Sunday, 27 February 2011

How the Pope became infallible - Part 1

In the next couple of posts, I want to gather together (and, where necessary, translate) some of the accounts of the promulgation of the dogma of papal infalliblity at the First Vatican Council.

The dogma was approved at a session of the Council held in St Peter's Basilica on 18 July 1870.  Famously, the bishops who did not support the promulgation of the dogma (and who had voted accordingly at an earlier general congregation) had by now left Rome, leaving the floor to the dogma's proponents.  The dogma was contained in an apostolic constitution called Pastor Aeternus.

I will start with accounts from the Church and other orthodox Catholic sources, before moving on in the next post to more critical sources.


1.  The account in the 1870 edition of the Acta Sanctae Sedis (the Vatican's official journal, now called the Acta Apostolicae Sedis)

When the reading [of Pastor Aeternus] was finished, the Bishop of Fabriano rose and added these words:

"Most Reverend Fathers, do you consent to the Decrees and Canons which are contained in this Constitution?"

Then he descended from the podium and the Reverend Sub-Secretary ascended it.  A roll call was commenced of all the Fathers who had been able to attend the council, unless they were accidentally prevented from doing so.

We believe that we will be providing here a valuable historical document if we indicate which of the Fathers attended the session and which of them were absent according to the roll-call that was undertaken on that day in the presence of the Pontiff in the council hall.

Although some of those who were called were absent by reason of some accidental obstacle, there were, however, many who had declined to cast a positive vote in the preceding general Congregation.  In truth, I do not know what the reason was for their absence.  Whatever they said, wrote or thought in the preceding general Congregations, those were what are termed private acts, their own personal views and academic opinions, and the general Congregations themselves were preparatory acts and nothing more than that.  In the public session before the Pontiff, who attends as the supreme head of the Church in order to give or deny his assent to the proceedings, the whole catholic Church is represented as teacher in the act of teaching.  What took place is the act of a lawfully convened ecumenical council, which by divine promise cannot err, whether all the Bishops participate or only a few: for wherever Peter is, there is the Church.  Therefore, the Bishops who expressed through their absence from this session a different opinion from that which the great majority of the general Congregation held did nothing more than allow (in the truest sense of the term) the opinion of the great majority of the Congregation to be the opinion of all the Fathers of the ecumenical Council, with only two exceptions whom I will indicate below.  The Fathers whose names were called in this public session, whether they were present or absent, are the following.

[There follows details of the Fathers, broken down by category.]

There were therefore 535 Fathers present at this Session, of which 533 replied "Placet".  However, two of them - namely the Bishop of Cajazzo and the Bishop of Little Rock - replied "Non placet".  Of the total number of Fathers who were called, 112 were absent.  This conciliar process of calling the roll and casting votes was completed around midday: the time was eight minutes to twelve.  The results of the voting were then relayed by the Reverend Secretary, accompanied by the Scrutineers, to the Roman Pontiff as he sat on the Throne.  Then the Pontiff, having heard the results, rose and confirmed the Constitution with his Apostolic Authority in these words:

"The Decrees and Canons which are contained in the Constitution which was just read have been approved by all the Fathers, with two exceptions; and We, with the approval of the sacred Council, define and confirm them, as they are contained in the Constitution which was just read, with our Apostolic Authority."

When this had been done, there was such a change in the proceedings that it can scarcely be described.  It would have to be described as an inward and lively joy in the minds of everyone present.  The Fathers burst into applause.  The people (1)... who, disregarding the heavy rain, had hurried to St Peter's in large numbers, had scarcely heard this applause when they added their own to it.  The unexpected novelty was such that you would not have known at that moment in time were you were.  The very temple of the Prince of the Apostles seemed to shake as it echoed with the applause of all the people....  The applause flowed spontaneously from joy - the joy not of human men who are slaves, but of sons of God who are called to true freedom....  Those two Bishops who had replied "Non placet" both now declared to the Fathers who were sitting in the vicinity that they believed in the dogma, and did so in such a way that words seemed to fail them in expressing from their hearts their firm faithfulness, now that Peter had spoken.  We do not doubt that such a sentiment would in the same way have touched the other Bishops who dissented from the view of the general Congregation if they had been present at the session.... 

(1) ...The great majority of the people were not foreigners, because foreigners do not travel to or stay in Rome at the time when summer is at its height....  The great majority of the people were locals who clearly understood that matters were being transacted at this session that were of the greatest importance for the entire Christian commonwealth.

[The Pope quietens the assembly and makes a short speech.]

"Venerable Brothers, this supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff does not mean oppression but help.  It does not destroy, but builds up....  May God enlighten the senses and hearts of [the opponents of the dogma]... may he enlighten their senses and hearts, so that they may all come to the bosom of their Father, the unworthy Vicar of Christ Jesus on earth, who loves them, cares for them, and hopes to be one with them....  May God bless you all."

With that, renewed applause broke out....

Then the Pontiff began to sing the hymn Te Deum....  At this point, the time was around seven minutes past midday, so that the Apostolic confirmation of the dogma took place at the moment of noon....  So it was that the hymn was sung through antiphonally to the end with great majesty.  Then, as if to crown the common joy, the solemn Apostolic Blessing followed, and the session was dissolved.  As the Bishops left, the faithful fought to kiss their rings and their sacred robes, giving thanks to them as they did so.  I have taken care to describe these events in detail, since they relate to a most solemn act of the catholic Church and one which has the greatest importance for the entire Christian commonwealth. 


2.  The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

In the eighty-fifth general congregation held on 13 July a general vote was taken on the entire draft.  There were present 601 fathers.  Of these 451 voted placet, 62 placet juxta modum (conditional affirmative), 88 non placet....  On account of the war which threatened to break out between Germany and France, a number of fathers of both opinions had returned home.  Shortly before the fourth public session a large number of the bishops of the minority left Rome with the permission of the directing officers of the council.  They did not oppose the dogma of papal infallibility itself, but were against its definition as inopportune.  On Monday, 18 July, 1870, one day before the outbreak of the Franco-German War, 435 fathers of the council assembled at St. Peter's under the presidency of Pope Pius IX.  The last vote was now taken; 433 fathers voted placet, and only two, Bishop Aloisio Riccio of Cajazzo, Italy, and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas, voted non placet.  During the proceedings a thunderstorm broke over the Vatican, and amid thunder and lightning the pope promulgated the new dogma, like a Moses promulgating the law on Mount Sinai. 


3.  Article from the archconservative Catholic magazine The Angelus (December 1981) by 'Pastor Historicus'

At a general congregation held on 13 July 1870, the Fathers voted 451 placet, 62 placet iuxta modum and 88 non placet.  Many Fathers had left Rome, as war was brewing between France and Germany.  Before the final session, at which the Pope would make the confirmation of the decrees official, the leaders of the Minority asked for a statement that "the consent of the Church should be relied on by the Pope in making infallible pronouncements."  Such an insertion of course would have weakened the text considerably, and the final draft makes it quite clear that the Pope does not require either, before or after, the "official consent" of anyone.

The Minority Bishops decided to withdraw from the final session to avoid embarrassing the Pope.  They hoped that the consent of the Church would not in fact be forthcoming at all and that the whole matter might become a dead letter.

At the final session on Monday, July 18, 433 Bishops voted placet while two voted non placet.  These were Bishop Riccio of Cajazzo and America's Bishop Fitzgerald of Little Rock.  There is a rather spurious story that he actually voted nunc placet (now it pleases), and not non placet but the truth is that he was rather a loner and did not realize the other Minority Bishops would be absent.  As soon as the result was announced he at once submitted.  After the Council, all the Minority Bishops were rounded up and asked to submit in writing to the decrees of the Council.