This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Grove, October 2007

The following is a 1500 word essay answering the question: Assess the impact of the First Vatican Council on the Roman Catholic Church

The First Vatican Council, primarily because of its enunciation of papal infallibility, was the catalyst for far-reaching changes in the Roman Catholic Church. It directly resulted in schism leading to the development of a new denomination[1], and it widened the gulf between Roman Catholicism and both Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism[2]. In an era when the Roman Catholic Church was losing temporal power, this attempt to increase papal authority ultimately resulted in further loss of that power[3]. Additionally, the doctrine of papal infallibility has been used for specific further developments in Catholic Mariology[4]. Apart from promulgating papal infallibility, the council sought to define the Roman Catholic response to a changing world where atheism, materialism and scientific investigation were growing in influence[5]. This response hindered the Catholic Church, in many ways, in engaging with both its own members and the non-Catholic world.[6]

The world was rapidly changing in the times leading up the First Vatican Council. Since the Reformation over three hundreds years previously, both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches had, for the most part, continued with policies of antagonism to one another[7]. Within Catholicism, Ultramontanism, the movement of centralizing power in the papacy, had been growing in its opposition to Gallicanism[8]. As the Catholic Church increasingly looked to the Pope, Europe witnessed rising nationalism. The eighteenth century also saw rapid changes in the way in which people, or at least, Europeans, viewed the world. The industrial revolution had taken hold in Europe with rapid urbanization and a growing middle class. New philosophies, coupled with increasing free flow of ideas, were associated with a rise in atheism and materialism. Increasingly, people began to look to scientific explanations of the world around them, and the Church found itself needing to come to grips with ideas such as Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. It was within this context of a rapidly changing world that the First Vatican Council was held[9].

The First Vatican Council took place in 1869 and 1870 by the command and under the direction of Pope Pius IX[10]. It was attended by almost 600 Roman Catholic Bishops, more than half of whom where from Italy[11]. Although Eastern Orthodox leaders were invited, it was assumed that attending would be understood as acknowledging the primacy of Rome, and so none attended[12]. Protestant leaders were not invited, but were informed of the plan for this so-called ecumenical council[13]. The Council commenced by addressing, mainly in the second session, the key doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. It reaffirmed the teachings of the Nicene Creed and the Council of Trent[14]. In the third session, the Council condemned some of the prevailing philosophies of the day, asserting that the “doctrine of rationalism or naturalism are utterly opposed to the Christian religion” and the “rejection of the Christian religion, and the denial of God and his Christ, has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism” (Session 3, Article 7). The final session of the Council was devoted to debating the matter of papal infallibility[15]. Despite significant initial opposition by many of the non-Italian bishops, an almost unanimous decision was reached in favour of the issue, with only two bishops voting against[16]. The Council proclaimed “When the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra” regarding matters of doctrine, his definitions are “infallible” and “irreformable” (Session 4, Chapter 4, Article 9). The conclusion was reached through a series of steps of logic resting on assumptions relating to the infallibility of the Church and the apostle Peter, and the Pope as Peter's successor through an unbroken line of apostolic succession (Session 4, Chapter 4). The precise definition of “ex cathedra” is still debated today within Catholicism, but in general, it is understood that the Pope speaks ex cathedra when he clearly defines a doctrine as a requirement of Catholic faith[17].

An initial repercussion of the Council was lively debate among the Roman Catholic academic world regarding the issue of papal infallibility[18]. The doctrine had not unexpectedly appeared from nowhere; the idea had been circulating throughout the Catholic world for centuries and did have significant support[19]. Contemporary Catholic historians have suggested that the decree of papal infallibility was received with great joy throughout the Catholic world[20]. Certainly, of the dissenting and abstaining bishops, all accepted the ruling of the council[21]. However a number of university academics wrote against the pronouncement, chief among them, the Bavarian Professor J. Dollinger, who was excommunicated for his views[22]. As his writings, and those of others, disseminated, a small but growing movement reacting against the decree evolved. This ultimately led to schism when a number of priests and prominent Roman Catholics broke away and formed parishes independent from the Church of Rome. These parishes, in parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, united as the Old Catholic Church[23], and joined other previously independent 'old catholic' churches in the Netherlands. Membership in the Old Catholic Church was small, and although it has continued to this day, it has never exceeded 150,000 parishioners in Europe[24].

The First Vatican Council ended when Italian soldiers entered Rome in September 1870[25]. During the pontificate of Pius IX, the Papal State had been diminishing in size, as the armies of the House of Savoy unified Italy[26]. Outside of Italy, there had also been growing resentment of the temporal power that the Catholic Church wielded. Reacting to the Council's decree, the Prussian leader Bismarck, set about enacting policies, known as kulturkampf (or “culture struggle”), to restrict the power of the Catholic Church[27]. This resulted, among other things, in the seizure of Church property and imprisonment of Catholic bishops and priests[28]. Thawing of relations between the German government and the Roman Catholic Church occurred two decades later, during the reign of Wilhelm, with repealing of the discriminatory laws against Catholicism.

The dogma of papal infallibility has had a significant impact on Catholic Mariology. The long held teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was eventually clearly defined in 1854 by Pius IX, and later recognized within Catholicism as retrospectively infallible[29]. One hundred years later, Pope Pius XII infallibly defined the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary[30]. These Marian doctrines have increased veneration and devotion to Mary within the Roman Catholic Church, which has increased its separation from Protestantism[31].

Papal infallibility also had affects outside Western Christianity, with it increasing the gulf between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. It was, and still is, seen as an insurmountable stumbling block between the two[32]. The fact that Roman Church recognizes that the office of the Roman Pontiff has authority over and above general ecumenical councils was a major obstacle in ecumenical talks held in the second half of the twentieth century.

Understanding the Pope to have supreme and infallible authority has sharpened the focus on the Pope within the Roman Catholic world. Pius IX, in arguing for papal infallibility to be adopted, reportedly stated, “Tradition, I am tradition”[33]. Statements and writings from the Pope have had profound impact throughout the Roman Catholic world in twentieth century, partly because of Vatican I concentration on the office of the Pontiff. In condemning rationalism, Pius IX and the bishops of the Council, reinforced an undercurrent of opposition to scientific freedom of investigation. The council declared, “All faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith” (Session 3, Chapter 4, Article 9). This attitude restrained many Catholics from deeper scientific investigation in the following decades and gave ammunition to supporters of censorship. Works of Catholic theologians and scientists, such as those of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on Genesis and Creation, were suppressed[34]. However, as subsequent Popes became increasingly more accepting of the physical and biological sciences, so too did the Roman Catholic Church, culminating with 1950 encyclical of Pius XII, Humani Generis, which allowed for evolution by natural selection as long as all Catholics believed that humans had descended from one individual, Adam[35].

The language of the First Vatican Council also promoted an alienating attitude by the Roman Catholic Church to those outside its fold, in particular, against atheists and pantheists. It denounced materialism, atheism and pantheism in strong words[36], making it harder for the Church to engage in dialogue with non-Christians. This isolationist attitude created difficulties for some Roman Catholics when the Second Vatican Council began to speak in a more reconciling tone[37]. These Catholics, known as Sedevacantists, feel that each Pope, since the time of Second Vatican Council, has not validly held the position of Bishops of Rome, because his acceptance of religious liberty contradicts teachings such as those from the First Vatican Council[38].

For a hundred years after the First Vatican Council, its decrees had enormous influence on the Roman Catholic Church. Since the change in tone of the Second Vatican Council, the impact relating to the interaction of Catholicism and science has been dampened. Its mark through the dogma of papal infallibility however, remains thoroughly visible, even today. This is especially evident through its effect on Marian doctrine, ecumenism, and the focus of Roman Catholics on their Pope. In this way, the Council can be seen as being responsible for stifling spiritual growth in individuals and the Catholic Church as a whole.


  1. DC Butler, The Vatican Council: 1869-1870, (Great Britain: Longmans, Green & Co, 1962), 426.
  2. KS Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume II: Reformation to the Present Time, 2 Volumes, (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1975), 1095.
  3. Butler, Vatican Council, 426.
  4. Butler, Vatican Council, 426. 4 GC Berkouwer, Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1961), 20.
  5. NL Geisler, “The Historical Development of Roman Catholicism”, Christian Apologetics Journal. Volume 4, 2005: 44.
  6. Latourette, History of Christianity, 1097
  7. Latourette, History of Christianity, 1093
  8. SB Ferguson, JI Packer, “Papal Infallibility”, New Dictionary of Theology, Electronic Edition, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000)
  9. JL Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 volumes. (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1985), 345
  10. CG Herbermann, EA Pace, CB Pallen, TJ Shahan, JJ Wynne, “Vatican Council”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Online Edition, (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1912),
  11. WA Detzler, The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity 2nd Edition, Editor: Tim Dowley. (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1990), 514
  12. Latourette, History of Christianity, 1094
  13. Herbermann et al, “Vatican Council”
  14. Article 1 of Session 2 of the Council reaffirms the Nicene Creed. Article 6 of Session 2 states, “I embrace and accept the whole and every part of what was defined and declared by the holy Council of Trent concerning original sin and justification.”
  15. Latourette, History of Christianity, 1095
  16. Detzler, The Lion Handbook, 515
  17. Berkouwer, Roman Catholic Thought, 14-17
  18. Butler, Vatican Council, 427
  19. JD Holmes, BW Bickers, A short history of the Catholic Church, (Kent: Burns & Oates Tumbridge Wells, 1992), 243
  20. JD Holmes, BW Bickers, A short history of the Catholic Church, (Kent: Burns & Oates Tumbridge Wells, 1992), 243
  21. Detzler, The Lion Handbook, 515
  22. Detzler, The Lion Handbook, 515
  23. CG Herbermann, EA Pace, CB Pallen, TJ Shahan, JJ Wynne, “Old Catholics”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Online Edition, (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1912),
  24. Butler, Vatican Council, 437
  25. Ferguson, “Papal Infallibility”
  26. Wikipedia Online 2007, “House of Savoy”,
  27. Herbermann et al, “Vatican Council”
  28. Butler, Vatican Council, 427
  29. Berkouwer, Roman Catholic Thought, 20
  30. C Buchanan, The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity 2nd Edition, Editor: Tim Dowley. (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1990), 514
  31. TJ Nettles, J White, “Are there historical precedents to encourage hope that evangelical/Roman Catholic dialogue might have positive results”, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 5, 2006: 101
  32. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Catholic Church and ecumenism”,
  33. RB Strimple, “The relationship between Scripture and tradition in contemporary Roman Catholic Theology”, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 50, 2006: 30
  34. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 349
  35. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Humani Generis”,
  36. Geisler, “Historical Development”, 44
  37. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 345
  38. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Sedevacantism”,

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