How did the vote on Papal Infallibility go at Vatican I?


Heard an anti-Catholic espouse that the vote on Papal Infallibility at Vatican I in 1870 was “a close” vote. Where is he getting this?

Articles? Responses? Original docs? All appreciated! :smiley:


Must have been from “Decision '70” coverage on MSNBC. Chris Matthews might know.


It really does not matter because the Catholic Church is not a democratic organization. When a Church Council decides a point of Doctrine all but a few of those who were against it will afterwards fully support it, without question. There may be a few dissenters but they will place themselves outside the Church by doing so.


Phew!—I thought my Concilar Voting Card had been misplaced in the mail. :wink:

It is interesting how many misconceptions exist regarding such councils, almost as though they were Rotary Club Meetings rather than serious, prayerful attempts to understand God’s revelation to Man.

To hear some Orthodox and some Protestants tell it, the Pope is nothing more than the Speaker of the Vatican, whose party won a majority vote in the last papal election cycle.

Or an autocrat whose iron will binds all Catholics. One or the other. :shrug:


If memory serves me the “vote” was not all that close. Some Bishops left before the “vote” so that they would not have to take part. After the event those who abstained by leaving and the few who voted no gave their assent to the decision.

The matter being voted on was not actually whether the Pope was infallible in certain instances, but whether or not the Council should declare it so. This happens in the Church when some belief that has commonly been held comes into question. Thus the infallibility of the Pope had been implicitly accepted for centuries, but dissension now made it imperative to render a ruling or decision that made it explicit.


There were only a few no votes. One was from the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas–just some interesting, yet useless trivia :smiley:


Grace & Peace!

It was not a particularly close vote. Over 700 bishops attended, and the doctrine was confirmed by 533 of them.

This is not, however, such a cut and dry issue. Consider that Rome, at the time, was contending with the rise of rationalism, nationalism, and modernism. Papal claims on lands were being widely ignored and overun as contrary to the nationalistic interests of the secular countries in which the lands lay. From a political perspective, Vatican I was called in order to clarify and consolidate the authority of the Roman church in a world which was beginning to be weary and suspicious of the Roman church (and Christianity in general). According to John Quinn in “The Reform of the Papacy”: “…in 1829, there were 646 diocesan bishops of the Latin churches. Of these, 555 were appointed by the state; 67 were appointed by Cathedral chapters or the equivalent. Direct appointment of bishops, apart from the Papal States, was confined to 24 dioceses.” What this says was that the power that the Pope enjoyed at the time was severely circumscribed by a secular authority which was growing weary of Papal authority.

So what do you do if you’re Pope? You define and assert your prerogatives. And this quotation from Mary Reath’s “Rome & Canterbury” provides an interesting vision of the embattled papacy:Cardinal Guidi, Archbishop of Bologna, met privately with the pope and stated strongly that individuals, even popes, are not infallible. Reportedly, Guidi told the pope that while papal teachings could be infallible, when they served to preserve the life of the church, the particular interpretation of infallibility as being specifically invested in the person of the pope would go against tradition, especially the tradition that any sort of infallibility lay in the wisdom of the church as a whole, and especially as it related to the bishops in council. Pius IX’s reported retort was, "I am tradition."
For a Roman Catholic, Vatican I defined the doctrine (never mind whether or not infallibility was a tradition [witness the ecclesiology of the East which says otherwise], Vatican I stated it was so and it has become so for Rome whether or not it was so). For those outside Rome, it looked (and looks) like a political move, Rome warming to ultramontanism in the same way nations were warming to nationalism in order to remain a contender on the world stage. I think Vatican I shows the Roman church in survival mode. In terms of relations with the East and with Protestant churches (that is, in terms of Christian unity), I think the doctrine of infallibility was an incredible, desperate, and disastrous error. But I’m not Roman Catholic, and believe the Spirit indefectably guides and safeguards the Church and Christian doctrine, even when people and entire institutions fail.

Under the Mercy,

Deo Gratias!


It’s not about if we should make this a Doctrine or Dogma. It’s about how do we express this so that our belief will be very clear and no longer misinterpreted or open to debate.


Thanks for the thoughtful post. As to above, it seems like the author’s license that Guidi claimed Papal infallibility would go against Tradition, does it not? And if Guidi did say that, did he never read

With that church [in Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree… -Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 A.D.

“Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come” -Cyprian of Carthage, 256 A.D.

“Rome has spoken; the cause is concluded.” -St. Augustine

et al. Which at the least tells us the notion existed in Tradition from the earliest, not to mention the origins in Scripture. As well, the Tradition is clear that it is the office, not the person from where the infallibilty stems, not from the “person” as the quoted author above states. And in light of the development of doctrines like the Trinity or the Assumption for instance, to simplify the docrtine of 1870 as a political move, seems to me to miss the work of the Holy Spirit.


Resources for these are appreciated. :smiley:


According to “The Catholic Church Through the Ages”, p 288, the vote was not close-533 to 2. That said, many of those who were against the infallibility doctrine left before the vote. But there were almost 700 clergy who took part, so even had the dissenters stayed and voted, it would have been 533 to 166, or along those lines.


Grace & Peace!

Hi Marco,

The picture of Guidi I get from the story is that he identified the teachings of the church as infallible and the office of the pope as infallible when teaching them, disagreeing with an idea that would locate infallibility in a person, and not in the church proper.

I don’t see these quotations as incompatible with papal primacy, or with the honor that was traditionally given to Rome as “first church”. But as the focus is on the church and on the faith, not on the office or the man, I don’t see them as particularly supportive of papal infallibility or supremacy either. I understand that you do and must, but I don’t see it.

Full disclosure–I believe that the Reformation was the work of the Spirit, its scriptural precedent being Babel. I don’t think the Reformation splintered the mystical Body of Christ (though the subsequent behavior of Protestant and Roman alike grieved it)as I don’t identify that Body exclusively with Rome. I think the 1870 doctrine was expedient but unfortunate. I don’t see in it the work of the Spirit. It has and will have the effect of preventing visible Christian Unity, because as far as Rome is concerned, ecumenical dialogue can only happen on its own terms. Because of the ecclesiology of Rome, Vatican I has required that history be read in a particular way, and has made that specific interpretive frame into doctrine through papal infallibility. If the pope must be infallible now, he must also have been infallible in the past. Any contradictions must receive a theological finesse which, to a non-Roman, looks like a case of “keeping mother good.” The idea that the Spirit could be leading the Universal Church (including Rome, Protestants, and the Orthodox) as a whole into all truth, and that in the process institutions and individuals fail (including Rome and the popes) but the whole carries on is an idea that Rome cannot admit as it denies the exclusivity of Roman claims to being the fullness of ecclesiastical universality, on which claim it seems to rest the proof of its authority and the veracity of its doctrines. The gymnastics required to explain away on theological grounds things like the Inquisition are simply absurd. But the doctrine of 1870 means that those absurdities are meant to be taken as revealed theological truths.

I understand you don’t see it that way, though. And this is just my 2 cents!

Under the Mercy,

Deo Gratias!


Any sins of the Inquisition wouldn’t be under the umbrella of infallibility. They would be under a concept of sinlessness, or impeccability that the Catholic Church does not claim. Infallibility only deals with teaching faith or morals, which have never changed or contradicted.

And as an aside, off the top of my head, I can’t really think of a matter of faith or morals on which a Pope has made a declaration apart from the Magisterium or the unified voice of Tradition. Do you know of one?


Here is a good read on the limits of papal infallibility from Cardinal Newman. The primary topic is on “conscience” but it discusses the relationship between conscience, papal infallibility, and papal legislation and other acts (like inquisitions and whatnot).


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