You always hear about Vatican II. What happened at Vatican I?

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Vatican I
In December of 1869, Vatican I was the first council at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The numbering makes it sound like popes have convened only two councils in the church’s history. Actually, Vatican I was the 20th. Councils are named according to their location. In December of 1869, Vatican I was the first council at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was interrupted by war in September 1870 and never completed.

Pope Pius IX viewed the Council originally as “a remedy for present evils in Church and society” (Aeterni Patris). A few years earlier, he had published a Syllabus of Errors condemning pantheism, rationalism, indifferentism (the belief that any religion can lead to God), socialism, communism, secret societies, liberalism; as well as errors concerning the nature of the church, society, ethics, marriage, and papal authority. The pope hoped a council would offer solemn endorsement of his condemnations.

Over 50 draft documents were made, but only six were debated, and two adopted. The first adopted article is rarely mentioned, a theological treatise on faith and reason. The second is more familiar: the formal defining of papal infallibility. 

Papal infallibility was presumed by many Catholics and wouldn’t have been debated by most. The Ultramontane (“beyond the mountains”) movement described those who held that a strong papacy was the only defense against liberal ideas launched by politics, science, and philosophy. Most bishops supported strong papal authority but disagreed on its reach. Some theologians, among them British convert William George Ward, felt every pronouncement of the pope ought to be infallible. Many bishops insisted infallibility belonged to the church, not just to the pope; or that the pope enjoyed infallibility in certain situations but not all; or that infallibility was contingent on the pope speaking in harmony with past church teaching and his fellow bishops. Some leaders—including John Henry Newman of England, Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore, and Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis—believed defining infallibility was a mistake, obviously undone by examples from history. 

Oppositional factions grew among German, English, and French bishops. Dozens left the Council in protest before the final vote. Of the original 774 participants, only 433 were present to vote in favor of infallibility. Two bishops voted against the teaching, including an Italian and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas. Only two German church leaders refused to accept the teaching once it was passed. Both were excommunicated.

Books: Revered and Reviled: A Reexamination of Vatican Council I, John R. Quinn (Crossroad Publishing Co, 2017)

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley, SJ (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2018)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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