Vatican I, Pius IX, and the problem of ultramontanism

John W. O’Malley’s new history of the First Vatican Council provides an impartial and detailed account that offers both historical context and insight into the situation in 2018.

Contemporary painting (c. 1870) of First Vatican Council. []

In reading Church history—and still more so in writing it—one must guard against the temptation of viewing everything through the prism of the present. Still, such a reading cannot be avoided entirely, and so as I was enjoying this splendid new book by the doyen of Church historians in this country, I found myself occasionally casting sidelong glances at the popular revolt brewing around the current pope and his curial hangers-on in the midst of a crisis far graver and more widespread than anything imagined by Catholics of the nineteenth century.

O’Malley, a Jesuit teaching at Georgetown University, has authored recent books on the Councils of Trent and Vatican II. O’Malley has now filled a gap I lamented when, earlier this year on CWR, I reviewed the late John Quinn’s rather short book on Vatican I, noting my amazement that Vatican I has been largely neglected. That gap has now been filled by a scholar of the first rank who tells a complex history with lucidity, serenity, and grace.

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church has a rather unique structure: only one of its five chapters (the final chapter) is directly focused on the Council itself. Though O’Malley does not say so explicitly, I think there are two reasons for this: the longue durée method pioneered in French historiography which looks expansively at the “causes” of historical events, a method especially important here for so much of Vatican I is simply incomprehensible without understanding the French Revolution a century before. Second, the First Vatican Council barely lasted seven months, whereas the debates leading up to it ran for well over a century and brought in major players—politicians, churchmen, and scholars alike—in England, France, and the Italian and German lands then being united into their respective nation-states, a process itself playing no small part in shaping the Council.

In the wrong hands, Church history can often descend into apologetics where one side is portrayed as heretics whose lives and works are traduced in the most lurid ways. The other side, of course, has its “heroic” lives and works rendered in hagiographical terms. O’Malley entirely resists these tendencies, giving succinct, impartial renderings of everyone who crosses his stage—arch-reactionaries, liberals, and many in between, offering enough context to each without overwhelming the reader. He also manages some fine sketches of second- and third-tier players in this drama, focusing not just on big names—Joseph de Maistre or Henry Manning, say—but on bishops from Ireland, Canada, and the United States who played often overlooked roles at the Council.

The other problem with some versions of Church history comes in failing to account, as I always say to my students, for the fact that the Church, like Christ, is dyophysite: divine and human. Some Catholics write history in a monophysite fashion, treating everything as somehow serenely orchestrated by God. Such history bleeds out human agency and personality, a major failing that O’Malley entirely avoids by paying detailed attention to who was on which commission determining what set of rules would govern the Council, and what the implications of such political machinations were.

Moreover, some of the most revealing parts of his history come when he pays attention to such seemingly trivial details as how often it rained in Rome during the Council, how hot it was (there was, it turns out, a major early heatwave in 1870, making the city utterly unbearable for nearly two months in an era before electric fans and air conditioners), how many bishops from poorer regions had shabby accommodations and no transportation to St. Peter’s, meaning they had to hoof it to each session and then sit there dripping with sweat and rain; and how atrocious the acoustics were in the north transept of the Basilica, where Pius IX insisted on hosting sessions even though everyone hated the endless strain of trying to hear the debates while other nearby churches, with better acoustics, sat empty. In addition, nobody would say how long the Council might run. So the result was a lot of men exhausted by not being able to sleep at night due to heat and mosquitos, and worn down by constantly straining to follow debates in Latin, some of which consisted in little more than man after man getting up to repeat the same tedious points dozens of his colleagues had already made. This was not a debate but Chinese water torture in fancy dress.

Add to this potent brew the fact that the French, Austrians, Italians, and Germans were all involved in various imperial projects of consolidation, score-settling, and territorial rearrangement, especially on the Italian peninsula. This revolutionary environment left many of the ultramontane party suffering from what I would call clear cases of hysteria: their capacity for careful reason and sober theology were very nearly overwhelmed by these traumatic “memories” of the damage done to the Church by the French and 1848 revolutions, and by the various European enlightenments, all of them derided under the heading “rationalism”. Joseph de Maistre, as I’ve shown elsewhere, was in the vanguard of whipping up the belief among churchmen that they were facing nothing less than the destruction not just of the Church but of human civilization. The only way to prevent such utter chaos was to submit to an absolute sovereign. For Maistre, absolute sovereignty presupposed infallibility, and only one of the many monarchs he favored (he spent fourteen years as ambassador of the king of Sardinia to the Russian Tsar Alexander I) would enjoy both characteristics: the pope. Many at Vatican I agreed that they must find just such a “guarantor of absolute certainty” as O’Malley puts it (p.197).

The pope, then, was naïvely thought to be this guarantor, the apparent antidote to total civilizational collapse and absolute chaos. For us it is perhaps hard to imagine this sense of emergency, and the one quibble I would raise with O’Malley’s book is whether he downplays this to some extent. It is, I suppose, hard to know where to draw the line between utterly dismissing, or else being sucked into, the panicky polemics of Maistre, whose hysterical style seems sometimes to veer into the apocalyptic.

But that sense of apocalypse did have very real effects on the Council. As the likelihood of war between France and Germany grew throughout the spring of 1870, those pushing for a definition of papal infallibility grew scared that events might outrun them and the Council unable to get the deed done in time. Already, given the above conditions, bishops had begun drifting home so that, O’Malley tells us, before the final vote in July nearly a quarter of them were gone. Some left out of frustration, some to escape the war, but most did so to avoid a divisive non placet vote on the final document. (An earlier vote on a draft, with a record 88 votes against—and still others voting to modify the schema—had enraged a petulant Pius IX who coined a series of labels and scornful sarcastic slogans to deride individual members of the minority, some of whom promptly left to avoid any more abuse.)

So, sensing that their opportunity was slipping from their grasp, the extreme ultramontane party performed one of the dastardly tricks one sometimes finds in the history of Councils: without warning they dramatically re-arranged the agenda on April 29th so that infallibility, far down the list (to be found in a sub-section of the eleventh of fifteen chapters) in the wide-ranging schema on the Church that was being discussed, was suddenly yanked out and given a place all of its own. All other issues were abandoned, and papal infallibility and jurisdiction were the sole agenda items, sucking all the oxygen out of the Council from then until July when they were voted upon right before the remaining bishops fled Rome to avoid the Franco-Prussian War which broke out on the 19th. O’Malley shows how they got away with procedural chicanery by quoting Pius IX’s open threat to dissolve the Council and define infallibility and jurisdiction on his own, much as he had done in 1854 with the Immaculate Conception. The overall impression is not one of a council of divines but of a hostage situation.

Numerous phenomena in the ante-conciliar history narrated so well by O’Malley’s first four chapters stood out to me in reading this book in 2018, all of them grouped under what I would call the promise and perils of papal populism. The earliest come under popes Pius VI and VII. As various movements—usually called Gallicanism and Josephism—were building in France and Austria respectively, Pope Pius VI travelled to Vienna to meet Emperor Joseph II in 1782, while Pius VII travelled to Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804. Both trips sought to bolster a very weakened papacy but neither trip aided the papacy’s political standing vis-à-vis other monarchs of Europe. There was, however, a curious side-effect: the crowds. Both popes got widespread welcomes along the routes to Vienna and Paris. Both popes, and their apologists, defenders, and savvy successors, quickly learned the lesson that populist movements could be ruthlessly exploited to elevate a papacy that was, at the end of the eighteenth century, extremely weak and declining fast.

Two other major developments at the grassroots were also noted by successive popes, and exploited by them as well: increased liturgical centralization and Romanization, especially in France where a new generation of bishops, many of them appointed by Pius VII under duress from Napoleon, decided to root out ancient local liturgical texts and practices and replace the lot with the Roman missal. This was neither imposed nor, for a time, even supported by Rome but came from the bottom up by some bishops and people ostentatiously showing their support for Pius against perceived enemies like Napoleon.

Similar populist dynamics were exploited in 1854 when the Immaculate Conception was defined by Pius IX, a definition, as I have remarked elsewhere, having nothing to do with any serious crisis of Marian devotion or doctrine—for there was none—and everything to do with centralizing papal authority in a singular way, which Vatican I went on to do a scant sixteen years later when it defined the pope as having universal jurisdiction and infallibility by virtue of his office, not his person (one of the few concessions the minority were successful in pushing through). All these earlier events, together now with the Council itself, would, O’Malley says in his conclusion, lead to “a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer.” Such believers were led by the hierarchs to think that “personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue” (p.240).

Popes rewarded this new so-called virtue with many trinkets produced by ever expanding technology, which increased their presence in the Catholic imaginary. Their oleographs came to be found in almost every home, their words increasingly printed and read around the world. O’Malley runs the numbers and confirms what other historians—Owen Chadwick, Eamon Duffy, and John Pollard—have argued: the popes, losing their territories, claim for themselves a new role as teacher of the nations. Thus Pius VII (r. 1800-1823) published precisely one encyclical; Pius IX (1846-78) published thirty-eight; and Leo XIII (1878-1903) seventy-five. And, of course, their successors since then have published not just scores of encyclicals but all manner of documents—exhortations, homilies, letters, chirographs, apostolic constitutions—at ever increasing length ranging over an exhausting array of topics.

The net effect of all this, O’Malley concludes, is to leave as an open question: “to what extent is the Catholic Church ultramontane today”? Today more than ever we are realizing the answer is: Too much. We are also realizing that the context of emergency and revolution from outside the Church is long gone. But the changes wrought in that context are with us still, adding immeasurably to the damage done in this long emergency within the Church of 2018 as an unaccountable pope is allowed, as a result of Vatican I, to sit in solipsistic splendor and do nothing except shamelessly tell the rest of us to be silent about the squalor.

If O’Malley’s superb history has lessons for us today, it is that papal supremacy and Roman centralization were strongly aided and often driven by the grassroots. So it is up to the grassroots of 2018 to start a new movement towards a much more modest, far less domineering and destructive papacy for—as one of the great English opponents of the council, Lord Acton, famously said, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church
by John W. O’Malley
Harvard University Press, 2018
Hardover, 307 pages

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Good essay. The new writing obsession of Popes also hides them…protects them from interpersonal conflict as they would have if they were daily rebuking e.g. a Bishop by Facetime or by Skype for his having a 40% hookup rate in a Catholic college in his diocese helped by coed dorm leniencies. Hence John Paul II managed to insulate himself even from a conflict with the head of the Legion of Christ…even from an entire crisis of sex abuse. He was instead…writing great things.

  2. At the beginning, DeVille wisely reminds readers of history not to view the past through the lens of the present, and then compliments O’Malley for avoiding this trap. But, then, at the end DeVille seems to eyeball papal centralization through the lens of today—and a modern-day pope seemingly self-exempted from accountable behavior in our Scandal of 2018.

    Three responses:

    First, the meaning of “papal infallibility”. This ultramontanists wanted a papacy empowered to govern dogma plus much else in the politics of Europe. On the other hand, the political/ theological liberals wanted a house-broken papacy fully in step with ambulatory flow of history. Better than a middle ground, the final and precise definition of the pope’s role within the infallibility of a Church—which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—is a papal infallibility understood as protection under exact conditions of the deposit of faith (and morals), neither a license for doctrinal inventiveness nor for manipulation in the secular domain.

    Second, the earlier Marian dogma of the Assumption (1854) is better portrayed not as a political reaction to French revolution and Napoleon, but as a bold proclamation rising above the broader naturalism and materialism of the 19th century (worse than the “loss of territory”). Very appropriate then, and prescient in light of today’s gangrenous gender theory which is now eating at the very nature of the family and at all levels even the (lavender-mafia infested) Church itself.

    And third, yes, a sense of exaggerated centralization (and popolatry) is in some parts a problem today. Disrupted by military invasion, the Council left unfinished the collegiality of bishops—picked up by the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). As Pope Pius XI put it in 1870: “. . . (We) do suspend [not adjourn] the same until some more convenient and appropriate time, to be assigned by this Apostolic See praying God, the author and defender of His Church. . . ” (Bull of Oct. 20, 1870).

  3. This sounds very much like a must read book, especially from your discussion of what went on at the council, for a serious consideration whether the conciliar decree expressed the moral unanimity of the Church’s bishops, acting without constraint. Then, of course, there is the broader question of whether it could even be considered to be an ecumenical council since its teaching was not accepted by all of the Christian faithful, meaning at least the Orthodox as well as Catholics, and maybe, pace Apostolicae Curae, also the Anglicans, anyway. See the Chieti declaration, n. 18, if memory serves.

  4. Good comment by Peter Beaulieu (see above).
    Professor DeVille dismisses a view of history as “somehow serenely orchestrated by God.”
    The Petrine Office caries a great deal of doctrinal and jurisdictional authority. When an occasional rogue plops down in the Chair of Peter that authority may seem a frightening thing, prompting us to want to tip over the Chair. Do not be afraid. There is this thing called Divine Providence. That’s what I’m going with.

  5. I always wonder how serenely folk can endorse academic works without first verifying all details of the work, independently.

    Secondly, as a southern boy who was raised with no AC, far higher heat and far more mosquitos than Rome ever dreamed of having, am remarkably amused by how slanted, by modern convenience dependency, and how just horrible (gasp!) it must have been for everyone, both the author and reviewer seem to be. It was what it was, and there was no other world to which one could flee. You lived then as you live now. You simply lived.

    And bishops from smaller locals in poorer areas were far more accustomed to long walks, oppressive heat, AND mosquitos, and would have been the very LAST to drop out.

    When stuff this obvious escapes attention, I can only imagine what other presuppositions slant this history in an entirely pre-determined outcome way.

    • Bob, Next I expect an analysis about why the Council of Nicaea was also questionable because no air conditioning, no running water, no airlines to take people to the Council.

    • So true. One can only wonder how much of modern “history” generally overall is likewise incompetent due to being likewise tainted by such “chronological snobbery” imagining how superior we are to those in the past at whom we love looking down our long, pretentiously “superior” noses, God save us. I’m often amazed at how gullible we are in imagining we can succeed in putting our tiny little “god” in cute little theological boxes we pretend will prevent him from escaping! As one has said, our “god” is too small when we stupidly imagine such contrivances can affect omnipotent omnipresence, blindly loving fantastic, incompetent delusions without a shred of God’s inScripturated Word untwisted for support!
      True faith rather comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (αρα η πιστις εξ ακοης η δε ακοη δια ρηματος χριστου Romans 10:17), and God even uses that which doesn’t exist to confound what does! Soli Deo gloria!
      1Corinthians 1:20-31 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21  For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.  22  Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom:  23  but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness;  24  but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.  25  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  26  For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:  27  but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and GOD CHOSE the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong;  28  and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and THE THINGS THAT ARE NOT, THAT HE MIGHT BRING TO NOUGHT THE THINGS THAT ARE:  29  that no flesh should glory before God.  30  But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption:  31  that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

  6. “…root out ancient local liturgical texts and practices…”

    Not exactly. When the dioceses of France adopted the Roman Rite, largely under the influence of Dom Gueranger, they finally got rid of NEO-Gallican liturgies largely concocted in the 18th century.

  7. The tone of this article is very disappointing. There is such a thing as an unhealthy ultra-montanism. But papal infallibility and the universal jurisdiction of the pope are real things. Does the author deny this? He may feel uncomfortable with the background actions of some of the players at Vatican I, but he gives the impression of denying the basis of the dogmatic definitions of this Council, which unlike Vatican II actually did define dogmas. It is a shame Vatican I never got to finish its work, but the careful and prudent definition (“define” means ‘set limits to’) of papal infallibility is the best possible remedy to Bergoglio’s understanding of the papacy (or at least his personal papacy) as being a sort of all-powerful oracle. Vatican I makes it very clear that the charism of infallibility does not mean the pope receives “new revelation”.

  8. The absolutism and universalism of Vatican I makes sense in light of the liberalism and nationalism occurring at that time in history. The Holy Roman Church had to centralize and solidify itself to compete with and counter movements that were a threat to the Catholic Church and faith. There was thus a need for an official declaration of Papal infallibility and primacy. The second point which the writer makes at the end of the article about the threat today of centralized Papal power really applies to the person who is now holding the office and those who support him. The best defense against false belief in this situation is the Rule of Faith based upon divine revelation and truth which no one regardless of their position in the Church can contradict.

  9. If defining the Immaculate Conception arose merely out of Pius IX’s wish to “centralize papal authority” by “exploiting populist dynamics”, how do you explain Our Lady’s going to the trouble of defining HERSELF to St Bernadette in Lourdes as the Immaculate Conception? This was four years after Pius’s proclamation of the dogma, and Bernadette was a barely literate girl of 14 who in her remote mountain village could never have heard of it, much less made it up by herself.

  10. This article and the book it reviews are execrable distortions.
    The doctrines of infallibility and universal jurisdiction have been held by the Church from the beginning (i.e. from Christ Our Lord). They were given definition by Pius IX and Vatican II.
    It is utterly shameful to attribute the Papal definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to some kind of populist political calculations.
    I heard many of these tired, discreditable and impious arguments DeVille advances during the run-up to Vatican II. They are part of what got us to the mess we’re in today

  11. A good description of conditions during Vatican I. From a political view, a few notes. Europe was evolving a process that began at the Congress of Vienna. Liberals, from the mundane to the radical like Marx, influenced change. France oriented to the secular. Germany united under the hegemony of Prussia and Italy under Garibaldi and Mazzoni seized the Papal States. Russia was a cauldron of unrest. Oddly enough, Pius IX was elected as a rather pragmatic liberal reformer. Events appear to have driven him to the right of the spectrum. Many of his positions on “modernism” were ill defined and his theology, even if mostly correct, was presented in an overbearing manner, or even unnecessary. Infallibility led to the split with the Old Catholics and probably contributed to the split of the Polish National Church. It was well the Pope called for suspension to a more favorable time, even if it was nine decades later.

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