For the last century and a half the Church has been dominated by the papacy. The papacy has always been there, instituted by Our Lord Himself, like the sun in the heavens, but for the last 150 years we have been living in a heatwave. To start with there were a lot of fun times at the beach and impressive tans; then the ice-cream ran out and the hosepipe bans began.
Pious Catholics got into the habit of reading every allocution to the pastry chefs of Umbria as if it were a late addition to the New Testament. Bishops began to resemble middle managers in some unwieldy multinational corporation, hiding their mistakes from head office and always keeping an eye out for the next CEO. This questionable transformation was certainly not the intention – and even more certainly not the teaching – but was undoubtedly the result, of the First Vatican Council (1869-70).
The key document here is Pastor Aeternus, whose 150th anniversary falls this year. It constitutes a solemn definition of Catholic doctrine and includes anathematising dogmatic canons. It is, in short, infallible and the transgression of its condemnations is heresy.
But it also had a historical context: In Pastor Aeternus Blessed Pope Pius IX, who summoned the Council, rode the tide of Ultramontanism that had swept through the 19th century. Before the French Revolution, many Catholics had held to a position known, due to its strength in France, as Gallicanism.
This view held that the pope could not define infallibly except by the “reception” of the whole church, that he could not legislate against the already established inherited local and universal canons, and that ecumenical councils in the last analysis exceed him in authority.
But when the brutal persecution of the Church under the First French Republic came to an end, the deal that ended it was struck between Napoleon and the Pope, and the French Church and its traditional liberties were redesigned by papal fiat. When Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French it was Pius VII who anointed him, not any French bishop; and when the Corsican tyrant got out of hand, it was Pius VII who excommunicated him and whom he imprisoned. As a result, the theory of limited papal government lay in tatters.
Because of these events, and because of the slow-motion recapitulation of the French Revolution acted out by many European countries over the 19th century, the reliance on the papacy and the personal prestige of the pope among Catholics stood at an all-time high in 1870. As a consequence, Pius IX had surprisingly little trouble convincing Vatican I to define that the papacy is of divine institution, that the power of the pope to govern the church is universal and immediate and (most famously of all) that definitions of Catholic doctrine made by the pope are infallible “of themselves and not from the consent of the church”. These teachings, in themselves, are of course beyond dispute. But the papacy that emerged from this moment in history can only be described as, well, Napoleonic.
Pope John Paul II once said that he wanted to “find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. And he once reflected that perhaps, after all, the restraint with which papal power was employed in the first millennium might have certain advantages over the mode in which it has often been exercised in the second.