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: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.