The First Vatican Council: Papal Infallibility

The reemergence of the pope as a major figure within Catholicism during the nineteenth century can be attributed, at least in part, to the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. In the decades prior to the French Revolution, the pope seems to have been largely ignored by the Catholic faithful, who regarded him as isolated and distant. However, Napoleon’s dis- missive treatment of the pope caused him to regain his prestige in the eyes of both the faithful and some European governments. Even in France, the heartland of movements which advocated nationally governed churches, there was a new respect for the pope, however grudging.


The scene was set for the reemergence of the papacy as a leading institution within Catholicism and beyond. The movement which advocated increased papal authority was known as “ultramontanism” – a word deriving from a Latin root meaning “beyond the mountains” (i.e., the Alps). The issue at stake was the extent to which the pope had author- ity “beyond the Alps” – that is to say, beyond Italy into Europe itself. Paradoxically, such agitation for increased papal authority in northern Europe came at a time when the pope’s position in Italy was severely weakened by the Risorgimento.

The rise of revolutionary movements in France, Italy, and Germany during the late 1840s led to increased concern over the political stability of Catholic countries, and particularly the position of the pope himself. Faced with the prospect of steadily decreasing political power, culminating in his unhappy eviction from many of his former possessions as a result of the Risorgimento, Pius IX concentrated on establishing his spiritual authority within the church.

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