Asked to name the most salient development of the past thousand years, the distinguished historian John O’Malley, SJ, has not hesitated to choose the “growth of papal authority and prestige” in the Western Church. To designate this key development, he coined the neologism “papalization.” That term does not appear in his new book. Rather, the more traditional “ultramontane” does the work of describing a pope-centered church in which we take for granted that the bishop of Rome writes encyclicals, convokes councils, and declares saints. The historical forces that helped to create the ultramontane church, O’Malley writes, culminated at Vatican I. Indeed, he mentions more than once that Vatican I spelled “the soft and definitive end of ecumenical councils.” O’Malley reminds us that we did not always have an ultramontane church, and he raises the question: “In what ways and to what extent is the Catholic Church ultramontane today?”
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church is not a book that we might have expected O’Malley to write. Even he didn’t expect to write it. After the publication of What Happened at Vatican II (2008) and Trent: What Happened at the Council? (2013), friends urged him to complete the trilogy with a book on Vatican I. He “swore a mighty oath” never to do such a thing. Nevertheless, we now have the trilogy, and those far-sighted friends are the first to be thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.
The First Vatican Council lasted only about seven months. It opened on December 8, 1869, the same date on which an embattled Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and then, ten years later, issued the Syllabus of Errors. The Syllabus notoriously condemned “progress, Liberalism, and modern civilization.” Formally, Vatican I did not end until 1960, when Pope John XXIII made clear that the council he had called would be the Second Vatican Council. Rather, Vatican I was suspended in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War and the Italian takeover of papal Rome.
O’Malley’s new work, now the best available in English on Vatican I, devotes only the last two of its five chapters to the council itself. Though initially presented with a lengthy schema on the church in a post-revolutionary Europe, the council produced only two brief documents: Dei filius, on knowing God in an unbelieving age, and Pastor aeternus, on papal primacy and infallibility.