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  • Settling Old Scores:Pastor Aeternus as the Final Defeat of Early Modern Opponents of Ultramontanism
  • Shaun Blanchard (bio)

It has become conventional to interpret the First Vatican Council primarily in light of nineteenth-century Catholicism's vigorous response to elements of "modernity," including liberalism, democratic revolutions, the Italian Risorgimento, and growing skepticism and secularization. Treatments of Vatican I typically imply or explicitly depict the triumph of a Catholic "fortress mentality": a circling of the wagons around papal authority and a closing of the ranks against the elements of modernity and the outside world deemed poisonous, in the spirit of Pope Pius IX's Quanta Cura and Syllabus of Errors (1864). Undoubtedly, there is something to commend in this common narrative. Important ultramontane figures, whether among the hierarchy, like Cardinal Henry Manning, or among the new ranks of populist, lay voices, like Louis Veuillot, saw a maximalist understanding of papal infallibility as a necessary antidote to modernity.1

Without questioning the importance of the immediate theological and political context on the eve of Vatican I, nor disputing the accuracy of standard diagnoses of the motivations of leading nineteenth-century ultramontanists, this essay argues that the ecclesiology of Vatican I, expressed in the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, was the culmination of centuries of internal Catholic ecclesiological struggle, which reached a frenetic crescendo in the final third of the eighteenth century. [End Page 24]

An internal Catholic struggle between varieties of papalism and varieties of conciliarism over the nature of authority in the church stretches back at least to the fourteenth century. This struggle broke out into acute points of conflict in the early 1300s, and perhaps most famously in the crisis of multiple papal claimants, which led to the Council of Constance's (1414–1418) decrees Frequens and Haec Sancta. This persistent knot of ecclesiological issues erupted again in the sixteenth century when the conciliabulum of Pisa (1511–1512) was countered by the papally sanctioned Lateran Council V (1512–1517). The Council of Trent (1545–1563) declined to tackle the problems surrounding papalism and conciliarism head-on, which was perhaps a prudent course for a council convened to answer Protestantism. It took only a few decades for these suppressed ecclesiological problems to again bubble up to the surface, when in the early seventeenth century, due to a complex nexus of political and theological issues, crises broke out in France, Venice, and England. It was also in that century that a network of extreme Augustinians—originally concerned with combating Molinism and lax "Jesuitical" casuistry in the confessional—became more and more wedded to French Gallicanism, the ecclesiological principles of which had been expressed par excellence in four articles ratified by the General Assembly of the French Clergy in 1682. These "Jansenists" and their many sympathizers became further radicalized by Pope Clement XI's divisive bull Unigenitus (1713), which set off one of the most internally destructive crises in the history of Catholicism. While Jansenists and many of their opponents never forgot the initial theological points of division, questions of the authority of local synods and ecumenical councils (and the right to appeal from papal decisions to them) and of papal infallibility and jurisdictional authority became the ground zero for conflict. By the late eighteenth century, the quite conservative conciliarism of a seminal figure like the Gallican bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) had, in an alarming number of quarters, given way to the radical anti-ultramontanism exemplified by bishops like Scipione de' Ricci (1741–1810) and Henri Grégoire (1750–1831).2

Ironically, it was an ecumenical council, a body which the popes had once quite reasonably feared, that dealt the coup de grâce to certain fundamental ecclesiological tenets of conciliarism. As articulated by the fourth Gallican Article of [End Page 25] 1682, although an idea of far more ancient provenance, conciliarists held that papal teaching was not "irreformable" apart from the "consent of the Church" (consensus Ecclesiae).3 This tenet united all early modern conciliarists.4 It was not a rejection of papal primacy, which only a handful of extremists denied, but rather of what opponents would come to call the "personal, separate, and absolute" infallibility of the pope...


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