Vatican I's Teaching Is as Timely as Ever

Author: Rino Fisichella


Rino Fisichella, Auxiliary Bishop of Rome

Prophetic Foresight of Pius IX

After an interval of three centuries, on 8 December 1869 Plus IX brought the Council back to the centre of the Church. Holding it at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican was equivalent to recovering the great tradition of the medieval Councils, which at the time were convoked in Rome at the Lateran Basilica. The First Vatican Council, from this symbolic standpoint, initiated an event that would remain in the Church's history as a point of no return for the growth of faith.

The opening of the Council, however, was not entirely unexpected. In the early years of his pontificate, Pius IX had energetically revived the celebration of Synods, privileged moments for dialogue and the collegial contribution of the Bishops. From 1849 to 1867, 58 Provincial Synods had already been held in Europe and the United States. So the announcement of the first Council at the Vatican on the 1,800th anniversary of the martyrdom of Sts Peter and Paul, 29 June 1867, took neither the Church nor the society of the time by surprise.

The Council chose various topics for analysis. Certain ecclesiological questions, which directly concerned the Bishops, had been left unresolved at the preceding Council of Trent; others, such as the discipline of the clergy and priestly life, had been added over the centuries. Two problems, however, required urgent attention from the start: the nature of the Catholic faith and the structure of the Church, with particular reference to the primacy of the Pope. It would be a mistake to identify the whole Council with the definition of the Holy Father's infallibility. This kind of misunderstanding has led some authors to an over hasty conclusion that bears no relation to reality. Indeed, to speak of Vatican I as the Council which dealt exclusively with the issue of "authority" does not do justice to the Council itself or to the dogmatic development that the Fathers allowed to take place. Moreover, a careful reading not only of the documents but of the entire conciliar debate clearly shows the deep pastoral concern that motivated the approximately 700 Fathers who came to Rome for the Council.

Vatican I preserved unchanged a content of profound timeliness. A coherent analysis of its writings, without the now dated preconceptions which endure more for ideological reasons than for their substance, demonstrates the great step forward that the Church took through the reflection and teaching of the Council. The theme of faith should first be mentioned. For the first time a Council discussed the nature of faith. It undoubtedly did so to counter certain extreme positions which had always marked the Church's history, such as theological rationalism and traditionalistic fideism. The document it approved, Dei Filius, remained the pivot around which doctrine consistently developed until the Second Vatican Council. Unlike Trent, which had related faith to justification, Vatican I presented faith in relation to truth. On this issue, in fact, were focused the harshest objections to the Catholic faith raised at the time by rationalist thought, which was party to a predominant culture that wrongly tried to impose its own vision of the world, while disregarding any relationship to the transcendent.

Faith is presented by the Fathers, in the language available to them at the time, as the obediential response to God who reveals himself. No one, the Council teaches, can refuse to believe merely because reason claims to be the only way to answer to any question. Since he is created by God, each person is called to exercise his freedom in the decision for faith, which encompasses a broader knowledge than reason alone. Therefore faith can be neither a "blind impulse of the mind" nor a "rational science". The reasonableness of faith draws its strength from grace and from reason. These allow an act to be performed in full freedom, in which each individual is fully and personally involved in analyzing the signs of credibility. Vatican Council II, in n. 5 of Dei Verbum, will merely quote the text of Dei Filius.

The Council's second document was Pastor aeternus. The Church presented the divine nature of her institution. The few words that form the introduction to the Constitution are fundamental for understanding the sense of the Council's entire teaching on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff: so that the episcopate might be one and undivided, and that believers dispersed throughout the world might abide in the faith of all times and in the unity of communion, Christ established in Peter the visible and lasting principle of his Church's unity. The discussions about the approval of infallibility are well known. What is certainly clear is that the Fathers at the Council made a courageous choice; for some it was a difficult one, but in each case a decision of historical import was reached. The proclamation of infallibility embraced and expressed that sense of faith of all the baptized, which sees in Peter the rock on which Christ has indefectibly and infallibly established his Church.

It is no exaggeration to say that with Vatican I Pius IX intended to wage a great battle for freedom. The gold chains that States had offered the Church in past centuries were certainly golden but they were still chains! The moment had come to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's, to permit the Church to carry out her ministry of evangelization to the full. With the Council, first of all, the Bishops recovered one of the salient features of their vocation: the indissoluble bond of collegiality and fidelity to Peter. One can well imagine that in convoking the Council Pope Mastai had deeply prophetic foresight. At the beginning of an epochal revolution and surrounded by a culture entrenched in the intransigent positions of an aprioristic liberalism and rationalism, Pius IX offered the challenge of a Church now politically weak, but strong in her awareness of bearing Christ's Gospel, even in the weakness of a Galilean fisherman's preaching. The Apostle's words must have been heard loud and clear not only by the Pope but by all the Council's Bishops: "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). Without this awareness, the Second Vatican Council would have found it difficult to write the four Constitutions that mark the history of our times.

As with all events, Vatican I needed time so that what it formulated could become the patrimony of all. Historical events connected with the "capture of Rome" hastened the conclusion of the Council's work, leaving various matters unresolved. In calling the second Council at the Vatican, John XXIII was opening a new chapter in that one book which is the Church's history. It was not a break with the past, but a handing down, a continuity with and a fidelity to the faith of all time, which is visibly manifest in the joint beatification of the two Popes.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 September 2000, page 10

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