Vatican I and the Church

The constitution on Catholic faith, Dei Films ('Son of God'), the first document solemnly accepted by the bishops at the First Vatican Council, made a passing reference in its introduction to the Church as 'the mystical body of Christ': the renewal brought about by the Council of Trent meant 'an increased vigour in the whole mystical body of Christ'. But the same introduction also listed among the blessings that followed Trent 'a closer union of the members with the visible head' (i.e. the pope) and the growth throughout the whole world of 'the Kingdom of Christ', which was obviously identified with the Catholic Church.195 But Vatican I's second constitution, Pastor Aeternus ('the Eternal Pastor'), did not develop ideas either about the Church as the body of Christ or about the relationship of Church to Kingdom. It solemnly pronounced on two questions: (a) the

194 Quoted by his son, Wilfrid Ward, in The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman Based on his Private Journals and Correspondence (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1912), ii. 213.

195 N. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990 ), i. 804.

primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and (b) his infallible teaching function.

As regards (a), Vatican I taught that the pope exercised 'primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church' (and not merely primacy of honour) and that this primacy of jurisdiction was 'immediately and directly promised and conferred' upon Peter alone by 'Christ the Lord' (DH 3053; ND 819). This universal papal authority is 'ordinary' and 'immediate' (DH 3060; ND 826): 'ordinary', in the sense that it 'goes with the job' of being pope and is not delegated to him by some other authority (e.g. a general council); 'immediate', in the sense that he can intervene anywhere without depending on the permission of the local bishop. In proposing this teaching, the Council maintained that, far from introducing an innovation, it was only reiterating what could be found earlier and was defined by the fifteenth-century Council of Florence (DH 3059; ND 825).196

Some at the Council, nevertheless, objected that such doctrine about papal jurisdiction could be taken to imply that the world is one, huge diocese, with the pope as its bishop. That would reduce the bishops to being papal assistants, officials of a centralized authority who did not exercise their episcopal mission and function in their own right. To avoid this false impression, Pastor Aeternus added:

This power of the Supreme Pontiff is far from standing in the way of the power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction by which bishops who, under appointment of the Holy Spirit [see Acts 20: 28], succeeded in the place of the apostles, feed and rule individually, as true shepherds, the particular flock assigned to them. Rather this latter power is asserted, confirmed, and vindicated by this same supreme and universal shepherd. (DH 3061; ND 827)

This reasonably clear statement did not, however, stop Otto von Bismarck (1815—98), the 'Iron Chancellor' of Germany, from issuing in 1872 a circular in which he attacked Vatican I over the direct and universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff. Such a doctrine, he claimed, reduced the bishops to being no more than executive organs of the pope. The German bishops reacted by accusing Bismarck of 'completely misunderstanding' the Vatican decree, which did not make the bishops simply 'tools of the Pope, his officials, without responsibility of their own'. The German

196 On the whole history of papal primacy, and not just the teaching from the Council of Florence and Vatican I, see K. Schatz, Papal Primacy from Its Origins to the Present (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996).

bishops insisted: 'it is in virtue of the same divine institution upon which the papacy rests that the episcopate also exists. It, too, has its rights and duties, because of the ordinances of God himself, and the Pope has neither the right nor the power to change them.' This, the bishops stressed, had been 'the constant teaching of the Catholic Church' (DH 3115; ND 841). A few weeks later Pope Pius IX came out in emphatic support of the declaration made by the German bishops (DH 3117). The text of Pastor Aeternus, along with the declarations by the German bishops and then Pius IX, demonstrated that the conciliar document about the direct and universal jurisdiction of the pope never intended to belittle the God-given 'rights and duties' of bishops around the world.197

The other major item from Vatican I about the nature of the Church as an institution concerned the teaching office of the pope. In carefully qualified language the status of the most solemn teaching, which—to the disappointment of the W G. Wards of this world—has been exercised very rarely, was expressed as follows:

It is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra ('from the chair' of authority), that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses, through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of Blessed Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith and morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable of themselves, not because of the consent of the Church. (DH 3074; ND 839)

Various conditions are enumerated. To 'speak ex cathedrd is to teach solemnly (i.e. with the fullness of papal authority as universal pastor and successor of St Peter) some revealed truth that all Christians should believe. Hence such papal infallibility is not involved when the pope is teaching on matters other than revealed faith and morals, as, for instance, when John Paul II presented his valuable teaching on the relationship of faith and reason in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio ('Faith and Reason'). Nor can infallibility be involved when it is not manifestly clear that the pope is teaching ex cathedra. Thus the 1968 encyclical on married life and love, Humanae Vitae ('Of Human Life'), which rejected the use of

197 See W. Henn, The Honor of my Brothers: A Brief History of the Relations between the Pope and the Bishops (New York: Crossroad, 2000).

artificial means of birth control, cannot be considered an exercise of that infallible magisterium defined at Vatican I. Pope Paul VI did not propose his teaching with the type of language which would warrant it being considered an ex cathedra teaching; in fact, the Vatican official presenting the encyclical said what amounted to the same thing, when he pointed out that the encyclical did not claim infallible status. In short, no papal teaching should be credited with such status, unless it fulfils all the conditions enumerated—in particular, that the language used by the pope clearly indicates that he intends to teach in the way that Vatican I described as ex cathedra. The 1983 Code of Canon Law for Western Catholics makes this point in summary fashion: 'No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly so' (749. 3).

Infallibility entails that the teaching in question is free from the possibility of error and not that it is necessarily expressed in the best and most helpful manner possible. In fact, one must always distinguish the meaning of the definition from its formulation, which will always be conditioned by the historical circumstances of the time. As we recalled in the last chapter, the truth that is proposed (e.g. the presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist) and that remains 'irreformable' is not simply identical with the terms in which it is formulated and which can be reformulated (e.g. 'transubstantiation'). This instance taken from the Council of Trent (DH 1642; ND 1519) also reminds us of something we have already seen exemplified in many chapters of this book, especially in Chs. 4—7: infallible definitions have normally come from general councils of the Church and not from popes. When offering examples of the exercise of papal infallibility, authors generally cite two definitions: that of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854 (by Pius IX) and that of her Assumption into eternal glory in 1950 (by Pius XII).198

The first defined dogma, which supports the celebration by Western Catholics of a feast that goes back at least to the seventh century, teaches that, by a unique privilege and in view of her Son's merits, Mary of Nazareth was free of all sin, even original sin, from her very conception (DH 2800—4; ND 709). Partly because of differences over original sin, the Orthodox do not honour the Mother of God as immaculately conceived but simply as 'immaculate' or 'all-holy'. The second dogma declares that at the end of her

198 In Creative Fidelity (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), F. A. Sullivan presents arguments for recognizing the exercise of infallible definitions by popes in some other cases.

earthly life Mary was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory (DH 3900—4; ND 713—15). Where Christ 'ascended' by his own power, Mary was 'assumed' by divine power. From the fifth century Eastern Christians celebrated the koimesis ('falling asleep') of Our Lady. 'Assumption' replaced 'dormition' or 'falling asleep' when Rome adopted the feast in the seventh century. Popular faith and practice among Catholics supported both papal definitions for the feasts which they celebrated on 8 December and 15 August, respectively Before defining the Immaculate Conception, Pius IX consulted bishops around the world, even if he did not go on to proclaim the dogma on the formal basis of 'the consent of the Church'. In a similar way, it was only after he consulted Catholic bishops and received requests coming from thousands of laypeople that Pius XII defined the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Once again, 'the formal consent of the Church' was not the essential condition for his doing so.

A key feature of the 1870 definition of papal infallibility appears in the words about the pope sharing in 'the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed'. This infallibility with which the whole Church is endowed guarantees that the tradition of faith that comes from the apostolic Church will be handed on with essential reliability from generation to generation. As we noted in Ch. 3 when expounding the nature of tradition, all members of the Church share, albeit in different ways, in the task of transmitting tradition. John Henry Newman in his 1859 work On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine199 had drawn attention to the loyal sensitivity in matters of faith exercised by the whole body of believers; the Holy Spirit guides their discernment and transmission of revelation (see John 16: 13; 1 John 2: 20, 27). Vatican II was to vindicate the championing by Newman and others of this 'sense of the faithful', even if it spoke rather of 'the sense of faith', which means that the whole People of God, when in agreement, cannot err in matters of belief (Lumen Gentium, 12). The Council was also to spell out, in terms of the common teaching of the bishops around the world, other implications involved in the Redeemer's gift of infallibility to his Church (ibid. 25).

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