Papal Infallibility at Vatican I

I have observed the misery of my people . . . ;
I have heard their cry. . . .
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them (Exod 3:7f).


11. Papal Infallibility at Vatican I–
the Historic Contribution of Archbishop Purcell

Dr. Aaron Milavec

It was the best of times and the worst of times.

During the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution transformed the shape of European living. On the eve of Vatican I, 1869, railroads crisscrossed all of Europe linking together all major cities and ports. People, goods, and ideas travelled from place to place. At the same time, however, the same steam engine which was bringing people and goods and ideas together was the force creating the new power looms which employed women and children twelve hours each day in poorly ventilated sweat shops wherein little thought was given to a just wage or to health hazards. Thus, while the steam engine opened up efficient travel and commercial prosperity to some, for many others, it meant exploitation and crowding in substandard urban hovels–something which was unknown during the previous century. Thus, the nineteenth century was the best of times or the worst of times depending upon the degree to which one was profiting from or being exploited by the industrial revolution.

During the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the democratic ideal spawned by the French Revolution was exported by the armies of Napoleon (1796-1815) all over Europe. In its wake, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of education were being increasingly called for by way of replacing the rigid censorship and thought control which characterized the previous century. Meanwhile, the divine right of kings and the privileges of the aristocracy were increasingly being eroded by the notion that no legitimate government can exist without the consent of the people. In 1830, the French Bourbon monarchy was scrapped for a second time and restless forces of democracy made a fresh try at instituting a representative government responsive to the will of the people. Even among the Italian states, a move was on to unify all of Italy under a single, democratic government. Thus, after a period of over a thousand years wherein the popes were perceived as having both ecclesiastical and political powers, now there were Italian Catholics challenging the legitimacy of papal political power right in the Vatican State itself (which, at the beginning of the century, included approximately one-third of modern-day Italy). Thus, the nineteenth century was the best of times or the worst of times depending upon what side of the royalist-democratic spectrum that one stood.

During the nineteenth century, the clashes between modern science and theology mushroomed. This was the epoch when the theological interpretation of diseases as “divine scourges provoked by human sin” gradually gave way to natural explanations which promoted public sanitation, personal hygiene, and inoculations in the place of prayers and acts of piety. In Berlin, during the period of 1783-1801, over four thousand children died of smallpox. After vaccinations had become available, the years 1814-1822 showed a ten-fold reduction in the number of deaths (White:59). By the end of the century, the vaccination which was called “a defiance to heaven itself, even to the will of God” by the Anti-Vaccination Society of physicians and clergy in 1798 was being declared as God’s blessing since, in 1890, only one inhabitant of London died of smallpox. On the other hand, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1848) and his Descent of Man (1871) so unsettled traditional notions of the meaning of Genesis that, in the minds of many, science needed to be checked and humbled by theology as it had been during the time of Galileo. Thus, the nineteenth century was the best of times or the worst of times depending upon what side of the scientific-theological spectrum that one stood.


The purpose of this Case Study is to examine the conduct of the bishops of Vatican I against the backdrop of the climate of the nineteenth century. In order to focus and make manageable the vast amount of materials pertinent to this question, special attention shall be given to the role played by Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati both during and after the council.

 Unrest Within the Papal States

The papal policy of opposition to the democratic ideal began as a reaction to the French Revolution and continued through the succession of popes down to Pius IX (1846-78). Holmes, in his balanced treatment of this era, demonstrates that some minor reforms were put into practice; yet, in principle, political absolutism was perceived as a necessary and permanent character of the government in the papal territories:

Popes and their officials felt committed by history, principle and prestige to the theocratic government of the Papal States. They refused or failed to see that geography, politics and the general climate of [Italian] opinion would inevitably destroy this independent theocracy. . . . Leo XII [d. 1829], Gregory XVI [d. 1846], and Pius IX [d. 1878] denounced democratic liberties precisely because the extension of such liberties to the Papal States was incompatible with theocratic government . . . (Holmes:235).

Since the troops of Napoleon had invaded northern Italy and left behind democratic ideals and practices, it was doubly hard later when, after the demise of Napoleon, everything was restored back to the way it had been. To effect and to maintain this restoration against the wishes of so many inhabitants, a proportionate degree of repression was necessary. Accordingly, those branded as “subversives” by virtue of belonging to “subversive organizations” were sometimes dealt with very harshly:

At Ravenna in 1825 the Cardinal Legate, acting on information provided by the Sanfedisti [secret police] and using emergency powers conferred on him by the pope, sentenced 7 men to death, 54 to forced labour, 6 to life imprisonment, 53 to [limited] imprisonment, 2 to exile and 286 to police supervision. An attempt to assassinate the Legate was followed by a number of arrests, summary trials and executions; the bodies were left hanging on the gallows as an example to others (Holmes:234).

Such brutal practices had the effect of turning some Italian Catholics against the papacy. Most Catholics, however, found themselves in the position of upholding the papacy as part of their spiritual heritage while, at the same time, wishing to see some sort of power sharing by the pope when it came to his political and territorial authority. It was not surprising, therefore, that in early 1849, the year after democratic revolutions flared up all over Europe, Pius IX was greeted by Italian “democrats” demanding an end to the temporal power of all aristocratic princes (the pope included) and an establishment of a Roman Republic uniting all Italy into a single State. After his election in 1848, Pius IX was initially sympathetic to these aspirations. He declared a general amnesty for political prisoners and made it possible to draft a constitution for the Papal States.

11ItalymapIn the minds of some Italians, it was even possible, had Pius IX continued to demonstrate a moderately supportive attitude toward the democratic ideal, to anticipate free elections wherein he might become the principal sovereign in a unified Italian State. Pius IX, however, quickly grew disenchanted with elected representatives who made their own decisions and failed to consult him at every turn. In fact, Pius IX negotiated with Louis-Napoleon of France to have French troops invade the Papal States in order to brutally suppress the Roman republic and to restore his absolute papal monarchy.  From 1850 onward, therefore, the presence of French troops was required in the Papal States by way of enforcing absolutist papal claims against the growing sympathy among Italians for democracy.

 [Pius IX] condemned the revolution as well as the idea that the Church might actually benefit from the loss of the temporal power. From then on Pius IX simply refused to distinguish between his spiritual and temporal power but used the former to defend the latter; the Papal States were the Patrimony of St. Peter, the material means given by God to safeguard the spiritual independence of the pope (Holmes:240).

During the years of 1860-1861, revolutions had succeeded in overturning monarchies in southern Italy. In the following year, twelve thousand Italian priests signed a petition requesting Pius IX to offer some words of support for democracy and for Italian aspirations. Pius IX flatly refused to do so. Those priests signing the petition were disciplined for their trouble.

11VattroopsThe Vatican States which had been initially formed by Charlemagne in 800 C.E. and extended in the course of history to include forty thousand square miles were thus irreversibly lost to the tide of Italian democracy during the period 1859 to 1870. The picture shown here was taken on 25 April 1870 when Pius IX was blessing the troops in St. Peter’s Square. These French troops were the backbone of Vatican resistance to the mad dogs of democracy. Three months later, when the French troops prepared to withdraw due to their losses in the Franco-Prussian War, Vatican I came to an abrupt end and the Papal States were invaded by the Italian revolutionaries. After the troops of Victor Emmanuel swept into the city of Rome on 20 September 1870, they lowered the yellow and white papal flags and hoisted the tricolored flag of the democratic revolutionaries. The Italian crowds went wild. For them, this was their liberation from the tyranny of papal rule. The plebiscite which followed demonstrated that the people over whom the pope had ruled preferred democracy one thousand to one.

Pius IX, from that time onward, presented himself as “prisoner of the Vatican” and called upon the Catholic monarchs of Europe to reverse “the unlawful seizure” of the Papal States. Holy cards were distributed in Italy and Germany depicting the pope lying on a bed of straw as though he were actually a prisoner. He received many letters and prayers of sympathy but no military support was forthcoming. Just months after the Vatican I declaration of papal infallibility, therefore, papal aspirations of an absolute pope ruling an absolute state came to a crashing halt. The pope, therefore, who did so much to foster Catholic piety and who held such promise as a superb orator and open-hearted pastor ended up disillusioned and defeated. Even conservative Catholics who supported Pius IX to the end report that his funeral had to be held in the dead of the night for fear that his body might be seized by the great number of enemies he had created and thrown into the Tiber.

Outside of Italy, many conservative Catholics continued to claim that the temporal power and possessions of the papacy were both desirable and necessary. Even in the United States where democracy had become a way of life after 1776, one finds Fr. Richard Brennan writing as late as 1881 to a sympathetic Catholic audience as follows:

 Although during the first three centuries of Christianity . . . the Sovereign Pontiff was not a Temporal Ruler, and although the Temporal Power may not be absolutely necessary to the Church, yet the Catholics of all tongues and climes have spoken out on the subject with marvelous unanimity. . . .  All Catholics believe that the Temporal Power is necessary in order to insure the independence of their Chief Pastor and to secure the untrammelled liberty of the Church. They demand and will accept nothing less than the recognition [and restoration] by all men of the ancient rights and privileges of the Holy See (Brennan:153).

Since Catholics in the United States were generally regarded as “immigrants” and “second-class citizens” by a government that had no sympathy for absolute monarchies, there was no prospect that Catholics would ever shape public policy in favor of the Papacy. Moreover, Ulysses S. Grant was elected the 18th president of the United States from 1969-1877 following his success as military commander in the American Civil War. During this reconstruction period, Grant continued occupying the South with federal troops.

When no one came to his aid,  Pius IX refused every overture to arrange a meeting with Victor Emmanuel, the King of Italy. In retaliation for the loss of the Papal States, the Pope excommunicated Victor Emmanuel in 1860 along with “all usurpers of the Papal States, all those who carry out their orders, all those who advise them or support them.” He furthermore forbad Catholics, under pain of excommunication, from taking any part in Victor Emmanuel’s “illegitimate” government, whether as electors or as candidates.[i] This embittered large numbers of Italian Catholics and demonstrated just how narrow and self-serving the papacy had become. Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati was distressed by this papal abuse of power (as will become plain in the final part of this case study).

This situation of estrangement between the papacy and the Italian government remained in force even during the time of Leo XIII (1878-1903) and Pius X (1903-1914). Only at the end of World War I, did Benedict XV (1914-1922) finally accepted the status quo and gave Catholics permission to take part in the political life of Italy. His successor, Pius XI (1922-1939) finally established the Concordat of 1929 with the State of Italy which granted full recognition to the Italian government in return for a large financial settlement and for the guaranteed sovereignty and independence of the Vatican City-State. Unfortunately, even while Pius XI consistently opposed totalitarianism, the Concordat of 1929 with Mussolini sent a mixed message to the Catholic people.

The Immaculate Conception

Two events occurred prior to Vatican I which had a direct bearing upon the promise and the dangers associated with the doctrine of papal infallibility. These two events are the following:

(a) 08 Dec 1854: The solemn declaration by Pius IX of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as “firmly and constantly held by all the faithful”–the first modern use of papal infallibility

(b) 08 Dec 1864: Exactly ten years later, Pius IX issued the “Syllabus of Errors”–a catalog of eighty modern errors which the Church was pledged to oppose

The declaration of the Immaculate Conception cannot be understood without recalling how our great-grandparents were entirely immersed in popular piety to Mary. Devotions to the Blessed Virgin (in the form of scapulars, medals, novenas, litanies, rosaries, pilgrimages, May altars) abounded. The constant theme was, “To the Son through the Mother.”

11ImmaculateConceptionPius IX solemnly declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary[iia] on December 8th, 1854. He did not do this, however, as an isolated act. Prior to his declaration, (a) he gleaned the results of several theological commissions who found no insurmountable obstacle and (b) he polled by letter the judgment of the bishops distributed throughout the world and discovered that 90% of them affirmed that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was already believed by the faithful within their diocese.

Four years later, an unexpected miracle was reported from Lourdes. Bernadette Soubirous, an uneducated French girl of fourteen, reported to her bishop that she had been visited by a “mysterious lady” in an apparition. The bishop wisely asked Bernadette to ask of the lady who she was. When she did so, she received the reply, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette reported this reply and, upon questioning, had no precise knowledge of what “Immaculate Conception” meant.

Within the context of a church gripped by Marian devotions, many devout Catholics were prompted to conclude that Mary herself had appeared to Bernadette and affirmed the very dogma which the pope, in his wisdom, had solemnly declared four years earlier. Some pastors were even willing to tell their congregations that “God whispered divine truths directly into the pope’s ear” or that “when Pius IX thinks, it is God who is thinking in him.” The apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous, therefore, not only served to affirm Mary’s role in the Catholic world of piety, it served also to allow Mary to endorse the judgments of Pius IX himself.

The Syllabus of Errors

11Pius9Exactly ten years after Pius IX had declared the Immaculate Conception, the Syllabus of Errors was promulgated. The Syllabus of Errors was an index of eighty errors which had been catalogued from various papal documents. The Syllabus was greeted by many Catholics as signaling the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff to take the lead in challenging the errors which were misleading and misguiding the modern world. For example, nearly all Catholics were content to find that the Syllabus saw fit to condemn new strains of German Lutheran scholarship which proposed that miracles in the bible were “the invention of poets” and that the Gospels themselves “contained mythological inventions.” Other Catholics, meanwhile, were disturbed to find among those legitimate errors condemned, propositions which seemed calculated to pit Catholics against modern science and against democratic aspirations. These two aspects will be examined in more detail:

(a) In 1859, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species and gave fresh impetus to those who wanted to use Darwin’s thesis to affirm that natural reason had the independent power to discover truths of nature which might serve to correct the “unscientific” notions within the Scriptures–for example, the six days of creation in Genesis. Pius IX, who had only a superficial training in both theology and science, was influenced by alarmists who wanted him to resolve conflicts between the natural sciences and theology by reasserting the absolute superiority of divine revelation over human reason. It is not surprising that Pius IX had this to say about Darwin’s thesis:

[Darwinism] is repugnant to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself. . . .   Pride, after rejecting the Creator of all things and proclaiming man independent . . . goes so far as to degrade man himself to the level of the unreasoning brutes. . . .

Out of this milieu, therefore, it is not surprising to find that the Syllabus of Errors condemned the following propositions:

5. Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to continuous and indefinite progress, which corresponds to the progress of human reason.

9. All the dogmas of the Christian religion without distinction are the object of natural science and philosophy; and human reason, cultivated so much throughout history, can by its natural powers and principles arrive at the true knowledge of all, even the more hidden dogmas. . . .

12. The decrees of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Congregations hinder the free progress of science. [One can think here of the case of Galileo.]

The Syllabus, it should be noted, did not assign any of these erroneous propositions to particular persons. Charles Darwin, for example, held none of them. The same can be said for most of Darwin’s scientific supporters. The opposition between theology and science which so often characterized the debates during this era only rarely spilled over into making such assertions. What left informed Catholics uneasy is that the Syllabus provided no middle ground for those who wanted to affirm the conclusions of Darwin and, at the same time, to affirm the hand of God in creation. This was another area in which Archbishop Purcell was diametrically opposed to Pius IX. This will become clear in the latter part of this case study.

(b) A second wave of events which surrounded the appearance of the Syllabus was the success of the Italian democrats in southern Italy (1860-1861) and the petition of twelve thousand clergy urging Pius IX to offer encouragement to the democrats (1863). Faced with this threat so near to home, many Catholics undoubtedly understood the Syllabus as pitting Pius IX against the democrats. Consider the following:

76. The abolition of the civil power which the Apostolic See possesses would be extremely conducive to the liberty and prosperity of the Church.

77. In this age of ours it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other [Protestant] cults whatsoever.

80. The Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile and adapt himself to progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.

This final “error” in the Syllabus was undoubtedly meant to be the most global in its application.

11DupanloupDuring the years following 1864, Catholics debated among themselves the meaning and the application of the Syllabus. The French Bishop Dupanloup of Orléans (1849-1878) worked night and day on a commentary which he crafted by way of demonstrating that Catholics could interpret the Syllabus and yet advance democratic and liberal ideals at the same time. For example, relative to error #77 cited above, Dupanloup explained that, in the ideal Catholic state, only one religion would be officially sanctioned. In the real world, however, where Protestant and Jewish minorities existed, governments had to make allowances and compromises, especially in the field of public education and of civil marriages. Dupanloup’s commentary sold out five editions and was translated into all the European languages.

Within Europe in this period, there were large groups of Catholics whose sentiments were royalist and Ultramontane. The term “Ultramontane” referred to those Catholics who favored the centralization of decision making in the hands of the pope and his curia as opposed to diocesan or national councils. The Ultramontanes strongly favored the Syllabus of Errors because it challenged the civil unrest that resulted from the “so-called” freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of Protestants and Jews to open their own schools and publish their own books in Catholic countries.

On 08 December 1866, when Pius IX announced his intention to convoke a General Council, many Ultramontane hailed this event as a signal that the pope planned to take change of the church and to bring liberal bishops (such as Dupanloup) into line with the Syllabus which had been published two years earlier. Many even hoped that the pope would use the powers which enabled him to proclaim the Immaculate Conception in 1854 to declare the entire Syllabus as binding on the faith and consciences of all Catholics for all times and for all places. His choice of December 8th was powerfully symbolic since it registered how Mary at Lourdes had approved his judgment.   Meanwhile, the preparations for the council were made in utmost secrecy by the curia and by a preparatory commission composed entirely of hand-picked bishops and theologians with a demonstrated record of loyalty to papal aspirations.

The Composition of the Council

Nearly a thousand were invited to the council. At its solemn opening on 08 December 1969, 744 were present. From time to time the numbers nearly reached 800. At the closing sessions when the final vote was taken on the schema on papal infallibility, only 535 were present. Many bishops had left early. Some left due to sickness or due to the heat. Still others left after signing a protest letter which told Pius IX that they had been unable, in conscience, to support declaring the dogma of papal infallibility, and, at the final session, did not want to give the Holy Father further pain by again signaling their disagreement. Among them was Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati of whom we will hear much more shortly.

Of the 744 present at the opening session, well over a hundred were missionary bishops from the various colonial empires which marked the nineteenth century. Another 120 were titular bishops who had no assigned diocese but belonged to the Roman Curia and the diplomatic corps. Another fifty were superiors of religious orders of men. The table below represents how the larger groupings of bishops stood with respect to their nationality:

Origin Bishops Present
[total number eligible]
Italian States        200 [294]
French        70 [90]
U.S.A.        46 [52]
Austrian Empire        58 [65]
Spain        36 [66]
Latin American Countries        30 [77]
Ireland        19
England        12


What immediately stands out is that the various Italian states had so many bishops when, in effect, the whole Italian peninsula is only half the size of France. This is because the size of a diocese in Italy was traditionally very small. Given the disproportionate Italian representation, Bishop Dupanloup of France argued strongly for the necessity of obtaining nearly unanimous agreement rather than just the stipulated majority when it came time to approving any dogmatic decrees which were being actively promoted to strengthen the papacy of Pius IX:

If ever moral unanimity was requisite for a dogmatic decision, it is so at a Council like the Vatican where there are 276 Italian bishops [now present] . . . while the bishops present from all Catholic countries of Europe, exclusive of Italy, only number 265. . . . At a Council so composed, a mere majority can never decide [dogmatic issues]; and the less so when the personal intervention of the Pope himself makes itself felt . . . (cited in Döllinger:2.591).

Secrecy and the Index

The secrecy which surrounded the documents being prepared for approval at the Council was extended once the bishops themselves arrived. Each bishop was asked to take an unprecedented oath not to reveal any of the proceedings or documents emerging from the Council. The purported reasons for this oath of silence was to prevent outside interference in the deliberations of the Council itself. Since the actual texts and topics of the Council were only revealed once the bishops arrived, such oaths had the effect of preventing bishops from consulting with trusted priests and theologians whom they knew and trusted back home. Right from the very beginning, however, many bishops ignored this oath by sharing information in private letters and asking advice of competent individuals back home. Some even went so far as to leak information to reporters who, in turn, reported on the events in the Council from anonymous “private sources.” In the Allgemine Zeitung, for instance, sixty-nine detailed letters were printed which reported nearly every aspect of the Council’s deliberations during the ten months during which it was in session. From the vantage point of the minority, press leaks undoubtedly appeared justified in view of the fact that the handful of bishops who had official permission to speak to the press were drawn exclusively from the Ultramontanes because Pius IX wanted his version of the Council to be broadcast to the world.

Pius IX was sorely vexed by the “private sources” that were communicating with the press and offering an inside view of the real conflicts and the real politicking that dominated the debates. Accordingly, Pius IX prepared a personal communication that was read to the assembled Council on 14 January 1970 which declared that anyone communicating anything to those outside the Council would be guilty of a mortal sin in view of the violation of their oath of secrecy. Did this dry up the press leaks? Not at all. Why so? Those making the leaks were aware that Pius IX had already staked the decks such that his agenda for the Council was everywhere being favored.

Meanwhile the curia had already made certain that historical writings critical of papal infallibility were on the Index of Forbidden Books, thereby making it unlawful for Catholics to publish, to read or to consult them. For example, John Henry Newman petitioned the theologian Peter Renouf to research and publish a detailed study on Pope Honorius I relative to the orthodoxy of his Christology. His book, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius was placed on the Index on 14 December 1868. When the most competent church historian in Germany, Professor Johann von Döllinger published his The Pope on the Council under the pseudonym “Janus” so as to protect his reputation, it was likewise placed on the Index on 26 November 1869. The French study by Bishop Henri Maret, Dean of the Theology Faculty at the Sorbonne, escaped this same fate only because the French bishops locked arms and resisted the curial attempts to impose a censorship on works which did not come out in favor of papal infallibility (Hasler:60).

The Council Debates Begin

The first document given to the Council fathers for deliberation upon their arrival pertained to “the errors stemming from modern rationalism.”

It immediately became the object of strong criticism. To many fathers it was obscure, insufficiently pastoral and too aggressive. . . .   After six sessions of debate, the presidents [of the Council] announced on 10 January that the schema was being returned to the deputies for revision (Jedin 8:17).

The curia had originally decided that the bishops would be restricted to accepting or rejecting prepared documents as a whole.[iib] This very quickly broke down as unworkable and unacceptable. A system of revising documents was thereby improvised. This had the advantage of giving the bishops a greater degree of control in editing those texts that were going to be finally passed by the Council. On the other hand, this had the disadvantage of greatly complicating and prolonging the deliberations of the Council. This last point was critical.

The Petition to Advance the Discussion on Infallibility

It was no secret that some prelates, foremost among them Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, came to the Council with the ambition of declaring papal infallibility. When one looked at the schema on the church, however, the possibility of even getting to debate the issue was buried deep in the schema (chapter 11) and many long months away. In part, the chapter headings looked like this:

Ch. 8: The indefectability of the church
Ch. 9: The infallibility of the church
Ch. 10: The power of the church
Ch. 11: The primacy of the Roman Pontiff

Cardinal Manning quickly noted that the preparatory commission had not made “papal infallibility” a major division of the schema. Thus, he had the option of pressing “papal infallibility” as a special manifestation of “church infallibility” in Chapter 9 or he could press for an expansion of “primacy” in Chapter 11 to include “infallibility.” Given the slow progress of the deliberations on the schema on the Church, Cardinal Manning in collaboration with other Ultramontane bishops decided to circulate a private petition addressed to Pius IX himself to the effect that the bishops wanted to turn their attention immediately to Chapter 11 and set about defining and declaring papal infallibility in addition to papal primacy. During January, this petition was signed by 450 supporters (roughly 60% of the participants).

As this petition was making its rounds, those who opposed treating the infallibility of the pope independent of the larger and prior infallibility of the church became alarmed and gathered around Bishop Dupanloup who began to gather signatures on a counter petition requesting that the pope forego any declaration of his personal infallibility as untimely. In all, 136 Council fathers signed this counter-petition (roughly 18% of the participants).

Bishop Spalding of St. Louis, dissatisfied with both extremes, tried to formulate a simple set of three propositions which might satisfy both the majority and minority parties that were forming. Relative to the Americans:

Ten American prelates, including two archbishops and one abbot, had signed the petition put out by the Villa Caserta majority committee [inspired by Manning]. Another six, headed by Archbishop Spalding, asked for an indirect and implicit definition of papal infallibility without mentioning the term. Twenty archbishops and bishops signed the English-speakers’ minority petition [inspired by Dupanloup] (Hennesey:124).

From this, one can see that the American hierarchy was divided with the majority favoring the counter-petition inspired by the French bishop Dupanloup.

Thus, Pius IX had three distinct petitions before him, each with its own agenda for redirecting the energies of the Council. On 29 April 1870, Pius IX conceded to the demands of the petition of the majority. The doctrinal committee out of which this petition had originally emerged immediately drafted an independent document which dealt with papal primacy and infallibility and presented it to the Council fathers on 09 May 1870. Vigorous debates arose in the Council. Advocates for papal infallibility dominated the discussion—as one might have expected.

Advocates of papal infallibility endeavored to show that when Christ appointed Peter to be head of the church (Matt 16:18) this implied not only a primacy of jurisdiction but immunity from error as well. How could Peter have been expected to lead the Church if, at the same time, he could mislead it into error? In the words of Cardinal Manning:

Either Christianity is divinely preserved [from error] or it is not. If it be divinely preserved, we have a divine certainty of faith. If it be not divinely preserved . . . , we have no divine certainty that we believe was divinely received. . . .   The definition of the infallibility of the head of the Christian Church means this, and no more than this; that God . . . has made provision that His Church shall never fail . . . (Manning, 1877:181).

In England, the Catholic community was generally distrusted by the Anglican majority. Infallibility might have appealed to Manning because it gave Catholics reason to continue to uphold their minority status and to raise the importance of the papacy (which was a bone of contention with the Anglicans). Needless to say, Manning’s either-or argument was directed toward an abstract and extreme set of only two choices. No one  wanted to say that the faith of the church has no foundation. The alternative, for Manning, was to assert that the infallibility of the popes was God’s provision that allowed for ongoing certainty. He did not consider Jesus’ divine status, apostolic succession, and the college of bishops as particularly important. Thus, his argument was that either the popes were infallible or the Catholic Church was without an anchor.

Still other bishops supported papal infallibility by appealing to the content of Marian apparitions or to the practical needs of the day:

In addition to their veneration of Pius IX, they were convinced that emphasis on the monolithic character of the Roman unity would send non-Catholics to the Church. . . . Noticeable also was their endeavor to emphasize the principle of authority as strongly as possible in a world undermined by democratic efforts . . . (Jedin 8.18)

 Archbishop Purcell’s Address to the Council

To better understand why American opposition to a definition of infallibility was so large, one has only to examine the speech of John B. Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati, presented on 31 May 1870. The segments are here translated from the Latin and offered by way of gaining insights regarding the American Catholic experience in 1870:

I have now lived fifty-one years in North America, fourteen of them as a priest and almost thirty-seven as a bishop. In that time, both as a priest and as a bishop, I have constantly been engaged in controversies in heretical churches with unorthodox ministers, seven days a week and five hours a day, in the face of thousands of Protestants; and yet I have never refused to give voice to the prerogatives and rights of the Sovereign Pontiff. . . .

I can call on my fellow bishops in America [to testify that] I have always upheld with all my strength those things which should be asserted about the prerogatives of our Most Holy Father. I went into the city of Cincinnati with [Cardinal] Bedini, legate from the pope, and accompanied him everywhere. And when a thousand raging infidels and heretics came to my house on Christmas night with lanterns and clubs to burn the house and kill me, by God’s help, I feared nothing.[iii] Then, on the following day, riding in the carriage with him to another church, these very dangerous and angry men wished to kill him. Fearing nothing, I said to him . . . , “I hope they kill me in your place!”

I do not say these things in a spirit of boastfulness, because they are true, but so that I might respond to those who claim that we [the minority at this council] are led by cowardly fear. . . .

Bishop Purcell was a brilliant orator and public debater. Here he uses his experience (35 hours each week) of showing Protestants that the true faith of Christ has been preserved in the Roman Church thanks to the Bishop of Rome. His dramatic preservation of the Apostolic Legate against a crowd of a thousand on Christmas day dramatizes his fearless protection of papal rights. But then he continues by exposing his reservations:

Without doubt the Catholic Church possesses an infallible authority in matters of faith and morals; the Apostolic See [of Rome], because of a higher dignity which God has conferred upon it, is the mother and teacher of all the churches; the Sovereign Pontiff enjoys universal and ordinary jurisdiction over all the churches scattered throughout the world. . . .

If someone now asks why I shall not vote in favor either of the timeliness or of the dogmatic definition of the question of the personal, absolute, and separate infallibility of the Supreme Pontiff, I answer: first, because . . . the state of that question is not yet firm.

But now I see a great cloud of witnesses over my head, thirty or forty popes, enumerated by [the Jesuit Cardinal] Bellarmine [as having held erroneous positions]. I seem to see them all in this most holy hall, and one of them [Pope Honorius, 625-638] says to me, “I, through cowardice or negligence, was a supporter of the errors of the Monothelites. Was I, in that case, infallible?

The most eminent cardinal of Dublin replies, “In that case he was not infallible but he was not properly a heretic [either].”  But, on the other hand, when I hear two ecumenical councils and several popes call him a heretic without adding “properly” or “improperly,” I become anxious and doubtful, and I hesitate. . . . It is now useless to try by subtle arguments to prove that he was not a heretic, because then I need not believe the councils or popes who for so many centuries have held him to be a heretic.

I hear another of the forty witnesses [named by Bellarmine] over our head shouting, “I taught that baptism given in Jesus’ name only, without mention of the most holy Trinity, was valid.” Then the whole Catholic Church cries out, “[Pope] Nicholas I [858-867] erred; the baptism [he advocated] was neither valid nor licit.”

Bishop Purcell imaginatively called forth four of the forty popes who, during the course of history, had held positions (either then or later) identified as heretical. The first case he cited was especially troublesome since, during the sixth Ecumenical Council [07 Nov 680 to 16 Sep 681], the Monothelite position (which claimed that, in Christ, there was only one will) was condemned. And since the upholders of the Monothelite heresy appealed repeatedly to Honorius I (625-638), this former pope stood condemned as well.

The source for such a damaging assessment was not the histories of the enemies of the papacy who delighted in emphasizing the immoral lives of certain popes. Rather, the source used by Purcell and others was written by the Jesuit champion of the papacy, Cardinal (and St.) Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621) in his masterful and frank assessment of the popes, De Romano Pontifice, which was based upon the original documents available to him.

Archbishop Purcell was only one of the council fathers who was keenly aware of the historic difficulties associated with trying to define papal infallibility as a permanent possession of the Church. Giving Manning’s either-or challenge, Purcell shows how even a single heretical pope serves to undercut Mannings easy solution that overlooks history. Purcell, more especially, was aware that, during the height of the Reformation when the authority of the pope was repeatedly being denied by appeals to the authority of the Scriptures, if the bishops gathered at Trent did not see fit to declare the popes infallible in that setting, then it would be hazardous to undertake such a definition now. In his own words:

I am not counted with the cunning and deceitful but [I place myself] with the fathers of the Council of Trent who themselves considered it absolutely untimely to discuss the question of infallibility. They did not wish to define this question, and I therefore share with them that disdain, whatever it is, which falls upon those who have been unwilling to discuss this question or formulate a definition [when it was so needed] (Purcell:1).

Purcell’s real fears regarding the possible misapplication of infallibility, however, only come out near the end of his address:

If, for example, a pope (not our present admirable Holy Father, but another) should tell the Church with the force and vigor of his infallible power that kings and presidents of governments are not the agents of the people and that the people are not able to expel them even according to a [democratic] constitution . . . , who does not see that such a statement would contribute to the ruin of the Catholic Church in the Unites States of America?

I believe that kings[iv] are not established except as the agents of the people [murmurs come from the assembly]. I believe that the king is established for the people, not the people for the king. I speak openly. I open my whole mind to you. If I am in error, you can correct me. If I am not, these things should at least be known to you (Purcell:6f).

At this point, Archbishop Purcell distances himself from the Syllabus of Errors. For him, even kings are accountable to the people and not only to God. This is the democratic principle that two out of the three bishops who heard him that day would have regarded as heresy.   “I speak openly. I open my whole mind to you.”

Purcell then includes an attempt to erode an argument put forward by Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin:

Concerning the argument taken from the example of Ireland–I too am Irish–namely, that St. Patrick taught the infallibility of the Sovereign Pontiff when he instituted the Church in Ireland, I do not know whether his canons are authentic or not; but [if even if they are] I am still unable to see that he used the very word “infallibility” [when] speaking about the Sovereign Pontiff [murmur]. The very learned Cardinal of Dublin can tell us this, but I strongly doubt whether that word was in his [Patrick’s] vocabulary. . . . St. Patrick left out nothing which could advance the instruction and salvation of the people entrusted to him by God. He even made a canon that priests should wear trousers when they offer Mass. Someone who has taught the lesser things should not have overlooked the more important things (Purcell:7f).

Purcell’s genius again comes through. He demolishes the argument of the Archbishop of Dublin that stands on the basis of a pious legend. But he has read the records of St. Patrick and “infallibility” never gets mentioned. Then, by way of closing, Purcell reveals the oaths taken by the minority of democrats whom he has spoken with in private:

But I very well know that in this hall there are many bishops who have rejected with an oath the teaching that the Sovereign Pontiff is infallible. I do not wish to speak for those who can speak individually. I know that there are even now archbishops who have sworn that they have not believed this teaching. So far, the faculties of the Sorbonne, Alcala, Doua, Louvain, and Salamanca–all these Catholic universities–have solemnly replied [to official inquiries] that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. Thirty-five editions of a little book under the title of Principles of English Catholics on the King and the Pope–I repeat, thirty-five editions . . .–were distributed in England and Ireland to show that all Catholics rejected that teaching. If we now decree otherwise, they will say that we have acted with fraud and that we do not know the teaching of the Catholic faith (Purcell:8).

Finally, Purcell closed his address at Vatican I with a compromise formula that he and others in the minority party were ready to affirm:

I acknowledge that the Supreme Pontiff, without whom nothing is defined, is infallible when he defines–with the Church gathered together in council or scattered outside a council–what is according to faith or what is contrary to it. Let this be enough (Purcell:9).

The Final Steps in the Council’s Approval of Papal Infallibility

As the Council wore on, Archbishop Purcell and approximately one hundred and fifty bishops who stood with him realized that the majority, led on by the Ultamontanes and encouraged by Pius IX himself, were bound to get their way. On numerous occasions, they tried to raise the issue that at earlier Councils decisions binding upon all were affirmed by all–and not just a majority which forced its views upon the minority who were hindered by their conscience. While not agreeing on this as a procedural norm, the majority did, to some degree, try to moderate their stance so as to include those who found difficulty in endorsing their formula of infallibility. On 10 June 1870, for instance, Bishop Salas of Conception (Chile) spoke for most of the majority as follows:

The power of the Supreme Pontiff is limited by natural and divine law. It is limited by the precepts and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord. It is limited by the common good of the Church. It is limited by the voice of conscience. It is limited by right reason and common sense. It is limited by the rule of faith and reason. . . .   But it cannot be limited or restructured by the bishops, either individually or corporately, either in council or out of council.

The final wording of the schema passed at Vatican I specifically excluded the possibility that “by his revelation, they [the popes] might make known new doctrine.” Similarly, the final formula retained the notion that “the deposit of the faith made known through the apostles” might be defined by the Sovereign Pontiff “sometimes assembling Ecumenical Councils or asking for the mind of the Church scattered throughout the world [as in the case of the Immaculate Conception] . . . , sometimes using other helps which Divine Providence supplied . . . as conformable with the Sacred Scriptures and Apostolic Traditions.” The final definition, however, did not bind the pope to the use of any of these means. Nor did it specify any of the limitations mentioned by Bishop Salas (above).

During this same period, the Commission on Faith which drafted the original document and supervised all amendments, responded to a number of “clarifications” pressed upon them by those hesitant to affirm what was written. The three most significant “clarifications” are the following. The responses come from the Commission on Faith:

Q1 Is papal infallibility absolute?
R1 No, absolute infallibility belongs only to God.

Q2 Is the infallibility of the pope basically and principally the infallibility of the Church?
R2 Yes. All agreed that there is only one infallibility but there was no explanation of what was meant by “principally.”

Q3 Is the infallibility of the pope destructive of the infallibility of the bishops?
R3 No.

One can see here that the Commission on Faith envisioned papal infallibility as an integral part of the infallibility of the entire Church, the bishops included.  Sad to say, however, none of these cautious elements were explicitly inserted into the final schema of Pastor Aeternus.

Overall, Vatican I passed only two schemas: (a) the first, Dei Filius, pertained to revelation and reason; (b) the second, Pastor Aeternus, pertained to the primacy and the infallibility of the Sovereign Pontiff. The larger Constitution on the Church which ate up so much of the working sessions of the Council never saw the light of day because the Council was brought to a quick end with the eruption of war in Europe.

On 18 July 1870, the schema Pastor Aeternus was scheduled for its final vote. A preliminary balloting on 13 July 1870 had yielded 450 offering unqualified approval, 62 offering conditional approval, and 88 voting non-approval. At the eleventh hour, a group of minority bishops met with Pius IX privately and explained that “conscience prevented them” from voting for the schema as then formulated but that they could bring themselves to vote for the schema at the final session if two changes were introduced: (a) that the words “whole plenitude” would be deleted when speaking of the pope’s power in the Church and (b) that the words innixus testimonio Ecclesiarum (“woven together with the testimony of the Church”) would be added to the definition of infallibility. The Ultramontanes on the Commission on Faith convinced Pius IX that he ought not to make concessions to those unwilling to profess the faith of the Church. Accordingly, by way of expressly excluding the “safeguard” which the minority had called for, and the Commission on Faith added instead a stern rebuff of the moderates’ position: “and not from the consent of the Church.”

The final declaration ready for acceptance on July 18 thus read as follows:

We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed

  • that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals:
  • and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable in themselves and not from the consent of the Church (tr. in Manning:240).[v]

As a result, fifty-five bishops drafted a letter to Pius IX indicating that they had voted their disapproval on the 13th and, since nothing substantive had changed, they wished to absent themselves from the final vote count as a mark of their filial piety. Many others, for this and for other reasons, also left the Council early.

A violent thunder storm broke out on the morning of the 18th during the roll call. Those present noticed that their numbers had visibly decreased. Over two hundred fifty seats (one out of three) were empty. Among those present, 533 stood as their name was called and voted their approval. Only two bishops stood to voice their non-approval: Bishop Luigi Riccio of Cajazzo in southern Italy and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Arriving Home and Explaining the Council

Once the bishops arrived home, it was then up to them to explain what had taken place at the Council. While the Council was officially recessed until November, it quickly became clear that the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War would prevent any further meetings. Freed from their oaths of silence, the bishops began to take the initiative to publicly address what happened at the Council.

Cardinal Manning wrote a book-length pastoral letter to his clergy, The True Story of the Vatican Council. According to his account, there were no real theological or historical differences at the Council of any significance[vi], the only divisive issue was that of the “opportuneness” of declaring papal infallibility as an integral belief and practice of the entire history of the Church.

Archbishop Purcell took another route. He rented out Mozart Hall in Cincinnati and on 20 August 70, he offered his account of what happened at Vatican I. Purcell was at his best in public oratory. His audience was filled with loyal Catholics, wait-and-see Protestants, and avid reporters. All in all, Purcell did a first-rate job of quieting the worst fears of both Catholics and Protestants while presenting a credible account of the achievement of the Council itself.

Archbishop Purcell’s Address at Mozart Hall

11MozartHallYou are all aware of the meaning of the word Ecumenical. It is, after all, a Greek word, and means the whole habitable globe, and the council called Ecumenical is one whose members come from every part of the world. It must be sanctioned by the Pope to be a General Council. Its proceedings must be sanctioned by the Pope, and its decrees solemnly promulgated by the Pope. These are the essential conditions of every General Council in the Catholic Church.[vii] The Vatican Council is so called from being held in the Vatican. It is the nineteenth of the General Councils convened in our Church.

The Pope was exceedingly anxious that it should be indeed a Vatican Council. But we found it very inconvenient to meet in that hall, because our voices were almost inaudible. The great dome of St. Peter’s was over our heads, and our voices were absorbed in it. We adopted many expedients to render the words of the orators distinctly audible, otherwise it would have been a very unsatisfactory council. A hundred yards of canvas, to answer the purpose of sounding boards, were stretched over the ambo, as the pulpit was called; and when all these expedients were found unsatisfactory, a deputation of Fathers and Bishops, of whom I was one, went to one of the largest halls of the Quirinal Palace, to find whether there the acoustics were better than in the Vatican; but it was finally determined to submit to whatever inconvenience there was in St. Peter’s, and there to continue the Council.

There was also another inconvenience. Those who have been in Rome know that there is always a fixed degree of heat in St. Peter’s church. Of a bitterly cold day–and they have such sometimes in Rome–you enter that church, and you find the atmosphere quite comfortable; you leave the church, and you are immediately chilled by the outside cold. In the summer you have a burning atmosphere on the outside, and the moment you enter the church you are seized almost with a chill. Hence it was not healthy. And last winter was a very unhealthy one in Rome. Many of our American citizens died there. Thirteen of our Cardinals and Bishops died within the first three months, and many others have since died. Then in the hall were eight openings, which occasioned frequent currents of air that made old Bishops suffer. I have seen many of them leaning on staffs trying to hobble along and find their way to their places, that you would imagine might die any moment. One day we thought one had died in the Council from extreme exhaustion. These openings therefore rendered it extremely unpleasant. And then the slamming of doors, coughing and sneezing, made it extremely difficult to hear the orators; but under these inconveniences they continued to meet.

Freedom of the Council

            The Pope was never present in the Council. He did not preside at its discussions. He did not control our minds. In our discourses he left us perfectly free, under the direction of five Cardinals, who were called Presidents, of whom the oldest, De Fm, was six years older than the Pope, who is now in his eightieth year.

We had to ask leave to speak, and the leave was easily granted, never refused. We spoke as long as we thought necessary; and it was only when we were, in the estimation of the audience, too tedious that a little bell was rung, and we were requested to descend from the ambo.

The Council was composed–I have the list here–of 975[viii] Bishops, Generals of religious orders, and Abbots. Besides these there were eleven Patriarchs, and then fifty-one Cardinals . You see what a large assembly it was, and what a full representation of the East and West, North and South, of kingdoms and States, and territories, and out-of-the-way places, such as had never been assembled in a Council before; there was not a single Bishop from America in any former Council. This was a full and fair representation of Christendom.

The Rights of Science

            In the first schema, of which there were fifty-one (schema means programme) we were called upon to discuss the origin of the governments–the Constitution of the Church embracing the Constitution of the State–and also the propagation of religious scientific truth–whether scientific truth should be discouraged, or whether such restraints should be attempted to be imposed upon the pursuers and students of science as would cripple them, or would deprive them of that free range to all the departments of science without which they could not ever seek to obtain important results. And I am happy to state that never were the rights of science better vindicated than they were by the Bishops of the assembly.

An American Bishop, who was my own fellow student forty years ago, in Paris, now the Bishop of St. Augustine, in Florida, was one of the first to speak. He is a sound theologian and a sound, natural philosopher. He taught theology and natural philosophy in Baltimore; he was sent first to Savannah as Bishop, and by his own choice was transferred to St. Augustine, and his first See is now filled by Bishop Persico. He rose at once and reproached the congregation of Cardinals composing the Roman Inquisition for having done injustice to Galileo, and he emphasized, “You Roman Congregation, you condemned him as teaching a doctrine contrary to the Scriptures when he taught the motion of the earth.”

4galileoI mention this fact to show that the Bishops were free, that the Pope left them their freedom, that the Cardinals did not interfere with their freedom, and that they took this reprimand given not to them but to their predecessors, who condemned Galileo for teaching the diurnal and annual rotation of the earth. He also addressed himself to the Spanish Bishops who were there arranged and their predecessors, for the harm they would have done to religion as well as to humanity and science by their unwise arguments against the possibility of the existence of the American part of the globe, from the fact that there could not be antipodes; and from their vain and absurd reasoning by which they concluded it was a wild project that Columbus had in his head, for which he requested aid from Ferdinand and Isabella. I do not mentions this as a reproach to the church, but a warning that science had its rights, and that they should never be interfered with; that scientific men should pursue with the largest liberty their investigations, if they only were disposed not to reject Christianity. Gentlemen, the Bible is true. God is its author.

It is your duty to submit to the Church, but the Church will never find fault with you for insisting that a scientific truth cannot be contrary to revelation. The pope [Urban VIII] never signed that manifesto against Galileo[ix], and today that good man’s memory is everywhere respected. The Cardinals acknowledged that injustice was done to eminently scientific man, and this is a guarantee that similar injustice will never be done again.

Another of our Bishops, of Pittsburgh, Bishop Dominec made use of similar free speech. He refuted the objection that our Catholics of America are not properly instructed, or if they were that they would not deny papal infallibility, for that Bishop was opposed to the definition of the dogma. He indignantly replied, “Our American Catholics are better instructed than your Italians.” He was told to be cautious, and he was–after he had uttered a great truth. [Applause and laughter.] At the same time he did not consent to yield that the American Catholics (and I repeat the same truth) are the best instructed of the Catholic world.

The Archbishop’s Speech in Council on Civil Government

            When it came to my turn to speak, I asked leave, and it was granted. I intended to speak on the subject that was then uppermost, the civil constitution of society, the growth and origin of government; but in the course of a day or two after I had obtained permission, the entire order of the proceedings was changed. Hence I was left out in the cold, as other Bishops were; and a new series of topics was presented to us.

But I wrote out my discourse on civil government, and, as I was advised to do, sent a copy of it (I have another here) to the archives of the Council, where it remains. In it I took occasion to show

  • that ours is, as I believe, the best form of human government. [Applause.]
  • That the source of power is placed by God in the people. [Applause]
  • That kings rule for their benefit, and that they were not created for the benefit of kings. [Applause.]
  • That the Church of God has no need of kingly patronage or protection;
  • that for the first three hundred years of her history, she managed to prosper without the aid of kings, and in despite of them;
  • that she was persecuted for these three hundred years, but that she throve and prospered. . . .

I said that our civil government grants perfect liberty to every denomination of Christians; that it looks with equal favor on them all; and that I verily believe this was infinitely better for the Catholic religion than were it the special object of the State’s patronage and protection; that all we want is a free field and no favor. [Applause.] . . . .

When I came down from the ambo, the Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Manning, a strong infallibilist, was the first to rush to me and take my by the hand and say, “You are a true republican!”

The Archbishop in Council on Infallibility

            Then my turn came to speak on infallibility–and this is a subject vastly more important and delicate. I knew the Holy Father was in favor of the dogma, for good reasons no doubt, for he is on a higher eminence than any of us, and can see better than we can what is for the good of religion and Christianity. He was in favor of his own personal, independent, and separate infallibility. There were upward of 530[x] in the council who thought with the Pope that he was and is infallible.

We saw that there was a decided majority against us who thought otherwise[xi], yet we thought we discovered inconsistencies in the defense of this dogma, which it was important [that] we should make known to our Father, the Pope in Rome. There were twenty Bishops that met together in our American college in Rome to ascertain what course we should pursue in regard to this matter. The Archbishop of Baltimore–I will speak plainly, and I will speak the truth–urged us to do as we proposed, namely, to write the Pope a most respectful letter and to implore him not to have this subject brought before the Council. I drew up the address to the Pope in Latin. Twenty-seven other Bishops and Archbishops signed it. Archbishop Eerrington, the Archbishop of Halifax, and another, were the only three [signing] that did not belong to the American Church. . . .   Besides these, there were one hundred forty Hungarian, Italian and French Bishops who addressed a similar petition to the Holy Father because, said they, it will create dissensions, it will show a want of unanimity as well as union among the Bishops, and it will cause many things to be said in the heart of debate and discussion that will be unpleasant.

The Holy Father received our letters, but he did not think proper to adopt our suggestions.

I had to speak on infallibility immediately after the venerable Patriarch of Jerusalem, whom I have known for many years. The Patriarch was exceedingly vivid. He wears a magnificent beard. One day when I told him so, he said, “It is my only consolation.” [Laughter.] The venerable Patriarch who spoke before me said some things that I had to take notice of for he was strongly in favor of infallibility. . . .

I immediately entered the pulpit, after the Patriarch, and I addressed myself to the Cardinals saying: “Your Eminences, before delivering the discourse which I have prepared for this solemn occasion, you will please allow me to make an animadversion on the oration just now delivered by the venerable Patriarch of Jerusalem. In the course of his remarks he said that we are discussion a question that has long since been decided, [namely] that the second Council of Lyons [1274] and the Council of Florence [1438-1445] had declared the Holy Father had full power as a teacher, and that plentitude of power (plena potestas) was identical with infallibility, [hence] why waste our time in discussing this in the present day? I observed to the Council that I was exceedingly obliged to the Patriarch of Jerusalem for putting those opposed to infallibility in such good company for, after the second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, the Tridentine Fathers had examined the question of the Pope’s infallibility [and] they could not see their way through it. They could not find sufficient evidence in Scripture or tradition to advance the separate, independent, personal infallibility of the Pope, and therefore, it was left in abeyance. The Patriarch now can see whether the plentitude of power means infallibility or not.”

I then remarked to the Cardinals . . . that they would tell us what it is to teach ex cathedra, that is, “from the chair.” I say, then, the venerable Father Bellarmine [d. 1621], whose name has been cited with praise repeatedly since the opening of this Council, in his magnificent work [De Romano Pontifice], tells us that there were more than forty Popes in the early ages who taught what is now regarded as an erroneous doctrine. He tells us what he thought of these teachings and defends the Popes to a very great extent. Now, said I, I see that great cloud of witnesses, as the Apostle says, over our heads, and I call these forty Popes, one by one, and I say to the first, “Why did you Honorius teach in your letter to the Bishop of Constantinople that there was only one will to be predicated of Christ?” Whereas, [in truth] Christ being a perfect man, had two wills, divine and human, perfectly in harmony, one with the other, but perfectly distinct. . . . This discussion in the East created a great deal of trouble and schism and separation from the Church; and the Pope wished him to be silent on the subject. But he should not have done that! It was his fault! He should have insisted upon the strict teaching of the Holy Spirit, that there were in Christ two wills as there were two natures.

I said to the Council, “Here is another of those Popes over our heads, Nicholas I [d. 867],” as I imagined, and he taught that baptism in the name of Jesus was all-sufficient, without the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Trinity. He was mistaken in that, and the Church says so now, and he should never have taught it.

Here is [another Pope] John XXII, who teaches from the pulpit and wishes others to teach that none of the elect . . . ever enter heaven or ever enjoy the beatific vision ’til the day of general judgment. In that he was mistaken, and the Church says so now.

Three Popes [appeared over our heads while] the sixth, seventh, and eighth General Councils pronounced a doctrine of a Pope untrue. What are we to think of that? Did they teach ex cathedra?

I was most happy to hear the entire Council as one man answer me: “These Popes never addressed such doctrines to the Universal Church. They only spoke individually. They did not speak in the name of Christ, therefore, they did not teach ex cathedra.”[xii]

I cannot tell you what a load that removed from my mind. . . .

I [then] told the Cardinals and Council that there was another and a weightier objection which had to be removed from my mind before I could sign the decree of Papal Infallibility: how are we to understand the pretensions of Boniface VIII who said that two swords were given to him by God, the spiritual and the temporal–or the conduct of Papal Infallibility, or Paul IV, or Pius V, whose bulls I had just read in the great library of Minerva at Rome, [so as] to thoroughly refresh my memory? On what grounds did these Popes claim the right to depose of Henry VII or [Queen] Elizabeth [of England], or any other temporal prince, and claim the right to absolve their subjects from their oaths of allegiance. . . ? That was a difficulty, and I could not find a trace of authority for it in the Bible or tradition, and I wanted the entire Council to say whether they asserted that it was a right or whether it was a usurpation.

And the entire Council, with one voice, cried out [that] these Popes had no authority, no commission from God, to do any such thing–that they had no right to depose monarchs on their authority as Spiritual Head of the Church. I told them that I thanked God I had spoken, and I thanked God to have this decided by the Vatican Council. [Applause.] We shall never hear the like [of these things] again. It would be impossible. They would never be listened to for a moment. Hence I say that the Council has done a great deal for the world, for these two important matters have received their quietus.

Cardinal Bellarmine has also, in his works, examined the question: what is to be done with a Pope who becomes a heretic . . . ? He says that a Council, Bishops, and the Church could not depose him for heresy, for the moment he becomes a heretic, God deposes him! He is neither the head nor even a member of the Church and, if he were to teach heresy, the Church would not listen. . . .

The Press and the Interviewers

            I cannot, however, refrain from referring to the manner in which certain papers have spoken of me. . . .

[A few moments were next devoted to Mr. Corry and his remarks in last Saturday’s Commoner. . . .   He was ashamed to repeat the words which Mr. Corry had used in regard to the shepherd of a great flock . . . upon his return after so long an absence. . . .]

He [Mr. Corry] further on says [in the Commoner]: “When many years ago, the gentleman, then a young Bishop, had his debate with [the Protestant] Alexander Campbell, the latter asserted that Papal Infallibility was the dogma (he means a dogma) of the Catholic Church,” and I denied it. A third of a century has passed away, and now, he says, ” I proclaim the contrary.” Could a greater injustice than this be done me? It was not an article of faith when I had that discussion. It was not a doctrine of the Church for eighteen hundred years. It never was received as a dogma of the Church ’til the other day. Mr Campbell was wrong and Mr Corry was wrong. [Cheers and laughter.]

I want the editors of newspapers and reporters to send it on the wings of the press, north, south, east, and west, that John B. Purcell is one of the most faithful Catholics that ever swore allegiance to the Church. [Heavy applause.] Let them say what they please of me and my course in Rome, for that I have received the thanks and congratulations of those who do not think exactly as I do. It is by free discussion that truth is elicited, and without such discussion, it cannot be.

Purcell Interprets Papal Infallibility

In the end, Archbishop Purcell makes clear that he accepts the decision of Vatican I relative to the two tracts that received a healthy vote. To do so, he has to set aside his reservations relative to the future. In his presentation of the Council, however, he enumerates those very points where papal infallibility is hemmed in by the deliberations that went on during the Council. Not all of these points were spelled out in the final document. But no matter. The task of Purcell is to show the people of Cincinnati, Catholic and Protestant alike, that the Council came down on the right side in all the key issues. What issues?

  • That science had its rights, and that they should never be interfered with [by religious authorities]; that scientific men should [be free to] pursue with the largest liberty their investigations.
  • That our democracy is, as I believe, the best form of human government and that the separation of Church and State is very conducive to the freedom of multiple religions living side by side for the Church of God has no need of kingly patronage or protection.
  • That the Tridentine Fathers had examined the question of the Pope’s infallibility [and] they could not see their way through it. They could not find sufficient evidence in Scripture or tradition to advance the separate, independent, personal infallibility of the Pope, and therefore, it was left in abeyance [in order to be taken up again at the present Council].
  • That I was most happy to hear the entire Council as one man answer me: “These [forty] Popes [who taught errors as identified by Cardinal Bellarmine] never addressed such doctrines to the Universal Church. They only spoke individually. They did not speak in the name of Christ, therefore, they did not teach ex cathedra.”
  • That the entire Council, with one voice, cried out [that] these Popes had no authority, no commission from God, to do any such thing–that they had no right to depose monarchs on their authority as Spiritual Head of the Church.
  • Cardinal Bellarmine has also, in his works, examined the question: what is to be done with a Pope who becomes a heretic . . . ? He says that a Council, Bishops, and the Church could not depose him for heresy, for the moment he becomes a heretic, God deposes him! He is neither the head nor even a member of the Church and, if he were to teach heresy, the Church would not listen.

Thanks to the historic investigations and the pragmatic posture of bishops like Purcell, the Ultramontane movement within the Catholic Church has been constantly moderated by solid historical and ecumenical biblical research. In recent times, we have even had popes whose eyes were opened.  In July 2005, for example,  Pope Benedict XVI stated during an impromptu address to priests in Aosta that: “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know”.[xiii] His predecessor Pope John XXIII had once remarked: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible”.[xiv]

In the end, I believe that we can rest in the certainty that God is infallible and that the Church, given its human origins, has to constantly and humbly strive towards an honest assessment of the degrees of certainty in what it knows and what it cannot know.  Then, the words attributed to Augustine will provide for a way of peace and of mutual love among the diverse children of God: “In necessary matters, let there be unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; and, in all matters, charity” (Latin: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas).

colorlnAdditional Resources

Artigas, Mariano, Thomas F. Glick, Rafael A. Martínez
2006                Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902 (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context). Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Brennan, Richard
1881                A History of the Catholic Church. Tr. by
L.C.  Bussinger. New York: Benziger Brothers.

Döllinger, Johann Joseph Ignaz von 261.057 D665
1973                Letters from Rome on the Council by Quirinus.
New York: Da Capo Press. Two volumes.

Hasler, August Bernhard 240.366 H352
1981                How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the
Politics of Persuasion. Garden City: Doubleday.

Hayward, Fernand 261.057 H42
1951                The Vatican Council: A Short History. Tr. from
French orig. by Earl of Wicklow. Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds Ltd.

Hennesey, James
1963                The First Council of the Vatican: The American
Experience. Herder and Herder.

Holmes, Derek J., et al. 260.083 H751
1984                A Short History of the Catholic Church. New York:
Paulist Press.

Kenrick, [Archbishop] Peter Richard,
1989                “An Address in Opposition to Papal Infalliblilty,”
Romance and the Rock. Ed. by Joseph Fitzer. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Leto, Pomponio [pseudonym]
1876                Eight Months at Rome During the Vatican Council.
Tr. from Italian orig. London: John Murray.

Macdougall, H.A., ed. 240.057 M28
1973                Lord Acton on Papal Power. London: Sheed and Ward.

Manning, Cardinal Henry Edward 261.057 M28
1877                The True Story of the Vatican Council. London:
Henry S. King and Co.

1905                The Vatican Council and Its Definitions: Pastoral
Letter to the Clergy. New York: P.J. Kennedy.

Merril, Timothy Francis
1983                “Rock of Bronze: A Study of the Submission of
Peter Richard Kenrick to the Vatican I Definition of Papal Infallibility,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 94/4:3-20.

Purcell, (Archbishop) John B.
1870                Speech of the Most Reverend John B. Purcell. Tr.
by Fr. [later archbishop] Pilarczyk 28 May 1971.  Archives of the Diocese of Cincinnati.

White, Andrew Dickson
1978                A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology.
Two volumes. Reprint of 1896 orig. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.

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[i] For an excellent overview of the political use of excommunications, see John W. O’Malley, “Excommunicating Politicians,” America, 27 September 2004 (

[iia] Modern Catholic scholars are willing to admit that the New Testament says nothing of Mary being conceived in the womb of Anne without original sin. While the patristic churches honored Mary, they did not honor her as conceived without sin. In the twelfth century, one finds, for the first time, a feast of the Conception of Mary. In this same period, many theologians began to discuss the possibility that Mary was free from sin from the first moment of her conception. Not everyone, however, held this opinion. Anselm of Canterbury praised Mary as the Mother of the Redeemer yet, at the same time, acknowledged that “in sin did her mother conceive her and with original sin was she born.” Thomas Aquinas agreed. The upsurge of popular piety in the eighteenth century, however, was intent upon extending to Mary everything implied in her role as Co-redeemer with her Son. Thus, by the logic of a heartfelt piety which exceeded the logic of biblical sources, Mary was being greeted as “Mediatrix of all Graces,” “Queen of the Apostles,” “Mother of all Christians.” Given this legitimate development in popular piety, it was not difficult to imagine that Mary was free from sin from the first moment of her conception just as was Jesus, the Son of God, whom she bore into the world.

[iib] Unlike the last General Council of Trent (1545-1563) convoked by Pius V wherein the bishops themselves decided upon the agenda and elected members of various commissions, Vatican I (1969-1970) had, from the very beginning, the stamp of being entirely under the control of Pius IX. When John XXIII convoked Vatican II, his own reactionary curia headed by Cardinal Ottaviani, head of Holy Office, had already prepared in advance an entire schema on the church based on the schema which had been prepared for but never completed at Vatican I. In his opening address to the preparatory commission, Cardinal Ottaviani explained for nearly two hours how nothing in the prepared schema on the Church ought to be tampered with since only then could the church stand firm against “heretical trends” which existed within her very bosom. Had Ottaviani and the curia had their way, Vatican II would have become a council devoted to providing only finishing touches to Vatican I. In the first plenary session, however, Cardinal Frings of Cologne and Cardinal Liénart of Lille strenuously objected to the curial domination of the preparatory commissions who drafted the key documents. The majority of the bishops upheld this objection. As a result, the prepared schema on the Church was rejected, and the bishops themselves set out to write what they regarded as a suitable constitution for the Church. No such refusal to submit to curial control, however, took place in 1869.

[iii] “The German protestantForty-Eighters,” who had fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848, saw Cardinal Bedini as a symbol of oppression due to his role in putting down revolution in the Papal States in 1849. They organized a protest march to Purcell’s residence, where Bedini was staying, on Christmas Day 1853. When the demonstrators clashed with police, some were injured and one died” (

[iv] Purcell’s criticism of kings includes Pius IX since, as a political power, he was king of the Papal States. Furthermore, many of his hearers thought of the divine right of kings to rule as a support for their own episcopal right to rule.

[v] The minority petition, it will be remembered, wanted to see papal infallibility function as part of the larger infallibility of the entire Church. They would have wanted the final decree to say that “such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable when woven together with the testimony of the Church.” The Ultramontanes wanted to insure the absolute autonomy of the Pope both regarding his primacy and his infallibility. Hence, they added the clause: “such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable in themselves and not from the consent of the Church.” Needless to say, the consent of the bishops and the faithful is presupposed for an authentic teaching to be properly received; however, the text chosen can be interpreted to say that the pope need not consult the Church either before or after his pronouncement. If this were the case, Cardinal Bellarmine’s solution to a pope’s heretical teaching could never be “if he were to teach heresy, the Church would not listen.” The response of the Church is thus critical for preserving the Church from a heretical supreme teacher just as it is critical for authenticating an orthodox supreme teaching. The theological commissions and the widespread consultation that were undertaken before the two Marian dogmas were infallibly proclaimed by two different popes also enforces this understanding. One has to wait for Vatican II in order to get a vision of the papacy as integrated within the faith and practice of the universal Church. In 1870, however, Vatican I was disbanded prematurely and the schema on the infallibility of the Church (its bishops and its faithful) never came to light. As for Purcell, his democratic instincts supplemented Pastor Aeternus with the understanding that the papal teaching was not self-serving but at the service of Christ’s truth for the entire Church and that, in the end, “It is by free discussion that truth is elicited, and without such discussion, it cannot be.” The Ultramontanes, in contrast, saw the primacy and infallibility as the divine right of popes that was guaranteed solely by Christ’s promise to Peter in Matt 16:18.   In this worldview, the divine right of kings and the divine right of popes are fabricated from the same cloth. When all is said and done, however, the fact that Pastor Aeternus was constructed by bishops gathered for open research and discussion points to the authority of the college of bishops for securely guiding the Church. If Pius IX had solemnly declared his own infallibility, it would have been hazardous to predict what would have resulted. Most likely it would have sorely divided the churches between the royalists and the democrats. When one looks today at the way that papal, non-fallible pronouncements on priestly celibacy, on contraceptives, on women’s ordination have sorely divided the fabric of believers, one sees the sort of mayhem and factionalism that manufactured consent at the top can wreck upon the people of God.

[vi] From the speech of Archbishop Purcell, one can easily see how Manning was focused on the ideology of infallibility and that the weighty fears and historical reservations of Purcell went entirely over his head.

[vii] Archbishop Purcell is speaking of the criteria for an ecumenical council that persisted at the time of Vatican I. Today, most historical scholars are aware that only the first eight councils were truly ecumenical. Once the Eastern Churches mutually condemned and excommunicated the Western Churches in 1054, there have only been regional councils. Councils held in the West after 1054 are called “ecumenical” in a diminished sense of including all the remaining churches in unity with the Church of Rome. Their decrees are also limited in scope. Even at Trent, there was initially some possibility of gathering reformers and counter-reformers in the early years following 1517. Luther himself directly appealed to a Council. With inaction on the part of the papacy, and further delays once the idea of a Council was actively anticipated, it turned out that only the counter-reformers were willing to meet with the Pope when they first met in 1545. It must also be recognized that, historically, the early councils were convoked by the Emperor at a time and place of his choosing; hence, the Pope had no formal role in convoking or in presiding or in approving the decrees of the early ecumenical councils. After the fall of the Emperor in 1453, the pope took over all the prerogatives of the Emperor as to where and when “ecumenical” councils were to meet. I expect that Purcell knew of this but, in the interests of time, failed to make mention of these historical details. Had he done so, it would have detracted from the much more urgent message he had to offer the people of Cincinnati.

[viii] This number is too high and may represent the names of all those who were present at any time in the council hall. At no time did those present surpass 840.

[ix] Archbishop Purcell has been incorrectly informed here or he in endeavoring to distance Pope Urban VIII from the treatment of Galileo. Careful recent studies show that Urban VIII took a special interest in the case of Galileo and personally wrote directives to the Holy Office as to how Galileo was to be interrogated and punished. See Richard J. Blackwell, Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial Including the First English Translation of Melchior Inchofer’sTractatus syllepticus (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), pp. 23-29.

[x] The numbers here agree with the public record.

[xi] Purcell here gives only one line to the majority position and passes over in silence how the order and the content of the Council was changed due to the majority petition. He then launches into a detailed description of the counter position which he was instrumental in advancing.

[xii] Archbishop Purcell repeats here the four cases he used as witnesses that popes have been known to teach erroneously. But here now, he shows that in this and in all the forty cases named by Bellarmine, they taught “private opinions” and did not intend to bind the universal church to their teaching. There is something dishonest in this solution for it requires the believer to impute private motives to those forty popes who taught erroneous doctrines. The  historical records give us no way of discerning when a pope “did not intend to bind the universal church to their teaching.”  In effect, therefore, Purcell’s lesson is that popes did teach erroneously and that history gives us the tools to correct their mistakes in those instances when there were no adequate checks and balances at the time that they taught.

[xiii] Benedict XVI, Pope Has No Easy “Recipe” for Church Crisis.” Zenit, 29 July 2005 (

[xiv] The ‘straight arrow’ theologian and the pope” NCRonline, 

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