Roman Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The nineteenth century posed a number of unique challenges to the Roman Catholic Church, among them the continued rise of Protestantism, the increasing influence of modernism, the development of historical and biblical criticisms, and the rise in understanding of numerous world religions. Roman Catholicism developed a number of responses to these challenges, most notably through Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and the canons of the First Vatican Council. In these writings, Rome affirmed the veracity of the tradition of the Church in opposition to the world, dogmatically affirming the accuracy and infallibility of the teachings of the Church and Pope.

Of the canons coming from the First Vatican Council, the decree concerning papal infallibility, “On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff”, remains one of the most noteworthy and influential. While the office of the Pope had long held primacy in the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican I sought to solidify that authority by conciliar decree. The first portion of the argument for the doctrine of papal infallibility, the argument for the authority of the pope, is argued from four perspectives: tradition, scripture, the assent of councils, and the overarching agreement of Christian faith. First arguing from the tradition of the Church, the council writes that the Apostolic primacy of Rome must be understood to include the “supreme power of teaching” (§1). Appeals are made to a variety of historical sources, including the history of the bishopric of Rome, the “constant custom of the church,” and the affirmation of ecumenical councils throughout time concerning the primacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome (§1). The second argument comes from scripture, namely the interpretation of Matthew 16.18-19 that understands Christ to have appointed Peter as head of the Church and chief of the apostles, an interpretation affirmed by the Fourth Council of Constantinople (§2). The third line of reasoning derives from councils, primarily those in Lyons and Florence, which affirmed the teaching authority and primacy of the papal office (§2). The fourth and final argument given for the basis of papal authority derives from the historic agreement between sacred scripture, apostolic tradition, and the teachings of the popes, continuity that affirms for the council the authority and accuracy of the pope (§5). Thus the foundation for the authority of the pope is understood to have certain basis from the perspective of Christian tradition, scripture, councils, and past teachings.

Pope Piux IX
Pope Piux IX

The second portion of the council’s argument, the doctrine of papal infallibility stemming from papal authority, remains based in the understanding that the Holy Spirit was promised to Peter and his successors to lead and guide them in all matters of faith and morals (§6). The gift of the Holy Spirit not only preserves the faith of the successors of Peter, but also allows them to authoritatively lead the entire Church in order that they may protected from the “poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine” (§7). For the First Vatican Council, such infallible authority remains especially necessary in the age of modernism with its competing claims of knowledge (§8). The conditions under which the papal office remains infallible, however, are clearly defined. Divinely revealed dogma is only understood to have been uttered when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he exercises his teaching office for the entire Church on matters of faith or morals in accordance with apostolic authority.

While chronologically preceding Vatican I, the Syllabus of Errors from Pope Pius IX remains far less influential for modern Catholics than the canons of the council. In this syllabus Pius IX outlines a variety of problems with the modern world from the Catholic perspective. In contrast to the decrees of earlier popes, Pius IX advocated little by way of acute response, relying more on the teaching office of the Church to inform the faithful. While the Syllabus breaks down modern errors into a number of categories, for our purposes they have been divided into sections on reason, religion, and church/state relations. Through the condemnation of these errors, we argue that Pius IX attempted to reassert the authority of the Church in the modern world through reliance upon traditional modes of interaction.

Syllabus of ErrorsIn dealing with the rise of modernism, Pius IX condemned a number of perspectives concerning philosophy, reason, and the rejection of divine revelation. Perspectives that argue for reason alone apart from divine revelation (§3), argue that revelation and/or faith are unhelpful or harmful (§6), those who employ the historical critical method in a manner excluding the possibility of miracles or the supernatural (§7), those who claim philosophy does not require revelation (§11), those arguing for scientific progressivism apart from the church (§12), and perspectives advocating philosophical naturalism (§14, 58-60) are all condemned. Interestingly, the practice of scientific inquiry itself does not seem to come under fire from Pius IX, but instead the methodology and assumptions of science, especially philosophical naturalism. Similarly, in the realm of religious thought Pius IX outlined a number of perspectives that were to be rejected by the faithful. These included Universalism, here appearing to be something of the Universal Transcendentalism of the Unitarian Church (§16); Protestantism, at least Protestant teachings argued for on the same footing at the teachings of the Catholic Church (§18); those arguing against the use of ecclesial power apart from the governance of the state (§20); those questioning the power of the pope and his use of force (§23-24); and the establishment of national churches, one assumes here institutions such as the Church of England (§37). The rejection of national churches and Protestantism remain interesting, especially in light of Vatican II’s position on Protestants, and it would be interesting to hear how modern Catholic theologians reconcile these two apparently conflicting perspectives. Overall, the Syllabus’ perspective on matters of reason and religion signal the clear rejection of these perspectives in an attempt to direct the faithful back towards the teachings of the Church, castigating worldviews that fall outside Pius IX’s understanding of true Catholic faith.

Pius IX’s third major category of errors concerns matters of Church and State. Here Pius IX rejected those arguing for the total power of the state as the origin of rights (§39), and those rejecting the right of the Church to engage in civil concerns (§41). The issue of supremacy was also of concern, as Pius IX rejected arguments claiming that civil authorities and kings had supremacy over the Church and the papacy (§44-5) and could order religious vows from their subjects (§52-4). Interestingly, something of a double standard appears to be acceptable, as Pius IX later rejects those who argue against Catholic state religion, including in those instances the authority of Catholic civil authorities over the spiritual lives on non-Catholics (§77). Various other topics are also considered by Pius IX, who argues against those advocating modification of thought concerning just war (§62), the sacrament of marriage (§65), and divorce (§67). Ultimately, Pius IX rejects the opinions and arguments of those who attempt to make the pope modernize and “come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization” (§80). With few possible exceptions (see questions below), Pius IX does not seem to necessarily reject the growing body of contemporary modern states, but only their interactions with the Church. Thus, it seems appropriate to conclude that through his condemnation of modern errors, Pius IX was attempting to reassert the authority of the Church in the context of an increasingly multivalent world, arguing for a return to tradition instead.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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