution on infallibility Pastor aeternus. After the council, all the bishops of the minority eventually accepted the decree of infallibility. Ultramontanism had prevailed.
While Vatican I was an attempt to solidify an ultramontane Church and strengthen a pope who felt threatened by the rationalism, nationalism, and secularism of a hostile modern world, Father O'Malley reminds us that Vatican II sought rather to open this church to the modern world.

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