Vatican I: A Look Back at an Unfinished Council (4)

April 24, 2020

150 years ago, the First Vatican Council opened under the leadership of Pope Pius IX: FSSPX.News is going back over the fascinating history of the Council which was the theater of opposition between liberals and ultramontanes, at the end of which the dogma of papal infallibility was proclaimed.

From February 22 to March 18, 1870, the work of the council was suspended to provide time to improve the acoustics in the area of St. Peter’s where the debates took place. Above all, it was time for the anti-infallibility minority to “digest” the new rules that had been promulgated to prevent discussions from getting bogged down.

In fact, the new regulations approved by Pope Pius IX on February 22 include four notable modifications:

  • Proposals for amendments and criticisms of the schemas must be communicated in writing rather than orally, as was the case previously;
  • Going forward, voting would take place by “sitting” and “standing,” which was supposed to save one and a half hours each time when compared to voting by individual “placet” which would have to be counted one by one;
  • Presidents were authorized to put to a vote the anticipated cloture of a discussion, if at least ten fathers request it;
  • An absolute majority of votes was enough for a constitution to be adopted.

Unsurprisingly, the minority leaders were opposed to the last two changes to the regulations. A protest drawn up by Msgr. Dupanloup was signed by fifty prelates, including thirty French. The bishops of the Germanic faction presented a more radical petition, which gathered fourteen signatures. Some fathers even threatened to leave the Council if they did not get their way!

The suspension of the debates allowed time for emotions to calm down. When the debates resumed, on March 18, it was the schema on Revelation prepared by the Jesuit Johann Baptist Franzelin— reworked by, among others, Bishop Pie and Fr. Kleutgen—that was placed in the spotlight.

It seemed to be a moment of peace: the schema met with the favor of the fathers and the discussion started with the trivial amendments. Thus Bishop Joachim Pecci—the future Pope Leo XIII—asked, in vain,  for the explicit condemnation of the so-called “traditionalism” error.

Developed in the 19th century by thinkers like Bonald and Bonnetty, the doctrine of traditionalism claimed that knowledge of the metaphysical, moral, and religious order is not accessible to individual reason. From this perspective, one can acquire said knowledge with certainty only through revelation - called primitive - which would be transmitted and attested with authority through language, society, tradition, collective thought, etc.

The calm of the discussions was suddenly interrupted by a Croatian prelate, Msgr. Joseph Strossmayer, Bishop of Bosnia and Syrmia, who reproached the schema for its harshness regarding Protestantism. He took advantage of his intervention to complain about the changes made to the Council regulations, which earned him a certain number of jeers.


As one would expect, the incident was exploited by some polemicists and the press, who presented this episode to the public as being characteristic of the split between the majority and the minority. They even had an apostate priest compose an apocryphal speech attributed to Bishop Strossmayer, which was a scandalous success after the council.


A vote on the entire retouched schema was held on April 12: 83 fathers resorted to the “placet iuxta modum,” which provided for the examination of new amendments.


A final vote was organized on April 24, 1870. Bishop Strossmayer and some other fathers were tempted to give a definitive refusal, but, on the advice of Cardinals Schwarzenberg and Rauscher, they gave up on it, so as not to show a systematic opposition, which would have harmed the minority in the rest of the debates.


This is how the first constitution of the council was voted in unanimously by the 667 members present. It bears the name of Dei Filius, and provides a veritable compass to guard against modern errors. In the Vatican gardens, in that year of 1870, spring looked very promising.