Acton and Ecumenism PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 08 September 2010 08:10

On July 18, 1870, the First Vatican Council passed the constitution Pastor Aeternus, which proclaimed and defined papal infallibility.  The Pope, the constitution stated, possesses “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church” and when he speaks “in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christian” and “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church,” he is given such divine assistance that he enjoys “that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

The lopsided vote (433 to 2) makes the bishops’ support for the decree appear more untroubled than it was.  During the months leading up to the council, a minority consisting of some 20% of the bishops were opposed to the doctrine.  According to Owen Chadwick, “Some were opposed to the doctrine because they believed it untrue; some, because they thought it too difficult to define without prolonged and balanced consideration of the whole nature of authority in the Church; some, because they feared a set-back to the Catholic Church in Protestant countries; some, because they feared unbearable tension and therefore schism.”  Before the final vote was taken, sixty bishops left Rome rather than oppose the inevitable.

At the center of this opposition was a cosmopolitan thirty-five year old English lay intellectual, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, known today simply as “Lord Acton.”  Acton was in Rome for the first months of the Council and during his time there he coordinated the opposition, issued missives to his allies throughout Europe, orchestrated a media campaign that would pressure the bishops.  It was a heroic effort, and utterly doomed.

One of his allies later wrote of Acton’s importance to the formation of a minority party at the Council: “Without his personal intervention the bishops of the opposition could scarcely have known each other.  Without his knowledge of language and of theology the theologians of the various nations represented in the Council could not have understood each other, without his talents as a leader they could not have remained united amongst each other and without his high virtues they could not have accepted and followed the lead of a layman so much younger than any of the Fathers of the Council.”

Acton’s activism was not limited to organizing and encouraging opposition bishops.  A personal friend of William Gladstone, Acton wrote letters urging the Prime Minister to send an English ambassador to the Council to head off what Acton viewed as an act of Papal autocracy.  A high church Anglican, Gladstone shared his friend’s views on the Papacy, and, besides, worried that a decree of infallibility would inflame the Protestant Parliament and so inhibit necessary reforms in Catholic Ireland.  Born in Naples and educated in Munich and Paris, fluent in four languages, Acton had many contacts on the Continent as well, and he stayed regularly in touch with politicians and political events in the hope that the Great Powers could exert some pressure on the Pope.

Acton’s opposition to the dogma of infallibility was rooted in his historical studies of the church fathers, his archival research on the Council of Trent, and his embarrassment at the fraud and abuse of power that had characterized the Papacy over many centuries.  A few months before the opening of the Council in 1869, Acton published a review of an anonymously published German book on the Papacy and Councils.  The book, Acton knew, was written by his own mentor, Professor Johann Joseph von Dollinger of the University of Munich.

Summarizing Dollinger’s treatise, Acton noted that the evidence against infallibility was massive.  The church fathers did not consider the Pope infallible, nor did they grant his right to define dogma without a Council, nor did they interpret Jesus’ promises to Peter as promises to the Pope.  Constantine, not the Pope, called Nicea, and later Councils were also called without the Pope’s involvement.  In all the great Trinitarian and Christological debates of the first four centuries, Papal opinion was not decisive: “no point of doctrine was finally decided by [Popes] was finally decided by them in the first ten centuries of Christianity.”  Individual Popes supported “great doctrinal errors” and were often immoral, evil men.

Any priest who used Scripture to support papal infallibility, Acton thought, was violating his ordination vows: “Every Catholic priest binds himself by oath never to interpret Scripture in contradiction to the Fathers; and if, defying the unanimous testimony of antiquity, he makes these passages authority for Papal infallibility, he breaks his oath.”

Acton had already left Rome for Bavaria when the decree passed.  He was already making plans to prevent the constitution from being widely accepted by the church.  In October 1870, the North British Review published his article analyzing the Council, in which he condemned the manipulation of an Ecumenical Council to expand papal power, attacked procedural changes that removed power from the bishops, complained about the packing of commissions with Infallibilists, and indicted the invertebrate response of the minority.  During the last months of 1874, he published four long letters in the London Times responding to Gladstone’s pamphlet The Vatican Decrees.

It was a losing cause.  Acton never defined exactly what he meant by “infallibility.”  For him, as Chadwick has put it, the word was a “flag and a symbol” representing all the abuses and evils from which he longed to rescue the church.  He never understood how bishops opposed to the doctrine could settle for a Conciliar constitution that was not as bad as it might have been.  One by one, opposition bishops buckled to pressure, or found ways to accommodate, and promulgated the decree.  In Germany, Dollinger led a protest at the University of Munich and condemned Pastor Aeternus because it contradicted Scripture and early church tradition and damaged Catholic relations with other Christians and modern states.  Dollinger was excommunicated, and his removal from the church inspired the formation of the Old Catholic church, which Dollinger never joined.  Aside from a few pockets, Acton’s sleepless tireless efforts amounted to nothing.

Acton remained a Catholic for the rest of his life.  His agitation after the Council stirred some dust within English Catholicism, but Rome refused to make him a martyr.  Eventually, he withdrew from theological polemics and politics.  For all his abhorrence of the behavior of popes, to his last breath he considered “communion with Rome as dearer than life.”

Acton had initially shown enthusiasm for the Council, which he hoped would bring necessary revitalization to Catholicism.  Many of the bishops, he found, did not share his reforming zeal.  It took nearly a century for some of Acton’s interests to be vindicated at the Second Vatican Council, where the Catholic Church made a limited pact with the modern world, including liberal political systems, and extended a semi-brotherly hand to Christians outside.  By that time, though, papal infallibility had long been uncontroversial among Catholics and had over the course of nearly a century become firmly lodged as an obstacle to ecumenical efforts.  Even after Vatican II, Vatican I seems a virtually intractable problem.

It is hard not to be wistful: How much further along would the cause of Christian unity be today if Acton’s minority had prevailed?

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