Looking Back to the First Vatican Council

Jared Staudt

We often hear of the Second Vatican Council and its messy aftermath, but it would be hard to imagine this council without its predecessor, the First Vatican Council (1870-71). To summarize briefly, the first of these two councils held in St. Peter’s Basilica sought to confront the modern world by emphasizing the importance of faith and the authority of the Church, especially that of the Pope. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made a deliberate about face, seeking to engage the modern world in order to evangelize it, rather than anathematize it.

Looking back to the First Vatican Council can help us to understand the dynamics of the relationship between the Church and the modern world more clearly. Historian John O’Malley has written a concise and accessible overview of the Council and the history that led to it in his Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard, 2018). O’Malley narrates the story dispassionately, but the reader does get the strong impression that he regrets the greater focus on the papacy that emerged from the 19th century and the pontificate of Pope Bl. Pius IX (reigned 1846-78), who called the Council. He is correct in pointing to this moment as a pivotal shift in how Catholics view the Church and the role of the papacy within it.

O’Malley does an excellent job of narrating the dynamics at play as the Church picked up the pieces from the devastation of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. The Church was in a fight for survival and was staking out its influence in a changed world. Bishops were split into two groups, the smaller of which wanted to embrace the new movements of democracy and science. They were dubbed “liberals” in the classic sense: open to the advancements of the modern world and the new political arrangement of Europe (not in the newer sense of doctrinal dissent). The larger group, the Ultramontanes, looked to the Pope as the source of stability in the midst of change and supported even greater authority for the Pope over the appointment of bishops, the liturgy, and the definition of dogma.

Several significant events led to the opening of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century. There was a remarkable resurgence of piety, including a number of Marian apparitions (Miraculous Medal, La Salette, and Lourdes), the re-founding of religious orders and monasteries, and the beginnings of the liturgical movement through the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. Initially considered as open minded to the modern world, Pope Pius IX turned strongly against republicanism after he fled Rome in 1848, the year of revolutions. He issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, condemning a series of propositions, including “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Although Pius was restored to the Papal States, with the unification of Italy underway it was only a matter of time before he the Papal States fell for good. In contrast to the Pope’s diminishing political power, papal authority was on full display with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, offering a test case for the Pope’s authority to solemnly proclaim a dogma of the faith.

The idea of convoking a Council was part of a larger effort to confront the modern ideology that reinterpreted faith as part of the evolution of history. The goal of the Council was to bolster faith and authority in the midst of growing secularism. It was unique in many ways: the first Council with no lay representation, the first to focus solely on expounding doctrine (rather than addressing heresy and other reform measures), was more orchestrated by the Pope and Roman Curia and represented the first truly worldwide gathering of bishops. Convened in 1870, it made two major pronouncements before it was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War. Its first dogmatic constitution, Dei Filius, boldly defended the reasonableness of faith and the compatibility of faith and reason. The main focus of the Council, however, came with dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus, which affirmed Papal primacy and infallibility.  The Pope’s infallibility, however, was clearly defined to apply only in limited circumstances:

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

The minority (liberal) faction strongly opposed this definition, warning that it was prone to misunderstanding, would alienate people from the Church, and overshadowed the authority of the local Church. Serious churchmen, such as Bishop Dupanloup and even Bl. John Henry Newman, questioned the necessity and timing of the proclamation. The vote was nearly unanimous in favor of the proclamation, however, as those opposed left before the vote. O’Malley helps the reader to see into the inner workings and maneuvering of the Council, including Pope Pius’ frustrations with the liberal faction. Looking to today, it helps to recognize that the Church always has contained varying viewpoints on the best manner to teach and conduct pastoral work. Although infighting can get messy at times, the Holy Spirit guides the Church despite and sometimes even through these machinations.

The Second Vatican Council continued the debates of the First, but decided in ways that favored the positions held by the previous minority: emphasizing the synodality and authority of bishops, expressing openness to the modern world and democracy, recommending adaptations to the liturgy, and embracing of modern scholarship, including historical study of the Bible. Together the two Vatican Councils give a balanced approach to engaging the modern world: preserving the faith and authority of the Church while also finding new ways to evangelize and serve. Nonetheless, O’Malley’s book provides hints that the Church may still be finding her way through the difficulties of the modern world, including working through differing approaches to the relationship of the Church and modernity.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.