The First Vatican Council was called in 1868 by Pope Pius IX and took two years to deliberate on a whole host of issues facing the Catholic Church. In the ecclesiology produced by the Council you can see a very idealised view of church. It is a kind of nosebleed ecclesiology; the altitude is so high that you better bring lots of tissues. Its abstract conceptions are nonetheless impressive. For the council, the Catholic church is a sign of God’s action in the world and a demonstration of God’s goodness. The church is imbued with a virtue as it is the bearer of the message of God to the world. These qualities are her marvellous expansion, her eminent holiness, her inexhaustible fruitfulness, her catholic unity and her invincible stability.

It is also in the First Vatican Council that we see the declaration of Papal Infallibility. But as I work on an essay charting ecclesial development between this first council and the second, I just wanted to jot down some rough lines about the political context surrounding the meetings. You can draw your own conclusions about how relevant they are either to the conclusions that the Council arrived at or indeed, if you are so bold, the problems facing the church today.

Pius IX photo

Pope Pius IX when elected was perceived as a religious liberal, which had nothing to do with him being the first Pope to be photographed! He took over the reins from Gregory XVI (although we all know he succeeded Peter!), a more repressive, dogmatic Pope. Italy at the time was in tumult as it moved towards national unity for the first time, since well, Rome. Pope Pius IX did not respond especially effectively or decisively with the political forces that wanted a secular state called Italia with Roma as its capital (and a government and not a Bishop as its leader). He actually had to go into a kind of exile from the Vatican when his opponents lost patience with him and besieged him in the Quirinal.

He was only able to return to Rome with the help of the French in 1849, with considerable damage done to Papal prestige. The lands known as the Papal States evaporated under Italian nationalistic fervour. In September 1870, weeks after the closing of the Council, Victor Emmanuel siezed Rome and within months the Papacy had lost its temporal and political power. The Italian government had pledged to recompense the Church for its losses but to this day the money has never been claimed. The Papacy at this stage then was reduced to some diplomatic rights, a small plot of land and two palaces.

It was in this tumult and at this time of the loss of millennia of power and prestige and influence that the Council decreed that Popes, in certain circumstances, but over all matters relating to faith and morality, are infallible. One writer I have read on this describes it as “an angry response to the loss of political importance and an ironic confirmation of the same loss”.

Your Correspondent, The failure to fail is the most tragic failure.

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