First Vatican Council-Vatican I

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Question from James on 5/12/2008:

Why was the first Vatican Council (1870?)called?

Did it cause as much tourmoil and discourse in the Church as Vatican II seems to have?

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 5/25/2008:

The First Vatican Council was the twentieth ecumenical (or general) council in the history of the Church. It was convoked by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-1878) and was held between December 8, 1869, and September 1, 1870. Its deliberations were brought to an abrupt end by the seizure of Rome by the troops of King Victor Emmanuel II as part of his relentless effort to achieve the final unification of Italy through the process termed the Risorgimento. The council was adjourned by the pope indefinitely, so technically, it was never officially ended, although it was also never reconvened. When Pope John XXIII (r. 1958-1963) considered calling his own council, it was suggested to him that he simply reconvene the First Vatican Council; he chose to start a new one.

Pope Pius undertook the first general council since Trent (1545-1563) as he recognized that the world had changed immeasurably in the intervening years. The Church was faced with the challenges of liberalism, rationalism, and wide regard for sciences that many felt were dangers to the faith by their promotion of rationalist criticism of Catholic doctrine and Scripture, religious indifference, hostility to many Christian tenets, and the questioning of the place of the Church in the modern world.

A council was also desired to strengthen the authority and prestige of the papacy in the wake of the demise of the Papal States in 1860 by the Italians under Victor Emmanuel and the relentless campaign against papal prestige in France, Germany, and elsewhere. The announcement was made by Pius to the cardinals of the Curia of his intentions to summon a council on December 4, 1864, two days before the publication of the famed Syllabus Errorum (Syllabus of Errors). In March 1865, Pius appointed a preparatory commission. The formal announcement of a council was made on June 29, 1867, and exactly one year later the pope issued the bull that convoked the council. The opening at St. Peter's Basilica had about seven hundred prelates, assorted officials, and dignitaries; interestingly, this was the first council that did not send invitations to ambassadors and princes.

The first of the council's assemblies (called general congregations) was convened on December 10, 1869. Later that month, deliberations commenced on the dogmatic constitution on the faith. After spirited discussions and revisions, it was approved by final vote on April 24, 1870. Dei Filius was a profound reaffirmation of the teachings of the Church. Its chapters were concerned with: God as Creator; revelation; faith; and faith and reason – with attached canons to clarify important points and to condemn those who denied certain aspects of the faith (fideists, rationalists, naturalists, etc.). It vindicated human reason as sufficient to know God without revelation, stressed the reasonableness of faith, and elucidated the presence of the two kinds of knowledge, faith and reason.

While the question of infallibility was not specifically on Pius's planned list of topics to be discussed, it was uppermost in the minds of many Fathers owing to the aspirations of the Ultramontanists to have it advanced and the concern of liberal Catholics that it should not be defined. In the period prior to the council, the matter had been the source of debate, and the question was formally raised in January 1870 with a series of petitions supported by some five hundred Council Fathers in favor of giving papal infallibility definition. The debate continued for several months, ending on July 4. Finally, on July 18, the fourth session gave solemn definition of the primacy and infallible authority of the Roman pontiff in the Constitutio Dogmatica Prima de Ecclesia Christi (First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ).

The debate was not out of the ordinary for such matters, but the press it received was certainly significant. European papers, theologians, polemicists, and opponents of the definition launched a serious effort to prevent the council from reaching it positive decision, and even after it was the source of much heated propaganda by such as writers as Johannes von Döllinger (1799-1890), a Church historian and theologian, whose famous Letters of Quirinus (sixty-nine letters assailing the majority party at the council) were trumpeted around the Continent. Döllinger refused to accept the decision of the Council Fathers and was excommunicated in 1871 by the archbishop of Munich.

The last (eighty-ninth) general congregation was convened on September 1. One week later, Italian troops pushed across the papal frontier and moved against Rome, which fell on September 20. The papal lands had been left virtually defenseless when French troops protecting the city had departed to take part in the Franco-Prussian War. Pius suspended the council and it did not reassemble.

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