Those who ridicule the Syllabus have clearly never read it - it’s a handy guide to avoiding doctrinal blunders

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. There is perhaps no document in the recent history of the Church that has been so misunderstood.

The Syllabus had a long and complicated history even before its publication in 1864. The first suggestion that the Pope should draw up a constitution listing the errors of the day emerged from the Provincial Council of Spoleto in 1849. Urged on by Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci (who later became Pope Leo XIII), Pope Pius set up a commission to study the matter, but this was overtaken by the Bishop of Perpignan publishing his own syllabus of errors in 1860. The Pope admired the bishop’s work and so set up a new commission which eventually came up with the document that we call the Syllabus, and which was published as an addendum to the encyclical Quanta Cura in 1864. So the gestation period of the Syllabus was 15 years, which is a sure indication that the document ran into numerous difficulties in the course of its preparation.

A casual look at the Syllabus itself shows the reader why this should be so. It is nothing to do with the contents of the document (which are mainly non-controversial, though more of that later), but rather to do with the form of the document. The Syllabus aimed to be, as its title says, a list of “the most important errors of our time, which have been condemned by our Holy Father Pius IX in allocutions, at consistories, in encyclicals, and other apostolic letters.”

Thus the Syllabus is a list of theses that are condemned as untrue, and at the same time a collection of quotes and paraphrases from the Pope’s previous statements, all referenced. It must have been quite hard to determine what made the cut from the many pronouncements of Pius IX, and also quite hard to make sure that the condemnation of errors was expressed in such a way as to be accurate. If one is firing off anathemas, one wants, after all, to make sure they hit their targets.

The most celebrated condemned proposition was the last one, number 80, which stated: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilisation.” This was drawn from a papal allocution entitled Jamdudum Cernimus. To understand what exactly is being condemned here, one needs to refer back to that allocution. Likewise to understand what
is being asserted as true, one needs to preface the condemned statement with the phrase “It is not true that…”

When one does that, one realises that proposition 80 is not what it critics at the time and since have gleefully claimed for it, namely a rejection of the 19th century and all it stands for. It is, rather, a rejection of liberalism and progress as understood in the narrow sense intended by the allocution, what we would doubtless term false liberalism, false progress and falsely modern civilisation.

Proposition 80 makes perfect sense when one considers the following statement: “Today I want to dispel any misleading impression that the Church will abandon her witness to the truth and change her teaching in the face of hostile trends in public opinion or the destructive ideologies of our time.” That statement is quite in keeping with the Syllabus’s robust desire to see the Church resist the temptation to give into the spirit of the age. Moreover, that statement comes from the latest pastoral letter of the Bishop of Shrewsbury, rather than some reactionary 19th century prelate. The Syllabus shows, therefore, in its most celebrated and contested line, that little has changed. Then, as now, the chattering classes have said that the Church needs to move with the times. Then as now, the Church wishes to assert the timelessness of truth.

Consider this statement, condemned as false: “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil” (number 3). This is the most popular error not just of the age of Blessed Pius IX, but of our own age as well. It denies the idea that there is any objectivity in religious and moral matters. Other propositions condemned also point to this same underlying heresy: there is no objective truth, and every person’s subjective understanding is equally valid. This, of course, was what Benedict XVI characterised as “the dictatorship of relativism”, the belief that nothing is certain, and that anyone who claims to the contrary must be persecuted in the name of this one truth.

The following erroneous statement from the Syllabus could equally have been condemned by Benedict XVI: “All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason; hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind” (number 4). But it is important to note what this is not saying. It is not claiming that reason cannot lead to truth (that would not only be ridiculous, it would also be a heresy). Rather, it is condemning the claim that reason alone is the arbiter of truth, and thus that Revelation has no part to play. Indeed, this proposition is claiming that religion, in so far as it true, is a purely natural phenomenon, something that most atheists today would hold as true.

So is the Syllabus still in force? Is it still a part of the Church’s teaching? That depends on the errors that it is condemning. Some of these errors have a quaintly old-fashioned ring to them. For example, number 20 reminds us that it is not true that “the ecclesiastical power ought not to exercise its authority without the permission and assent of the civil government.”

This clearly refers back to the time when anti-clericalism was rife in Italy. That time has passed. However, once one gives the proposition a second glance, it is not altogether out of date. There are places today where the Church does not have freedom of action thanks to restrictive laws (China is the most obvious example.) And there are places, our own country included, where the state might like to restrict the freedom of the Church if it could get away with it. So it is hard to dismiss the Syllabus as a relic of another age. It is still relevant.

Why was the Syllabus so contested? One reason, I think, that people like Victor Emmanuel II had it banned is because it cut too close to the bone. The 19th century liberals wanted to enslave the Church and make it another department of the state. The Syllabus saw through their plans, and revealed the project of “a free Church in a free State” as the sham it was. There again, the idea of the Roman Pontiff firing off anathemas was, well, anathema to people like Gladstone, who felt that the only people who should occupy the moral high ground were people like himself. The Syllabus was an offence to many, because Whig ideology had consigned the Church to the dustbin of history, and here was the Church asserting her rights and above all asserting her role as a guardian of truth and morality. How much, one wonders, has changed since then? Perhaps we need another syllabus for our own time? Perhaps not: the Syllabus of Blessed Pius IX still makes for excellent and instructive reading.