Pope Pius IX Succcessfully Excludes the Politicians from the Vatican Council

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Pope Pius IX Succcessfully Excludes the Politicians from the Vatican Council
Pope Pius IX Succcessfully Excludes the Politicians from the Vatican Council

The Council of Nicaea (325) was the first council intended for the edification of the entire Christian Church. It was called by the Emperor Constantine. Its primary task was to judge the Arian heresy, which disturbed the peace of the Church in the East. The Emperor attended its sessions. He effectively assisted the Council Fathers in executing the measures they deemed necessary to extinguish the heresy. From then on, Catholic princes participated in all ecumenical councils, either in person or through ambassadors. Although they neither voted nor intervened in the debates, they exercised considerable influence.

Therefore, the governments of Catholic countries were not alarmed by the first rumors that Pius IX would convene a universal Council at the Vatican. The politicians hoped to influence conciliar decisions. Perhaps they could even use ecclesiastical processes to curb the expansion of the Ultramontane movement. The latter’s continuing progress endangered the revolutionary work of those who took over European governments during the early nineteenth century. Liberal Catholics intensely hoped the politicians would at least help them avoid a definitive Papal condemnation of their ideas.

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However, Pius IX did not convoke Catholic governments to attend in his bull convening the Council. This action surprised liberals, both in the Church and among the politicians. Confused, they agonized about what attitude they should adopt. Apparently, the Holy See intended to solve the Church’s problems without being pressured from without. The Council would be exclusively ecclesiastical. The entire liberal house of cards collapsed.

No one could deny the legitimacy and necessity of the Sovereign Pontiff’s decision. Indeed, how could one conceive the presence, at a Council, of heads of government who boldly proclaimed the separation between Church and State? These same men argued that political organizations need not respect the teachings of the Catholic religion. The Pope’s action was a logical consequence of governmental orientation the Church deemed erroneous.

This departure from past practice prevented the politicians from acting directly on the Council. Thus, they were unable to control Catholicism as they intended. Although they ignored the Church’s influence, they knew she had a great formative effect on the people. Indeed, the Council’s decisions could eliminate the revolutionary wave.

Faced with an utterly unexpected situation, the politicians turned their eyes to France and Austria, hoping to take the same stand as the two most important Catholic powers. Austria was the country most affected since its sovereign was the successor to the former Holy Roman Emperors. In contrast, France maintained an army in the Papal States to prevent the Turin government from seizing them. This enabled Napoleon III to apply immense political pressure on the Pope.

However, Austria was too weak to add a new issue to its already complicated international political agenda. For his part, Napoleon III, aware of the tides of French public opinion, did not dare take a violent measure against the Holy See. Despite the opposition of Bishop Dupanloup and the Count de Montalembert, the Ultramontane movement had made considerable progress in France. Most French Catholics applauded the Holy Father’s decision without restrictions.

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Therefore, liberal Catholics, faced with the unexpected papal decision, were bewildered and could not agree on a uniform reaction. Some remained reserved. Others tried to convince Napoleon III that it would be advantageous at least to mount a protest. Still others tried to exercise influence from the German principalities, which would soon unite to form the modern German nation.

The influential German academic Father Ignaz von Döllinger was always tireless in his fight for liberalism. He urged the minister-president of Bavaria, H.S.H. Prince Chlodwig of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, to describe the risks the future Council posed to other European governments. On April 9, 1869, yielding to the Munich professor’s urgings, the Prince sent a memorandum to all major powers, proposing an international conference to counter the danger.

Hohenlowe’s attempt to intimidate the Holy See failed completely. In France, Émile Ollivier, Napoleon III’s future prime minister and a close friend of the Emperor, led the Parliamentary discussion concerning the Bavarian proposal. He successfully prevented less prudent deputies from forcing the government into an unglamorous adventure doomed to failure. Henri, Prince de La Tour d’Auvergne, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that the Emperor was willing to judge the Council’s acts with a generous and liberal mind and claimed no participation in its proceedings. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the new star of European politics and a Lutheran, took the same stance. He was preparing for war against France and, therefore, was anxious not to displease German Ultramontanes, at least not yet.1 Therefore, Bismarck asserted that intervention by world powers in the affairs of the Catholic Church was a bygone era and should be forever relegated to the past.

The other countries followed the lead of France and Prussia. To save face, they all ended their declarations by threatening the Holy See with reprisals if the Council deliberated on questions that might harm their temporal power. No one was fooled. Clearly, Rome was winning the game. The Council would operate freely and without outside influence.

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Prevented from direct participation in the Council, the governments sought to influence it indirectly by supporting liberal bishops. Napoleon III modified his cabinet shortly before the Council opened. One of his new ministers was a liberal Catholic, Count Napoleon Daru. In a letter to Montalembert after giving a speech in the Senate, Daru revealed his policy: “I thought of you the whole time I was there. Responding to your call, I finally had to come to the aid of our bishops that support our cause in Rome. I spoke to be heard in Rome, much more than in the Senate.”

Fortunately, the tension that would drive France and Prussia to war clouded the political horizons. When the Vatican Council opened, the support for liberal bishops was ineffective. Pius IX managed to keep the sessions undisturbed by the overt intrusion of outside agents.

Photo Credit:  © Sergey Kohl – stock.adobe.com


  1. Between 1871 and 1878, Bismarck tried to exclude the Catholic Church from any role in the new German state. This campaign is commonly known as the Kulturkampf (Cultural Struggle).

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