The First Vatican Council

From the September 8, 1962 of America, an  brief account of the American bishops who went to another Council in 1869:

The First Vatican Council opened amid great pomp and splendor on December 8, 1869. Not quite eleven months later, it was adjourned sine die in consequence of the occupation of Rome by the troops of Victor Emmanuel II. For all practical purposes, the working sessions of the Council had ceased on July 18, 1870, the day on which Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility.

In the seven months between December and July, some 700 Fathers met in 86 general congregations and four public sessions to discuss topics, which ranged from contemporary German philosophical theories and the interrelation of faith and science, to the elaboration of a universal elementary catechism. But it was the final two months of debate which have written the largest page in the history of the Church.

From May 14 to July 16, the Council considered the twin topics of papal primacy and infallibility. On July 18, the Fathers gave their nearly unanimous consent to the definition of these two prerogatives. A few inconclusive and sparsely attended meetings were held during the summer of 1870. The Council was then suspended by an Apostolic Letter dated October 20, 1870. Its sessions were never resumed. The coming Second Vatican Council will be an entirely new assembly.

One would have to be somewhat chauvinistic to contend that the 48 bishops and one abbot from the United States who attended the First Vatican Council exercised a decisive influence on its deliberations. Nevertheless, the record of their participation is not without interest, since it represents the first full-scale confrontation between the American hierarchy and the problems of the universal Church. As the day for the opening of the Council drew near, the attitude which would be adopted by the Americans was an unknown quantity. Thomas Mozley, the incredibly inaccurate correspondent of the London Times, predicted that they would have no original contribution to make, and that they would simply accept whatever was proposed for their signatures. The New York Herald mourned that “the bishops from the land that is foremost in all that material progress which thought to be leading the nations” would leave it to “their brethren of the less progressive countries to assert the necessity for greater freedom of thought.” These estimates had to be revised before the Council had been long in session.

The Church in the United States in 1869 was a far cry from the substantial organization which we know today. There were 4,504,000 Catholics, as opposed to 42,876,665 in 1962. There are today some 240 American bishops; in 1869 there were 60, of whom five were retired. Exotic titles like that of Bishop John Baptist Miége, S.J., who was Vicar Apostolic of the Indian Territory East of the Rocky Mountains, and had his cathedral at Leavenworth, Kansas, have disappeared from the diocesan roster.

In 1869, Catholics of the South shared with their Protestant neighbors in the devastation of defeat and reconstruction, while Northern dioceses struggled to cope with an increasing flood of immigrants. Throughout the country, vivid memories of Nativist outrages in the pre-Civil War years were fresh in Catholic minds. American Catholics were far removed from the Liberal-Ultramontane quarrels which provided the European background for the Council of 1869-70. Union of Church and State, which was spoken of as normative in many Catholic circles in Europe, could not even be considered in the United States. The American Church was more than content with the guarantees of the Federal Constitution. On the question of papal infallibility, which had become the focal point of internecine Catholic controversy in Europe, Bishop Bernard McQuaid, of Rochester, N.Y., remarked that “with us in America [it] was scarcely talked of.” Prelates like Archbishop Hughes, of New York, and Archbishop Purcell, of Cincinnati, had been accustomed to say, when questioned on the subject, that it was a free opinion which need not be believed on faith. In practice, papal pronouncements were accepted without demur in the United States. It was only in the late ‘Sixties that writers like James A. McMaster, editor of the New York Freeman’s Journal, and the German-born missionary Francis X. Weninger, S.J., began to call for acceptance of infallibility as a dogma.

American participation in the preparatory work for the First Vatican Council was exceedingly slim. A Central Commission had been set up in 1865, and five subcommissions began to function during the summer of 1867, but it was not until December 30, 1868 that the sole consultor from the United States, James A. Corcoran, Vicar General of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., took his place on the subcommission that handled matters of dogma.

Corcoran’s lively reports to Archbishop Spalding, of Baltimore, and Archbishop McCloskey, of New York, provide a unique record of the workings of his commission. The American consultor found to his dismay that numerous doctrinal definitions were projected. He objected that many of these definitions dealt with obscure errors and had been proposed only “because some Prof. Scratchemback, in some German university, has written about them in a German philosophical jargon, which neither himself nor his readers understand.” More serious were Corcoran’s objections to the way in which the question of Church and State was being handled by the commission. He feared that “the fundamental principles of our (American and commonsense) political system” would be condemned if certain theologians had their way. He worked actively and with some success to modify the rigid stance which had been adopted prior to his arrival. Corcoran also reported the possibility that a definition of papal infallibility would be proposed to the Council. He stated his own belief in the doctrine, but was of the opinion that a definition would be inopportune. On this, and on the Church and State question, he received the full backing of Archbishop Spalding.

Planning for the mass migration to Rome occupied a good deal of episcopal correspondence during 1869. Many bishops were ill-provided with pontifical regalia. Spalding made inquiries about comparative prices for various items of dress in Rome and also at Lyons, France. He then published a notice in the Baltimore Catholic Mirror to the effect that the Cardinal Archbishop of Lyons had agreed to lend his cappa magna and cope as patterns for robes purchased in his see city. Accommodations were another problem. Eighteen of the bishops made arrangements to live at the American College; the rest were dispersed throughout the city in religious houses and hotels.

Departures began in the summer of 1869. Bishop Bayley, of Newark, was one of the first to leave. He made a leisurely tour of Europe and visited war-torn Spain before arriving in Rome. Large groups of bishops sailed with both Spalding and Purcell, at reduced rates. Bishop Mrak, of Sault-Sainte-Marie and Marquette, booked steerage passage, but a kindly ship captain gave him a cabin. Archbishop Blanchet, of Oregon City, took 16 days for the journey from Portland to New York by ship, stagecoach and railroad, and spent another 12 days on the high seas to Liverpool. Once on the Continent, the bishops either took the overland route to Italy through France and Germany, or crossed the Mediterranean by ship to Civitavecchia in the Papal States. By December 8, seven archbishops, 40 bishops and the one American abbot who had been invited to the Council, Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., of St. Vincent’s, were in Rome.

The Trappist Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska, James O’Gorman, wrote home of his astonishment at the size of the Eternal City and the colossal buildings which he found there, but he also remarked on the exorbitant prices which were being charged, a complaint echoed by Bayley, who declared that “the Romans are bleeding us like leeches.” McQuaid complained of damp weather, inadequate heating facilities and boredom, while Bishop McGill, of Richmond, soon developed an aversion to Italian cuisine. Others, like Blanchet and Bishop Williams, of Boston, kept busy with sight seeing in the city and surrounding countryside.

As they arrived, the bishops were received in groups by the Pope. At this time, most of them left some contribution to help defray the expenses of the Council, but none could quite match the gift brought by Bishop O’Connell, of Grass Valley in the mining area of northern California, who was reported to have presented a block of silver so large that it had to be carried into the audience chamber by half-a-dozen attendants.

Forty-seven American prelates were present at the first public session of the Council. Archbishop Odin, of New Orleans, was in the city but was prevented from attending by illness. The luster of the magnificent ceremonies was somewhat dimmed by poor weather. Bayley commented: “The opening was a grand affair, but unfortunately the weather was very bad. It rained on St. Bibiana’s day [December 2], and has been raining ever since to fulfill the proverb.” But, despite the downpour, St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica itself were packed with spectators, and McQuaid wrote: “I had to do some rough work myself to pass through the crowd to reach the vestry room.”

Working sessions of the Council—the “general congregations”—began on December 10. The first item on the agenda was the election of judges of excuses and judges of complaints, committees which would deal with requests for leave of absence and adjust disputes in matters of precedence.

At this first congregation, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick made his debut at the Council by entering a protest against the method of election being employed. He felt that it did not allow time for a sufficiently mature consideration of the candidates. During the remainder of the Council, Kenrick’s name would frequently be found signed to protests against what he considered to be procedural irregularities. He held a very strict view of the rights and responsibilities of bishops in Council, and never hesitated to express his mind on the subject.

The protest of December 10 was overruled, and the Fathers continued with various committee elections. Only five Americans obtained posts. Spalding was named by the Pope to the all-important congregation for receiving proposals, a sort of rules committee, and he was elected to the deputation on faith, which had to pass upon all dogmatic matters which came before the Council. Archbishop McCloskey and Bishop Heiss, of La Crosse, were elected to the deputation on disciplinary matters; Bishop Ryan, of Buffalo, to that on religious orders; and Bishop de Goesbriand, of Burlington, Vt., to the deputation on the Eastern churches and missions.

The American record for speaking at the Council is not impressive. In the course of 86 congregations between December and July, only eight prelates from the United States addressed the Fathers. Bishop Vérot, of Savannah (who was transferred to head the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., in March, 1870), spoke eight times, and Bishop Amat, of Monterey-Los Angeles, six times. The Bishop of Wheeling, Richard V. Whelan, delivered three speeches; Archbishop Kenrick and Archbishop Alemany, of San Francisco, each spoke twice. The only other American orators were Spalding, Purcell and Domenec, of Pittsburgh.

By all odds, the most colorful speaker at the Council was Vérot. Although his uncanny knack for finding a humorous turn of phrase often brought him into conflict with the Cardinal Presidents, he made a great deal of good sense when he called for rapprochement between the Church and science, reform of the breviary and greater care of personal spiritual life on the part of priests. During the debate on the unity of the human species, he remarked that the Council would be better advised to define that Negroes had souls than to concern itself with refuting Güntherian dualism. In this, and in later comments on the make-up of a universal elementary catechism, Vérot displayed intense interest in the Church as he knew it in Georgia and Florida.

The bishops from the United States compensated to a degree for their silence in the council hall by joining in a number of petitions and by submitting amendments to proposed constitutions. In mid-January, 21 Americans signed petitions asking that papal infallibility not be brought to the floor. Ten others signed a counterpetition, and another five supported Spalding in his proposal that infallibility be defined indirectly and implicitly. Commenting on the draft constitution on the Church, Bishop Elder, of Natchez, requested more frequent references to Scripture as a means of appealing to non-Catholics. Several bishops were concerned over passages in the same constitution which might be offensive to Protestants or to secular governments. Among those who entered protests in this vein were Lynch, of Charleston, Amat, Domenec, Elder, Vérot and Mullen, of Erie, Pa. The most forthright statement of all occurred in an undelivered speech by Purcell. After his return to Cincinnati, he rehearsed some of it before an audience in Mozart Hall:

I said that our civil constitution grants perfect liberty to every denomination of Christians; that it grants perfect liberty to them all; and that I verily believe this was infinitely better for the Catholic religion than were it the special object of the State’s patronage and protection; that all we want is a free field and no favors.

Another subject which aroused considerable American protest was incorporation of the word “Roman” in the official title of the Church. Along with many English bishops, the Americans thought that this might be misinterpreted as giving countenance to the branch theory held by Anglicans. Eighteen U.S. bishops offered amendments on the point, one of them suggesting that the style “Church of God” be adopted. Some of the bishops were also annoyed at the frequent repetition of anathemas in the constitutions. They remarked that good Catholics didn’t need the threats and that non-believers scoffed at them. One of the more lasting contributions to theology was made by Spalding, who secured incorporation in the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of a statement to the effect that the universal jurisdiction of the Pope does not conflict with the ordinary jurisdiction of a bishop in his own diocese.

The most controverted question to come before the Council was that of papal infallibility. Like the rest of the bishops, the Americans were divided on the advisability and the possibility of a definition. The most active and vocal among them joined the opposition. The undisputed leader of this group was Kenrick. His chief supporters were Purcell, Domenec, Vérot, Whelan and Fitzgerald, of Little Rock.

The private correspondence of Lord Acton with Johann Döllinger provides some hitherto unknown information on the organization of the American opposition bloc. Acton’s Roman salon was a center for both German and English-speaking opponents of the definition. The Paulist Superior General, Isaac Hecker, who was Kenrick’s traveling companion from Paris to Rome, had been recommended to Acton as an anti-definitionist by Richard Simpson and Döllinger. Hecker had met the former in London and the latter in Munich while en route to the Council. Up until about the end of January, Hecker acted in co-operation with Kenrick and assisted him in his dealings with chiefs of the opposition, like Cardinal Schwarzenberg, of Prague. After that time, he functioned as theologian to Spalding and seems to have had no further connection with the opposition. Kenrick, however, remained one of the stanchest opponents of the definition. He published two lengthy Latin pamphlets against it, and was associated with the “International Committee” of the opposition until July.

Not all opponents of the definition were simply inopportunists. Some Americans limited their objections to grounds of inexpediency. According to Cardinal Gibbons, they constituted a majority of the hierarchy. Their principal argument was that it would be difficult to explain to non-Catholics how a doctrine which had been freely disputed could become binding in conscience. McQuaid added that a definition was unnecessary, since papal authority was accepted universally except in the new Kingdom of Italy.

The reluctance of some proponents to define exactly the object of infallibility was a more serious stumbling block. The Americans worried that past proclamations in the politico-ecclesiastical field might now be considered infallible, and a number asked if Pope Adrian IV’s donation of Ireland to the English crown must betaken as irrevocable. Kenrick and Domenec, both of whom had held infallibility as an opinion before the Council, had come to question the historical and scriptural evidence for it. Still others doubted that the Pope could make infallible pronouncements without consulting the bishops.

There was a sizable moderate party among the U.S. bishops. Led by Spalding and Alemany, they proposed that infallibility be defined equivalently, without using the word. Spalding’s idea was that this could be accomplished by condemning certain contrary errors, but his scheme never won wide support outside American ranks.

A third group of Americans were, from the first, ardent supporters of the definition. Bishop Heiss, of La Crosse, was closely associated with Manning and Senestrey, the English and German prelates who were chiefly responsible for bringing the question before the Council. Other strong infallibilists were Martin, of Natchitoches; Miége; Dubuis, of Galveston; de Goesbriand and Blanchet. Miége expressed his regret at an early stage that his “dear Americans” had allowed themselves “to be taken in tow a bit by the Gallicans and the Germans,” but Martin was more outspoken. He could see in the opposition only “the old Gallicanism, modern rationalism and a wicked spirit of independence,” which he termed “nothing more than the revolutionary element introduced into the Church.”

The contest over the definition got under way in January. At that time, nearly half the Americans recorded themselves as opposed to raising the question. During April, a three-way epistolary controversy developed when Spalding claimed his views had been misrepresented by Bishop Dupanloup, of Orléans. Kenrick and Purcell came to the defense of the French prelate. At one stage in the debate, a rumor got abroad that an attempt would be made to carry the definition by acclamation. Several American bishops promptly announced that in that case they would withdraw from the Council. Nevertheless, by mid-May an informant of Dupanloup reported that only ten of the Americans who were still in the city could be counted upon to vote with the opposition. Thirteen were said to be certainly in favor of the definition, and ten were doubtful. Sixteen had already been granted leaves of absence, or were otherwise unaccounted for.

The preliminary vote on the Constitution Pastor Aeternus, which contained the definitions of papal primacy and infallibility, was taken on July 13. Twenty-eight Americans were present. Eighteen of them approved the constitution as it stood; three asked further revisions; seven voted against it. After considerable discussion, the “International Committee” decided not to cast negative ballots at the public session on July 18. Instead, 55 of the opposition Fathers addressed a formal protest to the Pope and then left Rome. Kenrick, Vérot and Domenec were among the signers.

Only two of the American opponents attended the session at which, to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, the Pope proclaimed the dogma of infallibility. One was Archbishop McCloskey, who joined 24 other prelates from the United States in voting placet. The other was Bishop Fitzgerald, of Little Rock, who has gone down in history as one of the two Fathers who voted non placet. A satisfactory explanation of Fitzgerald’s decision to attend and vote “no” has never been given.

All of the American bishops accepted the dogma once it had been proclaimed. Isaac Hecker welcomed it as the end of the era in which the Church had had to be concerned with safeguarding its external authority. Most of the bishops issued pastorals or gave lectures in which they explained the exact import of the constitutions which had been adopted. In the country at large, the grave forebodings of many of the hierarchy were not fulfilled. The Catholic press and public had long accepted the doctrine, and there was no unusual outburst of anti-Catholic feeling.

The bishops from the United States did not take the Council by storm, but neither were they merely passive spectators. Cardinal Gibbons later recalled that the Latinity of those who spoke left something to be desired, but he felt that they compared favorably with others for the strength and clarity of their arguments and for the effect which they produced upon their hearers. Whether in the council hall or outside it, the 49 American prelates managed to bring something of the ideas and peculiar genius of their own country to the first ecumenical council at which such unheard-of names as Baltimore, New York and San Francisco were called from the rostrum.

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