I have come across a review of a book on the history of Vatican I (1870) in Vatican I, Pius IX, and the problem of ultramontanism. The article is published in a Roman Catholic site, and criticism from such a point of view is that much more germane. I was reading stuff like The Pope and the Council by Döllinger (Janus) and August Berhard Hasler’s How the Pope Became Infallible published in 1979 and translated into English in 1981 when I was yet a student at Fribourg and afterwards a seminarian at Gricigliano. The book in question is John W. O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, Harvard University Press, 2018. I’ll read it.
This review approaches the subject with the eternal rule of the historian, that of avoiding anachronisms. You don’t judge the Inquisition by the standards of modern declarations of human rights! However, the historian is human and such temptations are impossible to avoid entirely when what we see today is a consequence of the past.
On the subject of Vatican I and its Pope who “felt infallible” like one of those clowns in the Palmar de Troya sect in Spain, we are reminded that a considerable amount of Roman Catholic apologetic cant ignores human imperfections. We are reminded of the way bishops had to live through a Roman July with its torrid heat and rain. The debates and speeches were nearly inaudible, in Latin, and horribly monotonous.
This review picks up on how Catholic reactionaries were hysterical about how the modern world, then like now, was threatening the existence of the institutional Church. Pius IX’s “solution” was to make himself an infallible monarch, the butt of jokes for decades. The theory according to which everything tightens up when there is a real or imagined threat is very compelling in this context. Conspiracy theorists in the latter part of the nineteenth century were quite shrill in their expression, and their writings are still used by groups like the sedevacantists or other traditionalists with similar views. Pius XI was a moderate and intelligent Pope who found a need to develop ideas of Christ the King (cf. Quas primas) in the 1920’s to dilute the influence of budding dictators like Mussolini and Hitler.
The nineteenth century in most of Europe was a time of great instability, and the spectre still influences the Brexit question. The paroxysm of authoritarianism was over in 1945 with the defeat of the dictators and a beginning of a new paradigm in which I discovered the world as a child. We have found out that such a guarantee of absolute certitude is an illusion. We have to work by our critical sense and understanding of our own times.
A historical study of the Council, such as I have read in Hasler’s book, and might discover in O’Malley’s book, is essential to deconstruct the myths and see the emerging image of hysterical reactionaries and a “hostage” situation as the clouds of war loomed in Europe.
We find the same terms applied to the Papacy since the French Revolution as to modern politics between the EU status quo and populist movements. In violation of the historian’s golden rule, our times give us a hermeneutic key to understanding the movements and goings-on of the nineteenth century. The history is the same, though over a longer time-scale.
Papal absolutism has brought us the Jesuit Pope from Argentina, who continues in a paradigm of unaccountability and bluff. The future will tell. To non Roman Catholic Christians, it hardly seems to matter. We are brought to the quip of Winston Churchill about the best argument against democracy being a conversation with a voter for five minutes!
We need seriously to change our paradigm and way of seeing the world. Certainly, there is hostility towards Christianity, but it is mostly indifference and ignorance. Most people don’t know and don’t want to know. Their freedom has to be respected. This forsaking of totalitarianism and authoritarianism has brought me to seek the essential of the Romantic movement and a realisation that truth is beyond our activism and illusions. It is transcendent.