The Syllabus, the Controversy, and the Context


When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he was grilled on whether his Catholicism should prevent him from holding the highest office in the land. Kennedy eventually tackled that argument head-on in a September 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

His speech was meant to dispel fears that his presidency would mean a Catholic takeover of America, with the pope dictating public policy. Most of the speech did not defend the role of religion in the public arena but rather denied that his faith would play any role at all. "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair," he assured the assembled Protestant ministers. Kennedy’s speech has become the source of a sort of "test act" for Catholic politicians ever since—particularly with respect to the issue of legalized abortion.

In fairness to Kennedy, the speech reveals the world of Catholic urban legends that he faced. Kennedy complained about "pamphlets and publications we have all seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic Church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and rarely relevant to any situation here."

On the top of that list of quoted documents was the Syllabus of Errors. You would be hard-pressed to name a document from Church history quoted with more frequency than the Syllabus (published under Bl. Pope Pius IX in 1864). No other document of Pius IX—or any other pope for that matter—generated more heat in its own time than the Syllabus, and it has remained a staple of Catholic urban legends ever since. Google "Syllabus of Errors" today and you will get a million hits in less than a second, with many of them taking you to bizarre anti-Catholic sites. And, like candidate Kennedy in 1960, few Catholics know much of anything about a document that anti-Catholic bigots can quote like Scripture.

Ahead of Its Time

To understand the Syllabus requires understanding the time in which it was issued, as well as the context of the various principles condemned. Much of the document is frighteningly prophetic. The Syllabus was a grim reminder of a new philosophy of state that gripped mid-century Europe. It was a philosophy mired in a growing nationalism where rights were lost under the absolute power of the state to represent the collective of the race or class. The Syllabus attacked a burgeoning concept of state that would find its ultimate fruition in fascism and communism in the 20th century.

At the same time, the Syllabus was addressing, from the perspective of the Catholic Church, a radical definition of church-state separation that would find its living expression in the Eastern European satellite states of the Soviet Union, where faith had no rights and no role. This extreme church-state separation being proposed in Europe in the 19th century was not freedom of religion, but an overt state attack on religious expression and rights in the public sphere.

But to the critics of the Syllabus, the document supposedly defined Catholic belief as a monarchical absolutism that would deny freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the freedom of a secular government to operate without the religious diktat of the Catholic Church. The Syllabus was used as a proof text for anti-clericalists that the Church rejected parliamentary democracy and human freedom.

Whose Definition of Freedom?

Today, the Syllabus is most often cited by Fundamentalist critics of the Church. At the time it was issued, however, liberal Europe saw it as proof that the Catholic Church was an anachronism doomed to extinction.

What exactly was the Syllabus of Errors? It was an attachment to an 1864 encyclical of Pius IX, Quanta Cura (Condemning Current Errors). The encyclical and the Syllabus had been in the planning stages for a number of years, though the immediate cause for its release was said to be a speech given in France in 1863 by a liberal Catholic named Count Charles Montalembert.

The count argued that the Church must accept the rise of independent democracies and the new world that was emerging in Europe. The old Catholic regimes were dying, he said, and hereditary monarchy was being replaced by the new nation-states. The Church must forget the concept of Catholic states and enter the turbulent world of the new democracies. He summarized his view as a call for a "free Church in a free state." It was better to tolerate error, Montalembert concluded, as long as the Church was free to respond with the truth.

The speech irked many within the Church who saw it as a rosy naïveté about what was really taking place in Europe. These Catholics looked at the world of the so-called "free states" and saw confiscated church property, nuns and priests driven from their religious orders, clergy shot, bishops arrested, the Church drummed out of any role in education or the public arena, virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric in newspapers and legislatures, and the confiscation of the Papal States by armed force. They questioned if this was the future of a "free Church in a free State."

Worthy of Condemnation

The encyclical was a statement against a host of ideas then in vogue, ideas that remain worthy of condemnation today—indifferentism, atheism, rationalism. The Syllabus itself contained 80 condemned propositions, many of which are similarly worthy of rebuke: a denial of the existence of God and the truth of Scripture, the secular authority’s consent to the Church’s right to teach, the equation of human reason with Divine Revelation, the all-inclusive authority of the state. For example, these propositions were condemned: "All action of God upon man and the world was to be denied"; and "The state, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits."

Many of these condemned propositions are just as loathsome today: "Right consists in the material fact. All human duties are an empty word, and all human facts have the force of right."

While propositions such as these seem worthy of approbation, other areas of the Syllabus provide more graduated degrees of difficulty, particularly if read with a contemporary understanding. For example, freedom of the press was condemned. To our ears, this sounds absolutist. But in the context of the time, the press was not an objective means of keeping the public informed—rather, it was nothing more than biased diatribes, particularly in Europe. It was also often viciously anti-Catholic, lacking norms of objectivity or balance. In other words, what the Syllabus condemned was simple propaganda.

Most 19th-century criticism of the Syllabus focused on the last four condemned propositions:

  • 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.
  • Hence 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.
  • Moreover, it is false that the civil liberty of every form of worship, and the full power, given to all, of overtly and publicly manifesting any opinions whatsoever and thoughts, conduce more easily to corrupt the morals and the minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism.
  • The Roman Pontiff can, and ought, to reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.

 Read It in Context

That last proposition would be greeted with hilarity and satire in the Syllabus’ era. Even condemning the separation of church and state seems archaic to us. But again, we must understand the context of the statements and how such separation was defined at the time in Europe. In many countries, such as Bismarck’s Prussia, it meant that the Church was absolutely subservient to the state and must be divorced entirely from civil life. What was being condemned was how those ideas were used to attack the Church.

We must also consider the question of historical context. The propositions concerning church and state were intended to defend the laws of Spain, which established the rights of the Church. The pope was defending Spain’s right to do so. Though it strikes us as not in keeping with an espousal of religious liberty, to the Church it meant that Spain was entitled to maintain its Catholic identity.

The condemned propositions applied to specific circumstances in Europe at that time. Most of the propositions had been taken almost directly from earlier papal documents. Only by referring to the original context can we make sense of the Syllabus.

For example, that 80th proposition that Europe found so funny at the time was derived from the Lamdudum Cernimus of 1861. Its universal condemnation of "progress, liberalism, and modern civilization" directly cited the argument made by the Piedmontese government when it unilaterally closed monasteries and Church schools.

That was the definitive explanation given to the Syllabus in a popular pamphlet written by the bishop of Orleans, Felix Dupanloup, an interpretation Pius IX accepted as accurate.

Bishop Dupanloup noted the exact source of each condemned proposition in reference to a particular event or statement. These annotations gave vital historical context to the Syllabus as well as a clear frame of reference. The pamphlet roots the Syllabus in its specific time and offers a more nuanced view than contemporary readings can.

Those Who Forget History

With Bishop Dupanloup’s explanation in hand, much of the initial furor over the Syllabus died out. But the Syllabus generated the most difficulty in the United States, where it was often used as anti-Catholic fodder to make the case that the Church was fundamentally opposed to the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, public schools, and free speech. Some Fundamentalist critics still use it that way.

The Church was portrayed universally in Europe as the enemy of thought and civilization, a remnant of the Dark Ages. This characterization disgusted Catholics who viewed the Church as the creator of European culture—of everything glorified as Western Civilization. The Church had converted the barbarians, preserved ancient knowledge, created the glories of the Renaissance, and generated the art, architecture, education, philosophy, and ideals that defined Europe.

To the minds of 19th-century Catholics, modern civilization had created slums, crime, political chaos, hatred, racism, war, agnosticism and atheism. They looked at the world since the French Revolution and saw not the rebirth of civilization, but its collapse.

With the Syllabus, the Church responded to the creeping "scientism" of the 19th century—the idea that there was no truth outside of scientific fact, and that "science" should replace religious belief as the sole arbiter of the human condition. Many of the totalitarian theories proposed—which included fascism and communism—were not proposed as ideologies but as scientific methods of organizing human affairs. Fascism involved the alleged science of race and human origins, twisting Darwinism into a means to ensure the "survival of the fittest" in humanity’s future. Communism alleged all along that it was applied economic and historical science.

Ideas have consequences, and some 19th-century ideas had horrific consequences in the next century. That was the warning contained in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors—one that was ignored for too long.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 1.