By Corrine Winter
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, it seems appropriate to look at some events and ways of thinking that formed the immediate background of the council. This month we will look briefly at the First Vatican Council 1869-1870. While the council was nearly 100 years before Vatican II, the second council was, in fact, called in part to complete the work begun at the first. Vatican I was, in fact, cut short by political events in Europe. Indeed, before he called Vatican II into session, Pope John XXIII officially ended Vatican I.
A preparatory commission set out 51 schemas of which only two received any action. One document addressed errors with respect to the faith; the other dealt with the Church. The document on the Church addressed only two of the issues that had been proposed for discussion: papal primacy and papal infallibility. The latter is often viewed by contemporary Catholics as the one outcome of Vatican I. The document on the faith (Dei Filius) is brief, containing an introduction on the importance of affirming the faith as it has been defined by the councils of the Church, and four chapters: one on God, one on Revelation, one on faith and one on faith and reason. It concludes with condemnations of errors in each of the four areas. The council did not promulgate as official Church teaching the Syllabus of Errors, a list of 80 theses that had been appended to an encyclical by Pope Pius IX in 1864.
The chapter on faith and reason is of interest because of the underlying conflict, mentioned earlier, between the Church and certain expressions of extreme rationalism, materialism and atheism associated with the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement as well as a political one that supported among other things the American and French Revolutions, responded to the medieval concept and exercise of political and intellectual authority as though it were divinely given and not subject to challenge no matter how unjust a law or how unreasonable a teaching.
Enlightenment thinkers asserted the rational skills of all persons and the rights of the individual. Some went so far as to insist that no teaching should be accepted as true if it could not be supported by purely rational thought. That line of thinking left no place for a theology of revelation. While the bishops naturally insisted on the reality of divine revelation, they also maintained the Catholic tradition that faith and reason are not only compatible, but mutually supportive. Thus, neither the limitation of truth to that perceptible by reason alone nor the unthinking memorization of teachings with no thought as to their meaning expresses true faith.
The document on the Church is generally thought to be a much abbreviated version of what the bishops had hoped to publish concerning the nature and mission of the Church. The Franco-Prussian War threatened the safety of those in attendance and the discussion was cut short. Further, a number of the delegates had already left the council before a final vote on the decree could be taken. The declarations on papal primacy and papal infallibility that were promulgated by Vatican I were intended to shore up the Church’s legitimacy and authority in the face of both political and intellectual threats.
It is interesting to note the evidence of concern with the Church as a whole that are found within Pastor Aeternus. Papal primacy is not separated from the primacy of the Church of Rome, and papal infallibility is defined as the divine assistance given to the pope in order to preserve from error the faith of the Church. Thus, its exercise is limited to the definition of teachings on faith and morals that are to be accepted by the whole Church.
Because the work of Vatican I could not be completed, it would fall to the bishops at Vatican II to expound on the roles of the pope and bishops in the context of a more fully developed understanding of the Church.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)