by John O’Malley, Belknap Press, 307pp, £17.95
In June 1868, the apostolic letter Aeterni Patris announced the forthcoming First Vatican Council. It was not the jolliest of papal documents. The Church had been “attacked and trampled on by the enemies of God and man. Everything that is sacred is held in contempt.” Not only “our holy religion but human society itself is plunged into an indescribable state of chaos and misery”, it said.
Optimism lay behind these bleak pronouncements, however. As John O’Malley reports in his splendid new book, ecumenical councils had been commonplace during the medieval era; being staged, on average, every 40 years. And yet more than three centuries had now passed since the momentous meetings at Trent held between 1545 and 1563. Perhaps, O’Malley suggests, the Catholic world had held fast to the idea that Trent had resolved everything, or perhaps popes were nervous about what a new council might have to say about the papacy’s role.
By the mid-19th century, everything had changed. The papacy’s popularity was booming, the challenges to Catholic values and assumptions could scarcely have been more obvious, and Pius IX seems to have been confident that a council would be a triumph.
O’Malley ably sketches the context of Vatican I. The tides of Enlightenment and the cataclysm of revolution had, in a strange way, done much to energise Catholicism. In the late 18th century, the “vast majority of Catholic bishops were proud of their local traditions, happy with relative autonomy from Rome, and jealous of their prerogatives”. A few decades later, a Church under siege was much more amenable to the notion of an assertive papacy.
The spectre of modernity, with its talk of religious liberty, separation of Church and state, and the joys of secularism, likewise encouraged a sense of Catholic uniqueness. It was not so hard for many Catholics to subscribe to the logic of the 1864 Syllabus of Errors and its refusal to accept “that the Roman pontiff can reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation”. Such pronouncements, as O’Malley puts it, “handed the secular press an ideal whipping boy” but they reflected a strong current of Catholic opinion.
With the cause of Italian unification coming to fruition, and with the papacy’s position in Italy under threat, a council seemed like an excellent idea, especially if it could define the potential keystone of papal authority and prestige: infallibility. This had long been a topic of discussion but it gathered fresh momentum in the post-revolutionary era.
The precise nature, and extent, of papal infallibility was contested, of course, and figures such as Ignaz von Döllinger offered spirited resistance to the fundamental concept. These tensions were made abundantly clear during the sessions at Vatican I (held between December 1869 and July 1870), but O’Malley rightly senses “an inevitability about how the council turned out”.
O’Malley readily admits that grumbles about the council being “manipulated by the pope … did not lack credibility” and Pius’s “blatant partisanship” can hardly be denied. At Trent, the pope had appointed only a handful of the council’s official theologians, but at Vatican I they were all hand-picked.
The workings of the Council were also carefully arranged since, as O’Malley puts it, “anyone with the slightest experience of meetings knows that those who control the procedure control the meeting”.
For all that, discussion was open and vigorous, so “whatever reservations one might have about Vatican Council I, its freedom should not be one of them.”
We learn that the pretence of secret proceedings was shattered by the steady stream of gossip and leaks to the press; that the Roman nobility went out of their way to offer lavish entertainment to delegates; and that the acoustics of the cavernous Church of Sant’Apollinare made hearing speeches inordinately difficult. The council was sometimes characterised by “boredom and frustration” but sometimes inspired intrigue: Lord Acton sent his almost daily reports to Döllinger in the diplomatic pouch of the Bavarian ambassador because he feared interception by the papal police.
The council’s endorsement of papal infallibility would help push the Church towards a “new and significantly more pope-centred mode”. This transformation did not derive from the explicit assertion of papal infallibility in rulings on articles of faith (this has hardly ever happened), so those who shared the dreams of William George Ward – to receive an infallible papal encyclical every morning along with his copy of the Times – would be disappointed. It was more about the enshrining of a principle and this, along with the staggering expansion of papal claims to primacy over the coming century and beyond, would become, according to one’s ecclesial tastes, an abiding source of comfort or consternation.
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