Looking Back to the First Vatican Council

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: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash