Except perhaps for Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) condemning contraception, no papal document in modern times has been the target of more criticism than Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. A “savage war-whoop ... groans and screechings” was how Orestes Brownson, the most distinguished American Catholic intellectual of the 19th century, described reaction to the document.
With the syllabus’ 150th anniversary at hand, the obvious question is: What were those groans and screechings all about?
Dated Dec. 8, 1864, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which Pope Pius had defined as a dogma of faith 10 years before, the document appeared at a midpoint in a pontificate that proved to be one of the longest ever, extending from 1846 to 1878. The syllabus, or list, is composed of 80 propositions declared erroneous by the pope. The document marked a turning point for him and for the Church.
Pius IX had come to the papacy with a reputation as a moderate progressive and, early on, instituted reforms accordingly. But his thinking underwent radical change in the face of ugly events like the assassination of the prime minister of the Papal States and their annexation — except for Rome itself — by forces of the largely anticlerical Italian nationalist movement. (Rome was to go in 1870, leaving the pope the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican.”)
Pius IX and his advisers had for a long time considered the possibility of a document condemning major errors of the day. By 1864, the pope felt the time was ripe. The result was the Syllabus of Errors, published as an appendix to an encyclical called Quanta Cura (“Condemning Current Errors”).
To say that the syllabus was controversial would be a gross understatement. Traditional Catholics welcomed it, but they were very nearly the only ones who did. The document was, among other things, a systematic skewering of many secular sacred cows. Included among its condemnations were atheism, pantheism, rationalism, indifferentism (one religion is as good as another), socialism and communism, secret societies and the idea that the secular nation-state has authority over the Church.
Looking back, it’s clear the pope was essentially right about many of these matters. So, for instance, his critique of the totalitarian impulse of the modern nation-state today looks eerily prophetic in light of the emergence of 20th century totalitarianism in many places. Although other elements of the syllabus, such as the objections to religious liberty, have had to be corrected, even they are at least comprehensible from the perspective of history.
Defending the syllabus
The critics would have none of it. The secularizing French government sought to keep the papal document out of the country and then forbade priests to preach on it. One of the most strenuous attacks appeared a decade later in a tract titled “The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance” by William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the British Liberal party, who was destined to hold the office of prime minister four separate times. Gladstone wrote that after the syllabus, no one could become a Catholic “without renouncing his moral and mental freedom.”
That was too much for Father — later Cardinal — John Henry Newman, a scholarly convert from Anglicanism. In an apologetical work called “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” (the Duke of Norfolk being the leading British Catholic layman of the time), Newman devoted a section to the syllabus.
Context is everything for understanding it, he insists. Rather than statements in a vacuum, its propositions are quotations or paraphrases drawn from earlier documents, and those documents and the condemnations they contain concern specific cases and controversies. The sources are listed in the syllabus, and readers who fail to grasp what they say fail to grasp its meaning.
Whether it was reasonable to expect readers to go to this much trouble is another question, but Newman’s point was sound as far as it went.
Take condemned proposition 77: “In our age it is no longer advisable that the Catholic religion be the only state religion, excluding all the other forms of worship.”
Newman notes that this came from a papal allocution of July 26, 1855, protesting the Spanish government’s violation of the concordat or treaty with the Holy See. Thus, Newman writes, the syllabus is speaking here “not of states universally but of one particular state, Spain” where church-state relations were regulated by a treaty in the process of being violated.
So also with the other condemned propositions — their context explains their meaning. This was true even of condemned proposition 80, which reads: “The Roman pontiff can and should reconcile himself to progress, liberalism and the modern culture.” This was and today remains the most frequently quoted and derided section of the syllabus, said to illustrate the reactionary nature of the papacy and the Catholic Church.
Here is what Newman says about the allocution of March 18, 1861, in which it appears: “The allocution is a long argument to the effect that the moving parties in that progress, liberalism, and new civilization make use of it so seriously to the injury of the Faith and the Church, that it is both out of the power and contrary to the duty to come to terms with them. ... Certainly in this country it is the common cry that liberalism is and will be the pope’s destruction; and [those who say that] wish and mean it to be so. This allocution on the subject is at once beautiful, dignified and touching.”
So how to account for the violently negative reaction to the syllabus? Newman suggests several reasons, including the failure of readers to check the sources of the condemned propositions to find out their context and the widespread ignorance of technical theological terms. He also cites the claim by Catholics “who have means of knowing” that anti-papal secret societies were busy stirring up trouble.
The Church and the papacy have moved on since 1864, and some of Pius IX’s condemnations are unquestionably dated now. But Newman’s conclusion remains relevant: “When intelligence which we receive from Rome startles and pains us from its seemingly harsh or extreme character, let us learn to have some little faith and patience, and not take for granted all that is reported is the truth.”
Orestes Brownson went even farther. “This syllabus touched the deep wound of modern society,” he wrote. “May God grant that it touched it to heal.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.