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The Syllabus of Pius IX

Appearing in Brownson’s Quarterly Review. Last Series—Vol. III, No. III. July 1875, pp. 413-417.

The Syllabus for the People.  A Review of the Propositions condemned by His Holiness Pius IX.  With the Text of the Condemned List.  By a Monk of St. Augustine, Ramsgate, Author of “The Vatican Decrees and Civil Allegiance.”  New York: The Catholic Publication Society.  1875. 12mo, pp. 51.


          The Catholic Publication Society has done well in republishing this pamphlet by a Monk of St. Augustine, along with the late Bishop Fesller’s tract on “The True and the False Infallibility of the Pope,” and the several masterly replies which have appeared in England to Mr. Gladstone’s ill-advised “Expostulation,” in which he contends that the Vatican decrees are incompatible with the civil allegiance of Catholics.  Everybody knows the outcry of the enemies of the Church occasioned by the publication, Dec. 8, 1864, of the Syllabus, or List of Condemned Propositions, and the Encyclical which accompanied it.  Even some Catholics were startled by it; and one Catholic journal, edited by a woman, saw in it, with great apparent delight, a condemnation of our REVIEW, which had ceased to be published, and which had never one of the propositions censured.  It was contended that Pius the Ninth had, by this publication, broken with the modern world, and placed the Church in direct hostility to modern civilization and all modern thought.  Mr. Gladstone cites it to prove that every man, in becoming a Catholic, becomes a moral and mental slave, and that the claims of the Church are hostile to the civil power, and incompatible with the civil allegiance of the subject.

            Dr. Newman, in his reply to Mr. Gladstone, denies, as Bishop Fessler had previously done in his refutation of Dr. Schulte, the dogmatic authority of the Syllabus, and maintains that nothing indicates that it was drawn up and published by the infallible authority of the pope.  Its author is nameless; and who is responsible for it, nobody knows.  This is all very true, if understood of the compilation and publication of the List, and not of the propositions themselves.  These are all taken from, or supposed to be taken from, papal documents, which are cited, and therefore have the papal authority.  The censure of any proposition contained in the list has the authority of the document from which it is extracted, which we understand neither Bishop Fessler nor Dr. Newman to deny.  A proposition formally censured in a papal encyclical, allocution, or brief, we take it, is censured by papal authority; and if it pertains to faith, or impugns the truth or any point of the law of God, natural and revealed, is censured by infallible authority, and no Catholic can maintain it in the sense censured.  The Syllabus, as such, has no dogmatic authority, but the condemnation of the several propositions has all the authority, and no more, of the original document from which the proposition is extracted.

            There are here two questions: 1. Is the proposition copied correctly? 2. In what sense is it condemned?  We cannot answer these questions, for we have not access to the original papal documents, or at least to only a few of them; but, if we may credit the statements made in some Catholic publications, the Syllabus sometimes gives, as a universal proposition, what in the papal document is only a particular proposition with a particular application.  We read in the Syllabus, as a condemned proposition, “The church ought to be separated from the state, and the state from the church.”  This professes to be taken from the allocution, Acerbissimum, Sept. 27th, 1852.  This allocution, which we have not within our reach, we have seen it stated, had reference to the state of affairs at the time, and simply censured the movement of the Liberals to abolish the union of church and state in that country where it long had and still existed.  The abolition of that union, where it exists and enters into the traditions and habits of the people, may be censurable, and yet the Catholic not be bound to maintain always and everywhere the union of church and state, which almost inevitably results practically in subjecting the administration of ecclesiastical affairs to the civil power.  We condemn the separation of church and state in the sense of the revolutions, who mean by it, as we see in the Bismarckian policy in Germany, the supremacy of the state and the subjection of the church to the civil power; but the separation of church and state, in the true American sense, that is, in the acknowledgment of the state of its incompetency in spirituals, we are free, the Syllabus notwithstanding, to approve and defend, as we do, and always have done.  Taking the modern world as it is, we believe the best condition of the Church is that of independence of the state, and freedom to administer her own affairs, and to exercise her own discipline on her own subjects, without let or hindrance from the civil power.  We are aware of no infallible decision of the pope against this, and we think there can be none, for Catholics are permitted to hold office under our government, and to take the prescribed oath to support and defend the constitution.  Hence, against our private interest, and in opposition to our personal and political friends, and not a few Catholics, we supported the Union in the late civil war, and did it frankly, without any reserve, or compromise with our loyalty, although we had no sympathy with the abolitionists, and no predilection for the Republican party, which was led by the most bitter enemies of our religion.

            But it is necessary to determine in what sense these several propositions are condemned.  Propositions are condemned not only as heretical or contra fidem, but for various other reasons.  Some are censured as simply false, some as erroneous, as schismatic, as scandalous, as against discipline, as male sonans, as offensive to pious ears, etc.  The rule is, when a proposition is condemned as heretical, to take its exact contradictory as de fide;  but this rule holds only with regard to those propositions expressly or formally condemned as heretical.  Thus the 55th proposition of Baius, “God could not, from the beginning, have created man such as he is now born,” is a condemned proposition; and hence many theologians have maintained and maintain that the contradictory, that is, that he could have so created him, is de fide: whence comes the thoery of natura pura, and its necessary pendant, natural beatitude.  But St. Pius V, in his condemnation of the Baian proposition, does not expressly condemn it as heretical, except in the sense in which it was held by Baius; and says expressly that it is not asserted that the several Baian propositions condemned are not in the sense (aliquo pacto,) even true.  It is only the exact contradictory of the sense in which Baius meant the proposition, that is de fide.  Indeed, the exact contradictory of the proposition as it stands, we know, cannot be de fide, for God could not have created man with original sin and under the penalty of death, subject to which he is now born.  The most we can say is, that God could have created man from the beginning such as he is now born, seclusa ratione peccati et poenae; but this does not follow from the condemnation of Baius, as both Berti and Belleli, Augustinians, amply show, unless we are greatly mistaken.  The error of Baius on the point here involved was, if we mistake not, that of the Reformers: that the original justice which man lost by the fall, belonged in the state of innocence to his nature, and that God could not have created man originally without giving him a nature adequate to the end for which he designed him.  As man’s nature is now evidently not adequate to that end, therefore God could not have created man from the beginning such as he is now born.  It is this error St. Pius V condemns, for, in fact, man’s powers were never, even before his fall, adequate to the end for which he was created; and the original justice in which he was established (constitutus), and which placed him on the plane of that end, was supernatural.

            We should err greatly if we took the contradictory of each of the several condemned propositions included in the Syllabus.  Some of them are heresies, and some of them are not.  Here comes to our aid the commentary of the Monk of St. Augustine, Ramsgate, which, however, is rather superficial, and less thorough and satisfactory than we could wish; yet it throws considerable light on the nature of the errors condemned, and enables readers of only ordinary information to see the justice of most of the papal censures.  But, like all writings designed for the people, it stops short the moment it approaches the gist of the question.  We hate all writings intended for the popular understanding.  Let every writer master his subject, present it in a clear and forcible manner, and as thoroughly and as profoundly as he can.  We would have every writer study to avoid obscurity and unnecessary technicalities, but we recognize the obligation of no writer to find brains for his readers, or to spare them the labor of thought.  We have no confidence in thought made easy.  In attempting to make it easy, we emasculate it.  Since authors have begun writing for the multitude, literature has lost its dignity, become wordy, flashy, and shallow.  Thought has well-nigh disappeared from it, because little or no appeal is made to it - no opportunity for its exercise is given.  Never, perhaps, were writers more superficial, or readers more deficient in understanding.

            The Monk of St. Augustine, after all, does not appear to have consulted the original documents, and tells us nothing more of the sense of the condemned propositions, than can be gathered from the condemned propositions themselves.  Of that information, which we who have not access to the original papal documents from which the propositions are extracted, most desire and would be most thankful for, he gives us nothing; and we know no more with what note of censure the several propositions are branded, after reading his commentary than we did before, or might know without it.  Some of the propositions are undoubtedly against faith, and are heretical; some of them are errors against morals, and open the door to moral license; some of them are errors against the natural law, and some, errors against revealed law; some are errors against discipline, and some against natural society and civil government; some are errors against the rights and authority of the spiritual society, and others are simply schismatical, scandalous, and false.  Now these cannot be all branded with the same note of censure; and what we wanted the Monk of St. Augustine to tell us was, by a reference to the original papal documents, the particular note of censure with which each proposition in the list is branded.  It was only by so doing that he could tell us what, in the several propositions, is condemned, and wherefore, or for what reason.  But this he has not done.

            The Syllabus itself has no dogmatic authority, and all the dogmatic authority for the condemnation of the several propositions that can be alleged is in the original papal documents in which they are censured; and this authority is infallible only in regard to those propositions which relate to faith or morals, in which alone the Council of the Vatican defines the pope to be exempt, through the divine assistance, from error.  That the condemnation reaches many things on which modern thought prides itself, and that the papal censures, if heeded, would arrest not a few of the cherished tendencies of what is called modern civilization, we do not doubt; but that the censure of several propositions in question tends to the detriment of real civilization, to hinder social progress, and to prevent the advancement of science, we deny.  The pope, in censuring, is doing all in his power to save modern civilization from its aberrations, to aid social progress, and to promote science.  Let the principles censured become dominant, and society would inevitably lapse into barbarism.  As for the pretence of Mr. Gladstone and others that the Syllabus is hostile to the civil power, we pay little heed to it.  The civil power is bound to obey the law of God, and forfeits its authority in going contrary to it.  We shall not suffer those who refuse to believe the infallibility of the pope, to assert the infallibility of Caesar of the state.