Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma

During an era when liberal ideas, political and religious, were gaining acceptance, the Vatican decreed that the pope was infallible in matters of doctrine and morality. The dogma reaffirmed that the pope was the absolute spiritual ruler of the Roman Catholic Church at a time when his role as temporal ruler of the Papal States was being effectively eliminated.

Summary of Event

In the wake of the French Revolution (1789) French Revolution (1789);aftermath , a rationalist worldview that had been generated in the preceding Enlightenment spread across Europe, challenging traditional Roman Catholic beliefs and the position of the Church in relation to civil governments. The Papal States were placed at risk, as nationalism swept the Italian peninsula, and by 1861, Victor Emmanuel II, ruler of Piedmont-Sardinia, had become king of a united Italy. This nationalist triumph cost the papacy dearly, as its properties were absorbed into the new kingdom. Only Rome and its environs remained under the temporal rule of the pope, and the security of the Holy City depended upon the protection of French troops maintained there by Emperor Napoleon III. Roman Catholic Church;and papal infallibility dogma[Papal infallibility dogma]
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and papal infallibility dogma[Papal infallibility dogma]
Vatican I (1868-1870)
Doellinger, Johann Joseph Ignaz von
[kw]Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma (Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870)
[kw]Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma, Vatican I (Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870)
[kw]Papal Infallibility Dogma, Vatican I Decrees (Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870)
[kw]Infallibility Dogma, Vatican I Decrees Papal (Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870)
[kw]Dogma, Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility (Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870)
Roman Catholic Church;and papal infallibility dogma[Papal infallibility dogma]
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and papal infallibility dogma[Papal infallibility dogma]
Vatican I (1868-1870)
Doellinger, Johann Joseph Ignaz von
[g]Italy;Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870: Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma[4380]
[c]Religion and theology;Dec. 8, 1869-Oct. 20, 1870: Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma[4380]
Manning, Henry Edward

In 1870-1871, France France;and Rome[Rome]
Rome;and France[France] became embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War, requiring it to withdraw its forces from Rome. With no one to oppose it, the kingdom of Italy promptly Rome;Italian occupation of invaded Rome, annexing the last of the Papal States. Efforts to placate Pope Pius IX—now barricaded within the Vatican—failed, leaving a hostile relationship between church and state that would prevail until 1929, when Benito Mussolini Mussolini, Benito negotiated the Lateran Treaty Lateran Treaty (1829) with Pius XI. Pius XI

Concurrent with the political and territorial problems confronting the Vatican, the pope had to deal with ideological currents that threatened the sanctity of the Church’s doctrine as well as his own position at its head. Modern philosophies Philosophy;and theology[Theology] had strongly influenced the study and teaching of theology. At the same time, liberalism in politics was leading to democratic changes in many states.

Currier & Ives print of Pope Pius IX.

(Library of Congress)

When Pius IX became pope in 1846, Italy was bristling with revolutionary fervor, and the Papal States did not escape the effects of that fervor. The new pontiff at first granted concessions to dissidents, but they used their enhanced freedom to agitate for revolution. At one point, uprisings forced Pius to flee, leaving Rome in the grip of rebels. It was then that France responded to his plea for help and sent troops to restore his rule. This experience ended the pope’s sympathy for political liberalism, and for the rest of his reign he opposed rationalism, secularism, and materialism, which he regarded as the roots of democracy. The pope’s paternalism toward his subjects did not satisfy his critics, as he continued to claim sovereignty over lands lost to the emerging kingdom of Italy. The pope condemned the new national government and forbade Catholics to participate in its affairs.

In the midst of Italy’s turmoil but while Rome was still in his hands, Pius IX summoned the first Vatican Council. The purpose of the council was announced only vaguely as being to address modern errors and to advance the purity of morals. Only the pope’s closest advisers knew that he intended the council to define papal infallibility, a doctrine to which most bishops subscribed that held that a pope was always correct in his interpretation of and pronouncements about Christian beliefs and practices. Many of the bishops, however, did not favor the definition and promulgation of that principle as Roman Catholic dogma at a time when Europe was unstable and liberals regarded the Church an obstacle to progress.

Catholics of an ultramontane persuasion—that is, champions of papal supremacy—for some time prior to the call for a council had urged making papal infallibility a dogma. Some, moreover, hoped the council would confirm the Syllabus of Errors Roman Catholic Church;Syllabus of Errors
Syllabus of Errors
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Syllabus of Errors[Syllabus of Errors] , in which Pius IX had denounced eighty propositions of modern belief that he considered to be expressions of rationalism. The Jesuits, Jesuits publishers of Civiltà Cattolica, were vigorous ultramontanes, and their influence with the pope was paramount. English archbishop Henry Edward Manning Manning, Henry Edward wrote to rebut the argument that the time was not opportune to make infallibility a dogma, for which the editors of Civiltà Cattolica commended him. Manning’s influence was to be decisive at the council.

When participants gathered for the opening session on December 8, 1869, it was clear that a substantial minority opposed the dogmatic promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility at that time, even though the pope had claimed it in an 1846 encyclical and had declared the Immaculate Roman Catholic Church;Immaculate Conception dogma
Immaculate Conception dogma Conception of the Virgin Mary a dogma without concilliar action in 1854. A preparatory commission set the agenda and rules of procedure so as to ensure success for Pius’s intention, and 710 bishops, abbots, and generals of religious orders, a large majority of them Italians, assembled for the occasion.

The proceedings of the Vatican Council were secret, while its decisions were announced in public sessions. Latin was the language of discourse. Four areas of consideration occupied the councillors: doctrine, discipline, religious orders, and rites. In each matter, the purpose was to rebut contemporary deviations from Catholic tradition. Ultramontanes promoted a formal definition of papal infallibility as the best means to accomplish that end.

The pope’s expectation of a brief, compliant council was not fulfilled. Several noteworthy ecclesiastics who opposed defining the dogma obstructed progress toward the pope’s goal. Among them was the dean of the theological faculty in Paris, whose resistance prompted the rebuke of Archbishop Manning Manning, Henry Edward . American bishops from St. Louis, Cincinnati, and St. Augustine also joined the minority, and opposition among prelates in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was pronounced.

Although he did not attend the council, Johann Joseph Ignaz von Doellinger, a distinguished church historian at the University of Munich, was a determined critic of the Vatican Council whose erudition scholars would not ignore. The professor published a series of articles against infallibility per se, rather than merely contending that the time for promulgation of the dogma was inopportune. Doellinger’s essays eventually appeared as a book assailing the ultramontane position in general and infallibility in particular. The vigor of his contentions aroused such consternation that some ultramontanes accused him of heresy, and the bishop of Regensburg prohibited theological students to attend his classes. When Doellinger refused to accept the dogma as affirmed by the council, the Church excommunicated him, but his university elevated him to the position of rector.

During the discussions about infallibility, many bishops of the minority were denied an opportunity to speak, and about eighty of them, to no avail, issued a complaint against the closure of debate. On July 13, 1870, the council voted on the Schema de Ecclesia, which contained the definition of infallibility. Of the 601 participants present, 451 affirmed the document, 88 denied it, and 62 accepted it with reservations. Next, 56 members of the minority indicated they would not change their position but would absent themselves from the public proceedings. Some 535 council members attended the final session on October 20, 1870, where all but 2 endorsed the dogma. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Bishop Luigi Riccio of Sicily cast the only dissenting votes, but both submitted to the decision of the council.

Although it was a general council that authorized the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, that action did not signify conciliar supremacy, nor even that the pope required such a council’s validation to promulgate the dogma. Indeed, the official pronouncement asserted the primacy of the pope and proclaimed anathema on all who would deny it. In repetition of the Council of Florence (1439), the first Vatican Council (now known as Vatican I) affirmed papal primacy over the whole world. It proclaimed that the pope’s judgment in matters of doctrine and morality was final, for he was subject to God alone.

Chapter 4 of the official proclamation cited the pope as guardian of orthodoxy whenever he speaks ex cathedra (that is, from the throne, or in his official capacity as pope) on faith and morals as the shepherd and teacher of all Christians. His decrees of this nature are irreformable, because they are licensed by divine authority. The pope, however, is not considered to be infallible in ecclesiastical administration and discipline, and he alone decides when his pronouncements are or are not pronoucements ex cathedra. He is bound to act in accord with divine revelation and must rule in harmony with earlier definitions and creedal statements.


An immediate effect of Vatican I was the secession of a group of dissidents who formed the Old Catholic Church rather than accept the dogma of papal infallibility. Against the advice of Doellinger, the Old Catholics established congregations across Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, but these congregations won only a few thousand adherents.

Vatican I left the Roman Catholic Church securely in the control of a papal monarch, who at that time was committed to ideological combat with the modern world. Other Christian churches recoiled in contempt when the council issued its decrees. At the very time that other Christian bodies were drawing together in ecumenical relations, the Roman Catholic Church stood aloof, maintaining that it alone possessed the true Christian faith. Within the Church, the ultramontane faction had triumphed, to the delight of the Jesuits Jesuits . In the era since the promulgation of the infallibility dogma, the pope has invoked ex cathedra only once—in 1954, when Pius XII declared the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven a dogma of the faith.

Further Reading

  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1990. A lucid survey by a liberal Catholic author, this work includes substantial coverage of Vatican I.
  • Bressolette, Claude. “Vatican I.” In Encyclopedia of Christian Theology. 3d ed. Edited by Jean-Yves Lacoste. New York: Routledge, 2005. This excellent summary offers a methodical coverage of the first Vatican Council and the dogma of papal infallibility.
  • Bury, J. B. History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by R. H. Murray. London: Macmillan, 1930. This secularist history and interpretation emphasizes papal hostility to modern ideas.
  • Kueng, Hans. Infallible? An Unresolved Enquiry. Rev. ed. Translated by Eric Mossbach. London: SCM Press, 1994. The work of a controversial Catholic theologian in disfavor with the Vatican, this book expresses the concerns of many modern Church members.
  • MacGregor, Geddes. The Vatican Revolution. London: Macmillan, 1958. After a critical Protestant analysis of the issues, this book offers the full text of the Vatican decrees.
  • Pottmeyer, Hermann J. Towards a Papacy in Communion: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I and II. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. New York: Crossroad, 1998. An analysis of the doctrines issued by the first two Vatican Councils and their effects upon the history of the Roman Catholic papacy.
  • Tierney, Brian. Origins of Papal Infallibility. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972. This thorough study reflects the liberal view of an unorthodox Catholic historian often at odds with his church.

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