The Twists and Turns That Led to the First Vatican Council

The approaching 150th anniversary of the promulgation of Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus (18 July 1870), which defined the dogma of papal infallibility, gives us good reason to pause and consider the nature and exercise of the office of the papacy today. Whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, there is no denying that his exciting, in some ways unprecedented, pontificate has put its finger on a number of neuralgic and unresolved issues of doctrine and practice.

Some among many issues that have come to the fore include: what is the relationship between episcopal collegiality and papal primacy, and between synods and papal primacy? How can the various loci of infallibility outlined at Vatican II—that is, the papacy (Lumen gentium §25), the whole episcopal college (§25), and the sensus fidei of the entire People of God (§12)—concretely function in unison rather than in competition? If the laity really did “come of age” at Vatican II, are lay people only ever going to be guests at synods, pre-selected to confirm some prelate’s opinion? What happens when the pope’s post-synodal exhortation omits or even contradicts a majority opinion of the bishops? More basically, what exactly is “synodality”?

The “Synodal Way” (Synodaler Weg), which so many German bishops are enthusiastic about, is lauded by many progressive Catholics as the sine qua non for a healthy global Church. Others, like George Weigel, whose opinion on this question is representative of a prominent strain of Catholicism in the Northern hemisphere, recently described the Synodal Way as “Wittenberg in slow motion,” that is, a kind of destructive or even heretical Trojan Horse that risks devolving the One, Holy, Catholic Church into a protestantized federation of local churches. Weigel (uncharitably and vaguely) points to “Anglicanism” as a cautionary tale, an inevitable end point for such ecclesial experiments.   

In addition to this nexus of ecclesiological issues, the present pontificate has brought to the surface other unresolved doctrinal questions. The 1968 “birth control encyclical,” Humanae vitae, confronted the postconciliar hierarchy with the reality of a majority (indeed, the great majority) of laypeople failing to “receive” a solemn papal teaching. According to the appeal (dubia) submitted by four cardinals in 2016, Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia forces us to confront the possibility of one pope contradicting his immediate predecessors on a very important doctrinal and pastoral matter. While many applauded Pope Francis’s recent change to the Catechism, which declared the death penalty illicit in all cases, others perceived not a Gospel-inspired development of Church teaching but a dangerous contradiction.

A few insist the new teaching marks a rupture from both scripture and the perennial tradition of the Church. Presumably since appealing to an ecumenical council is (historically) associated with Lutheranism and Jansenism, these critics of Pope Francis can only avail themselves of an ultramontanist “appeal,” that is, not to a future council but to the pope himself (and implicitly this is an appeal to a future pope).

Indeed, some of the most unlikely voices have rather forcefully wondered aloud about resisting, contradicting, or even disobeying the pope. For many such erstwhile ultramontanes, the old dictum, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed,” is no longer the panacea it was once advertised as. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention what is, at least symbolically, perhaps the strangest ecclesiological phenomenon we are living through: two men walking around in the white papal cassock. Multiple living popes have not been an issue since 1415. And back then, Catholics were spared the spectacle of seeing likeness of more than one living pope on TV, in the press, and on the internet.

It is not an exaggeration, then, to observe that Catholics are currently inundated with ecclesiological questions and problems. While it would be unfair to make the papacy itself the cause of all of these tensions, they mostly swirl around what John O’Malley calls the relationship between the center (Rome) and the periphery. It has become a cliché to say that Vatican II’s ecclesiology “balanced” the lopsided ultramontane (papal-centric) conception of the Church taught and promoted by the First Vatican Council. Indeed, some have even spoken of Vatican II and St. John XXIII’s papacy as closing an era of ultramontanism that began in the nineteenth century with authoritarian and anti-modern pontiffs like Gregory XVI (pope from 1832–46) and especially Pius IX (1846–78), the pope who convened Vatican I.

When applied to certain ecclesiological questions, the cliché about Vatican II “balancing” Vatican I has real merit. Vatican II did indeed foreground a robust theology of the episcopacy (e.g., collegiality) and of the laity (the universal call to holiness, People of God ecclesiology, etc.). Yet, we Catholics remain positively fixated on the pope. Depending upon who currently occupies the Chair of St. Peter, this obsession tends to manifest in adulation or revulsion. But either way, it remains an obsession. The Francis papacy has made this curious reality particularly clear, one which was probably always true: some of those most critical of the pope and skeptical of “ultramontanism” and “creeping infallibility” can shed such concerns rather quickly when a more amenable pontiff is elected. Those more conservative Catholics who balk at what they describe as a “liberal” or “progressive” ultramontanism under Francis have a point.

Without seeking to diminish Vatican II’s real achievements, I think it is undeniable that the council’s ressourcement-inspired vision of thriving local churches, that is, all of the baptized and their priests gathered around their bishop, is more often the epideictic language of theologians and catechists than the reality “on the ground” (though I should geographically circumscribe my judgment to the contexts I know best—Europe and North America).[1] Everyone has a hot take on Pope Francis, but how many know much more than the name of their local bishop? And that information, I sometimes conjecture, is learned mainly from repetition in the eucharistic prayer.

The confusion surrounding the nature and purpose of synodality, perhaps the most exciting but neuralgic ecclesiological issue of our day, underscores our current condition. We are still a deeply ultramontane Church, yet we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle both to recover forgotten or obscured ecclesiological truths from the past, and to truly embrace a future that is rapidly unfolding before our eyes, whether we are ready for it or not: ours is a truly global faith, and an incredibly demographically diverse one at that.

The 150th anniversary of Vatican I invites us to reflect on that pivotal moment in the creation of the modern papacy, and consequently, of the modern Catholic Church. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the nineteenth-century ultramontane movement, and its crowning triumph in the dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus, in the genesis of the modern papacy. That tale is well known.[2] This essay seeks to introduce the largely forgotten but tremendously important intra-Catholic battles over the nature of the Church and the papal office during the final third of the 1700s. These tense debates can help us historically contextualize, and therefore better understand, the two most important ecclesiological teachings of Vatican I: papal infallibility and jurisdictional supremacy. While the political, social, and theological context of the nineteenth century is often cited to explain Vatican I, the ultramontane conception of the papacy in fact crystallized during bitter intra-Catholic struggles in the age of Enlightenment and Revolution. Many of those unresolved early modern debates have returned to us today.

The Prevailing Narrative of Vatican I

Whether nineteenth-century ultramontanism is celebrated, bemoaned, or simply historically contextualized without judgment, the prevailing narrative casts Vatican I, at least primarily, as an attempt by the Catholic Church to address external threats through an internal turn—a shoring up of the pope’s authority and an emphasis on the strength, perpetuity, and certainty of “Tradition,” personified in the person of the pope and his infallible Magisterium, which can be known through the rapidly accumulating collection of encyclicals, allocutions, apostolic letters, and (soon enough) radio addresses.

There is much to commend this common narrative. Insofar as it concerns the nineteenth century, it explains the immediate context of the Council ably. Nevertheless, focusing on the French Revolution and age of Napoleon as the beginning of a process that terminated at Vatican I glides over or omits essential content for understanding ultramontane theology: the crucial (and in some cases still unresolved) theological and ecclesiastical struggles within the Catholic Church itself in the early modern period.

In the latter half of the eighteenth-century, bookended roughly by the first expulsions of the Jesuit Order in 1759 and the destruction of the “Gallican Church” of the Constitutionalist French clergy in 1801, debates raged in the Catholic Church over the nature of the papal office, the role of synods in Church governance, the possibility or even duty of correcting an erring or tyrannical pope, the place of the laity—in short, virtually all of the neuralgic ecclesiological issues which have bubbled back up to the surface today. What follows is by no means an effort at a revisionist history of Vatican I itself; merely an attempt to supplement the received understanding of that pivotal event, and to deepen and perhaps complicate our historical contextualization of its teaching.

Just as one cannot fully understand Vatican II just by considering the twentieth-century context (indispensable though that context is), so one must consider early modernity and especially the Age of Enlightenment in order to fully understand Vatican I. Indeed, the two most important teachings promulgated at Vatican I, the pope’s infallibility and his jurisdictional supremacy, were not developed as counters to external foes such as anticlerical revolutionaries or freethinkers.

These doctrines were tried and true papalist ripostes to Catholic opponents of ultramontanism like Jansenists, Josephinists, and Gallicans. My contention is that for us to fully understand Vatican I’s doctrine on the papacy (thus, by extension, the modern papacy) we need to look back before the nineteenth century, to the tumultuous internal ecclesiological debates pitting papalist Catholics against a variety of conciliarist Catholics.

Vatican I: Settling Scores In-House

The official proceedings of Vatican I confirm this contention. The memory of early modern conciliarist opponents of the papacy was pervasive.[3] References to anti-ultramontane leaders, events, and texts litter the speeches of council fathers and the footnotes of proposed documents and their explanatory notes. It is well-known that Pastor aeternus’ definition of papal infallibility included a direct reference to the famous 1682 Gallican Articles, when it asserted that the pope’s ex cathedra definitions were “irreformable” of themselves, apart from the “consent of the Church” (ex sese, non ex consensu Ecclesiae). Vatican I’s dogma of papal infallibility, with its consequent rejection of the Gallican “consent of the church” clause, has been thoroughly studied.[4]

But what is certainly less well-known, outside of academic circles, is that a second doctrine solemnly taught by Pastor aeternus, the jurisdictional supremacy of the pope, is the far more important teaching. While something of a theological consensus has emerged that infallible papal teaching acts are very rare—many today would point to the Marian dogmas of 1854 and 1950 as the only recent examples—the pope’s jurisdictional supremacy impacts the day-to-day life of the Church in countless ways. Sometimes it is said that Vatican I defined “the primacy and infallibility of the pope.”

While that is technically true, it is misleading shorthand since jurisdictional supremacy cannot be reduced to the very general notion of “primacy” (firstness). That the pope held a primacy of some kind was admitted even by the most radical Jansenists and conciliarists and had been solemnly taught on many previous occasions (including at previous ecumenical councils). Certainly no bishop at Vatican I would have ever dreamed of contesting such a basic Catholic belief. At issue was rather the precise nature of papal primacy and the manner in which it should or could be exercised. That question was and is no abstract theological quibble, but a very important, concrete issue for the daily life of the Church.

The relevant passage teaching jurisdictional supremacy reads thus (Pastor aeternus ch. 3, cf. Denzinger–Hünermann, 3060):

And so we teach and declare that, in the disposition of God, the Roman church holds the preeminence of ordinary power over all the other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate. Regarding this jurisdiction, the shepherds of whatever rite or jurisdiction and the faithful, individually and collectively, are bound by a duty of hierarchical subjection and of true obedience; and this is not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.[5]

The corresponding canon (Denzinger–Hünermann, 3064) anathematizes those who say that:

The Roman pontiff has only the office of inspection and direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world; or if anyone says that he has only a more important part [potiores partes cf. the fourth Gallican Article] and not the complete fullness of this supreme power; or if anyone says that this power is not ordinary and immediate either over each and every Church or over each and every one of the shepherds and faithful, let him be anathema.

For a number of reasons, the definition of papal infallibility, then and now, gets much more attention than the teaching of papal jurisdictional supremacy cited above. Yet, as some have pointed out, it is Vatican I’s declaration of the pope’s “ordinary and immediate” jurisdictional supremacy that casts a far longer shadow over contemporary Catholicism than papal infallibility. Consider the remarkable fact that in 1829, only 24 out of 646 Latin Rite bishops were appointed by the pope; 67 were elected and 555 (!) appointed by monarchs or governments.[6] Today, virtually all the bishops of the Latin Rite are appointed by the pope, which practically mostly means by the Roman Curia. How did we arrive at such a situation? Why did an ecumenical council proclaim such teachings in 1870? 

Examining who or what a magisterial teaching aimed to counter is integral to understanding that teaching, and especially to understanding the continued relevance of that teaching for theology and Church life. As any teacher of theology or Church history knows, the meaning and importance of Nicea’s creed and canons requires we know something of Arianism, just as Pius IX’s condemnations of religious freedom and “liberalism” make little sense unless we examine not only his theological presuppositions but the political and social context of his day.

Thus, in order to fully understand Vatican I’s ecclesiological teachings, we need to understand what those teachings were aimed against. If we ignore this important contextualization, we risk interpreting Pastor aeternus in too abstract a manner—possibly even ahistorically. The fruit of ahistorical interpretations are varied, but they are never good: abstracting teachings from their historical contexts tends either towards uncritical lionization or unfair demonization.

The first draft of a dogmatic constitution called De Ecclesia was presented to the council fathers during the general congregation (meeting) held on May 13, 1870.[7] A truncated version of this document was eventually promulgated about two months later as Pastor aeternus. The footnotes to this draft, as well as the speeches of many of the council fathers commenting on it, contain a host of references to early modern Catholic names and texts, and to a litany of condemned ecclesiological “isms” including the usual suspects like Jansenism, Gallicanism, Richerism, Josephinism, and Febronianism.

The theological commission that drafted De ecclesia appended a lengthy set of explanatory notes, which contained several dozen references to these condemned early modern Catholic ecclesiologies. Most notably, canon 16—the final form of which is cited above (Denzinger–Hünermann, 3064)—was introduced to the council fathers as a measure formulated “against the doctrine” of three early modern Catholic theologians, each the author of popular and controversial ecclesiological works.[8] They were:

  1. Croatian Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560–1624), a notorious ecclesial flip-flopper.
  2. German auxiliary bishop Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701–90), known by his pseudonym “Febronius.”
  3. The foremost theologian of Italian Jansenism, Pietro Tamburini (1737–1827), who co-led the anti-ultramontane Synod of Pistoia (1786).

The importance of these three authors went beyond any particular books they authored. Each functioned as a symbol of a particular cluster of historical conflicts; a nexus of anti-ultramontane ideas, texts, and movements that jostled for influence within early modern Catholicism. Let us examine the latter two authors and their context, to try to get a handle on what the fathers at Vatican I saw themselves as teaching against (space prevents a discussion of the wildly entertaining Dominis).[9] Doing so will help us better understand Vatican I, and consequently better understand why the modern papacy functions the way it does. While discussions of Vatican I often focus on the external challenges faced by the Church—and there is no doubt there were many—studying the proceedings of the Council shows an important focus on “settling old scores” within Catholicism.[10]

Febronian National Churches and Anti-Ultramontane Narratives of Church History

Our second figure is probably the most famous today. In 1763, an auxiliary bishop of Trier named Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701–90), writing under the pseudonym “Febronius,” caused a sensation by publishing On the State of the Church and the Legitimate Power of the Roman Pontiff.[11] While few of Febronius’s arguments were original, the book was forceful and timely. It galvanized a latent German episcopalism with its frontal attack on ultramontanism (this originally geographic term—“beyond the mountains”—had acquired ideological connotations by this stage).[12]

Febronius strung together conciliar and patristic sources to present an alternative vision of the Church that was conciliar and collegial. This view relied heavily on an idealized version of the early Church, before the calamity of the “false decretals” which the medieval papacy had used to unjustly usurp powers to itself which rightly belonged to governments, bishops, and local churches. Febronius asserted, in line with the Council of Constance (1414–18) which had healed the Great Western Schism (when there were no less than three claimants to the papacy), that ecumenical councils, since they were representative of the whole church, were superior to the pope. The subtitle of Febronius’s book, Composed for the Reunion of Dissenting Christians, underlined the proto-ecumenical intent of his ecclesiology—though how well he really understood Protestant grievances has been debated.

The memory of Febronius at Vatican I was strong, not only as an author but as a symbol for a period in which anti-ultramontanism had waxed. There were multiple negative references to Febronius and his book throughout the Acta, and to the papal champions who wrote rebuttals of On the State of the Church. Just as referencing Dominis conjured up the memory of conflict over the pope’s indirect power, the Venetian Interdict, James I, and Richer’s radical Gallicanism, mentioning Febronius in this official capacity likewise put a broader sweep of foes in the crosshairs. Febronius was rightly associated, in his day and afterwards, with a variety of anti-papal movements and authors in the German-speaking world and around Europe that he was connected to and influenced.

One need not stray far in the Vatican I Acta to encounter them. Probably the most significant echo of “Febronianism” can be found in the many citations of Pius VI’s bull Super soliditate (1786), which condemned the anti-papal tract Was ist der Papst? (1782). Indeed, the promulgated version of Pastor aeternus cites Super soliditate in support of the pope’s jurisdictional supremacy, a citation that was also present in early drafts of Vatican II’s Lumen gentium. The author of the bluntly titled What is the Pope? was Joseph Valentin van Eybel, a particularly aggressive agent of the Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, whose sweeping reform agenda of “Josephinism,” often described as a form of “enlightened absolutism,” included a radical curtailing of papal and curial power.

Eybel’s inflammatory tract was published to coincide with Pius VI’s desperate personal mission to Vienna in 1782, undertaken to pressure the Emperor to change course. A complete failure on paper, the pope’s uncharacteristic sojourn out of Italian lands was nevertheless a defining early moment in the development of the modern papacy. For the pope and his entourage were not entirely discouraged; they took note that adoring crowds gathered and cheered for the Successor of Peter, not for anti-curial intellectuals who cited canon law and the Church Fathers.[13]

The defeat and doctrinal repudiation of this German-accented episcopalism and conciliarism, represented by the condemned books of Febronius and Eybel, but also by ecclesial events like the Congress of Ems (1786) held by four prominent imperial Archbishops, was a stated goal of Vatican I’s ecclesiological teaching. These ideas had spread all over the Catholic world, and Vatican I’s repudiation of them was not just a condemnation of conciliarism or episcopalism. It was a shot across the bow against any interference by the state in the Church, and against a reading of history that saw the growth of papal claims to spiritual and temporal power as fraudulent, against a view of the local or national church as independent, and even against a certain kind of new historical research.

While no bishops at Vatican I would have repeated theses as extreme as Febronius’s or Eybel’s, it is not a coincidence that many of the bishops skeptical of papal infallibility came from the former lands of the Holy Roman Empire. The historical methods of “enlightened Catholics” like Febronius were forerunners of the wissenschaftliche approach to Church history employed by Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890). This method was at complete loggerheads with the magisterial reading of history encouraged by the popular Denzinger handbook and the methodology of “Roman school” theologians such as Giovanni Perrone (1794–1876). By Vatican I, this papalist reading of Church history and the doctrinal tradition had pervaded seminary education.[14]

Pietro Tamburini, the Pistoia Network, and Radical Synodality

The final targeted figure, Pietro Tamburini (1737–1827), was very famous in his day but is unknown now outside of specialist circles. Tamburini held professorships in Rome and Pavia and was the leading Italian Jansenist theologian. His lack of fame today is due partly to the damnatio memoriae that the “orthodox” narrative uniformly inflicted on Jansenists not named Blaise Pascal. A prolific scholar, Tamburini was the primary theological influence behind the Synod of Pistoia, which he led alongside his close friend, the fervently Jansenist bishop Scipione de’ Ricci (1741–1810).[15] They were backed by the Habsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany, Peter Leopold, so there was not much the papacy could do to prevent Ricci and Tamburini from channeling the energy of their reformist networks into institutional expression in the infamous Synod of Pistoia (held September 18–28, 1786).

The lengthy Acts and Decrees the synod produced were explosive. In addition to promulgating repeatedly condemned Jansenist ideas about divine grace and penance, the Pistoian synod took aim squarely at the ultramontane conception of the papacy. Though better known for liturgical reform that foreshadowed Vatican II, ecclesiology was the synod’s most radical emphasis. It declared the pope the “ministerial head” of the Church, and, though papal primacy was affirmed, the purported rights of bishops, parish priests, and lay people were asserted. Papal infallibility was denied—the gift of teaching without error had been given to the entire Church, not a particular person (and thus was only exercised in ecumenical councils).

Though the ministerial priesthood and the duties of the “good pastor” were stressed, the biblical “priesthood of all believers” was also affirmed. In light of this baptismal priesthood, the synod argued that laypeople had a right and duty to read the Bible and to participate in the Mass, which (ideally) included hearing and understanding the words and actions of the liturgy. Though the synod stopped short of recommending a totally vernacular Mass, it made clear this was the desirable end-goal. To that end, the synod advocated increased use of the vernacular, and the printing of missals so more laity could enter into the true spirit of the liturgy.

The Pistoian conception of authority in the Church was synodal, diffuse, and participatory. In line with a directive from the Grand Duke, diocesan synods were to be held in every two years. Ricci and Tamburini pushed for a recovery of the ancient Christian practice of lay participation in synods. While they did not believe lay people should vote (as, however, should all parish priests) they should not be silent—a position which Ricci believed he could find biblical support for in Acts 15. Behind this more patristic and biblical model, however, loomed the specter of an interfering state apparatus.

Pistoian links with reform in the Habsburg lands and the Empire were strong. Texts of Febronius and Eybel had been translated into Italian and eagerly read, as had pastoral letters from imperial bishops calling for religious toleration, purification of worship, and a Christocentric devotional life shorn of “superstition”—all important emphases of the synod. Tamburini was professor at the University of Pavia, then under the control of the Emperor. Like his older brother Josef II, Peter Leopold combined autocratic conceptions of his own authority with liberalizing reforms such as the abolition of torture and the death penalty.

The Inquisition was sent packing, and the legacy of the Jesuits maligned, often through the proxy war over the Sacred Heart devotion the Society had championed. Emboldened by the Emperor’s recent toleration edicts benefitting Protestants, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, the synod made clear reference to the desirability of religious toleration, a position held by Tamburini and an increasing number of European “Jansenists” and “enlightened Catholics.”

Tamburini was already infamous as the author of a very serious challenge to the ultramontane conception of the papacy in the 1782 book Vera idea della Santa Sede (True Idea/Conception of the Holy See). Placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and subjected to a flood of rebuttals, Tamburini’s Vera idea was also implicitly condemned by the bull Auctorem fidei (1794), which targeted the Synod of Pistoia, condemning eight ecclesiological theses as heretical and seventy-seven more with lower censures.

Auctorem fidei, called “the tombstone of Jansenism”[16] by one Italian historian, is, by my count, the most-cited early modern doctrinal document in the debates at Vatican I (as well as, in fact, at Vatican II).[17] Indeed, in the years spanning the aftermath of the French Revolution to the eve of Vatican I, Auctorem fidei had become a pivotal document for forming Catholic clergy in an “ultramontanist sense.” It remained a central text, so much so that from 1850 and 1950 there was not a single manual of moral theology, dogmatics, canon law, or liturgy published that did not reference the bull.[18]

For most nineteenth-century Catholics, the Synod of Pistoia was a traumatic memory. It came just before the calamities of the revolutionary era—a fact that ultramontanists did not chalk up to coincidence, to put it mildly. While technically only the synod of a relatively insignificant Tuscan diocese, Pistoian allies and opponents all over Europe saw the synod for what it was—a test run for an “enlightened” Gallican-Jansenist synodal reform of the entire Catholic Church. While there were always tremendous obstacles to actually achieving this, even before the upheavals of 1789, there was enough sympathy for Ricci and Tamburini’s project to deeply worry supporters of the papacy and opponents of “reform Catholicism.”

The Jesuit Order had been destroyed, and an “enlightened” reform Catholicism had a powerful presence in Spain, France, German-speaking lands, and parts of Italy. Friends in Mainz, Naples, and Spain planned to copy much of the Synod (and in Lebanon, of all places, this actually occurred at the 1806 Melkite Synod of Qarqafe!). Acts of the Pistoian synod were printed in many languages and widely read, though rebuttals were also numerous and vicious.[19] S. J. Miller rightly called the Synod of Pistoia “the nearest to victory that Enlightened Catholicism came.”[20]

The fathers at Vatican I had not forgotten this. While Vatican II and the postconciliar era has seen significant Catholic reevaluation of “the Enlightenment” (phenomena which were in fact plural and sometimes contradictory), for virtually all of the fathers at Vatican I, Catholic participation in enlightened ecclesio-political movements was nothing to celebrate. The aggressive reforms of Ricci, Tamburini, Febronius, and Josef II were seen as crypto-Protestant and opening the door to rationalism and the destruction of cherished traditions—in short, as the antithesis of the Romantic aspirations of the ultramontane nineteenth-century.

Conclusion: The Council That Tried to Destroy Conciliarism

Ironically, it was an ecumenical council that became the vehicle through which ultramontanes sought to destroy conciliarism. It becomes clear through reading the official Acta of Vatican I that the majority bloc’s push to dogmatically enshrine papal infallibility and a maximalist view of papal primacy was driven in large part by a desire to defeat, once and for all, a variety of early modern Catholic conciliarist ideas.[21] The papacy had issued repeated condemnations of these phenomena for over a century. Additionally, from around the time of Febronius a network of pro-papal champions had arisen—christened by historians an “ultramontanist international”—that became locked in polemical battle with a “Jansenist” or “Reform Catholic” international.

Heavily boosted by the ranks of disgruntled and highly skilled ex-Jesuits (the Order had been suppressed in 1773), figures such as Giovanni Marchetti (1753–1829), Giovanni Vincenzo Bolgeni (1733–1811), and Francesco Antonio Zaccaria (1714–1795) attacked Febronius, Tamburini, and Ricci, mimicking the Jansenist penchant for entertaining, caustic pamphleteering.[22] For a number of reasons, the originality of Joseph de Maistre, Louis Veuillot, and other nineteenth-century French ultramontanes should not be overstated.[23] The clerical, heavily Italian and often ex-Jesuit opponents of Catholic Conciliar Reform were, to quote Yves Congar, “the immediate and decisive sources of nineteenth-century ultramontanism.”[24]

By Pietro Tamburini’s death in 1827, Jansenism was a spent force. The common idea that Ireland, Quebec, and the United States were rife with Jansenism until the twentieth century (or even up to Vatican II or beyond) is a complete myth. The assertions of those who repeat this myth are unencumbered with scholarly footnotes, because there is no scholarly literature to cite. Nevertheless, a kind of moderate Gallicanism and conciliarism limped into the 1860s, especially in France and the lands of the former Holy Roman Empire. Some Febronian tendencies, rooted in early modern conciliarist sources, also survived to the eve of Vatican I.[25] But the signs of the times, especially in the seminaries, were decidedly opposed to the old conciliarist-leaning Catholics, and they knew it.

By necessity, we have only examined a small sample of the relevant material. Nevertheless, the two figures we have discussed in any detail (Febronius, and Tamburini) were symbolic of wider movements and ideological tendencies within Catholicism that the Vatican I fathers sought to repudiate and reject. By citing these two (and Dominis) as the target of the teaching on papal jurisdictional supremacy, the draft De Ecclesia was taking aim at a very diverse set of phenomena.

Moderate adherents of Gallicanism or conciliarism—who were the clear and present enemy at Vatican I—were given no quarter by the ultramontane majority. Cardinal Antonio Saverio De Luca (1805–1883) voiced a prevailing view when he virtually equated Gallicanism with radical Richerism and “all the Jansenist school,” since they all “violate the ordinary and immediate power of the Roman Pontiff.”[26] Such rhetoric was unfair but effective. Anything that subtracted from the total, unquestioned dogmatic and jurisdictional power of the papacy had become suspect as merely a stage on the path to heresy or unbelief.

Paradoxically, perhaps it is because the ultramontanist victory at and after Vatican I was so overwhelming and decisive that many of the concerns and emphases of early modern “Catholic Conciliar Reformers” (to borrow Dale Van Kley’s language) have returned to us in the last several generations. Catholics today are again asking what the proper relationship is between synodality and papal primacy, though not, hopefully, with the aggressive bitterness of the late Jansenists. Bishop Ricci’s belief that lay people ought to participate in the governance of the Church and should have their voices heard at synods has also, happily, returned. An idealization of the early Church as collegial, in which the Bishop of Rome is the servant of unity rather than a monarch, was an undercurrent clearly present at Vatican II, and one that nineteenth-century ultramontanists had rejected as “Febronian” wherever they found it.

As we re-examine many of these ecclesiological ideas and issues we should do so calmly and soberly. Vatican II by no means had all the answers, and that Council should not be placed above respectful critique. However, Vatican II did successful balance the theological picture regarding infallibility, and taught profoundly and beautifully regarding the laity and the episcopal office. Perhaps a future council, drawing on the important if often disorienting ecclesial conversations of today, can similarly balance our understanding of papal jurisdiction.

In a global Church that is increasingly non-European and even non-Western, such a daunting task seems necessary for some bluntly practical reasons: how can one man directly rule the universal Church with any effectiveness without a bloated Curia invested with enormous authority? Additionally, how can a Church committed to ecumenism truly “dialogue” (rather than monologue) with Eastern Orthodox Christians while insisting that they accept, simpliciter, that our pope has “ordinary and immediate” jurisdiction over their patriarchs, whose authority is also grounded in ancient ecumenical councils, and from an era when East and West were undivided?

I do not claim to offer any answers to these questions here. But what I hope this essay has provided is an overview of the deeper historical context of Vatican I’s view of the papacy. Perhaps by understanding the legitimate concerns alongside the errors of the intra-Catholic targets of Vatican I’s teaching on jurisdictional supremacy, we can reexamine the meaning and exercise of the pope’s God-given primacy in an increasingly diverse and global Church committed to collegiality and ecumenism.

[1] See my: “Balance and Imbalance: The Papacy and the Contested Legacies of the Vatican Councils,” Horizons 47.1 (June 2020): 25–32.

[2] Some good and accessible sources include Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes; John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church. The definitive study of Vatican I is Klaus Schatz, Vaticanum I, 1869–1870, 3 vols. (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1992–1994).

[3] For the important legacy of late medieval conciliarism at the council (rather than the early modern conciliarism discussed in this essay), see Klaus Schatz, “Das I. Vatikanische Konzil (1869/70) und der Konziliarismus,” Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Religions- und Kulturgeschichte 109 (2015): 183–95.

[4] See: Margaret O’Gara, Triumph in Defeat; Richard Costigan, The Consensus of the Church and Papal Infallibility, 1–35; Richard Costigan, “The Consensus of the Church: Differing Classical Views,” Theological Studies 51 (1990): 25–48; Georges Dejaifve, “Ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae,” The Eastern Churches Quarterly 14 (1962): 360–78.

[5] Pastor aeternus is in Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 43rd edition, originally compiled by Heinrich Denzinger; revised, enlarged (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012) 3050–75.

[6] See the important essay by Garrett Sweeney, “The ‘wound in the right foot’: Unhealed?” in Adrian Hastings, ed. Bishops and Writers: Aspects of the Evolution of Modern English Catholicism (Hertforshire, UK: Clarke, 1977), 207–34. See also my “Balance and Imbalance.”

[7] For the schema see Mansi, 51:539–51 (the canons run from 551–53).

[8] The canon in the draft schema is in Mansi, 51:552. For the explanatory note see 51:628 (§65).

[9] I encourage interested readers to investigate the story of Dominis. Whatever epithets can be hurled at him, “boring” is not one of them.

[10] See a fuller discussion of the legacy of early modern “Catholic Conciliar Reform” in my forthcoming article “Settling Old Scores: Pastor Aeternus as the Final Defeat of Early Modern Opponents of Papalism,” Newman Studies Journal 17.1 (Forthcoming Summer 2020). I take the term “Catholic Conciliar Reform” to describe these varieties of “isms” from Dale van Kley’s fascinating essay “Catholic Conciliar Reform in an Age of Anti-Catholic Revolution: France, Italy, and the Netherlands, 1758–1801,” in James E. Bradley and Dale K. van Kley, eds., Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 46–118.

[11] On Febronius see Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, Justinus Febronius – De Statu Ecclesiae. Abbreviatus et Emendatus (1777), edited with an introduction by Ulrich Lehner (Nordhausen: Traugott Bautz, 2008); Michael Printy, Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009), 25–54; Robert Duchon, “De Bossuet à Febronius,” Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 65 (1970): 375–422.

[12] Heribert Raab, “Zur Geschichte und Bedeutung des Schlagwortes ‘Ultramontan’ im 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert,” Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft 81 (1962): 159–73.

[13] On Josephinism, see Derek Beales, Joseph II, 2 vols. For a good summary see Beales, Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (London: IB Tauris, 2005), 287–308. See also Elisabeth Kovacs, Der Papst in Teutschland: Die Reise Pius VI. im Jahre 1782 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1983). On Eybel, see David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton, 2008), 215–59. For excerpts from Super soliditate see Denzinger-Hünermann, 2592–97.

[14] See the section “L’Auctorem fidei nei circuiti della cultura chiericale,” in Pietro Stella, Il Giansenismo in Italia II/ I: La bolla Auctorem Fidei (1794) nella storia dell’Ultramontanismo; Saggio introduttivo e documenti (Rome: Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, 1995), cxxxiv–cxli; Blanchard, Synod of Pistoia, 261–70; Giuseppe Pignatelli, Aspetti della propaganda cattolica a Roma da Pio VI a Leone XII (Rome: 1974).

[15] In English see Shaun Blanchard, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (Oxford: Oxford, 2019); Charles Bolton, Church Reform in 18th Century Italy: The Synod of Pistoia, 1786 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969). The scholarship in Italian is vast.

[16] Benvenuto Matteucci cited in Chiara d’Afflitto, “Cenni biografici su Scipione de’ Ricci,” in Aiardi, Alessandro, ed. Scipione de’ Ricci e la realtà pistoiese della fine del Settecento: Immagini e documenti. (Pistoia: Edizioni del Comune di Pistoia, 1986), 9–12, at 12.

[17] On Vatican I see my forthcoming “Settling Old Scores.” On Vatican II see The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II, 259–302.

[18] See the definitive study of Auctorem fidei is Pietro Stella, Il Giansenismo in Italia II/I: La bolla Auctorem Fidei (1794) nella storia dell’Ultramontanismo: Saggio introduttivo e documenti (Rome: Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, 1995), v.

[19] See Blanchard, Synod of Pistoia, 197–237.

[20] S. J. Miller, “The Limits of Political Jansenism in Tuscany: Scipione de’ Ricci to Peter Leopold, 1780– 1791,” Catholic Historical Review 80.4 (1994): 762–67, at 762.

[21] I go into greater detail on this contention in “Settling Old Scores.”

[22] On the “Ultramontanist International”, see Dale van Kley Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits, esp. 243–86 (265–72 on the creation of this “Ultramontanist International”); Dries Vanysacker, Cardinal Giuseppe Garampi (1725–1792): An Enlightened Ultramontane (Brussels & Rome: Institut Historique Belge de Rome, 1995), esp. 83–84; Giuseppe Pignatelli, Aspetti della propaganda cattolica a Roma da Pio VI a Leone XII (Rome: 1974).

[23] On the crucial influence of Marchetti and Zaccaria on de Maistre (and, later, on Giovanni Perrone), see Pignatelli, Aspetti della propaganda cattolica, 238, 267–292.

[24] Yves Congar, “L’ecclésiologie, de la Révolution française au Concile du Vatican, sous le signe de l’affirmation de l’autorité,” Revue des Sciences Religieuses 34 (1960) 77–114, at 91. Congar adds that this is “sans préjudice de modèles plus anciens[.]”

[25] See Sylvio De Franceschi, “Le spectre turinois d’un renouveau du gallicanisme et du fébronianisme. La condamnation romaine des thèses juridictionalistes du canoniste Giovanni Nepomuceno Nuytz,” in M. Ortolani, Ch. Sorrel, and O. Vernier, eds. États de Savoie, Églises et institutions religieuses des réformes au Risorgimento. Actes du colloque international de Lyon, 17–19 octobre 2013 (Nice, 2017), 139–157.

[26] Mansi 49:573–75, at 574. See Cardinal De Luca’s written report in the forty-first General Congregation (§38, 22 Aug. 1869).

Featured Image: Vatican Museums Spiral Staircase Looking Up, © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0


Shaun Blanchard

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform and co-author of a forthcoming Oxford Very Short Introduction to Vatican II.

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