Papal Infallibility

Vatican Council, First

First Vatican Council, 1869–70, the 20th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church (see council, ecumenical), renowned chiefly for its enunciation of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Convening and Meetings

The council was convened by Pope Pius IX, who announced his intention in 1864. Because of the Italian political situation (the Papal States were the only bar to a united Italy), the advisability of having a council at all was questioned by the Catholic powers, who traditionally opposed strong action on the part of the church. In 1868 it was widely rumored in Europe that the enunciation of papal infallibility as a dogma was the purpose of the council and that it would confirm the papal denunciations of modernistic rationalism and liberalism. As a result there was a widespread attack on the prospective council in non-Catholic circles of France, Great Britain, and Germany. Within the church several prominent persons denounced the enunciation of infallibility as a dogma. Chief of these were Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, Lord Acton in England, and the comte de Montalembert in France.

The council was convened Dec. 8, 1869, in St. Peter's, and it was attended by some 600 of the higher clergy (patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, abbots, generals of orders, and theologians) from all over the world. The Eastern Churches in schism were invited, and the Protestants were officially informed. Late in 1870 the council was brought to a halt by the entrance of Italian soliders into Rome, and a month later the pope prorogued the council indefinitely; it was never reconvened.

Constitutions of Faith and Infallibility

Two constitutions were promulgated by the Vatican Council and confirmed by the pope. The first was on the faith, consisting of four chapters holding chiefly that God is personal, that man knows God by reason and revelation, that faith is a supernatural virtue, and that faith and reason are complementary, never contradictory. The second constitution concerned the papacy; after defining the primacy of papal jurisdiction it goes on to enounce definitively the dogma of infallibility. This, the one official statement of the doctrine, reads in its significant part as follows: "The Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office of his supreme apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses, in consequence of the divine aid promised him in St. Peter, that infallibility which the Divine Savior wished to have His Church furnished for the definition of doctrines concerning faith or morals; and that definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church's consent, irreformable." Past definitions are included in the statement.

In the council there was a long dispute over the enunciation. In the first vote it stood 451 in favor, 88 opposed, and 62 conditionally in favor; at the last vote 433 were in favor of the promulgation, two opposing, 55 abstaining. All the fathers of the council accepted the dogma as true. After the council a great deal of discussion of infallibility took place among non-Catholics; violent attacks were made on the pope, the church, and the council. Within the church the papal infallibility had been generally believed for many centuries. A few groups departed from the church. The most important was the Old Catholics in Germany, under Döllinger; in France a small group headed by Père Hyacinthe (Charles Loyson) also seceded. The political results were numerous: Otto von Bismarck gave the definition as the reason for the Kulturkampf, and Austria used it as an excuse to abrogate its concordat with the Holy See. The French government denounced it in a memorandum, which was acceded to by Britain, Spain, and Portugal. The anger of the states reflected the chief political effect of the enunciation of papal infallibility: since the doctrine made Gallicanism and similar claims obsolete, governments could no longer use them to interfere in church affairs.


See E. C. Butler, The Vatican Council, 1869–1870 (1930, repr. 1962); A. Ryan, ed., Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees (1962).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Papal Infallibility: Selected full-text books and articles

Infallibility By George A. Lindbeck Marquette Press, 1972
The Common-Sense Argument for Papal Infallibility By Mize, Sandra Yocum Theological Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, June 1996
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Military Deterrence in History: A Pilot Cross-Historical Survey By Raoul Naroll; Vern L. Bullough; Frada Naroll State University of New York Press, 1974
Librarian's tip: Chap. III "Preliminaries to the Debate on Infallibility," Chap. V "Preparations for the Debate on Papal Infallibility," and Chap. VI "Primacy and Infallibility"
Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical By John Haldane Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Infallibility, Authority, and Faith"
Ecumenical Theology in Worship, Doctrine, and Life: Essays Presented to Geoffrey Wainwright on His Sixtieth Birthday By David S. Cunningham; Ralph Del Colle; Lucas Lamadrid Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Infallibility and the Question of Assurance"
Senses of Tradition: Continuity and Development in Catholic Faith By John E. Thiel Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: "Infallibility" begins on p. 46
Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: An Historical Survey By Hubert Jedin Paulist Press, 1961
Librarian's tip: "The Question of Infallibility Becomes Acute" begins on p. 159, and "Debate on Papal Primacy and Infallibility" begins on p. 163
Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century By E. E. Y. Hales P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1954
Librarian's tip: Discussion of papal infallibility begins on p. 274
Cardinal Manning: An Intellectual Biography By James Pereiro Oxford University, 1998
Librarian's tip: "The Infallibility of the Pope" begins on p. 146
Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy By Geddes MacGregor Paragon House, 1989
Librarian's tip: Discussion of papal infallibility begins on p. 335
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