Syllabus of Errors

From Academic Kids

The Syllabus of Errors (Latin: Syllabus Errorum) was a document issued by Pope Pius IX in 1864 as an appendix to his encyclical Quanta Cura. It was very controversial in its time and to this day, because it seemed to condemn things such as freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.



The Syllabus was made up of excerpts and paraphrases from earlier papal documents, along with index references to them, and presented as a list of "condemned propositions". For instance, in condemning proposition 14, "Philosophy is to be treated without taking any account of supernatural revelation", the Syllabus asserts the truth of the contrary proposition — that philosophy should take account of supernatural revelation. The Syllabus does not explain why each particular proposition is wrong, but it cites earlier documents to which the reader can refer for the Pope's reasons for saying each proposition is false. With the exception of some propositions drawn from Pius' encyclical Qui pluribus of November 9, 1846, all the propositions were based on documents that postdated the shocks to the Pope and the papacy of the Revolutions of 1848. See Italian unification.

The Syllabus was divided into ten sections which contained various false statements about these topics:

Some condemned statements

Some statements condemned as false include:

  • "human reason... is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil" (No. 3) "...hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind." (No. 4)
  • "in the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.," (No. 77)
  • "Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church" (No. 18).
  • "the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church." (No. 55)
  • "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true." (No. 15) and that "it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship." (No. 78)
  • "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization." (No. 80)

Reactions of non-Catholics

Within the Protestant world reactions were uniformly negative. In 1874 British leader William Ewart Gladstone published a tract entitled The Vatican Decrees in their bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation, in which he said that after the Syllabus:

. . . no one can now become (Rome's) convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.

The government of France briefly tried to suppress the circulation of the encyclical and the Syllabus within its borders; it forbade priests to explain the Syllabus from the pulpit, though newspapers were allowed to discuss it from a secular point of view.

Reactions of Catholics

The document met with a mixed reception among Roman Catholics; some accepted it wholeheartedly, but many were as shocked as their Protestant neighbors by the apparent broad scope of the condemnations.

Catholic apologists such as Félix Dupanloup and John Henry Newman said that the Syllabus was widely misinterpreted by readers who did not have access to or did not bother to check the original documents of which it was a summary. The propositions listed had been declared to be heretical in the sense and context in which they originally occurred; without the original context, the document appeared to condemn a larger range of ideas than it actually did. Thus it was asserted that no critical response to the Syllabus which did not take the cited documents and their context into account could be valid (Newman 1874). In the wake of the controversy following the document's release, Pius IX referred to it as "raw meat needing to be cooked", implicitly admitting that it was badly drafted and easily open to misinterpretation. Others within the church who supported the syllabus however disagreed that there was any misinterpretation of the condemnations.

Félix Dupanloup, bishop of Orleans, published a pamphlet in January 1865 ("La convention du 15 septembre et l'encyclique du 8 décembre" - "The September Convention and the Encyclical of December 8") in which he interpreted the Syllabus in terms of thesis and antithesis. The Church, he said, condemned general propositions stated in terms of the ideal society, not in terms of what might be prudent or just at a particular time and place. The condemnation of absolute freedom of belief, worship, speech, and the press meant that teaching false ideas could not be an ideal. It did not mean that freedom of worship, speech, and the press were not good things as practised in particular states. It was false to say that the Catholic Church should be disestablished everywhere; but it was not true to say that it should always be established. More than 600 bishops, including the Pope, thanked Dupanloup for this explanatory pamphlet. (Hales 1954)

John Henry Newman wrote one of his last major works, the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (Difficulties of Anglicans volume II) in response to Gladstone's attacks. In chapter 7 he explained the Syllabus along a similar line of argument as was taken by Dupanloup. Henry Edward Cardinal Manning also wrote a response to Gladstone, using the same title as Gladstone's original pamphlet.

In the United States, the Syllabus was mostly ignored. The history of Catholics in America ignoring Papal documents such as these which contradicted the common beliefs of the United States is known as Americanism.

Subsequent history

Further thoughts in the same vein were expressed in Pius' encyclical of 21 November, 1873, Etsi multa ("On the Church in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland"), which is often appended to the Syllabus. There Pius condemned current liberalizing anti-clerical legislation in South America as a "a ferocious war on the Church."

Some think that the political or dogmatic propositions of the Syllabus may be abrogated by later documents coming from the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Others argue that this view results from an excessively broad interpretation of statements that had a narrower sense in their original context, and from contrasting the infallible documents of the ecumenical council with papal statements that were not infallible because they were not addressed to the whole church. For instance, proposition 77 (excerpted above) was an excerpt from an allocution relating to Spain and proposals to disestablish the Catholic church there. English historian E.E.Y. Hales argues that:

"[T]he Pope is not concerned with a universal principle, but with the position in a particular state at a particular date. He is expressing his "wonder and distress" (no more) that in a Catholic country (Spain) it should be proposed to disestablish the Church and to place any and every religion upon a precisely equal footing. ..... Disestablishment and toleration were far from the normal practice of the day, whether in Protestant or in Catholic states." (Hales 1958)

Still others argue that the points implied by the Syllabus were in fact infallible under the dogma of the "ordinary magisterium" (the idea that if anyone repeats a statement of what the church has already taught, that statement is also infallible), and that Vatican II in fact made no infallible statement which contradicted the older beliefs. Finally still others, the "Modernists" they would come to be called, believe that dogmas can evolve, and so both the Syllabus and Vatican II taught valid things. See Modernism (Roman Catholicism)

External links

Further reading

  • Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century, by E.E.Y. Hales (P.J. Kenedy, 1954)
  • The Catholic Church in the Modern World by E.E.Y. Hales (Doubleday, 1958)de:Syllabus Errorum



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