One of the most routine things the Holy Father does is appoint bishops. Almost every day there are a few appointments, and the fact that he is doing so is wholly unremarkable. It wasn’t always that way, and it is that way because of what the First Vatican Council did 150 years ago.
On July 18, 1870, the Council approved Pastor Aeternus ,its dogmatic constitution on the Church. It is most well known for the definition of papal infallibility, that the pope cannot err when teaching ex cathedra (authoritatively) on matters of faith and morals.
Important as that affirmation was, it does not touch the daily life of the Church in the same way as the other teaching of Pastor Aeternus, namely the universal jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff.
The Council’s language was technical, but sweeping: “Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.”
Universal jurisdiction means that in every part of the world, the pope has ordinary and immediate power to govern. That means the end of national churches, or the prerogatives of secular leaders — usually Catholic sovereigns — to exercise some control over the Church’s governance, especially in the appointment of bishops.
Blessed Pius IX signaled that something momentous was afoot when, in convening Vatican I, he did not invite lay Catholic sovereigns, the first time in nearly 1,500 years that it had not been done.
Pius IX had lost effective control over the papal states in 1860. Vatican I would seek to liberate the Church from temporal politics. The declaration of universal jurisdiction meant that, unshackled from temporal rule, the papacy could assert its spiritual independence and the liberty of the Church.
Pastor Aeternus resolved a question extant since the investiture crisis of the 11th century and the famous battle between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV: Who ultimately governed the Church, most importantly expressed in the appointment of bishops?
“To whom do bishops belong?” writes professor Russell Hittinger, a leading expert on the 19th-century Church history. “Regalists would have said, ‘to the crown’; moderate regalists would have said, ‘to the apostolic college as supervised by the external bishopric of the crown’; the revolutionaries of 1789 said, ‘to the people constituted as a nation.’ The council of 1870 said that they belong to the whole Church in which the pope exercises universal jurisdiction.”
The declaration of universal jurisdiction had immediate effect and altered the daily life of the papacy and the Church.
“At the death of Leo XII in 1829, 555 of 646 bishops in the Latin Church owed appointments to state patronage,” writes Hittinger. “In 1871 and 1872, Pius chose 102 new bishops. The papacy lost its dominions, but gained a Church.”
The universal jurisdiction of the pope was subsequently clarified by Vatican II in Lumen Gentium and Christus Dominus and the subsequent revision of the Code of Canon Law. Today, when a diocese falls vacant, the local Church waits from Rome to appoint a new bishop. When a sufficiently large question or crisis emerges — in doctrine, in liturgy, in discipline — it is Rome who will eventually act. And in preserving its ability to act anywhere and anytime, the Holy See removed the power of any local sovereign to shape a different Catholic reality in its jurisdictions.
The sovereign or civil power can persecute the Church, an ancient practice, but it cannot participate in its governance. Because persecution is often purifying and participation in temporal affairs often corrupting, universal jurisdiction was a major step toward the Church’s reclaiming its evangelical mission.
Universal jurisdiction was also a significant response to a new threat that emerged in the late 18th century and grew in the 19th. Totalitarianism, the notion that the state could control every aspect of social life, including the Church, was opposed head on by the claim that there were realities within the sovereign’s realms that were beyond his competence, namely the internal life of the Church. The definition of universal jurisdiction became a key expression of a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, namely the state must be limited. There are things which government simply cannot do, limits it must respect.
With the rise of fascist and communist totalitarians in the 20th century, the First Vatican Council’s declaration of universal jurisdiction would be complemented by the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Universal jurisdiction limits the state from above, as it were, as it must respect the supranational — the “catholic” — reality of something outside the state, the Church. Religious liberty limits the state from below, in that it must recognize the liberties of the citizenry to act without state coercion.
That’s why civil leaders across Europe followed Vatican I with such interest, even hostility. The ancien régime model of altar and throne cooperation meant a state role in religion in principle and often the subjugation of Church to state in practice.
Vatican I consigned that model — which had endured in various forms for more than 1,000 years — to the past. And it wasn’t infallibility that did it, but universal jurisdiction.
Indeed, Pastor Aeternus treats papal infallibility in the text as following on, and logically flowing from, the primacy and jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff:
“That apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching.”
Teaching is part of the universal jurisdiction, and the capacity to teach for the whole Church requires the guarantee that the Church not be led into error.
The sesquicentennial of Pastor Aeternus will certainly be marked by much commentary on the infallibility question, which fascinates a skeptical age. But universal jurisdiction was the more important definition.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief
of Convivium magazine.