Rorate Caeli

The 150th Anniversary of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors

One hundred and fifty years ago today, December 8, 1864, Blessed Pope Pius IX issued his encyclical Quanta Cura, to which was attached the famous Syllabus of Errors. The encyclical begins with fierce clarity and lofty zeal for the integrity of the Catholic Faith, in words that may be taken as a standing reproach of wishy-washy shepherds today, who ambiguate and compromise articles of faith and morals:

With how great care and pastoral vigilance the Roman Pontiffs, our predecessors, fulfilling the duty and office committed to them by the Lord Christ Himself in the person of most Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, of feeding the lambs and the sheep, have never ceased sedulously to nourish the Lord’s whole flock with words of faith and with salutary doctrine, and to guard it from poisoned pastures, is thoroughly known to all, and especially to you, Venerable Brethren. And truly the same, Our Predecessors, asserters of justice, being especially anxious for the salvation of souls, had nothing ever more at heart than by their most wise Letters and Constitutions to unveil and condemn all those heresies and errors which, being adverse to our Divine Faith, to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, to purity of morals, and to the eternal salvation of men, have frequently excited violent tempests, and have miserably afflicted both Church and State. For which cause the same Our Predecessors, have, with Apostolic fortitude, constantly resisted the nefarious enterprises of wicked men, who, like raging waves of the sea foaming out their own confusion, and promising liberty whereas they are the slaves of corruption, have striven by their deceptive opinions and most pernicious writings to raze the foundations of the Catholic religion and of civil society, to remove from among men all virtue and justice, to deprave persons, and especially inexperienced youth, to lead it into the snares of error, and at length to tear it from the bosom of the Catholic Church.

In the course of this great encyclical, which every Catholic should study assiduously, Pope Pius IX unequivocally condemns the error of “naturalism,” which he describes thus:

For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,” viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;” and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling.”

The Pope continues:

And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that society under such circumstances follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?

Every paragraph is like this: whether he is speaking of the anti-clericals’ war against the religious life and religious communities, or the efforts of secularizing governments to shut down Catholic schools and take children away from their parents, or the need for bishops and faithful to avoid noxious and worldly language, this great Pope’s uncompromising fidelity to tradition, couched in language impossible to misunderstand, aiming at nothing less than perfect righteousness, is an inextinguishable light in the midst of an age of fearful darkness.

Oh, Blessed Pio Nono—would that you were here with us today! What would you say? What would you do in order to guide, protect, and nourish the flock purchased by the precious Blood of the Lamb of God? What mighty errors would you smite, regardless of how popular they may happen to be; what eternal truths of faith and reason would you defend, in spite of countless civil authorities and cultural forces ranged against you?

The text of the encyclical Quanta Cura may be found here or here.

The text of the Syllabus of Errors may be found here or here.