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The First Vatican Council, 1869-1870

The Vatican Council now in session, writes John Raymond, faces many issues very different from that which dominated its predecessor nearly a century ago.

“Although the Vatican Council was convoked to deal with issues of widest import, the errors and calamities of the times, the matter with which in fact it principally dealt was the Papacy; and the outcome of the Council was the settlement of long-standing controversies concerning the position and authority of the Pope in the Church.”

In this opening sentence of his great study of the First Vatican Council, Dom Cuthbert Butler points squarely to the issue dominant in the mind of the 760 or so Fathers of the Roman Church assembled in the Basilica of St. Peter’s during the fateful months of 1869-70.

From every standpoint, human or ghostly, whether one studies the history of the Council as a piece of plain historical narrative, or as the guided manifestation of the Holy Spirit working out a necessary “development of dogma” within the Church Militant, it is essential to bear this fact in mind.

The Vatican Council was primarily concerned with the definition of the Pope’s infallibility. Everything done, said or argued, every theological passion aroused or suppressed, hinged on what Dr. Ullathorne of Birmingham, that indefatigable letter-writer and most trustworthy of witnesses, termed “the question.”

Every subject debated—the rights and duties of bishops, the condemnation of liberalism and rationalism, the reform of the breviary, the revision of the catechism, the relation between Church and State—gave place to this overriding question.

To the minority of bishops who opposed the definition, the infallibility doctrine was a nightmare, threatening ruin to the souls of many and constituting a powerful hindrance to would-be converts among the Church’s “separated brethren.”

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