The First Vatican Council, or Vatican I, was a meeting of Roman Catholic bishops. It was convoked by Pope Pius IX and convened from 1869 to 1870. About 700 bishops attended the opening. To understand what happened at Vatican I, it is important to know that the Roman Catholic Church is structured in a hierarchy. The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the leader, and under him is a series of lesser bishops who oversee synods, or governing bodies, within the organization. The Catholic Church bases this structure on the original apostles of Christ: Peter, whom they see as being the leader, and the other apostles, who are seen as the lesser bishops. There were several issues discussed at Vatican I, most of them administrative and reported by attendees as somewhat tedious. Several Catholic doctrines were affirmed, but the central issue discussed, and the reason why the council was called, concerned the infallibility of the Pope.
Papal infallibility was not really in question at the First Vatican Council. This doctrine had been part of Catholic tradition for some time, and under this cloak of infallibility past popes authoritatively introduced other dogmas, most notably, in 1854, the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The idea that the Pope was preserved free from error when he taught definitively on a doctrine concerning faith or morals was not itself questioned except by a minor contingent of bishops present at the First Vatican Council. However, setting the doctrine as official church dogma was resisted for other reasons. Many of the bishops wanted to declare papal infallibility for the sake of giving the Pope more authority. Some others were against this on the grounds that it would alienate those who saw the dogma as a departure from the teaching of the early Christian church. They were interested in unity and were afraid that defining the dogma would work against that goal. It was also proposed that the bishops were a collective governing body that decided on tradition, but Pope Pius IX argued that the Pope alone decides tradition. Eventually, the dogma was approved, and the council formally acknowledged the Pope as having “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church” and declared him infallible when speaking ex cathedra.
The process of voting a teaching into authoritative tradition is specific to the Catholic Church and has no biblical model. The Bible declares Christ Himself to be the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and therefore His is the authority we are to follow. Scripture never intimates that Peter exercised authority over the other apostles. The Catholic idea of apostolic succession, assuming a line of leaders who would take Peter’s place as the leader of Christendom through the ages, is likewise unbiblical. Peter was chosen as one instrument through which Christ established His Word, but there was never a mandate for the creation of a papal office, much less any reason to assert its infallibility.
The purpose of Vatican I was largely political in nature. In fact, the development of the Franco-Prussian War interrupted the council and forced them to postpone the discussion of several other topics that were planned. The council was suspended indefinitely after Rome was captured by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. It is hard to believe that Christ’s spiritual agenda for His church could be interrupted and postponed by a human war. The Vatican today is considered a political power, and it has long been considered so. This is also in disagreement with Scripture. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).