“Everything rigid and immovable goes against the essence of the Church and the Spirit that guides it”, a German Catholic historian has declared.

– The problem of Pius IX

Hubert Wolf is the author of the new book The infallible: Pius IX and the invention of Catholicism in the 19th century, in which the German Church historian and professor at the University of Münster traces the story of how the the 19th-century Church turned away from the world and fixated on the Pope, in a process that culminated with the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Pius IX has gone down in history as the Pope that, in the face of opposition to his authority at Vatican I, said: “I, I am tradition! I, I am the Church!”

But Wolf told the Linz diocesan publication KirchenZeitung September 15 that Pius IX’s arrogating power to himself wouldn’t have been possible without the ultramontanist enablers that were spooked by the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the authority of newly-emerging nation states.

To combat those threats, those churchmen that Wolf labelled “traditionalists” were convinced that the Church had to become a “fighting unit focused on the Pope”.

“The price was high: Church and modernity were declared incompatible”, the historian lamented.

– Traditionalism still alive in dogma of papal infallibility

Wolf explained that the Catholic traditionalism that led to the dogma of papal infallibility is still very much alive in the Church today.

Not only in the possibility that the Pope can teach by ex cathedra pronouncements or statements of the extraordinary magisterium, but also in the ordinary teaching authority he enjoys in encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, motu proprios and the like.

According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – commenting on John Paul II’s veto of women’s ordination in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis – that ordinary magisterium of the Pope’s is also infallible.

– Tradition, not traditionalism

Against that traditionalism still being felt in the Church today, Church historian Wolf recalled that even the Council of Trent (1545-63) “emphasised against the Protestants that, in addition to the Bible, tradition also exists as the second witnessing instance of faith”.

“This living stream of tradition ensures that the message of Christ is kept present through the millennia through constant updating processes”, the academic highlighted.

Stressing that “when Pius IX claimed to be tradition, this contradicted the Catholic understanding of tradition”, Wolf explained that “the difference between tradition and traditionalism is… that tradition is a dynamic process, while traditionalism wants to hold a certain point in time as eternal”.

“Perhaps” the 19th century that took the Church down the traditionalist path “is not yet over”, the Church historian added, observing that “after all, the Second Vatican Council confirmed the infallibility and primacy of jurisdiction of the Pope”.

– Hope in “suppressed” Catholic tradition: married priests, women deacons…

However, Wolf encouraged bishops, priests and lay faithful to examine again those Church traditions that were “suppressed” in the name of traditionalism, in which process “we would be surprised how many alternative models there were” in terms of Catholic organisation.

Such a process of the re-examination of discarded traditions “would offer more possibilities… for people who turn their backs on the Church out of frustration”, Wolf observed.

“We have had and still have married priests in the Church as a matter of course”, the historian pointed out as an example of an alternative Catholic structural model nonetheless grounded in tradition.

“We had abbesses who ran dioceses without being ordained. We have to talk about the diaconate of women…

“Reforms do not go against tradition, only with it. The point is that these must not be constricted by traditionalism. The stream of tradition is alive”, Wolf concluded.

More hope for Church reform, on Novena:

German Catholic students adopt inclusive language for God: “God cannot be assigned to any gender or other human categories”

German women are already studying to be deacons: “Gender equality and diaconality are indispensable for the future of the Church”

Frankfurt dean calls for “separation of powers” in Church to reverse “landslide loss of reputation and trust”

Nun blasts clericalist priests: “‘To be holy’ cannot mean uptight, superior, arrogant, contemptuous of women, hypocritical…”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.