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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.