Vatican I

by John O’Malley, Belknap Press, 307pp, £17.95

In June 1868, the apostolic letter Aeterni Patris announced the forthcoming First Vatican Council. It was not the jolliest of papal documents. The Church had been “attacked and trampled on by the enemies of God and man. Everything that is sacred is held in contempt.” Not only “our holy religion but human society itself is plunged into an indescribable state of chaos and misery”, it said.

Optimism lay behind these bleak pronouncements, however. As John O’Malley reports in his splendid new book, ecumenical councils had been commonplace during the medieval era; being staged, on average, every 40 years. And yet more than three centuries had now passed since the momentous meetings at Trent held between 1545 and 1563. Perhaps, O’Malley suggests, the Catholic world had held fast to the idea that Trent had resolved everything, or perhaps popes were nervous about what a new council might have to say about the papacy’s role.

By the mid-19th century, everything had changed. The papacy’s popularity was booming, the challenges to Catholic values and assumptions could scarcely have been more obvious, and Pius IX seems to have been confident that a council would be a triumph.

O’Malley ably sketches the context of Vatican I. The tides of Enlightenment and the cataclysm of revolution had, in a strange way, done much to energise Catholicism. In the late 18th century, the “vast majority of Catholic bishops were proud of their local traditions, happy with relative autonomy from Rome, and jealous of their prerogatives”. A few decades later, a Church under siege was much more amenable to the notion of an assertive papacy.

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