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21. Vatican I and II: Roman Catholicism and Modernity

VATICAN I: Origins

Three centuries separated the council of Trent (1563) and the twentieth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church known as Vatican I (1869). Vatican I was a response to a series of perceived threats to Roman Catholic influence and power in Europe. In the years following the Reformation Catholic states were by and large more problematic to deal with that Protestant ones. Catholic France’s interference and practical subjugation of the papacy in the 17th century climaxed under Louis XIV when he effectively took over the French church in 1682. Louis declared that the French monarch had power to determine which papal pronouncements were valid for the French Church (Kelly, 147). The French Revolution saw the French Republic wage a war against the Catholic Church both in terms of arms and ideology. Napoleon invaded the Papal states in 1796 annexing parts of them, and the French government arrested Pope Pius VI who died a prisoner in France in 1799.

The Rejection of Modernity: The Long 19th Century

In response to modernity’s perceived hostility to traditional Catholicism Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846) forbade the introduction of railways into the papal state as he saw industrialization as a threat to Catholic family values (Kelly, 154). Writing in 1832 Gregory XVI claimed the greatest dangers facing the church were (1) Freedom of conscience (2) Freedom of the Press, and (3) Separation of Church and State (Kelly, 155). Gregory proved to be deeply unpopular with citizens of the Papal state and several times had to resort to deploying the army to put down populist uprisings against him (ODCC, 713). The nineteenth century would prove a long one for Roman Catholicism.

Infallibility in the face of uncertainty

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) was seen as a moderate when compared to his predecessor Gregory XVI but he too would retreat into a defensive conservatism in the face of external threats to Papal power in modern Europe. He vigorously opposed the political movement to unite Italy and employed French troops against the Italian army in 1850. Pius IX believed he needed to strengthen the power of the Papacy if not politically then theologically. Consequently, he declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary which stated that: That ‘from the first moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin’ (‘Ineffabilis Deus’, 8 Dec. 1854). Catholic scholar Joseph Kelly notes, “many theologians, including the master of Catholic theology Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) believed that only Jesus had been conceived free of original sin because these theologians could not reconcile Jesus’ universal salvific activity with the notion of an immaculate conception of Mary.” (158)

Pope Pius IX

Modern Errors

Pius later produced The Syllabus of Errors in 1864 which condemned a list of 89 modern errors including: Freedom of religion (§15), Protestantism (§18), any responsibility of the Papacy for causing the Great Schism of 1054 (§38), Separation of Church and State (§55), Progress, liberalism and modern civilization (§80).

The First Vatican Council 1869

As the Papacy was losing control of Italy and the Papal States Pius sought to maintain a tight grip on the Catholic Church. He called an ecumenical council and the issue of Papal Infallibility was proposed. Several Catholic Theologians at the council felt it was a bad idea (considering the condemnation of Pope Honorius I in the seventh century for heresy!). Cardinal Filippo Guidiof Bologna tried to steer the council away from a decree on Papal infallibility but he was shouted down as he addressed the council. He was summoned before the Pope to answer for himself. When the Cardinal attempted to argue that His position was supported by many Cardinals and by the Tradition of the Church Pius snapped back “I am Tradition!” (Kelly, 170).

Papal Infallibility was declared a dogma of the Church, and understand as “when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibilitywhich the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.”

The council came to an abrupt end when Rome was captured by Italian nationalists and the Papal States were consigned to history. Roman Catholicism’s opposition to modernity was firmly entrenched in the 19th century but would undergo a radical reassessment in the 20th century.


Some have regarded the 21st Ecumenical Council of Catholic Church as the end of the Counter Reformation and the beginning of a new era in the Church. “In 1979, five years before his death, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner spoke of Vatican II as opening a third epoch in Christian history. The first epoch was the brief period of Jewish Christianity, which began to end as early as Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles. The second epoch ran from that time until Vatican II, the period of Hellenism and the European church. The third period, the post-council to present, is the period of the world church.” (O’Malley, 13).

By the mid 20thcentury several influential Catholic Theologians in France and Germany were seeking to move past the conservative and largely scholastic and uncritical Catholic Theology they inherited from the 19th century. In France Nouvelle Théologie sought to look back to Patristic theology as a return to the sources of Catholic Theology (Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac). This was a Resourcement, a looking back to the past that focused more on a biblical and patristic theology before Catholicism sought to define itself in response to the Enlightenment. It was a “reaction against the rigid propositional theology of seminary textbooks” (O’Malley 16). Theologians like Karl Rahner sought a more pastoral style of theology over anathemas and decrees. These theologians, including some younger ones (Küng, Ratzinger) would later influence the tone and theology of Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Council 1963-1965

Pope John XXIII called an ecumenical council for the Renewal of the Church. Prior to becoming pope was a teacher of Church History and was viewed with some suspicion by certain conservatives at Rome. Pope John died in June 1963 and the Vatican council was continued by his successor Pope Paul VI.

Key issues in the background at Vatican II

Among the key issues in the background to Vatican II were the questions of the Development of Doctrine (was is it a valid concept?), and how should the centre of the Church (Papal curia) relate and dialogue with the periphery (Bishop, Priests, laity). The council soon divided into two camps the majority (more progressive) and the minority (conservatives). The Papal curia was represented by Cardinals like Ottaviani who bristled at talk of reform or evolution of dogma. He became increasingly criticized both within the council and outside it. “Jokes about him circulated broadly and began to appear in newspapers and journals. One morning, supposedly, Ottaviani called a taxi and directed the driver to take him to the council. The driver hit the road for Trent.” (O’Malley, 137).

Among the key documents that Vatican II produced are the following three: LUMEN GENTIUM, DEI VERBUM, and UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO.


In a tone markedly different to Vatican I and Trent, the council spoke of the Church as the People of God and focused more affirming the mystery and vitality of the Church’s commission rather than condemning those outside it. While still affirming that membership of the church was necessary for salvation (§14) it went on to speak how “The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honoured with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter” (§15). Protestant’s and Eastern Orthodox were described as Christians rather schismatics and heretics.


This document was the source of much debating and controversy within the council. A question that was debated at Trent was addressed again at Vatican II. Are Tradition and Scripture two sources of Revelation, or one source and two modes? The council decided that: “There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end... Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” §9. “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” §10.

Instead of simply warning of the dangers of misreading the Bible, the council encouraged Catholics to read the Bible and spoke of Scripture’s central importance to the Christian life.


In a radical change of tone from previous councils Vatican II spoke of Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians no longer described as heretics but as Separated Brethren. They were described as Christian communities and Christian churches: “the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.” §3

Concerning division the council declared that: “Men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” §3. Concerning unity with those outside the Catholic Church: “it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” §3. “The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.” §3 Furthermore Vatican II reasoned that: “It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.” §3

The work of ecumenism was a work that all Catholics were called to (§4).

Catholicism: But not as your fathers knew it?

But what about the anathemas of Trent? How could these still be true, and Vatican II still be true? During that council Bishop Carlos Banderia de Mello raised a question concerning the tone and content of Vatican II: “It seems to me that…there is a contradiction between our council and all the other councils. In the others they always anathematized those who did not accept Catholic doctrine, but we do not do that in ours…I want an explanation as to why we are acting so differently.” (O’Malley, 179). It is an important question, and one that did not receive a direct answer from the council fathers. In reality it was the influence of Catholic Nouvelle Théologie and Resourcement that sought to move beyond the long 19th century and help the Catholic church dialogue with the world of modernity. This theological shift was reflected both in the tone and content of Vatican II and its consequences are still being worked out for Catholicism today.

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