“Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century"

November 27, 1869

Thomas Nast

“Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century"

Analogies, Literature; Religion, Papal Infallibility; Religion, Roman Catholic Church;

Garibaldi, Giuseppe; Grant, Ulysses S.; Napoleon III; Pope Pius IX; Queen Victoria;

France; Great Britain; Italy;

No caption.

In this cartoon, artist Thomas Nast harshly condemns the anticipated doctrine of papal infallibility soon to be proclaimed by the Ecumenical Council (1869-1870), later known as Vatican I, which was called into session by Pope Pius IX (papacy, 1846-1878).  The image is inspired primarily by a passage from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegorical tale in which Christian, the Protestant main character, fights against the temptations and evils of the world.  Here, Pope Pius is portrayed sitting before the dark cave of the Ecumenical Council, marked “No Discussion Allowed,” and along the side of which is inscribed, “I am infallible,” “I am … master over all Christians,” and “I am sole supreme judge of what is right and wrong.”  Looking demented, the pope bites his fingernails, while surrounded by the skeletons of martyrs who defied the Roman Catholic Church, including John Huss (1369?-1415) and Savonarola (1452-1498). 

The secondary image in the cartoon reflects a quote out of a daily newspaper (click the illustration to read the enlarged text), in which the governments of Europe are expected to reject the doctrine.  The Ecumenical Council met as the Vatican was losing its temporal authority over what were called the Papal States.  Since 756, the papacy had exerted political control over several states in central Italy, but the reunification of Italy led to the final loss of the Papal States in 1870.  The papacy’s relationship to the Italian Republic remained in dispute until the Vatican was recognized as an independent city-state in 1929. 

In the right-foreground, a Christian knight and a solemn assembly of world leaders, looking on in dismay and defiance, are symbolically separated from the pope by a deep chasm.  The leaders include:  King Victor Emmanuel of Italy (in the front point position); to the right of the king, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the leader of Italian independence; behind Garibaldi, Emperor Napoleon III of France; and, linked arm in arm, President Ulysses S. Grant and Queen Victoria of Great Britain.  The progress and enlightenment they represent is overcast by the dark, grim, stormy (note the lightning), and morbid atmosphere conjured up by the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Nast was baptized a Roman Catholic in his native Germany, but came to consider the Catholic Church as a reactionary relic at odds with the modern world of liberal democracies and church-state separation. 

The doctrine of papal infallibility means that the pope cannot err in the articulation of church teachings concerning issues of faith and morality when he speaks ex cathedra—“from the chair”—in his role as pastor and teacher of all Christians.  That does not mean, however, that either the man who presides as pope is or that all of his pronouncements, even concerning Church doctrine, are without fault.  Infallibility deals with the correct statement of truths that have already been divinely revealed, but is not itself divine revelation. 

In fact, papal infallibility has only been invoked twice:  Pope Pius IX’s declaration in 1854 of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (that she was born without the taint of original sin), and Pope Pius XII’s proclamation in 1950 of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (that she entered Heaven without dying on earth).  According to the Roman Catholic Church, the reasoning behind papal infallibility is based on New Testament scriptures and previous Church teachings and traditions.  Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians do not accept the doctrine. 

In December 1864, Pope Pius IX proposed to call a general council, and in March 1865 appointed a committee of cardinals to draft a list of preliminary issues for discussion, and solicited the confidential suggestions from several dozen bishops serving all over the world.  The committee met numerous times during the next few years, and subcommittees were formed, which included theologians and canon lawyers. 

The Vatican invited to the Ecumenical Council the Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops, and heads of religious orders, in addition to granting admission (without formal invitation) to Catholic political heads of state or their representatives.  774 of the eligible 1050 Roman Catholic clerics participated, and Russia was the only country that forbade its Catholic bishops from attending.  Many in the Catholic Church warmly received the news that an Ecumenical Council was to be convened.  Yet, fears that a doctrine of papal infallibility would be announced aroused vocal opposition, particularly in France, Germany, and England.  In Germany, the anti-infallibility movement was led by Ignaz Dollinger, a priest and professor of church history.  Because of the controversy, German bishops unsuccessfully petitioned that the discussion of papal infallibility be postponed.

On December 2, 1869, Pope Pius presided at a meeting of 500 bishops in the Sistine Chapel, at which time the officers and procedures of the Ecumenical Council were announced.  The Council met in four public sessions and 89 general congregations between December 8, 1869, and September 1, 1870.  The first motion to define the doctrine of papal infallibility was made on Christmas 1869 by Archbishop Dechamps of Belgian, and received the support of a large majority.  On January 21, 1870, a draft decree was circulated called (in English) “The Roman Pontiff cannot err in defining matters of faith and morals.”  As expected, several European governments formally protested, including Austria, Bavaria, France, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal.

From early June through mid-July 1870, the issue of papal infallibility was the main subject for discussion at the Ecumenical Council.  On July 13, a vote on the council’s draft document, which included the claim of papal infallibility, was 451 in favor, 62 conditionally affirmative, and 88 against.  A final vote was taken on July 18, 433 bishops in favor and only 2 bishops opposed, and the pope promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility.  The two dissenting bishops (one from Italy and one from Little Rock, Arkansas) formally accepted the doctrine in front of the pope.  Those who were absent at the time expressed their acceptance in writing.  In Germany, Father Dollinger’s followers formed the Old Catholic Church, although he did not associate himself with it, while in Switzerland, opponents of papal infallibility formed the Christian Catholic Church.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century"
June 17, 2024

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