According to my professor of church history, the two biggest questions the Catholic Church has had to answer over and over were:
- How to select a new Pope;
- How to get rid of the old one.
The most common solution for the second question has been by electing old men to papacy, thus enforcing natural term limits, so to speak. History has shown that Popes who rule for too long cause problems. Pius IX was the longest ruling Pope so far (32 years).
He called and presided over the First Vatican Council, which was held at St. Peter's Basilica between December 8, 1869 and September 1, 1870. By then Pius IX had been in absolute power for 24 years.
It was the First Vatican Council that, on July 18, 1870, accepted the document Pastor Aeternus (Eternal Shepherd), according to which the Pope, under very specific circumstances, is infallible in the matters of faith and morals.
The dogma of papal infallibility has been a source of constant embarassment to Catholic theologians, and the Church itself ever since.
The first one to object was prominent church historian Ignaz von Döllinger. He was promptly excommunicated. This showed clearly that Pius IX was not going to take any prisoners.
Nevertheless, some opposition continued in Central Europe and resulted in the formation of the Old Catholic Church.
Most theologians, however, got the message, and kept their mouths shut.
Indeed, opposition existed even at the Council itself, and for good reasons.
Historically, the idea of papal infallibility was unthinkable. The role of the Pope was first among equals. Starting with St. Peter, the Apostle, the bishop of Rome was an arbiter among other bishops. He could only decide when there was a conflict among bishops. When the bishops agreed, it was unthinkable for the Pope to go against them.
An example of this can be found in the New Testament. People were arguing that Pagans who converted to Christianity should be circumcised. St. Peter agreed. St. Paul opposed. After a heated debate St. Peter, the Pope, was outvoted, and the matter was settled once and for all. The first Pope lost to the first Council and did not even dream to go against it.
As recently as 15th Century, the Council of Constance (1414 - 1418) declared that the decisions of the Council are binding on the Pope. However, Popes can, and did, get around that decision because the Council of Constance was called by an antipope (John XXIII). Though the Council was later approved by the Pope Martin V, his approval excepted the idea of the authority of the Council over the Pope. Of course, that means it was the Pope who denied the Council's authority over himself. In other words, the Popes say: I have the authority to say I have the authority, therefore, if I say I have the authority, I have the authority. Oh, well.
Anyway, back to Pius IX and the First Vatican Council. Many of the bishops convened in Council were opposed to the idea of papal infallibility. Some, because they did not think making it a dogma was a good move at the time, others, because they outright thought it wrong.
But Pius IX was determined to get his absolute power ratified by the Council. As Anacreon mentions above, he was not above beheading his opposition. He invited the opposing bishops, individually, to a private audience. He had them prostrate on the floor. He then stepped on each bishop's head, and said: If you vote against, I shall crush your head. How's that for a threat from a dictator who had killed before?
Two bishops still voted against, some abstained, but the majority voted for the new dogma.
As I mentioned, the dogma has been a constant embarassment ever since. Some years ago, while I was still a Catholic priest, I attended a Good Friday ecumenical breakfast. I sat next to an Episcopalian priest, and we engaged in a very friendly theological discussion. Since it was an ecumenical breakfast, the topic of ecumenism came up. The Episcopalian priest said the dogma of papal infallibility was a major obstacle to any dialogue between our respective churches. He said: "We can always say we blew it, but you cannot."
To that, I replied: "We blew it with infallibility."