Vatican Won? The Church Contra Liberalism
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church
By John W. O’Malley
Publisher: Belknap Press (an Imprint of Harvard University Press)
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
We live in an age of informational flattening. Unable to process, or even tame, the proliferation of data that swamps our thinking and harries our minds, we retreat to the facile shibboleth, the convenient label or watchword that allows us to separate, at least for a given moment, the good from the bad, the useful from the superfluous, the true from the false.
This mental trick is on full display in nearly every two-minute news “debate.” Choose a television news program at random and wait for the invited panel to square off over the hot-button issue of the day. Within moments, someone will reconfirm Godwin’s law by indulging in the reductio ad Hitlerum. “You know who else thought like you? The Nazis.” End of debate. Whatever the topic might have been, it is brushed off in a single word.
Catholics are not immune to such argumentative shorthand. True, we may not deploy the Goebbels and Goering epithets as often as our secularist brethren do, but we nevertheless have plenty of one-bullet sparring derringers of our own. Take “Vatican II,” for example. When we use this term, we think we know what we mean, and even those with widely divergent views of the Council probably agree on its rhetorical valence. One is either for Vatican II (ergo, a progressive) or against it (ergo, a traditionalist). But how many Catholics have read the documents of the Second Vatican Council? When we pull the lever of “Vatican II” in conversation, do we know what parts of the historical machinery we are putting into operation?
And yet, even though Vatican II has largely been reduced to a one-dimensional catchphrase, it still seems richly nuanced in comparison with American Catholics’ understanding of its conciliar predecessor, Vatican I. Logically, of course, there must have been such a thing. Super Bowl LIII implies that there have been 52 other Super Bowls. But I wonder how many Catholics have done more than induce that Vatican I happened sometime prior to Vatican II. Beyond that, what do we really know about the First Vatican Council? Can we name the pope who convened it or the controversy that it was called to address?
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church by historian John W. O’Malley is precisely the guide for the conciliarly perplexed. (O’Malley is a conciliar expert of rare distinction, having also written books on the Council of Trent and Vatican II.) Penned in workman’s prose and studded with historical detail, Vatican I is a must-read for Catholics, and everyone else, who want to know what the Church was up to in the years between the French Revolution and the Sexual Revolution. Indeed, Vatican I may reset the terms of the current intra-ecclesial debate. While Vatican II is currently the continental divide separating one Catholic camp from the other, O’Malley reveals that the First Vatican Council (Dec. 1869-Oct. 1870) was actually much more momentous in redefining the very contours of the faith.
The one-word version of Vatican I is “infallibility.” Vatican I determined that the pope’s pronouncements, when made ex cathedra and according to certain other criteria, have the force of the divine afflatus. But why the sudden need to elevate the pope’s directives to the status of Holy Writ? What was it that prompted this, and did the Council really solve the controversies that had given rise to it in the first place?
O’Malley is especially adept at contextualizing the First Vatican Council both theologically and historically. The “long nineteenth century” (from the French Revolution to the First World War) was a time of perennial crisis for Rome. Not only did political upheaval lead to massive losses of Church property as emerging nationalist governments confiscated monasteries, parishes, latifundia, and clerical residences, but the Church as an institution was also under sustained cultural attack. Voltaire was hardly the only wag to make a living out of anti-religious ridicule during the so-called Century of Lights. The tenor of the times was stridently atheistic in many quarters, with Tom Paine and the following generations of anti-ecclesiasts — Charles Darwin, his “bulldog” T.H. Huxley, and novelist Thomas Hardy, to name just a few — turning broad mockery of all things sacred into an increasingly dominant European subculture. To make matters worse, the Papal States, that swath of the Italian peninsula which had been the papacy’s political homeland since before the time of Charlemagne, were coveted by new nationalists such as Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour, all bent on unifying Italy into a nation-state after the fashion of the day.
Most of this mischief was the work of liberalism, that doctrine of liberty bleeding over into license which plagued the world’s institutions with refusal to accept authority or abide by traditions and customs. Liberalism, in the guise of dictators, ideologies, and political and social revolutions, was the greatest enemy the Church had faced since the Ostrogoths. The 13 decades between the fall of the Bastille and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were a long session of Chinese water torture during which the Church lost her ancient privilege, property, and prestige to ever-encroaching liberalism bit by bit by bit.
Ironically — and this is one of the central messages of Vatican I — the papacy tended to respond to the irruption of the liberal menace by becoming, unwittingly, a mirror image of its godless tormentors. As O’Malley lays out, no pope was more determined to be liberalism’s conquering nemesis than Pius IX (r. 1846-1878) and no pope was more liberalism’s twin. In his Syllabus of Errors (1864), for example, Pius IX adopted the aggressively puritanical and dictatorial tactics of the liberals in trying to de-platform unorthodox opinions. As needful as such a move was, it also could not help but parlay with its opponent in adopting the same harsh tone of disapproval that the anti-Church forces used against Rome.
The Syllabus of Errors reveals the tragedy of the modern age — namely, that many of the most seemingly “conservative” tenets are actually the most liberal of all, a product of liberalism’s totalizing episteme washing out nuance among competing views. While there were many in the Church who opposed Pius IX’s stridency, and while their positions often overlapped with those of the actual liberals, much of the disagreement with the ultramontanism, or extreme papalocentrism, espoused by the Vatican and its intellectual Praetorian Guard, the Jesuits, came from those advocating for liberties — not liberalism — that were the product of long centuries of pre-modern negotiation. Pius IX, in other words, who was waging a heroic holy war against the most potent heresies of the day, backed into a pitched battle with cohorts of seeming liberals who were, in fact, much more conservative than the hound in the Palazzo del Quirinale hot on liberalism’s trail.
No group better reflects the anode of this topsy-turvy world, in which the über-liberal anti-liberals do battle with the non-liberal “liberals,” than the Gallicans, that group of French clergy who opposed the amplification of Rome’s power precisely because it was an innovation concocted in defiance of ancient custom. The Gallicans were inclined to elevate the power of the French sovereign over that of the pope in many areas of ecclesial governance. This, naturally, made the Gallicans the Ghibellines to Pius IX’s Guelph brigade. Although arguments for the divine right of Catholic kings were hardly in currency among the liberals, Pius IX, who famously exclaimed, “I, I am tradition! I, I am the Church!” was spinning new bolts of whole cloth in claiming, much as the liberal rulers did, to be the sovereign of a diachronic ecclesial nation-state.
But who can blame the ultramontanists for desiring to crown the pope King of the Church? It is hardly a coincidence that those who had seen republican tyrants with their own eyes — Joseph de Maistre, for one, the French survivor of the liberal Terror whose 1819 masterpiece Du Pape was the opening salvo in the ultramontanist counter-revolution — were keenest on forming a champion, in the person of the pope, to take on the Enlightenment devils mano a mano.
It was thus that Pastor Aeternus, the decree of papal primacy and infallibility and the high-water mark of the ultramontanist flood tide, was passed in July 1870 after a contentious debate during which schism often seemed just around the corner. And not a moment too soon. Just two months later, the Risorgimento armies out to nationalize and secularize the Italian peninsula broke through the walls of Rome and imprisoned Pius IX inside the Vatican, where his successors remain to this day. As part of the same unfolding disaster, Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf would soon target Catholicism as a “foreign power” inimical to the unity of the German people and rule by the nation-state. It was precisely to meet this centripetal government power that Pius IX, and his many supporters across Europe, wished to strengthen the papacy as a countervailing force. Vatican I was to be the shot in the arm steadying the Church in her stand against all the forces that defied papal claims. O’Malley seconds German historian Ulrich Horst’s observation that “the majority at the council acted out of an anxiety-ridden defensiveness that was, above all, fixated on guaranteeing certainty in a world in which the certainties that church and society had taken for granted for centuries were crumbling.”
The pope and the papacy won the battle and got Pastor Aeternus ratified, but the liberals won the war in one of the most lopsided victories of all time. The old certainties still crumbled, and Vatican I was powerless to halt, or even to slow, the demolition. Even the Church herself took a turn operating the wrecking ball. Arguably, Vatican II was the scuttling and scrapping of Vatican I. Once poised to fight the liberal world order, the Church in the 20th century “opened the windows” to it and let liberalism run wild in St. Peter’s Square and beyond. The results are apparent for all to see.
But this still does not mean that the ghost of Vatican I has been completely laid to rest. The fight against liberalism might have ended with the Vatican’s Floyd Patterson knocked out cold and spread eagle before liberalism’s triumphant Sonny Liston, but in many ways Vatican I continues to haunt us even today. After all, as Richard Weaver succinctly reminded us, ideas have consequences. Pope Francis, whose loose lips have already torpedoed a whole flotilla of theological ships, is just one result of turning the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter into a kind of interpreter of the will of God. Many other Catholics besides this writer have learned to rue the day that Pius IX — a good and great pope — aggrandized an office that would eventually be held by a much lesser man than he.
For all of their importance, the documents of Vatican I have passed into a cocoon of silence even thicker than that surrounding the paperwork produced by Vatican II. This is most unfortunate. The Church has fallen on hard times, and the recovery of her honor will necessarily entail retracing the steps that brought us to our current impasse. John W. O’Malley’s Vatican I is an excellent way to begin the voyage of rediscovery that could put the Church, finally, on offense against the scourge of liberalism.
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