Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church. By John W. O’Malley. Cambridge, MA /London, England 2018.  307 Pp.

Fr. John W. O’Malley, SJ

How did we get where we are? This is a question John W. O’Malley, SJ asks himself continually as he plies his work of church history. He had written two best sellers about the Council of Trent and Vatican II. However, he did not follow the advice of many friends who urged him to write and research the middle council, Vatican I. Such a study, he finally realized, was necessary to complete the answer to the important question of how we have come to where we are. Without that answer something was missing. That is the story of Vatican I.

The making of the Ultramontane Church is at the heart of the answer to what happened at Vatican I. As O’Malley explains, there are many parts to the story of Ultramontanism, with Jansenism as a precursor as well as the Enlightenment, Gallicanism, and liberalism. It takes a volume to put this story together. Only someone like O’Malley could do so. There eventually were two sides, one conservative and the other liberal, which stepped into the ring to settle things. Much had happened due to the Enlightenment and liberal philosophies which replaced the philosophy and theology of St. Augustine (354-430 AD) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD). The French Revolution and the struggle to make Italy a national reality and authority, with Garibaldi’s troops breaking into Rome at Porta Pia, putting an end to the Papal States and Vatican I is part of the story.

Century of Lights

The first chapter of O’Malley’s book discusses the terms and positions of the various influences at the time of the First Vatican Council. He called it the Century of Lights referring to the Enlightenment as a beginning point and the powers that existed in the papacy, royalty, nations and other players in the world forum. Names, positions and their impact are described as the background of the time. As Pius IX looked over the scene, he addressed the Curial bishops and cardinals about a possibility of a council. They agreed it was needed. He set a date for the Council and the topics to be discussed. He determined the leaders in the Council. Some later questioned the legitimacy of the Council because of the pope’s actions. O’Malley affirms that while these were unusual interventions, no one claimed interference, lack of freedom or undue pressure exerted. It was a different kind of Council, but it was a different kind of world.

Pius IX

At the time Pius IX began his reign (1846-1876) a whole history of the relations of these two movements and their subdivisions had their ups and downs, their victories and defeats. O’Malley goes back to the Conference of Vienna (1815) as a milestone for Vatican I, though the story goes back even farther. Nevertheless, many of the events of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were critical background for Vatican I. The French Revolution, for example, changed the relations of church and state in France; the Napoleon Concordat with Pius VII (1801) also brought profound changes. Under the kings of France (Bourbon family) the Church was a part of the government; it was the First Estate. After the Revolution and the Concordat, the Church in France had lost its properties, a large number of bishoprics, its wealth and status.

As for the Gallican Movement, it was flourishing because it had become quite strong for over a thousand years. France as the eldest daughter of the Church, and it had been given many rights and favors from the French rulers; and in turn, the Church had been very generous to France and other countries. The unity of church and state was taught as the ideal relationship even in the twentieth century in pontifical universities. Other views were considered deviant.

The Eve of the Council

Even before asking the opinion of the Curial Cardinals about the need for a council, Pius IX had expressed his distress over the liberal atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth century. Liberal philosophies and ideologies (Kant, Leibnitz, socialism, communism, secret societies), the French Revolution and recent history and wars were wearing down the law and order of the Ancien Régime. Pius IX was viewed positively when he became pope. He was handsome, and was fresh air after his predecessor, Gregory XVI. However, his early encyclical Inter Multiplices stated that he could not send his soldiers from the Papal States against the Austrian troops in the north of Italy. They were all Catholic Christians whom he loved and served. This decision was not popular to Italian rebels seeking the birth of a new nation embracing the Papal States and other duchies.

The Pope was very disturbed by the victory of the Garibaldi troops who defeated the French and Austrian troops at Porta Pia, the door to Rome in 1870. This brought an end to the Papal States as well as the interlude of Vatican I. By calling the next council in 1962 Vatican II, Pope John XXIII de facto concluded Vatican I.

Under Way and Moving, Toward Dei Filius

Chapter four begins with travel to the First Vatican Council and the leaders of the majority and the minority. Manning from England and Senestrey from Regensburg, Germany were for an absolute infallibility position. Other delegates from the majority had more moderate positions, some thought a definition of infallibility would be “inopportune”. The minority made a big mistake about its strength and about the deputation that was to lead the way to decision. There was an overwhelming victory for the Ultramontane side and a wake-up call for the minority when the vote on deputation was taken. The minority complained to one of the presidents, but the votes were with the majority. Veuillot declared “The Council is over.”

Dei Filius

The last pages of chapter four show O’Malley at his best. He says, “Dei Filius is the forgotten decree of the council. That is unfortunate. To understand it is to have a key to understanding the council and its importance in ways that include but that also transcend understanding it in terms of papal infallibility.” He continues: “By the end of the century these new methods produced in Catholicism and in other Christian churches the great crisis known as Modernism. But even at the time of the council, theologians and bishops were becoming aware of the grave problems critical historical research now posed for the supposedly unchanging character of doctrine. To understand the concern and fear that that awareness generated is to understand why Dei Filius made the categorical assertion that dogma cannot be understood in a sense different from how it had always been understood.” According to the council, there can be no change “under the pretext of a more profound understanding.”

The bishops and theologians who wrote the decree were not stupid or ignorant men. They were groping to deal with a bewildering new situation. The rules governing reality and those governing scholarship had changed from what they had learned in their seminaries. The new rules, centuries in the making, had reached a confrontational maturity by the time of the council. Understanding the world had become a brand-new game, and the bishops and theologians were trying to figure out how to play it.

In this context the strength of Dei Filius is that it did not say too much. It did not condemn Darwin or Marx. It did not canonize the Syllabus. Perhaps more important it asserted a few basic truths that served the church as solid guidelines in a shifting reality.”

Infallibility (Pater Aeternus)

O’Malley says Dei Filius, outside the Council debate, seemed almost “a nonevent as infallibility continued to dominate discourse.” Bishop Deschamp published a long letter in refutation to Dupanloup’s letter to his clergy that argued the definition was “inopportune”. On March 1 Dupanloup responded with a ranging theological treatise. Meanwhile inside the council the question had reached a crisis by February and the first draft, Suprema Pastoris overwhelmingly bishops signed for it. The minority had only 160 votes, less than 25% of the council membership.

Pius IX received petitions and forwarded them to De postulatis. On February 9 a deputation met on whether new business to be admitted to the agenda. The decision for the majority was accompanied by a recommendation to the pope, who accepted it. Manning and Deschamps now went to work on the draft with Kleutgen on Chapter 11 of Suprema Pastoris, the chapter on papal primacy.

A new order of business

On April 19 Manning and Senestrey sent to Pius a group of bishops urging immediate discussion. This was a result of looking at the agenda and how much time it would take to discuss Suprema Pastoris chapter by chapter and canon by canon. The majority favored a “fast track” to definition. Dupanlou on April 23 sent a letter to the pope urging that the change of agenda not be made. “Nothing could be more dangerous.” However, his letter was too late.

First Drafts, Final Days, Porta Pia

O’Malley sums up the work remaining to Pastor Aeternus and the debate. The minority thought they might still help the Council to avoid the absolute position of Manning, Senetrey, Pie and other majority leaders. Indeed, they did introduce wording showing the limitations of infallibility. The Second Vatican Council began with Lumen Gentium the document on the Church and Dei Verbum and the responsibility of the bishops for the universal church as well as the individual dioceses and other matters. It is a new time and there are other perspectives that need to be brought into the Church’s never-ending search for the truth and its articulation in its teaching, worship and spiritual life.