Volume III - Church History

Nineteenth Century

Roman Catholicism

In 1854, Pope Pius IX (r. 1846–1878) officially promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. This doctrine, strongly promoted by the Franciscans, had been adamantly opposed by the Dominican Order when it was first proposed in the 13th century. It teaches that Mary’s conception from her parents had to be supernaturally free from original sin so that she could grow up to be Christ’s mother (see Doctrine).

In 1870, the First Vatican Council reaffirmed the doctrines of the Council of Trent, and officially, for the first time in history, legislated the dogma of the infallibility of the pope of Rome. This dogma declares that when the pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals, his decision is binding on all Catholics—since it is considered to be infallible. This Vatican dogma states that the infallibility of the pope is binding even if, when he speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking “from himself and not from the consensus of the church.”

This very controversial doctrine was opposed by many at the Vatican I Council, and some Roman Catholic bishops broke away from communion with the Roman Church on this issue. They and their followers became known as the Old Catholics. In America, one such group, the Polish National Catholic Church, declared its independence from Rome in 1897, at a convention held in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Also during the long reign of Pope Pius IX, the Papacy lost the last of its so-called Papal States. By 1861 only the city of Rome was left under the direct governance of the Papacy, and by 1870 Rome itself was lost. At that point the Papacy withdrew into the Vatican City within the city of Rome.

France was blessed with the lives of two remarkable saints in this century: the famous Curé d’Ars, Saint John-Baptiste Vianney (1786–1859), and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897). The Curé d’Ars was a simple parish priest in the small town of Ars whose spiritual guidance attracted thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life. Saint Thérèse, having dedicated herself as a child to the attainment of religious perfection, entered a Carmelite convent at the age of 15. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, but not before writing, at the command of her superiors, her autobiography entitled The History of a Soul. She attained such holiness that many miracles have been attributed to her prayers.

In America, the Roman Catholic Church expanded greatly throughout the 19th century, mainly through massive immigration from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, French Canada, and Mexico. By 1850 the Roman Church had become the single largest Christian group in America, with 1.6 million adherents. By 1860 that number almost doubled. The widespread Roman Catholic parochial school system began to take shape in the 1840s, in opposition to the spread of the Protestant-oriented public school system; it was strongly in place by the turn of the century.