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VATICAN I –
The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church

   By JOHN W. O’MALLEY, S.J.     (Harvard/Belknap 2018)

A review by R. B. Williams O.P.


     Every preacher preaches at a given moment in history at a given place and surrounded by all kinds of contexts – social local theological philosophical etc..  We are not always aware of how these contexts impact our preaching and those to whom or with whom we preach.  A valuable aid to our awareness is a knowledge of the history that impacts the current ecclesiological context within which we preach.  What has shaped the Body of Christ the People of God the hierarchical “church” that we face?  Speaking from my own experience as a campus minister and itinerant preacher of 47 years of ordained ministry I can say that I encounter regularly in various subtle and not so subtle ways three ecumenical councils of the church: Trent (1545-1561) Vatican I (1869-1870) and Vatican II (1962-65).  A working knowledge of what these councils did and did not do and how they have been understood by those who invoke them is invaluable to understanding how we preach and how our preaching is received.  That is why I have made a point of reading John W. O’Malley’s three books on those three councils.  The most recent is his VATICAN I – The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church which has just been published and is the subject of this review.  What did I learn?

 

     I learned a great deal about how some folks today view the papacy and its power.  I learned a great deal about the theological and political movements which contributed to the calling of the first ecumenical council since Trent!  A lot happened in that 300 year gap especially the counter-reformation and the French revolution along with the developing tensions between centralizing papal power (ultramontanism) and local episcopal power (Gallicanism) and the role of political powers in influencing this (Febronianism Josephinism etc.).  I learned valuable insights on Jansenisma theological movement that still influences the way some Catholics view human nature.   I found all of this valuable without even thinking much about the decree on the infallibility of the papacy which was the dominating agenda item of Vatican I.  Because the Franco-Prussian war was about to erupt the council adjourned without getting to the subject of the role of the bishops and other things that were left untreated especially liturgical and scriptural matters that finally received their day at Vatican II.  The presumption of Pius IX who summoned the council was really outlined in two actions of his papacy:  the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (proclaimed in 1854) and the Syllabus of Errors (proclaimed 10 years later on the feast of the Immaculate Conception).  The latter document rejected almost all the political foundations of modern democratic government and asserted that it was grave error to hold that the church especially the pope needed to adjust to these new political realities.  The church in these conceptions is transcendent and not dependent on historical realities.  This notion of the church is alive even in our time.

 

     There is much more I could mention.  Suffice it to say I recommend this book and the other two conciliar histories of Trent and Vatican II that Fr. O’Malley has written.  We preach in history and the People of God (a Vatican II idea) live in a given historical moment.  How we got to the moment will shape the way we move forward from it and inevitably shape the way we preach.

 


Book Review Archive

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