Vatican I: Loss and Gain in the Governance of the Catholic Church

Let us begin by reminding ourselves of three basic points that are pertinent to our topic. First, every decision is a choice between two goods. Otherwise, we would not have to go through the process of decision-making. This means decisions seem almost by definition to entail some measure of loss.

Second, every decision is subject to the law of unintended consequences. Decisions enter into the give-and-take of the historical process and get mauled by it. When we make a decision, we cannot foresee all the contingencies that will affect how it later fares.

Third, many decisions entail implications of which we are not aware at the time, which means that sometimes we are not doing what we think we are doing.

The First Vatican Council issued only two decrees, the first, Dei Filius, on the relationship between faith and reason, and the second, Pastor Aeternus, on papal primacy and infallibility. Although it is not obvious, both decrees were intended as statements against the modern world, that is, the world that came into being in the wake of the French Revolution. Bishops who voted for Pastor Aeternus, for instance, had solid theological reasons for doing so, but some of them surely also felt they were voting for monarchy and against liberty, equality, and fraternity.

At the opening of the council, the Preparatory Commission submitted to the bishops a fifteen-chapter decree on the Church, in which chapter 9 dealt with the infallibility of the Church, not of the papacy, and chapter 11 dealt with the primacy of the Roman pontiff. Pastor Aeternus was conceived as pertaining to chapter 11, but it added papal infallibility to it. The emergence of a separate, free-standing document that was Pastor Aeternus, was not foreseen when the Council convened and was the result of pressures arising in the Council as it preceded. Nor was a definition of papal infallibility foreseen.

We need to remember than the first three of the four chapters of Pastor Aeternus deal with papal primacy. Although bishops disagreed about certain details in them, they voted unanimously to approve them. It was over the fourth, the chapter on infallibility, that serious disagreement arose.

We need to put Pastor Aeternus in long-range perspective. From the earliest centuries of the Church, its governance was both collegial and hierarchical. In most cities of the Roman Empire, bishops emerged no later than the early second century as leaders of their communities, overseeing other ministers such as deacons and presbyters. With scriptural justification from the Council of Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles, they sometimes called those ministers together in Councils, that is, Synods, to deal in collegial fashion with issues that had arisen in their cities. They also sometimes joined in colleagueship with other bishops of the vicinity to deal with issues of wider import.

No later than the third century, bishops were paying special deference to the opinions of the bishop of Rome, and once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, the deference became more pronounced, especially in the West. A new level of hierarchical structure had thus been reached. Nonetheless, churches continued to act as self-governing institutions under the local bishop.

Although this pattern continued up to the time of Vatican I, the popes began in the eleventh century to demand a much greater authority especially over secular rulers but also over bishops. They met with considerable resistance, but they were by and large successful as the centuries progressed, a feature of Church governance that markedly distinguishes the second millennium of the Church’s history from the first.

This means that Pastor Aeternus was an intensification of a centralizing process that had long been in the making. Nonetheless, popes, bishops, and secular rulers continued to recognize Church-wide councils as the ultimate authority in the Church. Bishops who objected to the wording of chapter 4 on infallibility feared that it put the authority of Ecumenical Councils in jeopardy.

What is to be said, then, about loss and gain in papal governance of the Church as a result of Vatican I? If we take the title strictly, I think we can say that the Council was close to a hundred percent gain for the papacy. For the first time since the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century, a Council was able to make a formal statement concerning the primacy of the Roman pontiff over all other bishops. It was able, moreover, for the very first time in the history of the Church to define that when, under certain conditions, the pope speaks, he speaks infallibly. That sounds to me like gain for the papacy, pure and simple.

But we can have a much more fruitful discussion if we strike the word papal from our title, and talk simply about loss and gain for the governance of the Church—or, maybe better, loss and gain for the general well-being of the Church.

Let us begin on a positive note. The centralizing process in Church governance of which Vatican I is a high point occurred in tandem with the same process in the secular sphere. The ecclesiastical process of centralization seems almost inevitable, and I think we can even say that it was required by the culture in which we live. To that extent, at least, the centralization is a gain.

Pastor Aeternus, moreover, called Catholics out of their provincialism into a more expansive view of the Church. It helped them attain a greater sense of belonging to an institution that transcended national boundaries, an institution that at least in its aspirations extended to the ends of the earth. For that reason, the Church included in its membership persons of all races, colors, and cultures. Awareness of that reality should have reduced racial, national, and cultural prejudices among Catholics, but the evidence unfortunately does not support such an inference. Nonetheless, in principle a reduction of prejudice was there.

This was counter-cultural. The nineteenth-century marked the great expansion of an almost rabid nationalism, and Catholics were caught up in it. In some places, however, it took an anti-Catholic turn, most notably in Germany in Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. Although German bishops after the Council found themselves on the defensive in justifying Pastor Aeternus against Bismarck’s attack on it, the decree provided them with a rallying point in the face of Bismarck’s persecution of the Church.

To put such positive considerations in the most general perspective, we can say that the decree shored up the authority of the papacy, badly damaged in the eighteenth century, so that in the modern world it could speak and act with an authority that was clear, independent, and wide-lensed. The loss of Rome and of the Papal States between 1860 and 1870 helped eventually to foster the broad, long-ranged, and balanced vision that we attribute to the modern papacy;

Mention of the loss of the States brings us face to face with a crucial factor we must take into account in assessing lose and gain in the governance of the Church. That is, it is virtually impossible to disentangle a Council’s impact from the cultural and socio-political context in which it happened. We again remind ourselves: once concluded, a council has no control over how it is interpreted and over what its repercussions might be. A Council’s decisions are reshaped and refashioned according to the milieu in which they are received.

Regarding the chapters on papal primacy in Pastor Aeternus, the unification of Italy, completed with the seizure of Rome in 1870, is an excellent case to illustrate the point. When the new Kingdom of Italy absorbed into itself the other political units in Italy, the concordats the Holy See had made with them became dead letters. Those concordats had all given the governments a say in the appointment of bishops.

All at once, Pope Pius IX found that he had a free hand, in that regard, and between October 1871, and the following May he chose 102 bishops, filling close to half the sees in Italy. No pope had ever had such an opportunity. What happened in Italy was a harbinger of things to come. When in 1905, the French government unilaterally abrogated the Concordat of 1801, Pope Pius X denounced the act but found himself free from restraint in nominating French bishops. And so it went until in 1975, when upon the death of Franco, King Juan Carlos renounced the right of the Spanish government to propose episcopal candidates.

These events owed nothing to Pastor Aeternus, but there can be no doubt that they resulted in an extremely important expansion of the field in which the primacy defined in that document was now exercised. The events gave the popes power to shape the world-wide episcopacy that they had never had before. This happened after Pastor Aeternus, but it did not happen because of it.

How loss? How gain? The gain is more obvious and is often celebrated. Now the Church is finally free of the state, finally free of political machinations in the choice of bishops, free from a constraint that had long been operative. Since the eleventh century, popes had campaigned for the libertas ecclesiae, the liberty of the Church. Now they had finally attained that goal.

The bishops at Vatican I would have been appalled by the idea that Pastor Aeternus could be construed as in any way advancing the separation of Church and state. The Council was in fact once again poised to condemn it and would almost certainly have done so had it been able to complete its agenda. For sure, the decree did not itself directly impact that development, but by so emphatically highlighting the pope’s authority to govern the Church, it was unwittingly consonant with it. This change is generally counted as gain.

Any loss? Perhaps. This development made the process for the choice of bishops exclusively clerical. This was new. Political advantage invariably figured in the episcopal nominations governments proposed to the Holy See. Even so, rulers more often than we might expect took seriously their religious responsibilities and sometimes had a better grasp of what was needed than did the popes, who always had the right to reject candidates. Whatever were the advantages and disadvantages of that way of proceeding, they are now questions of only historical interest because there is no way to bring it back.

Nonetheless, what was lost was an effective lay voice in this extraordinarily important aspect of Church governance. Generally speaking, moreover, the papacies of the modern era are longer than in the past, which means popes have greater opportunity to make over the episcopacy in their own image and likeness. This might be gain. But the basic question remains: is an exclusively clerical process the best way to proceed in today’s world? That is a question that the events of the past few weeks in American Catholicism have snatched out of the wooded groves of academe and emphatically set it down in the public square.

In any case, in this way and in others, Pastor Aeternus was just one factor in promoting an ever more vivid pope-consciousness among Catholics around the world. Few are the Catholics today who do not know that the current pope is named Francis. This is new. It began to take off with Pope Pius IX, the pope of Vatican I. The laying of the Atlantic cable and the invention of photography and cheap newspaper print made him better known to more people than any other pope in history. Since then radio, television, other electronic media, and jet travel have made popes international celebrities.

This acute pope-awareness helped foster the idea, suggested indeed by Pastor Aeternus, that the Vatican is the source from which everything flows rather than the center where everything comes together. Pastor Aeternus injected a new vitality into the congregations of the Roman Curia, and they began to publish decrees and directives in greater number than ever before, a phenomenon particularly characteristic of the Holy Office.

This oversight had decided advantages in scuttling potential problems in their infancy and in other ways safeguarding the unity of the Church. It also functioned as a court of appeals for theologians and others who needed protection from arbitrary bishops. It, in tandem with society at large, however, also contributed to a certain homogenization and to a curtailing of local initiatives. If it sometimes helped theologians in distress, it also acted as an overzealous censor of them.

The Council of Trent legislated as one of the principal planks in its reform of the Church that bishops hold a local council every year. Vatican I had nothing to say about such councils, but the chapters on the primacy of Pastor Aeternus certainly did not forbid them. Nonetheless, the growing persuasion that from the papacy all decisions flowed acted as a damper on them. The American case is typical. Between 1791 and 1875, Baltimore hosted seven local, provincial, and plenary (country-wide) Councils. None after that except for a diocesan Council under Cardinal Gibbons in 1884. Local Councils did not entirely die out in the Church after Vatican I, but they were few in number and functioned with decreased prestige.

Pastor Aeternus in its totality, but especially chapter 4 on infallibility, gave rise to the persuasion that it made even future Ecumenical Councils superfluous. Now the pope could and should make all decisions—the Vatican was the source from which everything flowed. As with local councils, Pastor Aeternus said not a word about Ecumenical Councils, and the matter had never been explicitly debated on the floor of the Council. Nonetheless, some of the most influential promoters of infallibility, most notably Count Joseph de Maistre, despised deliberative bodies of any sort, including Councils, and saw an infallible pope with untrammeled monarchical powers as the antidote to them. Such a papacy was the only institution that could save Western civilization. Many bishops at the Council had been influenced by de Maistre, but just how many shared his idea about Councils is uncertain.

At Vatican I, some twenty percent of the bishops objected to chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus. Although they were small in number, they were big in prestige, representing the most important sees in the Church—Paris, Mainz, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Turin, and Milan, to say nothing of two of the most important American sees at the time, Cincinnati and Saint Louis.

The minority bishops held a spectrum of views on infallibility, but I think they all would probably have subscribed to Bossuet’s explanation of article four in the Gallican Articles: “It is, therefore, the full and supreme and universal authority of the Catholic church that supplies what is lacking even in the Roman church.” What those bishops feared about the wording of Pastor Aeternus was that it took no account of the ancient collegial component in Church governance and in fact seemed to render it void.

They objected to the wording of chapter 4 it seemed to say that papal infallibility functioned independently of the Church at large, or, as they put it, the head acted as severed from the body, completely bypassing the collegial tradition. They were unsuccessful in having the wording changed, which resulted in their departure before the final vote on Pastor Aeternus.

Since it is in Councils that the collegial tradition has found its most frequent, obvious, and important instantiation, the minority bishops saw Pastor Aeternus as implicitly discounting that tradition. The persuasion that Vatican I spelled the end of Ecumenical Councils did not, therefore, lack foundation. Papal infallibility seemed to preempt the traditional function of councils to pronounce definitively on matters of divine and apostolic faith.

Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus imbued papal statements, moreover, with a new dignity and doctrinal weight even when they made no claims to infallibility. The definition set in motion a trend in theological method that theologians’ task consisted to a large extent in interpreting papal documents, commenting on them, and on being sure to teach in conformity with them, as the authority attributed to papal documents correlatively increased. This is a remarkable contrast, for instance, with Saint Thomas’ Summa, where papal documents are scarcely mentioned and the subject of papal teaching authority never systematically addressed.

I am not sure whether the change counts as loss or gain, but it certainly counts as significant. This is especially true when we take into consideration the sheer mass of documents emanating from the congregations, from other offices of the Holy See, and from the popes themselves. In 1909, the Holy See began publishing the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which results in a stout volume each year of encyclicals, decrees of the Congregations, and other official documents. This is new.

Papal encyclicals as we know them today are essentially a product of the nineteenth century, and I think a case can be made that their increased frequency is due at least in part to Pastor Aeternus and the success of the ultramontane movement of which Pastor Aeternus was the result. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Pius VII in a pontificate of 23 years published only one encyclical. Pius IX, the pope of the council published 37, and Leo XIII, his successor, published 75.

Moreover, in the twentieth century the Vatican began publishing the popes’ collected speeches, addresses to pilgrims, radio addresses, and similar documents. Those of Pius XI in the early twentieth century amounted to six volumes of some six hundred pages each. Those of his successor, Pius XII, in a pontificate of approximately the same length, amounted to twenty volumes, and those of Paul VI exceeded even that number, which those by those of John Paul II subsequently dwarfed.

Meanwhile, a subtle but extraordinarily important shift had taken place, at least partly as a result of chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus. The popes moved from being primarily judges to being teachers. This resulted, as mentioned, in other teachers becoming commentators on the papal teacher. That development does not relate directly to Church governance, but it is nonetheless another aspect of the new range and degree of authority enjoyed by the modern papacy.

I will close by saying that I take it as axiomatic that good governance results when a healthy balance is achieved in the interaction between center and periphery. If the center becomes too dominant, it loses touch with what is going on in the trenches and becomes stagnant and irrelevant. If the periphery becomes too dominant, the result is at least disarray, maybe chaos, or, in extreme cases, dissolution.

Fortunately, the tradition of the Church that reaches back to the earliest centuries is both hierarchical and collegial. It thus makes provision for both center and periphery. The Church has within its tradition, therefore, the resources to avoid either extreme and to operate as well governed.

Editorial Note: This essay is part of a series on the heritage of Vatican I and the contemporary debates about ultramontanism and Gallicanism. Essays in the series will be appear here as they are published. It was originally delivered as an address at a University of Chicago symposium on Vatican I hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute.


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Featured Image: Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

John W. O’Malley

John W. O’Malley is University Professor of theology at Georgetown University. He is author of Trent: What Happened at the Council, What Happened at Vatican II, and, most recently Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church.