Skip links

The Twists and Turns That Led to the First Vatican Council

Note: We are sharing this article, originally published in June 2020, for the feast of Blessed Pius IX

The approaching 150th anniversary of the promulgation of Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus (18 July 1870), which defined the dogma of papal infallibility, gives us good reason to pause and consider the nature and exercise of the office of the papacy today. Whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, there is no denying that his exciting, in some ways unprecedented, pontificate has put its finger on a number of neuralgic and unresolved issues of doctrine and practice.

Some among many issues that have come to the fore include: what is the relationship between episcopal collegiality and papal primacy, and between synods and papal primacy? How can the various loci of infallibility outlined at Vatican II—that is, the papacy (Lumen gentium §25), the whole episcopal college (§25), and the sensus fidei of the entire People of God (§12)—concretely function in unison rather than in competition? If the laity really did “come of age” at Vatican II, are lay people only ever going to be guests at synods, pre-selected to confirm some prelate’s opinion? What happens when the pope’s post-synodal exhortation omits or even contradicts a majority opinion of the bishops? More basically, what exactly is “synodality”?

The “Synodal Way” (Synodaler Weg), which so many German bishops are enthusiastic about, is lauded by many progressive Catholics as the sine qua non for a healthy global Church. Others, like George Weigel, whose opinion on this question is representative of a prominent strain of Catholicism in the Northern hemisphere, recently described the Synodal Way as “Wittenberg in slow motion,” that is, a kind of destructive or even heretical Trojan Horse that risks devolving the One, Holy, Catholic Church into a protestantized federation of local churches. Weigel (uncharitably and vaguely) points to “Anglicanism” as a cautionary tale, an inevitable end point for such ecclesial experiments.

In addition to this nexus of ecclesiological issues, the present pontificate has brought to the surface other unresolved doctrinal questions. The 1968 “birth control encyclical,” Humanae vitae, confronted the postconciliar hierarchy with the reality of a majority (indeed, the great majority) of laypeople failing to “receive” a solemn papal teaching. According to the appeal (dubia) submitted by four cardinals in 2016, Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia forces us to confront the possibility of one pope contradicting his immediate predecessors on a very important doctrinal and pastoral matter. While many applauded Pope Francis’s recent change to the Catechism, which declared the death penalty illicit in all cases, others perceived not a Gospel-inspired development of Church teaching but a dangerous contradiction.

A few insist the new teaching marks a rupture from both scripture and the perennial tradition of the Church. Presumably since appealing to an ecumenical council is (historically) associated with Lutheranism and Jansenism, these critics of Pope Francis can only avail themselves of an ultramontanist “appeal,” that is, not to a future council but to the pope himself (and implicitly this is an appeal to a future pope).

Indeed, some of the most unlikely voices have rather forcefully wondered aloud about resisting, contradicting, or even disobeying the pope. For many such erstwhile ultramontanes, the old dictum, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed,” is no longer the panacea it was once advertised as. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention what is, at least symbolically, perhaps the strangest ecclesiological phenomenon we are living through: two men walking around in the white papal cassock. Multiple living popes have not been an issue since 1415. And back then, Catholics were spared the spectacle of seeing likeness of more than one living pope on TV, in the press, and on the internet.

Read more at Church Life Journal 

Share with Friends: