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Pope Pius IX Issues “Aeterni Patris”: June 29, 1868

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.

The return of the French army to Rome meant that Pope Pius IX could hold the ecumenical council he had been planning, in peace. On June 29, 1868, he issued the bull, Aeterni Patris, calling on bishops and clergy of the world to be present in Rome on December 8, 1869 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception) for the opening of the council.

In Aeterni Patris, the pope said he was calling the council so the Catholic Church could give a clear answer to the errors of the modern world—Liberalism, rationalism, and materialism. He wanted the council, as well, to look at Church laws and, where necessary, revise them.

Yet, though these were the pope’s stated goals for the council, others in the Church hoped or feared the council would address much more. Many bishops and clergy in Germany, France, and England, as well as the United States, feared that the council would define papal infallibility as a doctrine to be held by all Catholics.

A meeting of the First Vatican Council
A meeting of the First Vatican Council

Papal infallibility had long been a belief held by most Catholics, but no Church council had ever defined it as a doctrine all Catholics must hold. Most of the bishops and clergy who objected to the definition of papal infallibility themselves believed it; they thought, however, that defining it would hurt the Church by turning more Liberal Catholics from the Church, offending Protestants and Orthodox, and angering governments. Although there were Catholic opponents of papal infallibility, there were many others who wrote to Rome, urging the pope to add the question of papal infallibility to the work of the council.

For a time, it did not appear that the council would address papal infallibility. Yet, the constant talk about it outside the council, the protests against it, and the petitions sent to Rome to include it in the council eventually meant that it was included. Pope Pius IX was in favor of defining the doctrine, but he did not formally agree to include it in the council discussions until March 6, 1870. From then on, it became the most controversial issue of the council.

The over 600 cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, abbots, and generals of religious orders (to that time, the largest number ever gathered for a Church council) found other matters than papal infallibility easier to deal with. On April 24, 1870, the council unanimously approved and the pope confirmed the dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith. This document, which affirmed the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, gave the Church’s answer to modern rationalism, materialism, and atheism. It declared that faith and reason are not contrary to one another, nor are the teachings of the Catholic Church, which are known by faith, opposed to science. Still, said the constitution, the truths of the Faith cannot be known by reason, without grace and divine revelation. And, said the council, since it was God who revealed the Catholic Faith, what is known by faith is more certain than anything man can know by reason alone.

Blessed Pope Pius IX
Blessed Pope Pius IX

The council’s second constitution, “On the Church of Christ,” proved far more controversial because it contained the definition of papal infallibility. The council fathers who opposed the definition did what they could to delay a vote on it; but in the end they could not prevail. There were too few of them. At last, on July 18, 1870, the council fathers approved the Constitution on the Church of Christ—and the definition of papal infallibility—by a vote of 433 to 2. And, as a thunderstorm broke over St. Peter’s Basilica and all Rome, Pope Pius IX signed the constitution. The Catholic Church had proclaimed the infallibility of the pope as a doctrine of the Faith.

The council had much more work to do, but events outside of Rome would not allow its work to continue. The day after the council approved the Constitution on the Church of Christ, Emperor Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. On July 27, the French ambassador informed the pope that the French army would be immediately withdrawn from Rome. Rome without French protection would not be a safe venue for the council, and Pius permitted the council fathers to leave Rome—though, still hopeful, he said the council would resume on St. Martin of Tours day, November 11, of that year, 1870.

Yet the pope knew his safety and the future of the council rested on how France fared in the coming war. And whether France could prevail against the enemy she was fighting, neither Pius nor anyone else knew.

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