Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Conciliar Ultamonanism

With Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard, 2018), Jesuit Church historian John W. O'Malley has completed his trilogy of books on the three ecumenical councils of the modern Church. Beginning with his book on Vatican II in 2008 and a book on Trent in 2013, he has now completed the series with Blessed Pius IX's under-appreciated, in-between council Vatican I. More than an account of a single council (which actually met only from December 1869 though the following summer), O'Malley tells the story of the development of the modern Church, "the story of how the Catholic Church in a relatively short time moved to a new and significantly pope-centered mode" - that is, the pope-centered ultramontane Church I was born into and have lived my entire life within. 

The Vatican Council itself, which met on the very eve of the Kingdom of Italy's September 20, 1870, conquest of Rome was the (literally) defining episode in the historical process in which the Pope's spiritual authority within the Church reached its glorious zenith precisely as the Pope's temporal power came to its inglorious end. O'Malley masterfully situates this development in the larger historical context of the definitive defeat of Gallicanism, which had accorded greater prominence to national Churches in relation to the papacy, had recognized national states as legitimate actors in ecclesiastical matters, and had considered the consent of the Church essential for a papal pronouncement to be irreformable. It was above all that last belief which Vatican I explicitly rejected, leading to the pope-centered Church of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In between, there was the Council itself, which O'Malley describes in detail - even such details as the poor acoustics in the transept of Saint Peter's where the Council met and how rainy days diminished attendance (since for many Council Fathers that meant walking to the basilica in the rain and then sitting soaking wet in the cold basilica for hours). More importantly, O'Malley effectively portrays the factional politics both inside and outside the Council hall and also among those not invited but who took a great interest nonetheless. (In another display of the Church's changed relationship with the worldly powers which the Council codified, this was the first time that Catholic princes were not invited as participants, thus ending centuries of lay participation in such events).

The Council was in its time the largest and most international Church assembly in history. That too pointed ahead to the contemporary pope-centered Church - no longer primarily perceived as a principality competing in Italian and European politics but more like the universal, multi-cultural community that Acts 15's "Council of Jerusalem" had first made possible, its unity and universality across time and space centered in the petrine ministry of the pope.

Vatican I was, of course, the first Council attended by Bishops from the United States. Prior to traveling to Rome as an assistant to Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore and Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans of Columbus, Isaac Hecker had expressed his confidence in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the forthcoming Council and assured his New York parishioners in a "Farewell Sermon" that, rather than choose between faith and reason, grace and nature, liberty and authority, the Church would “embrace and reconcile them all, giving to each one of them all that is justly due to it.” [“Father Hecker’s Farewell Sermon,” Catholic World, 10, December 1869, pp. 289-293.]

His analysis after the Council was even more perceptive: “The Church has been prepared for a movement of this nature by the decrees of the Vatican Council on Papal authority, which have settled its rightful position, defined its exercise, and declared these decisions to articles of the Catholic Faith. This elevation and settlement of the spiritual authority of the Church gave the main stroke to the task of the Tridentine epoch and has prepared the Church for a fresh start. [“On the Mission of New Religious Communities” (1876)].

As O'Malley notes, "the centralization of authority that Pastor Aeternus promoted was a phenomenon that in the secular sphere had greatly accelerated in the nineteenth century. It resulted in a very modern standardization of procedures on a worldwide basis... At the same time it called people out of their provincialism and nationalism and forced them into a more expansive vision of the church and, consequently, of the world."

In the triumphant ultramontanism of the post-Vatican I Church, some foolishly foresaw some sort of end of history (to echo Francis Fukuyama's comparable mistake in 1989 in light of the end of the Cold War). It was widely asserted that Vatican was the last such event, that it had rendered future Councils redundant. Then came Pope Saint John XXIII, whose feast day Thursday will mark the anniversary of his opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. 

Like Vatican I, which met in the shadow of the threatened Italian conquest of Rome, Vatican II met under the dark cloud of the Cold War. (The Cuban Missile Crisis came later that month.) Like Vatican I, Vatican II tried to respond to the new and apparently unprecedented world situation the Church found herself in by reclaiming her relevance and her competence to speak to the world. The triumphant ultramontanism of Vatican I made possible the self-confident ultramontanism of Vatican II, enabling Church to address the still pending challenges of modernity and prepare herself for the fresh start she would need to accompany an even more globally centralized while simultaneously fragmented post-modern world.

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