I posted a review of Father John W. O'Malley's new release, "Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church"  over on the book's Amazon page. Vatican I declared the doctrine of papal Infallibility in 1870 and brought the papal office into the mainstream of world consciousness. The review can be read here.
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.
This is an update on developments from the previous post below.
If you are a regular visitor to the Café, you know that this site is dedicated in part to connecting adult readers to the best that Church scholarship has to offer. I am a lone crusader for the argument that parish catechetics is not a one-size-fits-all proposition with emphasis upon children. If adults are wise to the ways of faith, the children will follow in their steps.
A week or so ago National Catholic Reporter published an essay by a Franciscan scholar, Father Dan Horan, entitled “The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians.” I posted a link to the piece earlier this past week and have reposted it here if you missed it. I was troubled by the tone and the content, which carried a sense of “we academics will do the critical thinking; the rest of you read your Sunday bulletins.” I do not for a minute think that the author actually believes this, but I do think the essay as it stands lends itself to serious misinterpretation. [Father Horan, incidentally, joined the same province of Franciscans as I did years ago, though I am considerably older and have never met him.]
I decided to respond with a letter to the editor, which I did post in the blog around midweek. Yesterday NCR carried a piece noting the strong reaction of readers to Fr. Horan’s original piece, posting a sample of the letters received by the publication, which included an edited version of mine. I am providing a link to the letters, primarily so you can see the other reactions chosen for publication. Most of them comforted me with the thought that least I’m not the only crazy one.
What happened next is very interesting. A senior editor of NCR, Michael Sean Winters, entered the dialogue yesterday. He posted a substantive essay on Father Horan’s piece and the responses to it, entitled “Hang on to the ecclesial nature of the theological task.” Ostensibly written to support Father Horan’s thesis, Winters enters serious thought about who owns the responsibility for “thinking for the Church.” He is much more critical of academia than I was. Winters’ piece is well worth reading—in your armchair, if you like.
Time for me to move on to six neglected streams at the Café.
On April 3, National Catholic Reporter presented an essay by Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M. entitled Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians.” At the risk of gross simplification, the author bemoans the shallow understanding of Catholics whose knowledge of things religious comes from skimming the internet. Father Horan is a member of my former Franciscan community, though I left the Order before he came to national prominence.
One of the objectives of the Catechist Café is connectedness of Catholic adults to the world of higher studies in the Faith. While I agreed with the author on many points—including the Catholic jungle of internet sites posted by amateurs, I felt compelled to suggest that the hallowed halls of ivy belong to all believing Catholics, not an academic elite. Thus, I submitted this letter to the editor of NCR. Whether it sees the light of day is anyone’s guess, but Café readers have the link to the original article, and my response beneath it.
“Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians” [April 3, 2019, Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M.]
The Brew Master’s Response:
Regarding Father Daniel Horan’s April 3 offering, “The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians,” the author targeted one contemporary problem and opened the door to several others. To his main point, it is not simply a problem of individuals skimming religious terminology and summaries from the internet for self-aggrandizement, or worse, for service to the wide varieties of parish ministry and catechizing. The more pernicious issue is what they are skimming. There is a distinct lack of visibility of sound professional theology on the internet and other sources for college educated and/or motivated Catholic readers and novice researchers. Were one to Google “Catholic Encyclopedia” this afternoon, the first entry to appear is the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, which literally ends in 1917. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Vatican II or Humanae Vitae. Where does the probing Catholic set off on his journey?
I would like to say Catholic academia, but I sense a disconnect between town and gown. One of the most underserved of Catholic faith formation populations is the cohort of professionally successful adults. Competent in so many areas of life, it is tragic that Catholic scholars on the whole have not developed suitable outreach to introduce wholesale adults to the writings of Church historians Massimo Faggioli and John W. O’Malley, moralist Margaret Farley, liturgist Joseph Martos, Scripture scholars Raymond Brown and John Meier; or slip the latest copy of America, Commonweal, or The Bible Today in anyone’s briefcase for the work commute.
It is a stretch to assume that in our church pews there are not many believers who can grasp the principles of cutting-edge theology for the enrichment of parochial life. I encounter many devout Catholic who are embarrassed by their own elementary grasp of theology as adults, and what is worse, many of them are immersed in providing adult education in their parishes. There is a tone in Father Horan’s essay [and certainly in his quotations from Anthony Godzieba]—dare I call it an academic clericalism? –that the career theologians alone can handle the deep thinking. The danger here is that academics are not by and large the ones passing the Catholic faith from generation to generation.
The villain of the piece seems to be computers and their spawn, and there is something to be said for that. The Catholic on-line world is replete with defenses of the Catechism and ad hominem attacks upon its critics, but this is, after all, how official present-day catechetics is conducted—as certainty—more akin to scholastic fidelity than internal reflection. If those in the armchairs look smug, it is because they have been told they enjoy that right by virtue of literal fidelity. The flexing of Catholic experience is becoming more affective and less left-brained. In several more generations, we will be an evangelical Church riding the wave of emotion because we have never learned to think. Over a century ago William James warned of the half-life of enthusiasm.
The greatest gifts that Catholic scholars can bring to the Church are twofold. The first is recognition of the challenges faced by “amateurs” who desire to know what “the experts” know. The second is recognition of the role of Catholic academia in catechetics. In his 2018 biography of the Biblical scholar Raymond Brown, Father Donald Senior describes the scholar’s efforts to build such bridges. After completing a major work, Father Brown would publish a smaller summary for public consumption, an invitation to come closer to Scriptural insight. How useful were his An Adult Christ at Christmas or A Risen Christ at Eastertime. Provide a Church “historiography” of reputable authors, publishing houses, and publications. Make the armchair a respectable seat of learning again.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything