The council then taught that it has been divinely revealed “that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His Church be endowed in defining doctrine in faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from themselves, but not from the consensus of the Church, are irreformable.”
The prospect of the definition of papal infallibility had not been universally welcomed, with some believing the act of definition to be inopportune.
The definition of infallibility led to the formation of the Old Catholic Church, with some Catholics from Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands going into schism, though no Catholic bishops joined them.
St. John Henry Newman and the council
St. John Henry Newman was concerned about the prospect of the definition, though once it was adopted, he welcomed its moderation and the limits it placed on papal infallibility.
In his 1875 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman wrote that in the act of definition “the principle of doctrinal development, and that of authority” had “never in the proceedings of the Church been so freely and largely used,” while denying that “the testimony of history was repudiated or perverted.”
He added that “the long history of the contest for and against the pope’s infallibility” had been a “growing insight through centuries … ending at length by the Church’s definitive recognition of the doctrine thus gradually manifested to her.”
Newman noted that “Papal and Synodal definitions, obligatory on our faith, are of rare occurrence; and this is confessed by all sober theologians.”
“There is no real increase” in the pope’s authority, Newman wrote, for “he has for centuries upon centuries had and used that authority, which the definition now declares ever to have belonged to him.”
Germany and the council
In Germany, the definition precipitated the Kulturkampf, a conflict between Otto von Bismarck’s government and the Church over the state’s role in ecclesial appointments; Bismarck held that the definition had made an absolute monarch of the pope, with bishops his mere delegates.
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Germany’s bishops responded to this charge in a joint declaration of 1875, saying that “the decrees of the Vatican Council give not even the shadow of a foundation to the assertion that the pope has been made by them an absolute ruler ... even as far as concerns ecclesiastical matters, the pope cannot be called an absolute monarch, since he is subject to Divine Law and is bound to those things which Christ set in order for His Church. He cannot change the constitution of the Church which was given to it by its Divine Founder.”
They added that “it is in virtue of the same divine institution upon which the papacy rests that the episcopate also exists. It, too, has its rights and duties, because of the ordinance of God himself, and the Pope has neither the right nor the power to change them … According to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, expressly declared at the Vatican Council itself, the bishops are not mere tools of the Pope.”
Blessed Pius IX confirmed that year the German bishops’ explanation of the teaching of Vatican I, writing that “it ought to provide the occasion for our most fulsome congratulations; unless the crafty voice of some journals were to demand from us an even weightier testimony — a voice which, in order to restore the force of the letter which has been refuted by you, has tried to deprive your hard work of credibility by arguing that the teaching of the conciliar definitions approved by you has been softened and on that account does not truly correspond with the mind of this Apostolic See.”
“We therefore reject this sly and calumnious insinuation and suggestion; since your declaration expresses the inherent catholic judgement, which is accordingly that of the sacred Council and of this Holy See, skilfully fortified and cleverly explained with such brilliant and inescapable arguments that it can demonstrate to any honest person that there is nothing in the attacked definitions which is new or makes any change,” the pope wrote.
The German bishops’ declaration was cited by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1998 Considerations on the Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the mystery of the Church, where it wrote that the Roman Pontiff “does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation. The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy.”
In “The Spirit of the Liturgy” in 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote similarly, “the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith.”