Cutthroat politics in the push to make the pope infallible

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church
By John W. O’Malley
Belknap Press, 2018, 320 pages

Some of my recent readings about the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility prompted me to download the ebook version of this very interesting book.

In the 19th-century, as monarchies were being overturned throughout Europe in favor of constitutional democracies, pope Pius IX hung on desperately to the Papal States, an area of about 16,000 sq. mi. in the central region of the Italian Peninsula. As the alleged “Vicar of Christ,” the pope claimed authority over both the temporal and spiritual worlds and the Papal States were symbolic of his theoretical jurisdiction over all nations.

As the political and military supporters of Italian national unification began making inroads into the Papal States, the pope called upon France and Austria to defend his territory. He retaliated against the “revolutionaries” the only way he could, by issuing the “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864, which condemned all forms of constitutional government, freedom of religion, and other “modern errors.”

But many Catholics of the era reacted to the post-Enlightenment upheavals by desiring a return to an ultra-pious religiosity which would be embodied by an authoritarian pope; authoritarian at least in spiritual matters. Debates over papal infallibility began raging throughout Catholic Europe with the Jesuits taking the lead in the campaign for furthering papal supremacy. Pius IX saw the opportunity to balance his increasingly precarious temporal situation with regards to the Papal States with increased “spiritual” prerogatives and called the Vatican Council (1869-1870) mainly to define the dogma of papal infallibility. Much/most of the impetus for declaring the pope infallible was in reaction to the loss of the Papal States; the Risorgimento may have seized the pope’s kingdom, but he was still their infallible, spiritual sovereign.

Contemporary Catholics who take the doctrine of infallibility for granted 150 years later should definitely read this book. Many of the prelates of the preconciliar church thought of the hierarchy in much more collegial terms and saw the pope as a symbolic figure among equals. A sizable minority of the bishops who attended the council strongly opposed papal infallibility. The pope and his allies used various means at their disposal to influence the prelates. “On 13 July 1870, a preliminary vote on the section on infallibility was held in a general congregation: 451 voted simply in favour (placet), 88 against (non placet), and 62 in favour but on condition of some amendment (placet iuxta modum)” – from Wikipedia. The opponents of the dogma absented themselves from the final vote rather than publicly oppose the pope. The credulous faithful would be surprised to learn from this book and the example of Vatican I that Vatican spirituality was/is often a matter of cutthroat politics and cloakroom deals.


  • Italian unification forces besieged Rome and seized the city in September, 1870, ending papal temporal rule in Italy until dictator Benito Mussolini ceded Vatican City to the papacy as an independent state in 1929 in return for recognition of the fascist regime.
  • The doctrine of papal infallibility claims the pope teaches without error on matters of faith and morals only when he speaks “ex cathedra,” formally from the chair of St. Peter in his alleged capacity as the supreme teacher of the church. However, Catholic theologians can agree on only three occasions when a pope defined dogma infallibly: the immaculate conception of Mary (1854), papal infallibility (1870), and the assumption of Mary (1950).
  • “Ultramontane” literally means “on the other side of the mountains from the point of view of the speaker.” In France, the term became popular as a reference to “the man beyond the mountains,” i.e. the pope. Ultramontanists were Catholics who desired an increased degree of authority for the pope including the declaration of infallibility as a dogma.
  • The author of this book is a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Georgetown University, but I give him credit for his objectivity. Conservative Catholic apologists operate from a pollyannaish viewpoint with regards to their church’s history, but O’Malley doesn’t sugar coat it.
  • Catholic apologists boast that their church is the only religious institution that’s led by an infallible leader. They claim that the Holy Spirit would never allow a pope to lead the church into doctrinal error. It’s quite interesting, then, that the current pope, Francis, has undermined doctrines held to be infallible by previous popes including the ban on communion for remarried divorcees, the ban on intercommunion with Protestants, and the licitness of capital punishment, much to the chagrin of conservative Catholics.

7 thoughts on “Cutthroat politics in the push to make the pope infallible

  1. Good review; I’m not surprised the author is a Jesuit given how most Jesuits today are pretty progressive. Fascinating historical book of how Papal infallibility came to be official dogma in Vaitcan I. Fascinating how it wasn’t as clear cut as modern Catholics might think; I’m surprised most with the opposition of bishops and other leaders. Good book review Tom, keep them coming!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I really enjoyed this book. It did an excellent job of examining the historical and political underpinnings in the push for papal infallibility. Yes, it’s quite ironic that the Jesuits were the enthusiastic champions of papal infallibility 150 years ago and are now one of its biggest critics (as embodied by Jesuit pope Francis). I wish every Catholic would read this book. Compromising ecumenical evangelicals would benefit too. The author also wrote examinations of the councils of Trent and Vatican II which I may also look at down the road. Again, I appreciate the support. I’m of the opinion that relatively few evangelicals these days are open to this kind of information.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think you would enjoy it. It’s quite a time we live when most of the critiques of Catholicism are coming from the Catholic Right and Catholic Left with nary a word from evangelicals.

        Liked by 2 people

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