Pio Nono’s Syllabus Errorum has had an undeservedly bad press: it is still relevant today  

The recent declaration of the beatification of Pope John Paul II reminded me of one attack on him sparked off by another beatification, that of Pius IX. One of the articles of indictment in John Cornwell’s very hostile book about the late pope was that this was “an early item of poor judgment”, since Pio Nono “was chiefly famous for calling the First Vatican Council, which declared the dogma of papal infallibility and papal primacy, although he was known for his infamous syllabus of errors which denounced democracy, pluralism, workers’ unions and newspapers. A fine exemplar for the 21st century to be sure!”

Cornwell, of course, got it wrong about papal primacy, which had from the earliest centuries been taken for granted: it was no purpose of the Council to “declare” it. As for papal infallibility, that, too, was widely believed; Vatican I simply defined it formally. But he also got the Syllabus of Errors wrong: not one article of it mentions democracy, workers’ unions or newspapers, and if it rejects “pluralism” (not a concept anyone at the time was familiar with) it is mostly in the sense that any religion which claims to be true rather than a matter of opinion rejects it.

The Syllabus of Errors has had a bad press over the years: but this should not deter the present Pope from responding positively to a recent request for another Syllabus, this time one spelling out the errors that have circulated within the Church about the Second Vatican Council. This request was made by the patristics scholar Bishop Athanasius [excellent name for a theologian bishop] Schneider at an important conference held last December in Rome, “for a correct hermeneutics of the Council in the light of Church Tradition”. I quote simply the passage in which Bishop Schneider calls for a document clearly spelling out the errors of the post-conciliar years:


“In recent decades there existed, and still exist today, groupings within the Church that are perpetrating an enormous abuse of the pastoral character of the Council and its texts… Keeping in mind the now decades-long experience of interpretations that are doctrinally and pastorally mistaken and contrary to the bimillennial continuity of the doctrine and prayer of the faith, there thus arises the necessity and urgency of …  a sort of “Syllabus” of the errors in the interpretation of Vatican Council II.

“There is the need for a new Syllabus, this time directed not so much against the errors coming from outside of the Church, but against the errors circulated within the Church by supporters of the thesis of discontinuity and rupture, with its doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral application.
“Such a Syllabus should consist of two parts: the part that points out the errors, and the positive part with proposals for clarification, completion, and doctrinal clarification.”

This seems to me so obviously a good idea that no more needs to be said by me here. I would like to add just one thing, however. A century of modernist propaganda against Pio Nono has left the impression that the original Syllabus Errorum was so laughably reactionary a document that any attempt to repeat such an exercise should be rigorously avoided. The fact is that almost nobody today has read it, so how do they know? When I was preparing my Spectator review of Cornwell’s book (quoted above), I thought, in view of his contemptuous remarks about it, that I ought to look at this notorious text. What I found was a document of mostly impeccable Catholic common sense, designed to defend Christian theology in a time of heavy rationalist attacks. Here, for instance, are extracts from the opening section. I haven’t space to quote it all: read it for yourself, here; all the following items, remember, are what Pio Nono is declaring to be errors:

8. As human reason is placed on a level with religion itself, so theological must be treated in the same manner as philosophical sciences….
9. All the dogmas of the Christian religion are indiscriminately the object of natural science or philosophy, and human reason, enlightened solely in an historical way, is able, by its own natural strength and principles, to attain to the true science of even the most abstruse dogmas…..
11. The Church not only ought never to pass judgment on philosophy, but ought to tolerate the errors of philosophy, leaving it to correct itself….
12. The decrees of the Apostolic See and of the Roman congregations impede the true progress of science….
14. Philosophy is to be treated without taking any account of supernatural revelation.”

There are later passages defending the temporal powers of the papacy which wouldn’t apply today: such passages are perfectly rational when the historical context which formed so many of Pio Nono’s attitudes is given its proper weight. The “Prisoner of the Vatican” had not merely been stripped of his temporal powers: the immediate result of his new powerlessness was a vicious totalitarian attack by the secular authorities on the Church itself. In 1872 Vittorio Emmanuele signed a law which provided for the expulsion of all religious from their monasteries and convents; 476 houses were confiscated, and 12,669 religious were dispersed. In 1873, the faculties of theology were suppressed in all universities, and seminaries placed under government control; the following year, all priests in Rome were forced into military service.
Pio Nono was fighting for the Church’s life. Under the circumstances, the famous article 80 of the Syllabus – which condemns as an error the proposition (with which, presumably, most Tablet liberals would enthusiastically agree) that “The Roman Pontiff may and ought to reconcile himself to, and to agree with, progress, liberalism and modern civilisation” – seems not only reasonable enough but beyond any question; it might be added that it is also entirely relevant to our own times: as Pope John Paul often said, Christians today are called on to be “signs of contradiction” in the face of secular culture. Article 80, in fact, sums up succinctly the real point at issue, even today, between the Church and the modern world.
It is particularly relevant to the erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council which Bishop Schneider has called on Pope Benedict to correct in a new Syllabus. I very much hope the Pope responds to this call; and that the new Syllabus will be as relevant to the Church in this new post-conciliar situation as the original Syllabus of Errors was in its own day and remains even now. I also hope that one day quite soon he will announce the forthcoming canonisation of that great and holy man, Blessed Pius IX. 


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