Pope Pius IX began laying the groundwork for the first Vatican Council in late 1864. He intended to consult various bishops throughout the world concerning whether the church should convene an ecumenical council and what its agenda should be. The responses were favorable enough that Pius IX announced on June 26, 1867, his intention to summon the Council. On June 29, 1868, a proclamation, or bull, was written announcing December 8, 1869, as the day the Council would solemnly begin.
Throughout Europe and America, critics asserted that the pope’s hidden agenda was to promote papal infallibility.
On the eve of the Council, however, official papers showed the following agenda: errors resulting from Rationalism; the Church of Christ; Christian marriage; church discipline concerning bishops, dioceses, seminaries, catechism, rituals, Christian morals, customs of the church year, and current developments in society such as dueling, spiritualism and secret societies; decrees on religious orders; and concerns involving the Eastern Churches.
In addition, many Catholic bishops throughout the world demanded that a dogma concerning the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary be addressed, that St. Joseph be proclaimed Patron of the Universal Church, and that the infallibility of the pope be clearly defined. A document concerning infallibility was not found in any of the drafts of preparation.
The preliminary gathering for Vatican I began as close to 500 bishops met in the Sistine Chapel on December 2, 1869. Approximately 74 percent of the eligible 1,050 worldwide prelates played some role in the nine-month proceedings. All told, the Council Fathers sat at 89 general congregations and four public sessions.
The first debate of the council was on the errors resulting from rationalism. This philosophy places human reason as the supreme criterion of truth. It flows from the teachings of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff and can be characterized by spiritualism, dogmatism, and determinism. The church wished to address the weaknesses of these philosophies and offer a Catholic response to them.
The next topics to be discussed concerned bishops, dioceses without a bishop, morality among clerics, and a catechism. These items were sidelined throughout the proceedings by the growing desire among many of the bishops for a statement on papal infallibility. Meanwhile, pressures were being felt by the bishops that impeded the progress of the council, so the pope made some procedural changes that expedited decision making. One important result was the “constitution,” De Fide Catholica, promulgated on April 24, 1870.
Finally, on May 9, participants received a draft of De Romano Pontifice, a document that spelled out the dogma of papal infallibility. Debate about this issue continued through June and into July. On July 4 the debate ended, and a vote was called for July 13. By this time many bishops had left Rome on hearing the news about an imminent war between France and Germany. The remaining fathers voted 75 percent affirmative, another 10 percent affirmative with conditions, and 15 percent negative. On July 18 the pope personally presided over the Council and a last vote was taken. The results of the vote were 433 to 2 in favor of the document, and it was immediately promulgated.
On September 8 troops from Piedmont entered the Papal States, and by September 20 they had reached Rome. Pius IX would from that day forward be a self-imposed prisoner in the Vatican.
Unfortunately, the council did not address a large number of drafts and proposals due to the political situation that brought Vatican I to a premature end. However, two constitutions were promulgated, and these are of great importance to the Catholic Church.
De Fide Catholica fortified Rome’s defense against the errors of atheism, materialism, and rationalism. It affirmed that God exists as a personal and all-knowing God, creating everything from nothing and leading everything to its end. This God can be known by reason, is revealed in Scripture and in tradition, and can be made known to the world by miraculous occurrences. Faith and knowledge support each other and are entrusted to the church to defend and interpret.
De Romano Pontifice teaches that the primacy of the pope brings unity and strength to the entire church.
This primacy is one of true pastoral jurisdiction to which all clergy and faithful are bound in obedience. This primacy strengthens and defends local bishops in their ministry. No secular power can interfere with these duties.
Nonetheless, critics of the council emerged in the form of minor reactions and schisms. In Germany, the “Old Catholics” sect arose, and in Switzerland the “Christian Catholics” formed. After the war between France and Germany, the German government used the infallibility doctrine as a reason to encourage Kulturkampf (“Culture Struggle,” or Secularization). Austria annulled its concordat with the Holy See. Other than these few occurrences, the decisions of Vatican I did not result in objections throughout the world.
On December 8, 1870, Pius IX finally declared St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. Subsequent popes would challenge many of the moral and religious problems that were not addressed by Vatican I, including masonry, human freedom, Christian marriage, forbidden books, and the codification of canon law.
- Costigan, Richard F. The Consensus of the Church and Papal Infallibility: A Study in the Background of Vatican I. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005;
- Hennesey, James. The First Council of the Vatican. New York: Herder and Herder, 1963;
- Heton, JohnE. Lord Acton and the First Vatican Council: A Journal.Sydney: Catholic Theological Faculty, 1975.
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