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The Dubia of Vatican One

Above: Bl. Pius IX with members of the Papal court, c. 1868.

This is part 2 in a series reviewing last year’s debate about Ultramontanism. Not all statements contained herein may reflect the opinions of the editorial board.

In our last essay we discussed different terminological aspects of Ultramontanism. The primary dichotomy which I am attempting to emphasise here is the distinction between historical meaning and theological meaning. I believe this is where many of us get confused or start talking past each other whether we are discussing the First Vatican Council or the Second.

In a previous treatment we brought up the importance of the theological notes, which we term “Theology 102.” This is because after Vatican II especially, (owing to an existing decline in theology which had been ongoing since 1773) theology suffered a unprecedented collapse, so that many official theologians and bishops do not know Latin (“Theology 101”) nor the “norms of theological interpretation known to all” (Lumen Gentium, appendix), especially the theological notes (“Theology 102”).

This is what complicates our discussion of this whole modern period. In this essay, we will attempt to apply the norms of theological interpretation to the First Vatican Council, and in the following essay, we will discuss further the historical ramifications of the Council, in the form of the “False Spirit of Vatican One.”

Before we begin let me emphasise again that I am not a theologian, nor do I aspire to be. A theologian is traditionally understood to be a man of prayer who gains wisdom by his holiness first and his knowledge second. Although I am not a theologian, I know enough to understand that many “theologians” out there are merely academics falsely claiming the title theologian. I am merely an educated lay leader who am attempting to imitate in some small way my lay forefathers, the great noblemen of Christendom – St. Constantine the Great, Emperors Sigismund and Charles V. These men only entangled themselves in “clerical” theological questions in order to help the theologians do their own job. These dubia of Vatican I will be resolved by theologians. As a layman, I don’t want to shoulder the burden of the spiritual sword, yet due to the circumstances I must do something according to my state in life. This is meant to be a form of the “mutual help” between the Two Swords of Christendom.

Therefore I offer these reflections to our lay faithful readers so they can grasp some of the basics of this debate, which I hope will help us move into a higher and more productive area of conversation.

Historical and Theological Meaning

Before we dive deeper into the theological meaning of Vatican I, let’s apply our distinctions to ecumenical councils in general. The layers of reality in which we deal with these questions – theological and historical – are related, but they are not the same. When we are dealing with an ecumenical council, we need to remember that on a historical level a great deal of evil machinations can exist at such a council, and even good men and saints can fall into this – and this can have all sorts of bad fruit on the historical level – yet nevertheless the theological meaning of the council can be protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, bringing forth good fruit.

When we go back to the first Seven Ecumenical Councils we can easily see examples of this. In many of them there was a great deal of violence and bloodshed, even perpetrated by the “good guys” at the Council, and history forgets these evils, but remembers the theological achievements.

Take the Council of Ephesus for example (431). St. Cyril, Doctor of the Church, bribed the officials and terrorised the Council Fathers with an army of violent monks until the orthodox definition of faith was established.[1] Thus the theological meaning of the Council was safeguarded, but the saint’s actions produced immediate bad fruit by threatening a schism with the Antiochian catechetical school.

Showing his saintliness however, St. Cyril won over his theological enemies in the reconciliation with John of Antioch in 440.[2] Without such saintliness, the historical effects of the Council of Ephesus could have obscured the theological fruit of the Council. (Indeed, the Greek schisms hardened in the next century precisely due to a loss of such holiness before and after the Fifth Ecumenical Council).[3]

Why is this the case? Why does God allow such evil to be mixed with the good?

It is simply because God first allows human freedom to produce evil within His own Providence.

Yet God always brings good out of evil, and allows error in order to bring about a greater truth. It is within the power of Almighty God’s Providence to work out these difficult matters, even with the machinations of evil at work to undermine His purposes.

And indeed, can there be any doubt that the fallen angels work their hardest to undermine God’s work specifically when churchmen gather at an Ecumenical Council?

The Historical and Theological Meaning of Vatican I

Thus when we say “the false spirit of Vatican I” we are speaking about some of the harmful historical effects of certain factors of historical Ultramontanism as well as the historical event of Vatican I. This does not and cannot truly undermine the acts of God’s Holy Spirit at Vatican I in defining the dogmas of Papal Primary and Infallibility (as well as those on God, revelation, faith and reason, in the other decree of the Council, Dei Filius).

However, in the mess of history, the theological meaning can become obscured merely in a historical sense – in other words, some people might become confused or there might be some difficult historical effects, which need to be resolved. Since theological and historical meaning is connected in the mess of reality (theological definitions are in history – at a given time and place), these things can be get garbled after a Council, and hence a “false spirit” can arise in which the Devil attempts to use the very acts of God against the Church.

After a Council’s anathemas inevitably foil the Devil’s plots, the fallen angels quickly turn to twist and abuse those very definitions in order to undermine what God has built.

Thus having said all this, let us first abstract our analysis from the realms of history and focus solely on the theological achievements of Vatican I, and discuss some of the dubia which remain. In the next essay we will look into some of the historical happenings at the Council and after in order to distinguish the theological achievement from the false spirit.

The Basic Doctrine of Papal Monarchy

We can summarise the doctrine of Papal Monarchy of Vatican I in two basic points:

  1. Ex cathedra definitions on faith or morals are infallible and irreformable ex sese sine consensu ecclesiae [from themselves and not from the consensus of the Church].
  2. The Roman Pontiff enjoys ordinary and immediate jurisdiction over every bishop and every member of the faithful.

These two dogmas are attached with anathemas to the definitions contained in the decree Pastor Aeternus, and are best reviewed in the current edition of Denzinger with the associated relatio brought into English (with commentary) by J. T. O’Connor and published by Ignatius Press.[4]

Why are there Ambiguities in Vatican I?

The points above resolve any dubia concerning whether or not the pope can ever be infallible, and the extent of his jurisdiction. In other words, it resolves these questions under the strict parameters of the definitions and anathemas, excluding certain errors of Gallicanism which now, due to this definition, have been anathemetised as heresy.

However, certain ambiguous phrases remain in the documents of Vatican I, for example, that the pope enjoys the “gift of truth and never-failing faith” and that the “See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error” (Pastor Aeternus).

It is important to note that these phrases seem to have a meaning prima facie, but are actually theologically ambiguous. This is because they do not use technical theological language so as to exclude propositions to the contrary as the above two points do. The Holy See is indeed unblemished by any error, but does that mean that the popes have never sinned? Does that mean that the pope has never made a prudential error? What about a Magisterial error?

We must note here as well as an obiter dictum (descending again to the historical relationship here) that ambiguous phrases may turn up in an ecumenical decision indeed due to the machinations of enemies (as we might assert in another place regarding Vatican II), but they can also arise due to the fact that the Council Fathers do not wish to resolve a certain question at that time.

Thus ambiguous phrases may be the result of a compromise between two theological parties at a Council, and the Fathers conclude that they do not intend to resolve such questions, and so they both agree to an equivocal phrase so that a vote will pass the pressing dogma against the important heresy.

Because it is important to seize upon the fact that the question at Vatican I was not the infallibility and jurisdiction of the pope per se – as we now discuss it – but rather the assertion of the Revolution that the Church had lost its own charism of truth at all (as well as the secular State’s power over bishops, condemned in #2 above). The Revolution asserted that the Church of Christ had ceased to have any power of truth over souls and society (thus Napoleon’s taunt of Pius VI as “Pius the Last”). Further – and not unrelated – it had asserted that monarchy itself was per se tyranny, and thus Liberalism (or else its ugly daughter, Communism) was going to “liberate” the world from Monarchy by “revolution” (read: bloodshed).

Thus Ultramontanism defended the Papal Monarchy in order to safeguard the most basic truths of the infallibility of the Church as a whole, as the definition contextualises papal infallibility as merely an organ of the Church’s whole infallibility:

When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra… he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals (Denz. 3074).

Thus the overall purpose of Pastor Aeternus is to defend the Church’s infallibility in general by means of the papal infallibility in particular. The second point of doctrine regarding the universal jurisdiction was meant to combat the take-over of the bishops by the revolutionary regimes, as had happened in France with the clerical oath (a question made acute by Pius VII’s ambiguous Concordat of 1801). The Council was not seeking to resolve other ancillary questions debated among theologians for centuries (that we now debate). This is why ambiguities remain on other questions which do not directly bear upon the issues raised by the Revolution.

And thus our phrases we discussed above. For notice what these phrases do not say: they do not address the question of whether Pope Honorius was validly declared a heretic. They do not address the extent to which a pope can err outside of exercising ex cathedra authority (what about John XXII?). They merely repeat honorary phrases that have always been attributed to the Holy See, but do not resolve dubia that remained unanswered at the Council due to their irrelevance in answering the hubris of the Revolution.

The Dubia of Vatican I

Therefore let us list the dubia which have never enjoyed an answer but have become more pressing in the period following Vatican I (1870-present):

  1. Is it possible for the pope teach any error? (Or: does infallibility extend beyond ex cathedra?)
  2. Is it possible for the pope to become a heretic?
  3. Does the pope have absolute authority over the liturgy? (Or: is the pope bound to any Tradition in modifying the liturgy excepting the form/matter of the Sacrament?)
  4. Can we ever disobey or resist the pope on a matter not manifestly sinful?

All of these questions were left unresolved by Vatican I, notwithstanding strong statements which seem to resolve these prima facie. These questions have numerous precedents in history, as Professor Roberto de Mattei shows in his important volume Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church as well as Kwasniewski in the first volume of his treatise The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism.

The Fathers of Vatican I were not unaware of these numerous historical questions. They merely chose to pass over them to resolve the more pressing issues of Papal Monarchy. However, the historical effect of this allowed a false spirit of Vatican I to arise after the Council, which we will treat in its proper place.

Theological Schools Following Vatican I

For now we will outline four general schools of thought surrounding the Vatican Council, and show how each of these generally fall in answering the dubia of Vatican I, together with an approximate theological note.

  1. Hyperpapalist – the pope can never be in error or heretical, and his will is the will of the Holy Spirit, and thus anything less than blind obedience to him is schismatic (Tolerated Opinion)
  2. Papal Maximalist – the pope’s infallibility extends beyond ex cathedra statements, but he can only be disobeyed if and only if he commands something that is manifestly and intrinsically sinful (which is possible, as history shows). Therefore, he enjoys absolute power over the liturgy, keeping only the form and matter of the Sacrament intact. Public resistance to ecclesiastical authority is a scandal to the faithful and per se leads to schism (Pious Opinion).
  3. Papal Minimalist – the pope can become a heretic and err outside his ex cathedra statements (although this can only happen rarely, due to the general protection of the Church by the Holy Spirit). The pope is bound to Tradition in his liturgical acts, and thus he can be disobeyed even in things not manifestly sinful but only according to a well-formed conscience. Public resistance to ecclesiastical authority can only be justified for a manifestly grave cause (Probable Opinion).
  4. Neo-Jansenist[5] – the pope (and the Magisterium in general) can be ignored, dismissed and disobeyed in all their acts which fail to achieve infallible authority, and the faithful possess carte blanche to mock, ridicule and insult ecclesiastical authority publicly (Rash, dangerous, contrary to Catholic teaching).

These four schools of thought mix with each other, and a single individual Catholic may fall into different categories depending on different questions he might raise on this or that thing. We might note that the Hyperpapalist position is tolerated, and would seem to find support in certain hyperbolic statements of the saints (and even modern, informal statements of the Pontiffs), but has never enjoyed Magisterial authority in authoritative statements. This is partially the sententia of Albert Pighius (asserting that the pope can never even be a private heretic), which was shared by St. Robert Bellarmine, but that the relatio of Gasser explicitly states is not the doctrine of Vatican I.

The Maximalist stance is seen to arise especially after Trent with its anathema against those who say the Church does not have authority to change the liturgy “saving only its substance,” and especially after Vatican I in the papacies of Bl. Pius IX, Leo XIII and St. Pius X. It enjoys authority based mostly on papal precedents and the honorary, ambiguous statements, but not on authoritative Magisterial texts, notwithstanding strong statements obliging the faithful to obedience.[6]

However, the Minimalist St. John Henry Newman would seem to counter this by presenting a view of Tradition (and thus the liturgy) contained in the Church Fathers which emanates first from the “ordinary Magisterium” of the regulum fidei and what St. Basil says was “handed on to us in mystery.”[7] The Vatican Councils both assert (Pastor Aeternus, 6; Dei Verbum, 10) that the Magisterium is given authority to safeguard Tradition, making Tradition itself more authoritative. Still, this position has not been clarified by any explicit Magisterial texts, outside CCC 1124-1125, Summorum Pontificum, and certain ambiguous statements from Cardinal Ratzinger. The limiting factors conceded by Bl. Pius IX mentioned in our last essay seem to accord with this, but that has not prevented the popes from asserting absolute power over the public liturgy (in the form of the Divine Office) within a generation of Vatican I, and later over the Sacramental rites (under Paul VI).

Finally, some Trads among us unfortunately fall into the final camp, that of Neo-Jansenism, which is what Fr. Ripperger observes as “disrespect of authority and the Magisterium” which is, according to him, one of the “ten problems with the traditional movement.” There is really no room to assert a Neo-Jansenist position since it comes from theological ignorance at best, and sinful impiety at worst (the latest professio fidei explicitly rejects this by obliging the faithful to obsequium religiosum to non-infallible Magisterial acts, notwithstanding this phrase’s ambiguous nature). Nevertheless in response to the extremes of the hyperpapalists, sometimes we react by going into another extreme, which ends up becoming de facto sedeprivationism, or worse. This tends toward making one’s self your own Magisterium and falling into the trap of prideful, private judgment.

But as we can see, Vatican I allows the first three theological opinions and does not resolve them. The pontificate of Pope Francis has thrown open all of these questions as pressing matters which theologians have been trying to resolve.

We should note here though that those who castigate fellow Catholics for falling into one of the first three schools must beware lest they set themselves up as their own Magisterial authority. At OnePeterFive we condemn hyperpapalism as a false doctrine, but we must also acknowledge that these our condemnations must be submitted to ecclesiastical authority and authoritatively adjudicated, as only a living and traditional Magisterium can.

I believe that in recent years with the work of Joseph Ratzinger and because of the Trad movement in general, hyperpapalism is becoming a much weaker theological position. Perhaps the Pontificate of Francis has had this silver lining: that more and more mainstream theologians and bishops are moving away from the hyperpapalist position, and landing more in the spectrum between Maximalism or Minimalism. However, this process has only just begun under Francis, and we may have generations to go before hyperpapalism is condemned or these dubia resolved.

In the next essay, we will discuss further the historical fall-out of Vatican I, and define the “false spirit” of the same.


[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1993), 34; John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Division (SVS Press, 2011), 165.

[2] Denzinger (43rd ed., Ignatius Press, 2010), 271-273.

[3] On this, see T. S. Flanders, City of God vs. City of Man (Our Lady of Victory Press, 2021), 141-161.

[4] Denzinger, 3050-3075.

[5] I term this attitude “Neo-Jansenism” as opposed to “Neo-Gallicanism” because Jansenism was a dispute with Papal authority about the Faith contained in the Fathers (specifically St. Augustine) whereas Gallicanism was a dispute with Papal authority about the role of the Catholic temporal authority. Further, it is not “Old Catholic” since Old Catholics rejected Vatican I, and are thus formally heretics. Since no Trads today claim Catholic temporal authority in their dispute with the Magisterium, nor do they refuse assent to Vatican I, it seems this impious attitude among Trads is more properly compared to Jansenism in that movement’s bad faith dealings with ecclesiastical authority.

[6] Pastor Aeternus again: “Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.” What is the nature of this “true obedience”? Does it extend to obeying a sinful command? Does it extend to obeying but violating a well-formed conscience? Does it extend to obeying in prudential matters? These are left unanswered by this ambiguous phrasing.

[7] De Spiritu Sancto, ch. 27.

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