When did the pope become “The Pope?” Catholics since biblical times have carried the image of Peter’s unique role as leader and unifier of those awaiting the Second Coming in glory. The precise nature of the authority and legitimacy of the Bishop of Rome has varied over time. In his classic “Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages”  R.W. Southern describes the eighth century’s interlocking of the pope’s authority to the very bones of Peter interred in Rome. Six centuries later, Boniface VIII would decree in “Unam Sanctam”  that “every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff,” both the most drastic claim of papal authority ever made and perhaps the fastest one to be rejected.
John W. O’Malley’s “Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church”  describes the Catholic effort to formulate a precise understanding of papal authority. Over a roughly seven-month period [1869-1870] the world’s bishops, at the invite of Pope Pius IX [r. 1846-1878], came together in Rome to discuss and formulate the ultimate authority of the office of Bishop of Rome. This is the council remembered for the formal declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and this is the council’s signal achievement, though it had hoped to address a broader agenda.
The author sets the table for the Council’s work with two fine introductory essays. “Catholicism and the Century of Lights” describes developments in Western European Catholicism in the era of the Enlightenment, or roughly from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789. In a Europe exhausted by 150 years of religious wars, the peace treaty of Westphalia for all purposes left stand a continent of coexistence among the various post-Reformation churches. As O’Malley puts it, many Catholic rulers and churchmen alike “wanted to put dogmatism, fanaticism, and religious wars behind them.” [p. 38] The restored authority of bishops and a renewed interest in art and literature refreshed the Church, as did the Enlightenment thought of Newton and Locke, among others.
The parallel development of church and state did not sit well in Rome, and in the chapter “The Ultramontane Movement” O’Malley describes the profound dismay over developments between church and states. The French Revolution and the era of Napoleon were pronouncedly anti-Catholic, and the wave of populist revolutions across Europe, including Italy itself, led Pope Pius IX to sour on modern development and to reinforce the ultimate authority over Church and society in the person of the pope. His supporters became known as “Ultramontanists,” from the Latin “beyond the mountains,” specifically the land beyond the Alps, the Italian peninsula. The term carried double meanings, referring to the literal protection of the Papal States from Italian nationalists and to Catholics around the world sympathetic to the strengthening of the Office of Peter to protect the Catholic faith.
Pius, in summoning a council in 1869, did not do so without risk. One risk was the very real military intervention of the seizing of Rome, a factor which later did play a role in the council’s proceedings. Politically and theologically speaking, while a clear majority of bishops supported the definition of infallibility, there were many who called for precision in speaking of the nature and exercise of such power. Not everyone defined the doctrine as did the lay editor of the Dublin Review, William Ward, who famously declared his desire to have an infallible papal encyclical delivered to him at breakfast every morning along with the Times.
There was also a sizeable block of bishops, between a quarter and a third, with significant reservations or even opposition to infallibility. By far the most famous opponent was not a bishop, but rather the Munich Professor Ignaz von Dollinger, with his brilliant student Lord Acton, the latter famous for his dictum “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Most moderates at the Council embraced one form or other of Dollinger’s concerns:  loss of freedom of thought and expression within the Church;  isolation from much of the intellectual world;  damage to ecumenical relations, particularly with the Episcopal and Orthodox Churches,  fear of schism, and  fear of the impact of absolutism upon Church reform.
Although he did not invite Dollinger, Pius IX brought together a broad range of theologians to Vatican I and allowed for considerable discussion. Infallibility and the structure of the Church was one of six major issues prepared for discussion; other topics included issues of church and state, the sacrament of Matrimony, and Faith and Revelation. Primitive acoustics, summer heat, poor command of Latin, and an open-ended agenda with no set conclusion contributed to the restlessness of bishops, as did the sound of canons surrounding the city. Pius thus ordered the vote on infallibility, his primary agenda, moved to the top of the list, and on July 18, 1870, only two bishops voted against the definition, one from the United States. Many with reservations left before the vote in deference to the pope, who then adjourned the Council until safer circumstances might prevail, which never did in his lifetime.
O’Malley’s summary of the Council highlights its blessings and failures. Whatever their sentiments, most of the world’s bishops honored and supported the newly declared doctrine. One of the few major opponents, Dollinger, came to a sad end. When Otto von Bismarck declared that bishops would be little more than puppets, the German conference of bishops provided a rebuttal that Pius approved as an official interpretation of the relationship of pope and bishops. The Council enabled the pope to appoint the world’s bishops, something that secular rulers had previously controlled. Perhaps most significantly, Vatican I made the office of the papacy a visible, meaningful factor in the lives of everyday Catholics. However, Lord Acton’s words about the corruption of power had not been considered; the Church of 2019 labors with the conundrum of defensive authority in the face of its own dramatic administrative sins.