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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