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: Our first and most precious freedom

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Our first and most precious freedom

What four recent Supreme Court cases say about the present and future of religious liberty

Eric Kniffin

In September 2015, Pope Francis called religious liberty “one of America’s most precious possessions” and urged American Catholics “to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” For while “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive,” the Pope noted “they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.”

Five years later, the vigilance Pope Francis spoke of is needed now more than ever. Over the first half of 2020, the Supreme Court decided four major religious liberty cases. The first case will open Christian employers up to a whole new slate of discrimination lawsuits, but overall the Court has expanded religious liberty protections. On the whole, I remain optimistic about the future of religious liberty. But, as Pope Francis cautioned, we as Catholics need to be vigilant about protecting this most precious freedom.

Supreme Court Overview

The case that has caused the most consternation for the Church is the June 15 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status.

The Court’s ruling sent shockwaves throughout the Church. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, lamented “that the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively redefined the legal meaning of ‘sex’ in our nation’s civil rights law,” calling it “an injustice that will have implication in many areas of life.”

Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett agreed, predicting that Bostock may affect not only  Catholic employers’ hiring decisions, but also “universities’ residential-hall practices, sports-eligibility rules, government contracts and research grants.”

But while Bostock will certainly lead to more religious liberty conflicts, the Supreme Court’s other three religious liberty decisions demonstrate the Court’s strong commitment to what the USCCB has called our “First Freedom.”

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court finally confronted the ugly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant history of “Blaine amendments,” provisions found in 37 state constitutions—including Colorado—that block state funds from going to religious schools. The Court held that Blaine amendments violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.”

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania marks the Supreme Court’s latest foray in the nearly decade-long battle over the federal contraception mandate. The Court held that the Trump Administration acted lawfully when it created a broader religious employer exemption from the mandate, and affirmed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) not only permits but requires federal agencies to consider whether regulations like the contraception mandate burden religious exercise.

The last religious liberty case of the term was Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. which asked whether teachers at two California Catholic schools qualified for the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that keeps the government from interfering with the Church’s most important personnel decisions. The Court said yes, affirming that the ministerial exception should be interpreted broadly to protect the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

Brokering a Fragile Peace

What do these decisions say about where we are as a society and the future of religious liberty? All four cases show the Supreme Court struggling with the reality that we live in a deeply divided, pluralistic society.

Luke Goodrich, Vice President at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, describes this standoff in Chapter 4 of his recent book, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America. Goodrich notes that Christians believe in absolute truth, and among these truths are teachings about sexual morality and the nature of the human person. But an ever-growing portion of our society not only rejects these teachings, but sees them as bigotry that threatens the “pursuit of happiness” that is every American’s birthright.

Catholic leaders need to take advantage of good religious liberty decisions by taking concrete steps before conflicts arise. All Catholics should pray for our leaders, and that our nation will continue to honor our First Freedom.

How is the Supreme Court trying to manage this fundamental impasse? It seems the Court is willing to adopt the dominant progressive worldview, but with two important exceptions. First, the Court has continued to stand by our nation’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty. Second, it has refused to follow the left in condemning the Church’s teachings as hateful bigotry.

This is the same approach the Supreme Court took in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That same decision also rejected efforts to conflate those, like Catholics, who believe in traditional marriage with racists: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

This fragile peace will be tested again this fall, when the Supreme Court takes up Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. That case asks whether the City can force Catholic Social Services to either place children with same-sex couples, in violation of its Catholic beliefs, or else abandon its foster care ministry altogether. The Supreme Court’s decision will be yet another test as to whether the First Amendment makes room for the Catholic Church to serve the public while remaining true to its unpopular teachings about the human person.

Practical Steps Forward

What do these high-stakes battles over religious liberty mean for Catholics today? The big picture concern, as Goodrich notes in Free to Believe, is that our “culture is changing. Religious freedom is not as secure as it once was.”

What does this mean for the Church and the Catholic faithful?  For the Church and other Catholic organizations, the fragile state of religious liberty means they need to take proactive steps to take advantage of available religious liberty protections. Goodrich urges religious leaders to take practical steps to “strengthen their witness and reduce their likelihood of conflict and loss.” “Far too often,” Goodrich warns, “religious organizations wait until a conflict is already upon them before seeking legal advice. By then, it’s often too late.” Goodrich’s advice echoes many of the strategies I outlined in a special report for the Heritage Foundation, Protecting Your Right to Serve: How Religious Ministries Can Meet New Challenges without Changing Their Witness. Taking these practical steps is a time-intensive and resource-intensive process, but as Goodrich shows, such planning is an increasingly important part of stewardship and prudent leadership.

But religious liberty is not just a concern for the institutional Church and those who agree with the Church’s teachings on culture war issues. That is because religious liberty, first and foremost is about liberty, freedom from government coercion. The USCCB calls religious liberty our “First Freedom” not just because it is listed first in the Bill of Rights, but because it is foundational to our other freedoms. To put it another way, if government can force Catholic nuns to buy contraceptives, what can’t it do?

The increasing legal and cultural pressures on religious institutions make the Supreme Court’s religious liberty decisions more important than ever. Catholic leaders need to take advantage of good religious liberty decisions by taking concrete steps before conflicts arise. All Catholics should pray for our leaders, and that our nation will continue to honor our First Freedom.

Eric Kniffin is an attorney in Lewis Roca Rotherberger Christie’s Religious Institutions Practice Group.

Image caption: Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media after aruments at the US Supreme Court, March 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. Today the high court heard arguments in Little Sisters v. Burwell, which will examine whether the governments new health care regulation will require the Little Sisters to change their healthcare plan, to other services that violate Catholic teaching. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)