First Vatican Council

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The First Vatican Council, the 20th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church, is best known for its decree affirming the doctrine of papal Infallibility. After a lengthy series of deliberations by preparatory commissions, it was opened by Pope Pius IX in Saint Peter's Basilica on Dec. 8, 1869. Nearly 800 church leaders representing every continent attended, although the European members held a clear majority. Apparently the pope's primary purpose in convening the council was to obtain confirmation of the position he had taken in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), condemning a wide range of modern positions associated with the ideas of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism.

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From the beginning, however, the question of infallibility dominated discussion. A vigorous minority opposed this doctrine both on theological and historical grounds and as being inopportune. Nonetheless, on July 18, 1870, the council solemnly accepted the proposition that when a pope speaks ex cathedra on faith or morals he does so with the supreme apostolic authority, which no Catholic may question or reject. About 60 members of the council effectively abstained by leaving Rome the day before the vote. Shortly after the vote on infallibility, the Franco-Prussian War and the successful invasion of the Roman state by the Italian army abruptly ended the council. The First Vatican Council marked the climax and triumph of the movement of Ultramontanism yet also helped stimulate a renewed wave of anticlericalism in several European states.

T. Tackett

Butler, E. C., ed., The Vatican Council, 2 vols. (1930); Hennesey, J. J., The First Council of the Vatican: The American Experience (1963).

First Vatican Council (1869-1870)

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The First Vatican Council, convened by Pope Pius IX in Rome, is reckoned by Roman Catholics to be the twentieth ecumenical church council. It was the first to meet since the Council of Trent (1545-63), which had responded to the sixteenth century Protestant movement. Vatican I sought to define authoritatively the church's doctrine concerning the faith and the church, especially in response to new challenges from secular philosophical and political movements and theological liberalism. However, its work was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War and the invasion and capture of Rome by the army of the Italian government in September, 1870. The council completed only two major doctrinal statements, leaving another fifty-one unfinished. Vatican I is remembered almost exclusively for its doctrinal definition of papal infallibility.

Context and Structure

The council befitted Pius IX's devout spirituality and expressed the aspirations of the papal-oriented revival of Catholic faith and practice in progress since the 1840s. It also reflected the wide-felt need of the hour to counteract the religious, philosophical, and political beliefs identified by the Syllabus of Errors (1864). Closest to home, the council sought to undergird the authority of the papacy that could appear to be damaged by the loss of the pope's temporal power, except for Rome and its surrounding region, to the kingdom of Italy (1859-61). The need was to regather the church and reaffirm its faith, its authority, and in particular its head, the papacy.

Pius first mentioned the possibility of a council in 1864, and he set some cardinals to work on it in 1865. He formally announced it in 1867 and issued a bill convening it in 1868. When it met in 1869, the council included 737 archbishops, bishops, and other clerical members. The council considered drafts of documents prepared in advance, debated them, and changed them. The results were undoubtedly the work of the council assembled, although what degree of freedom the council members enjoyed was questioned then as it continues to be today.

Constitution "De Fide Catholica."

The first doctrinal definition, "On the Catholic faith" (approved Apr. 1870; also called "Dei Filius"), expressed a consensus of the Catholic revival concerning God, faith, and reason. In its four chapters it defined as a doctrine of divine revelation the existence of a free, personal, creator God who was absolutely independent of the universe he created. The religious truth concerning the existence of this God, it affirmed, could be known by human reason alone, so that all people had no excuse for unbelieving. Nevertheless, other truths about God and this creation could only be known by faith through divine revelation via Scripture and the tradition of the church. Properly understood, faith and reason were not in conflict. The errors that were specifically mentioned in an appendix, notably atheism, pantheism, rationalism, fideism, biblicism, traditionalism, were either utterly wrong (atheism) or wrong in emphazing merely one element of the whole truth (rationalism). This definition provided the basis for Catholic theology and philosophy for the next several generations.

Constitution "On Papal Primacy and Infallibility."

The proposal of this second definition (also called Pastor aeternus) divided the council into a majority and a minority (140 at its fullest) and began a controversy that has troubled the Roman Catholic Church to this day. Originally the council was to discuss a well-rounded statement of fifteen chapters "On the Church of Christ", as body of Christ, as a true, perfect, supernatural society, as united under the primacy of the pope, as related to civil society, etc. But when a new section on papal infallibility was introduced later, the majority considered it urgent to treat immediately the sections on papal primacy and papal infallibility as a separate unit. The result was a statement of four chapters which defined both papal primacy and papal infallibility as doctrines of divine revelation.

The passage on papal infallibility, after crucial amendments, carefully circumscribed in what sense the magisterium (doctrinal authority) of the pope was infallible: "The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, i.e., when, exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, according to his supreme Apostolic authority, through the divine assistance promised to him in St. Peter, he defines doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, then under those circumstances he is empowered with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be equipped in defining doctrine concerning faith and morals." The statement concluded, against Gallicanism and conciliarism, that "such definitions by the Roman Pontiff were in themselves, and not by virtue of the consensus of the Church, not subject to being changed."

Eighty-eight bishops voted against the definition in the first round, and fifty-five bishops formally absented themselves at the final vote (July 18, 1870). Eventually, after the council, every bishop submitted to the definition, and the debate transmuted into differences over its interpretation. The definition encouraged Catholic revival, gave Protestants new evidence of papal superstition, and convinced secularists that the papacy was indeed utterly incompatible with modern civilization. To this day the doctrine of papal infallibility continues to trouble many Catholics and to complicate Roman Catholic consultations with Anglicans, Lutherans, and others.

C T McIntire
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Pii IX P.M. Acta, Pt. I, Vol. 5, 177-94, 208-20 (the council documents); R. Aubert, Vatican I; C. Butler, The Vatican Council, 2 vols.; F.J. Cwiekowski, The English Bishops and the First Vatican Council; H. Kung, Infallible? an Enquiry; A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion; J. Hennessey, The First Vatican Council: The American Experience.

Decrees of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870)

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The translation found here is that which appears in Decrees of the Ecumencal Councils ed. Norman Tanner. S.J. Apart from the footnotes any text in square brackets "[ ]" is my addition. The choice of terms to put in bold or italic print, the arangement of the text into paragraphs in "structured english" format, as well as the numbering of the paragraphs is also my own and constitutes my "invisible" interpretation/commentary. The numbering of the canons is however found in Tanner's text.



This council was summoned by Pope Pius IX by the bull Aeterni Patris of 29 June 1868. The first session was held in St Peter's basilica on 8 December 1869 in the presence and under the presidency of the pope.

The purpose of the council was, besides the condemnation of contemporary errors, to define the catholic doctrine concerning the church of Christ. In fact, in the three following sessions, there was discussion and approval of only two constitutions: Dogmatic Constitution On The Catholic Faith and First Dogmatic Constitution on the church of Christ, the latter dealing with the primacy and infallibility of the bishop of Rome. The discussion and approval of the latter constitution gave rise, particularly in Germany, to bitter and most serious controversies which led to the withdrawal from the church of those known as "Old Catholics".

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war led to the interruption of the council. It was in fact never resumed, nor was it ever officially closed. As in other councils at which the pope was present and presided, the decrees were in the form of bulls, at the end of which was the clear declaration: "with the approval of the sacred council". Very large numbers attended this council, including, for the first time, bishops from outside Europe and its neighbouring lands. Bishops from the eastern Orthodox churches were also invited, but did not come.

The decrees of the council were published in various simultaneous editions. Later they were included in volume 7 of Collectio Lacensis (1892) and in volumes 49-53 of Mansi's collection (1923-1927). The collection which we use is that entitled Acta et decreta sacrosancti oecumenici concilii Vaticani in quatuor prionbus sessionibus, Rome 1872. Comparison with other editions reveals no discrepancies, indeed absolute agreement.

SESSION 1 : 8 December 1869

Decree of opening of the council

Pius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, with the approval of the sacred council, for an everlasting record. Most reverend fathers, is it your pleasure that,

the holy ecumenical Vatican council should be opened, and be declared to have been opened?

[They replied: Yes]

Pius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, with the approval of the sacred council, for an everlasting record. Most reverend fathers, is it your pleasure that

[They replied: Yes]

SESSION 2 : 6 January 1870

Profession of faith

  1. I, Pius, bishop of the catholic church, with firm faith believe and profess each and every article contained in the profession of faith which the holy Roman church uses, namely:
  2. And I look for
  3. the resurrection of the dead. And
  4. the life of the world to come Amen.

This true catholic faith, outside of which none can be saved, which I now freely profess and truly hold, is what I shall steadfastly maintain and confess, by the help of God, in all its completeness and purity until my dying breath, and I shall do my best to ensure [2] that all others do the same. This is what I, the same Pius, promise, vow and swear. So help me God and these holy gospels of God.

SESSION 3 : 24 April 1870

Dogmatic constitution on the catholic faith

Pius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, with the approval of the sacred council, for an everlasting record.
  1. The Son of God, redeemer of the human race, our lord Jesus Christ, promised, when about to return to his heavenly Father, that he would be with this church militant upon earth all days even to the end of the world [3] . Hence never at any time has he ceased to stand by his beloved bride,
  2. Now this redemptive providence appears very clearly in unnumbered benefits, but most especially is it manifested in the advantages which have been secured for the christian world by ecumenical councils, among which the council of Trent requires special mention, celebrated though it was in evil days.
  3. Thence came
    1. a closer definition and more fruitful exposition of the holy dogmas of religion and
    2. the condemnation and repression of errors; thence too,
    3. the restoration and vigorous strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline,
    4. the advancement of the clergy in zeal for
      • learning and
      • piety,
    5. the founding of colleges for the training of the young for the service of religion; and finally
    6. the renewal of the moral life of the christian people by
      • a more accurate instruction of the faithful, and
      • a more frequent reception of the sacraments. What is more, thence also came
    7. a closer union of the members with the visible head, and an increased vigour in the whole mystical body of Christ. Thence came
    8. the multiplication of religious orders and other organisations of christian piety; thence too
    9. that determined and constant ardour for the spreading of Christ's kingdom abroad in the world, even at the cost of shedding one's blood.
  4. While we recall with grateful hearts, as is only fitting, these and other outstanding gains, which the divine mercy has bestowed on the church especially by means of the last ecumenical synod, we cannot subdue the bitter grief that we feel at most serious evils, which have largely arisen either because
  5. Everybody knows that those heresies, condemned by the fathers of Trent, which rejected the divine magisterium of the church and allowed religious questions to be a matter for the judgment of each individual, have gradually collapsed into a multiplicity of sects, either at variance or in agreement with one another; and by this means a good many people have had all faith in Christ destroyed.
  6. Indeed even the holy Bible itself, which they at one time claimed to be the sole source and judge of the christian faith, is no longer held to be divine, but they begin to assimilate it to the inventions of myth.
  7. Thereupon there came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism, - utterly opposed to the christian religion, since this is of supernatural origin, - which spares no effort to bring it about that Christ, who alone is our lord and saviour, is shut out from the minds of people and the moral life of nations. Thus they would establish what they call the rule of simple reason or nature. The abandonment and 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, and the consequence is that they strive to destroy rational nature itself, to deny any criterion of what is right and just, and to overthrow the very foundations of human society.
  8. With this impiety spreading in every direction, it has come about, alas, that many even among the children of the catholic church have strayed from the path of genuine piety, and as the truth was gradually diluted in them, their catholic sensibility was weakened. Led away by diverse and strange teachings [4] and confusing they are found to distort the genuine sense of the dogmas which holy mother church holds and teaches, and to endanger the integrity and genuineness of the faith.
  9. At the sight of all this, how can the inmost being of the church not suffer anguish? For Thus she can never cease from witnessing to the truth of God which heals all [8 ] and from declaring it, for she knows that these words were directed to her: My spirit which is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth from this time forth and for evermore [9] .
  10. And so we, following in the footsteps of our predecessors, in accordance with our supreme apostolic office, have never left off
But now it is our purpose to This we shall do

Chapter 1 On God the creator of all things

  1. The holy, catholic, apostolic and Roman church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God,
  2. Since he is he must be declared to be in reality and in essence,
  3. This one true God,
  4. Everything that God has brought into being he protects and governs by his providence, which reaches from one end of the earth to the other and orders all things well [11] . All things are open and laid bare to his eyes [12] , even those which will be brought about by the free activity of creatures.

Chapter 2 On revelation

  1. The same holy mother church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things,
  2. It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way.
  3. It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God
  4. It is not because of this that one must hold revelation to be absolutely necessary; the reason is that God directed human beings to a supernatural end,
  5. Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal church, as declared by the sacred council of Trent, is contained in which were
  6. The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical.
  7. These books the church holds to be sacred and canonical
  8. Now since the decree on the interpretation of holy scripture, profitably made by the council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that
  9. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret holy scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.

Chapter 3 On faith

  1. Since human beings are totally dependent on God as their creator and lord, and created reason is completely subject to uncreated truth, we are obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect and will by faith.
  2. This faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, the catholic church professes to be
  3. Faith, declares the Apostle, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen [17].
  4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God's will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and
  5. Hence
  6. Now,
  7. And so faith in itself,
  8. Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed
  9. Since, then, without faith it is impossible to please God [21] and reach the fellowship of his sons and daughters, it follows that
  10. So that we could fulfil our duty of embracing the true faith and of persevering unwaveringly in it, God, through his only begotten Son,
  11. To the catholic church alone belong all those things, so many and so marvellous, which have been divinely ordained to make for the manifest credibility of the christian faith.
  12. What is more,
  13. So it comes about that,
  14. To this witness is added the effective help of power from on high. For,
  15. Consequently,
This being so, giving thanks to God the Father who has made us worthy to share with the saints in light [25] let us not neglect so great a salvation [26] , but looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith [27] , let us hold the unshakeable confession of our hope [28].

Chapter 4. On faith and reason

  1. The perpetual agreement of the catholic church has maintained and maintains this too: that
  2. With regard to the source,
  3. With regard to the object,
  4. Now reason, but reason
  5. Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since
  6. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth.
  7. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false [34] .
  8. Furthermore the church which,
  9. Hence all faithful Christians
  10. Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for
  11. Hence, so far is the church from hindering the development of human arts and studies, that in fact she assists and promotes them in many ways. For
  12. Nor does the church forbid these studies to employ, each within its own area, its own proper principles and method:
  13. For the doctrine of the faith which God has revealed is put forward
  14. Hence, too,that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.
May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding [36] .


1. On God the creator of all things

2. On revelation

3. On faith

SESSION 4 : 18 July 1870

First dogmatic constitution on the church of Christ

Pius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, with the approval of the sacred council, for an everlasting record.

  1. The eternal shepherd and guardian of our souls [37] ,
  2. Therefore, before he was glorified,
  3. So then,
  4. In order, then, that
  5. Upon the strength of this foundation was to be built the eternal temple, and the church whose topmost part reaches heaven was to rise upon the firmness of this foundation [41] .
  6. And since the gates of hell trying, if they can, to overthrow the church, make their assault with a hatred that increases day by day against its divinely laid foundation,
  7. This doctrine is to be believed and held by all the faithful in accordance with the ancient and unchanging faith of the whole church.
  8. Furthermore, we shall proscribe and condemn the contrary errors which are so harmful to the Lord's flock.

Chapter 1 On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter

  1. We teach and declare that, [PROMISED]
  2. It was to Simon alone, that the Lord, spoke these words: [CONFERRED]
  3. And it was to Peter alone that Jesus, confided the jurisdiction of supreme pastor and ruler of his whole fold, saying:
  4. To this absolutely manifest teaching of the sacred scriptures, as it has always been understood by the catholic church, are clearly opposed the distorted opinions of those who misrepresent the form of government which Christ the lord established in his church and deny that Peter, in preference to the rest of the apostles, taken singly or collectively, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.
  5. The same may be said of those who assert that this primacy was not conferred immediately and directly on blessed Peter himself, but rather on the church, and that it was through the church that it was transmitted to him in his capacity as her minister.
  6. Therefore,

Chapter 2. On the permanence of the primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman pontiffs

  1. That which our lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain for ever, by Christ's authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time [45] .

  2. For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood [46] .

  3. Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received [47] .

  4. For this reason it has always been necessary for every church--that is to say the faithful throughout the world--to be in agreement with the Roman church because of its more effective leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that see, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single body [48] .

  5. Therefore,

Chapter 3. On the power and character of the primacy of the Roman pontiff

  1. And so, All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.

  2. Wherefore we teach and declare that,

  3. In this way, by unity with the Roman pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith , the church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd [50] .

  4. This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.

  5. This power of the supreme pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the supreme and universal pastor; for St Gregory the Great says: "My honour is the honour of the whole church. My honour is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honour, when it is denied to none of those to whom honour is due." [51]

  6. Furthermore, it follows from that supreme power which the Roman pontiff has in governing the whole church, that he has the right, in the performance of this office of his, to communicate freely with the pastors and flocks of the entire church, so that they may be taught and guided by him in the way of salvation.

  7. And therefore we condemn and reject the opinions of those who hold that

  8. Since the Roman pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole church, we likewise teach and declare that

  9. So, then,

Chapter 4. On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff

  1. That apostolic primacy which the Roman pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching.


  2. So the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, following the footsteps of their predecessors, published this solemn profession of faith: What is more, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks made the following profession: Then there is the definition of the council of Florence:

    [Holy See]

  3. To satisfy this pastoral office, our predecessors strove unwearyingly that the saving teaching of Christ should be spread among all the peoples of the world; and with equal care they made sure that it should be kept pure and uncontaminated wherever it was received.


  4. It was for this reason that the bishops of the whole world, sometimes individually, sometimes gathered in synods, according to the long established custom of the churches and the pattern of ancient usage referred to this apostolic see those dangers especially which arose in matters concerning the faith. This was to ensure that any damage suffered by the faith should be repaired in that place above all where the faith can know no failing [59] .

    [Holy See]

  5. The Roman pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested,

  6. For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter Indeed, their apostolic teaching was for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren [60] .

  7. This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

  8. But since in this very age when the salutary effectiveness of the apostolic office is most especially needed, not a few are to be found who disparage its authority, we judge it absolutely necessary to affirm solemnly the prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office.

  9. Therefore,

    So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.


Introduction and translation taken from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner

Also, see:
Ecumenical Church Councils

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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