The Historical Background of Vatican I

Nineteenth century Christianity fascinates me. So much changed in this momentous century, and much of it for the worse. For the most part what I’ve looked at historically are effects of secularization on Protestantism–e.g., the increasing rationalism of mainstream Reformed theology in reaction to the rising tide of romanticism, and the extreme dumbing-down effects of what Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization of American Christianity.”Recently, though, I’ve begun to get interested in the story of Catholicism during the 19th century. I’ve already posted a few things on this subject, and as I run across more interesting materials I’ll continue that trend. For now, the following are my notes from Joseph A. Burgess, “The Historical Background of Vatican I,” in Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VI (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980).

+ Burgess proposes the following theme for organizing the large theme of “the historical background of Vatican I”: “…Roman Catholic history from 1789 to 1870 is dominated by the Roman Catholic reaction to the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848. Disaster was the occasion for retrenchment; one extreme produced its opposite” (pg. 288). Throughout the 19th century, as a reaction to the revolutions, there was an increasing centralization of authority in the Catholic Church.

+ The “independent infallibility” of the pope was “generally rejected” by Catholics at the outset of the 19th century, “except for most of Italy and Spain and isolated figures such as de Maistre” (ibid.).

+ Popes Pius VI (1775-1779), Pius VII (1800-1823), and Pius IX (1846-1878) were seen as martyrs: “The more the pope lost his temporal authority, the greater the stress on his spiritual authority” (pg. 289).

+ The French Revolution destroyed the political system that supported Gallicanism–Rome made a concordat with Napoleon in 1801 which let Rome essentially re-build the French Church from scratch, reestablishing it under the pope.

+ In Germany, the State increasingly ran the Church, leaving Catholics looking to a vision of a powerful, infallible pope to save them (pg. 290).

+ The centralization of Roman power was greatly aided by faster transportation methods enabling quicker communication with and access to Rome. Rome took a greater role as time passed, and arguments for infallibility started being propagated far and wide by the press, new Sees and schools, and revised liturgies. Papal nuncios began more expressly to control bishops; Pus VII restored the Inquisition, which passed a death sentences as late as 1816 and was still active in 1856. In 1869 Pius IX canonized the notorious inquisitor Pedro Arbues. Numerous provincial councils were used to promote infallibility, and these became “evidence” for the doctrine at Vatican I in 1870.

+ Gregory XVI’s encyclical Miraris vos (1832) was, as Burgess opines, a provincially Italian condemnation of liberty of conscience:”(But see my post On Interpreting Documents Without Awareness of Broader Context for a different take on the encyclical.)”:

+ The Jesuits were restored as an order in 1814 as part of the Catholic reaction to the French Revolution. They were very die hard for the notion of papal infallibility, and “Jesuit” became a slur word used against the majority at Vatican I

+ 1854: Pope Pius IX alone defines the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary–this was a significant movement toward Vatican I

+ Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors appears in 1864; apparently an “attempt to dominate”

+ Gregory XVI and Pius IX carefully loaded the episcopate with pro-infallibility men; ex., all but 81 of 739 bishops alive in 1869 were personally appointed by Pius IX!

+ Neo-Thomism came to dominate Catholic intellectual life: “According to this way of thinking, truth tends to be clear and static; there is little place for change and historical thinking. To know God is to know the doctrines which he has revealed. Where can these doctrines be found? The answer is: in Scripture and Tradition, and the Roman Catolic Church preserves and teaches these doctrines” (pg. 274).

+ “Metaphysics of sovereignty” developed by de Maistre and Lammenais: “absolute monarchy was instituted by God. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, particularly as it is focused in papal primacy and infallibility, is the guarantee of all authority. Since authorities are collapsing and false authorities abound, an emergency situation exists; the Church can only survive if the pope has the effective competence to decide whatever is needed for the sake of unity” (pg. 295).

+ The view of papal infallibility by the time of Vatican I was the simple mirror image of the liberal views of, e.g., Rousseau

+ Burgess the Lutheran summarizes his argument by citing the words of H. Pottmeyer: “to make the emergency solution developed at Vatican I into a timeless model for church structure is to fail to understand the historical context of Vatican I” (pg. 296).

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