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Declaration of the Pope’s Infallibility 1870

Pope Pius IX was elected at the most inopportune and tumultuous point in Italian and European history. Italy was unified as a nation-state in 1861 at the expense of various monarchs and the pope. With the Papal States and his temporal power gone, the pope lashed out at secular rulers, revolutionaries, and liberals as best as he could. In a last-ditch attempt to regain his power, Pope Pius IX summoned leading Catholic theologians to the First Vatican Council held between 1869 and 1870. One of the most crucial decisions of the Council in 1870 was the declaration of the Pope’s infallibility and primacy. This event is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time. 

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The Risorgimento

The discontent and aspirations for Italian national unity finally culminated in a revolution in 1848. Pope Pius IX, ruler of the Papal States, finally gave in to pressure from the revolutionaries and took a step toward liberalism by issuing a constitution for his realm. However, his compromise with the Italian revolutionaries failed, and it ended with the murder of his appointed Minister of the Interior, Pellegrino Rossi. Pius IX was forced to flee to Gaeta but was restored with the help of French troops in 1850.

The revolutions spearheaded by Garibaldi and Mazzini failed, but their call for Italian unification was taken up by the Piedmontese Prime Minister Count di Cavour. A savvy and practical politician, he successfully maneuvered to attain the unification of Sardinia and Lombardy in 1859 under the House of Savoy. The unification was soon followed by the inclusion of Modena, Romagna, Tuscany, and Parma.

When Garibaldi saw these new developments, he immediately worked on liberating the Kingdom of Two Sicilies in the south. Cavour, on the other hand, took what remained of the Papal States (with the exception of Rome), effectively ending the pope’s temporal power. He soon followed it up by taking Naples as well. In 1861, the greater part of Italy was finally united under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy. Italy took Venice from Austria in 1866 during the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War. Finally, in 1870, the Italian troops sent by Cavour drove French troops out of Rome, ending their 20-year occupation of the city since Pius’s restoration. King Victor Emmanuel’s occupied the city and assumed the title “King of Italy.”


The doctrine of papal infallibility was established during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX.

Papal Infallibility – a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church asserting that the pope, when issuing doctrines on morals and faith ex cathedra, is incapable of committing errors. The Church should follow all doctrines that are spoken ex cathedra.

Ex Cathedra – in the Catholic Church, speaking with authority which stems the pope’s position. Latin for “out of/from the chair” (of St. Peter).

Dogma – divinely revealed doctrine (or set of doctrines) on morals and faith issued and made official by the authorities of the Catholic Church.

Classical (19th Century) Liberalism – an ideology closely associated with the various reform movements in 19th-century Europe. Proponents of classical liberalism desired the abolition of feudal regimes and the reformation of the government and the Roman Catholic Church. They were also vocal advocates of:

* Individual liberty and sovereignty of the people

* Representation in the government (although limited to men with properties only)

                                                           * Equality before the law

The Italian proponents of liberalism desired the restriction of the power of the authorities (in the case of the Papal States, the pope and the clerics) and the formation of an elected assembly (the parliament). The passage of a constitution was also a paramount goal for the 19th century Italian liberals.

Nationalism – an ideology inspired by the French Revolution, nurtured in early 19th century Germany, and linked with classical liberalism in its early phases. Nationalism is the ideology that stresses the unity of people who share an ethnicity, language, culture, or history. Early and mid-19th-century Italian nationalists include Giuseppe Grimaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Count di Cavour.

Rationalism – a philosophical movement with roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers who support the ideas of rationalism assert that reason–not religion or sensory experiences–is the only source of knowledge.

Ultramontanism – a movement within the Roman Catholic Church which sought to revive the power and independence of the pope. It had its roots in the Medieval Age and the Reformation but became more popular after the French Revolution.  

Gallicanism – a movement within the Catholic Church with roots in 17th century France. Advocates of Gallicanism rejected the temporal power of the pope and supported the idea of separation of church and state. They wanted the pope to submit to a general council, as well as rejected the notion that papal decrees cannot be reversed or reformed.

The First Vatican Council and the Declaration of the Papal Infallibility

Relations between the Catholic Church and European governments were at an all-time low after the Risorgimento. The loss of the Papal States and the end of his temporal powers only pushed Pope Pius to become more conservative. In 1864, he released the controversial Syllabus of Errors and the encyclicals Quanta Cura to lash out at the liberals and the nationalists.

He also targeted the proponents of rationalism, socialism, communism, naturalism, pantheism, and other ideologies which gained traction in the 19th century. Protestants, members of secret societies, and supporters of the separation of church and state also received his condemnation. The publication of the Syllabus dashed the hopes of liberal Catholics and supporters of Gallicanism for conciliation but was wholeheartedly welcomed by Ultramontanists.

The publication of the Syllabus, however, was only the start for Pope Pius IX who still hoped to recover his temporal power. As early as 1864, he already had plans to convene a General Council in response to the loss of his territories and his temporal power. He confided the plan to several bishops and cardinals, most of whom readily agreed to attend the General Council. Some prelates even secretly suggested to include the issue of papal infallibility to the topics that would be discussed.

On June 29, 1868, the pope issued an apostolic letter entitled Aeterni Patris summoning experts in canon law and theologians to Rome for the First Vatican Council. They were to form five commissions which would discuss topics such as

1. Catholic faith and doctrines

2. Canon laws and discipline

3. Eastern churches and Catholic missions in foreign lands

4. Relations between the Catholic church and European states

5. Religious orders

Most of the bishops who attended the Council were either conservative Italians or members of religious orders which were financially dependent on the pope. It was no wonder that many bishops were all too eager to agree with whatever the pope wanted.

The First Vatican Council (or Twentieth Ecumenical Council) met between December 8, 1869, and July 18, 1870. The debates were heated, and a number of theologians resisted some decrees on the grounds that they were unbiblical. In the end, however, the majority won out. The Council formulated the doctrine of papal infallibility and primacy.


Picture by:, Public Domain, Link

Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.

Carson, H.M., Peter Toon, and C.T. McIntire. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Sykes, Norman. The Cambridge Modern History: The Zenith of European Power 1830-70. Edited by J.P.T. Bury. Vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

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