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The “Spirit of Vatican I” as a Post-Revolutionary Political Problem Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

The “Spirit of Vatican I” as a Post-Revolutionary Political Problem

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Above: Bishop Karl Josef von Hefele and Bl. Pius IX.

In his fascinating book Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church,[1] John W. O’Malley details the movements, ideas, personalities, and events that coalesced in the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870. My intention here is not to furnish a complete account, much less to offer a tidy theological “solution,” but rather to highlight points from O’Malley’s intricate narration that we can fruitfully bear in mind as we continue respectfully to discuss the problem of “hyperpapalism.”

The Old Paradigm and the Influence of de Maistre

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In O’Malley’s telling, what was broadly called “Gallicanism” points not so much to something peculiarly French as to a common set of beliefs throughout historic Latin Christendom. No one accepted or taught a Papacy with completely arbitrary and totally unchecked power. Rather than Tradition finding its origin in the Papacy and radiating out from there, it was understood that Tradition existed throughout the Church and found its convergent central focus in the Papacy. From thence the Tradition could be sent out, but only having been already received. It was a two-way street: the Tradition flows into Rome just as the Tradition flowed out from Rome.

The revolutionary spirit propelled a dramatic change away from that historic understanding of the Papacy. The new concern was: How can secular forces and revolutionary powers be checked? The answer: by the pope! The pope was an indomitable force standing against the rise of injurious secular forces that sought the Church’s extinction.[2]

Enter Joseph de Maistre, who penned the important text Du Pape (1819) which influenced the Ultramontane movement. On other matters, he was a faithful Catholic Counter-Revolutionary and leader against the hubris of Liberalism in Europe. However, he had become disillusioned by any and all checks on power. All power—secular, and therefore also religious—needed to be reduced to one man, who must be empowered to do anything, and no one could question him at all. Eventually de Maistre’s ideas caught on owing to practical need. What de Maistre did not account for was what happens when his unchecked singular power itself becomes the problem. For him, there’s no recourse.

The Parties at Vatican I

In the mid-nineteenth century, those opposed to an isolated papal infallibility fell into two basic camps.

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There were the so-called Gallicans, who represented the old paradigm that, while one must hold the Bishop of Rome in the highest possible regard, he should not be viewed as a divine oracle. They saw the pope as a centering point of unity with a unique primacy and teaching authority; but they also saw in local variety something of divine origin, something also constitutive of the nature of the Church. The Church does not reduce to the Bishop of Rome, as if the latter could say “L’Église c’est moi.”

Then there were the so-called Liberal Catholics, on board with the Enlightenment and the new ideas of a Liberalism the tenets of which read like a synopsis of American civics: religious liberty, freedom of speech and of the press, republicanism contra monarchy, separation of Church and State. Their agenda was to advance this in the Catholic Church, and they saw the Papacy as a roadblock.

Both of these parties opposed, for different reasons, the ultramontanes—determined anti-Liberals[3]—who were pushing for a new conception of papal infallibility.

Here we must distinguish explicitly between Gallicanism as a kind of general mindset, according to which there are limits to papal authority, and Gallicanism as a definite theory about what those limits are, as expressed in the Gallican articles of 1682. The former has much to commend it; the latter has been excluded as heretical. We might say that the Gallicans were correct in a broad way although wrong on several definite points, whereas the majority at Vatican I was correct about the several definite points defined in Pastor Aeternus but wrong in the broader sense about how to combat liberalism effectively. The traditional Catholic position is then a combination of the definite articles of ultramontanism (that is, primacy and infallibility) within the general framework represented by the older view, which was also held by those definitely not Gallican in the strict sense, such as John Henry Newman.

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In any case, the way things turned out was quite a surprise. The papal infallibility party got their definition, and therein thought their defense against Modern Liberalism was secure. As it happened, the Modern Liberal party captured the Papacy and used that ultimate power to force Modern Liberalism on the entire Church.[4] Today’s traditionalists are akin to the old traditional European party: valuing the Papacy as a servant of Tradition, not as an all-powerful divine oracle of arbitrary personal whims and fancies. They see the Papacy as having elements of a “constitutional monarchy,” where power is set within a texture of principles, precedents, protocols, and promises.

Paradoxically, the pope is both an absolute and a constitutional monarch, which no one else can be. He is absolute inasmuch as he is a monarch limited only by divine and natural law; yet that divine law includes within itself a constitution for the society that the pope governs, in a way that the same divine law does not include a constitution for societies governed by a temporal absolute monarch.

The Debate over the Definition

There had been a preparatory document on ecclesiology that covered far more material than what was eventually approved.[5] Near the end of the schema was the treatment of papal primacy and infallibility, followed by denunciations of religious liberty, separation of Church and State, freedom of the press and speech, and so forth.

Now, the non-Liberal bishops had in common a desire to emphasize those doctrines that Liberalism challenged and to anathematize the contrary errors. This numerical majority seemed to think the best “silver bullet” defense against this hydra-like evil was simply to declare papal infallibility, for after all, the pope could be trusted to condemn Liberalism: Roma locuta, causa finita. Apparently it did not occur to them that someone might come along and use the Papacy itself as an advocate for Liberalism. So the ultramontane enthusiasts campaigned to lift papal primacy and infallibility out of the long document and to address them alone; Pius IX concurred.[6] O’Malley notes that this effort was against the rules of the Council, causing critics to call it a “coup” (similar to what happened when the “European Alliance” circumvented the rules at Vatican II to take control of that Council).

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Unlike Vatican I’s first document Dei Filius on reason, faith, and the knowability of God, which had enjoyed either unanimous consent or nearly so, the primacy and infallibility document Pastor Aeternus met with fierce opposition. The so-called “minority” bishops who were opposed to the definition of papal infallibility numbered among them some of the most prestigious and learned bishops at that time.

O’Malley points out that much of the debate over the definition—other than the Liberal opposition and concerns over the “opportuneness” of its timing—focused on the problem that this infallibility would be viewed as being: (1) Personal, (2) Absolute, and (3) Separate. Even among the bishops who supported infallibility, there was immense concern to clarify that the definition did not mean this charism was personal, absolute, and separate simply speaking. Bishop Karl Josef von Hefele (1809–1893)—an ecclesiastical historian—pointed out that even the Tome of Leo was examined and considered by the Council Fathers before they approved it. That is, the Council Fathers did not, as a matter of first principle, hold that if they heard from Leo, then the matter was settled. Rather, they heard what Leo had to say, weighed it, and then hailed it as Catholic dogma.

Bishop Gasser addresses the three issues of Personal, Absolute, and Separate explicitly in his relatio.[7] He says that infallibility is personal in the sense that it attaches to each individual pontiff and not merely to the Roman See in general—rejecting the Gallican distinction between sedes and sedens. But it does not attach to all of his actions. It is not in any way absolute—that would be true only of God. Rather, it is limited in three crucial ways: by the subject, by the object, and by the act.[8] And it is not separate in the sense that the Pope is isolated from the Church in defining, although his definitions are infallible ex sese, that is “of themselves.”

Note how different this is from the boundless enthusiasm of the contemporary “apologists” of hyperpapalism, who brand themselves as critics of traditionalist Catholics and write them off as akin to Protestants or perhaps to Orthodox. Seen historically, we can regard them as de Maistre-style papalists, insisting the individual pope’s authority is personal, absolute, and separate. If the pope is conceded to be flawed, it would (for them) constitute a falsification event for Catholicism. Obviously this is untrue.

Does the Formula of Hormisdas Support Hyperpapalism?

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The so-called Formula of Hormisdas (which ended the first East-West “Acacian schism” when it was accepted by the Eastern bishops in 519), so far from supporting these apologists as they sometimes suppose, in fact supports the stance of Bishop Hefele. The Formula runs thus:

The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18), should not be verified. And their truth has been proven by the course of history, for in the apostolic see [Rome] the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.[9]

Let’s examine this language. The condition of salvation is the “doctrine of the Fathers.” Why not the doctrine “of Peter,” if that’s what they meant? The standard is that of the Fathers, not Peter as personal, absolute, and separate. If anything, this Formula teaches that the pope—as a condition for his own salvation (!)—must hold the doctrine of the Fathers. That is, the pope is not bound to keep his own personal doctrine as a condition for his personal salvation—which is what de Maistre would have us believe. How strange that this Formula could be held to mean that the pope defines for himself the condition for his own salvation, much less the condition for the salvation of all mankind. The Formula states, as a matter of first principle, that it is the “doctrine of the Fathers”—that’s “Fathers” with an “S” at the end, not the “Holy Father” as personal, absolute, and separate—that is the condition for salvation. This Formula binds the See of Peter by the doctrine of the Fathers.

A parallel to the Formula can be found in the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which concluded that the letters between Patriarch Sergius and Pope Honorius “are entirely alien to the apostolic teachings and to the decisions of the holy councils and to all the eminent holy Fathers but instead follow the false teachings of the heretics,” and in Pope Leo II, who repeated the condemnation of Pope Honorius as one who strayed from “the immaculate rule of the apostolic tradition.”[10]

What, then, of Peter? The Formula makes an historical observation. As of that time, the See of Peter had kept the doctrine of the Fathers, and this was testimony to the truth of the Petrine logion of Matthew 16:18. The Formula certainly states that the See of Peter is the See upon which the Church has been built. However, the Formula does not explicitly state that the See of Peter cannot err in any way, period. The Formula does not teach papal infallibility; what it does teach, explicitly, is that the pope himself must “keep” the “norm of the true faith” and the “established doctrine of the Fathers,” even on pain of losing his own salvation.[11]

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In its historical context, this document forced the Eastern bishops to “pledge their loyalty” to the See of Rome as the final arbiter and not the Emperor and his chosen bishop, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who had perpetuated the Acacian schism. In short, this document was designed to settle a debate about ecclesiastical power between the pope and the Eastern emperor. Eastern Bishops were brought back into communion when they 1.) confessed the Apostolic faith of the Fathers and 2.) submitted to Roman primacy contra “imperial primacy” in matters of faith and morals.

Inflating the Papal Person

In the view of de Maistre-inspired enthusiasts, bishops do not receive their office from Christ, only Peter does—and Peter, in turn, grants the office to the Apostles on his own authority. Thus the episcopal office is a grant of authority from the pope. In other words, the office of bishop itself is not of direct divine institution, having its own authority or power, but rather is an appendage of Petrine authority. Such a view in effect makes Peter to be the Church—personal, absolute, separate—and then the rest of the Church becomes an extension of him, almost as the Mystical Body emanates from Christ.[12] To formulate this view, which was in fact expounded by Louis Veuillot (1813–1883), is to expose its absurdity.

For example, Veuillot adapted the text of the Veni Sancte Spiritus thus: “To Pius IX, Pontiff King, Father of the poor, Giver of gifts, Light of hearts, Send forth thy beam of heavenly light!” On October 8, 1869, he wrote in a newspaper column: “Just as the Father begets the Son and from them comes forth the Holy Spirit, so does the pope beget the bishops and likewise from them comes the Holy Spirit [in the church].”[13] Like de Maistre, Veuillot was a faithful Counter-Revolutionary on other matters. But here, he clearly exaggerated for rhetorical affect, with unfortunate consequences.

During Vatican I, a Franciscan Cardinal in a speech to the bishops said that the definition should include language saying that the pope, before defining a dogma, would consult the bishops, as was the custom—that is, the pope would deign to learn something before declaring a dogma infallibly. Pius IX was furious with him; he even made it a personal issue, calling the Cardinal into his office and excoriating him, accusing him of taking the side of heretics and enemies of the Church. Pius reminded him: “You were nothing before me; I made you a Cardinal.” It was like a meeting with the Godfather! Loyalty is what matters.[14] The humiliated Cardinal said he had spoken honestly according to his conscience and the Tradition he had received. Pius IX shouted at him: “I, I am the Tradition! I, I am the Church!” According to O’Malley, historians have examined the event as recounted and all agree that it happened.[15]

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From this story and others, we can see that the “minority bishops” were hesitant or skeptical for good reason. In fairness, it should be noted that the same pope accepted the German bishops’ letter to Bismarck giving a minimalist reading of the definition and insisting that the bishops are not “vicars of the pope”—language that would be taken up almost a hundred years later in Lumen Gentium 27, and subsequently undermined in practice by Pope Francis. We may note here too, Bl. Pius IX, as an incorrupt saint, may have been misinformed about the intentions of the Cardinal, or perhaps he sinned in anger in this moment. And like the aforementioned Counter-Revolutionary Catholics, the Pontiff himself was the leader of the “Ninth Crusade.”[16]

Maximalist and Minimalist Readings

What, then, was the episcopal vote on the actual definition of papal infallibility?

It pleases: 451
It pleases, but with reservations: 62
It does not please: 88

Of 601 voting bishops, about 75% voted that it pleased, simpliciter. But that also means about 25% did not. About 15% said the definition was seriously on the wrong track. About 10% said it was basically on the right track, but some serious clarifications and modifications needed to be made. Not exactly a clear affirmation of something supposedly handed down from the Apostles to the bishops as a dogmatic doctrine of the Fathers. Pius IX had claimed ten or fewer would dare to vote that it does not please. It is fair to say this vote, with 150 who did not accept the text as formulated, “triggered” him and many other enthusiasts. From then on, they completely shut out the minority bishops from having any further input on the final version. It would not substantively change thereafter.

The final language of the definition suggested a maximalist interpretation but was patient of a minimalist interpretation as well. The latter was given official sanction by the Pope, inasmuch as Hefele, one of the last “standouts,” said he assented to it as interpreted by Fessler in The True and False Infallibility of the Popes; since this proviso was accepted, the Hefele-Fessler “minimalist” interpretation at least remains on the table. The definition still allows bishops to find fault with a pope who might dare to claim that, or to act as if, Tradition reduces to his volition and whimsy.[17]

In the end, Vatican I left open a conservative or traditional view of the pope. The pope speaks with the Church’s infallibility, not his own as if it were a private possession.[18] He must use his office as dictated in the Word of God for the purpose of bringing souls to the knowledge of the truth and to salvation. If the pope is not doing that, he’s not an agent or bearer of the Church’s infallibility.

Vatican I Itself Establishes the Limits of the Papal Office

Vatican I itself—in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith (“Dei Filius”)—provides the best means for interpreting the same council’s definition of papal primacy and infallibility. For here we learn that truth is objective, not subject to human volition; that truth is knowable by a person, not because the pope teaches but because man himself is capable of knowledge as a gift given him from God; that men can know many truths by the use of reason, even without divine revelation—including the twin truths that God exists and is knowable. We learn that Scripture itself is true, not because the pope says so but because it is true by its very nature, a divinely revealed gift from God so that men may know God. One may deduce, of necessity, that if such is true of Scripture, it is likewise true of the Word of God more broadly as well as of all truths necessary for salvation. Truth is truth of its very nature, not because the pope speaks it and thereby makes it truth. Rather, the pope must learn truth in order to give truth, and he, like any man, cannot give what he does not have. While God certainly has the power to give the pope knowledge of anything, God has called the pope to learn by ordinary human means what has been handed on and what the pope is to hand on.

In Dei Filius, the ordinary use of faith and reason is dogmatized, so that the faithful, in the ordinary life of a Catholic, need not have any recourse to the pope to know the Faith.

By supplying us with definite teaching on the nature of divine revelation, truth, and human knowledge, on what development of doctrine is and is not, and so forth, Vatican I establishes the foundations of the traditionalist view. It assures us that we have the tools to recognize and to deal with the present crisis; we are not helpless victims if a pope turns out to be an errant monarch. We do not need to defend papal errors and abuses, nor should we try. We can choose to fall silent, and sometimes this is the best way; but in accord with our ability and calling we can also throw lifelines to those who are being desperately and ruinously scandalized.

Paradoxically—or providentially—the First Vatican Council shows us how to deal with hyperpapalism, establishing clear delimitations for the exercise of the papacy. How much worse would our situation be if we believed in papal primacy and infallibility, as all good Catholics have always done (with greater or lesser explicitness), but didn’t know there were conditions for their exercise? As it is, thanks to Vatican I, we can dismiss Pope Francis’s errors quickly and easily with a clear conscience because they don’t even come close to meeting those requirements.


[1] Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.

[2] One can hardly fail to notice how today we have exactly the opposite: a pope who plays the marionette to Leftist, anti-religion secular powers. If yesterday the concern was how the pope could be a power to check the secular power, now the question is: what power can check the papal power?

[3] A point well insisted on by Roberto de Mattei and José Antonio Ureta.

[4] The self-contradictions are manifest. Our current pope, in the name of the ideals of Liberalism, suppresses any and all he thinks stand in the way of his agenda. It is analogous to the way Communists function. They say they are “for the people” but enforce their own ideas with absolute power; they install and benefit their own inner circle of cronies, placing personal loyalty as the only thing that really matters. The Neo-Liberal party celebrates the virtues of absolute papal power. It was once their enemy, but now that they have captured it, they rather enjoy having and exercising that power for their own ends. The Neo-Liberals—both civil and ecclesiastical—greatly value the ability to have and exercise absolute power. They advocate for suppressing free speech and the press. They wish to use power to suppress all their “right-wing” opposition. They do not require kissing the papal foot literally, but they have found other substitutes that suit them. They wish to reconnect Church and State, but in reverse order, allowing the State to dictate terms to the Church, with the Church functioning as chaplain to the secular state, giving its ceremonial wink and nod to socialist agendas, open borders, abortion, and the sex and gender agendas (to name a few relevant issues). Especially in our Modern epoch, it is always the Leftists and revisionists who are the totalitarians: they capture centralized power to tirelessly enforce a destruction of tradition and the enforcement of their centralized planning. Tradition lives and community thrives at the small and local level, which is where we must build effective opposition to the centralized authority.

[5] Many bishops simply wanted to take the Syllabus of Errors and adapt it into definitions and canons. Imagine if that had happened!

[6] O’Malley pointed out that had this not happened—and it very nearly didn’t—the taking of Rome would have paused indefinitely the Council’s proceedings long before papal primacy and infallibility could have been discussed, much less voted on.

[7] Editor’s note: a relatio is an official explanation given at a Council to clarify questions about a document before the final vote and promulgation takes place. As such, the relatio represents the official and authoritative explanation of a conciliar document.

[8] See The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I, trans. with commentary by Rev. James T. O’Connor (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions, 1986), 45–46.

[9] Citation in the original: Eno, The Rise of the Papacy, 131.

[10] See the excellent essay by Claudio Pierantoni, “The Need for Consistency between Magisterium and Tradition: Examples from History,” in Defending the Faith against Present Heresies, ed. John R.T. Lamont and Claudio Pierantoni (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020), 235–51.

[11] For clarity: the pope’s obligation to teach only what has been handed down in the tradition is not an additional criterion for infallibility. While tempting, that would reduce the actual dogma to a triviality: we are all infallible anytime we faithfully pass on to others what we have received through the Tradition of the Church. There is, in any case, a positive moral obligation on the pope to teach only what he has received; and then there is a negative guarantee that God will intervene to prevent an erring pope from teaching his errors in a binding way. While there are no “checks and balances” on the magisterium of the pope, de facto the possibility of the pope teaching heresy and thereby being self-deposed, according to the Church’s judgment, is an effective check and balance (and that this could occur was the almost unanimous teaching of the Baroque theologians).

[12] On this view, the ancient axiom “ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” comes to be taken not in the modest sense in which it was meant—a statement of the unity of the bishops around their head, all equally successors of the Apostles, and all holding in common the Faith of the Fathers that is entrusted in a special way to Peter’s safekeeping—but rather as a conflation of the terms: Petrus est ecclesia.

[13] O’Malley, 87.

[14] See Matthew Schmitz, “Pope Francis has followed a similar path to Pius IX,” Catholic Herald, January 24, 2019.

[15] See O’Malley, 212–13.

[16] The “Ninth Crusade” was an army of international Catholic volunteers to defend the Papal States from the unjust invasion of Masonic, Revolutionary Italian forces. See Roberto de Mattei, “The ‘Ninth Crusade’ of the Papal Zouaves” and this Twitter account which posts historical notes about them. In addition, John C. Rao notes how Bl. Pius IX seems to have had a weakness about his personal prestige which allowed him to be manipulated by the Liberals. In any case, it appears he had a blindspot in not realizing the effects of the Ultramontane definition, just like the best of the Ultramontanes themselves. For a sympathetic reading of Bl. Pius IX, see Roberto de Mattei, Blessed Pius IX, trans. John Laughland (Gracewing, 2004).

[17] Fessler argues that the pope has the gift of infallibility only as “supreme teacher of truth revealed by God,” and that in his role as “supreme legislator in ecclesiastical matters” he does not enjoy this gift. That is, the disciplinary laws he imposes need not be seen as infallibly true or good; rather, they would be guaranteed not to contradict revealed truth, and that is all.

[18] Gasser argued that the charism of indefectibility lies in the body of the episcopacy, which includes the pope; moreover, he notes that a definition by council will always be more solemn than one by the pope alone, as if to suggest that the apostolic office is more evident here. The Oath against Modernism speaks of the charism of infallibility in the episcopacy, without mentioning the papacy separately.

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