Pius IX and the Separation of Church and State

I have argued that Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (l864), which liberal Catholics think is one of the great embarrassments in the history of the papacy, is in fact a prophetic document. Nonetheless, there are things in it which need to be addressed. The pope condemned the idea that, "The Church ought to be separated from the State and the State from the Church," and the proposition that, "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." He rejected the claim that Catholic states should grant religious freedom and that non-Catholics should be allowed to disseminate their beliefs. Some of the ideas which Pius IX condemned were in effect endorsed by the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on Religious Liberty, which demonstrates that the Syllabus was not an exercise of papal infallibility. Taken as general principles, it is impossible to defend the above
condemnations, not least because they do contradict the solemn words of an ecumenical council, approved by a later pope. But if one recalls the environment in which Pius IX was writing, I think it is easy to see why he took the positions he did. The demand for religious liberty had arisen on the continent of Europe as part of the French Revolution, and it was one of the ideas of the Revolution which was implemented throughout the nineteenth century. But it was from the beginning often a hypocritical demand. The French Revolution relentlessly persecuted the Church in the name of freedom, and various 19th-century governments, notably in France itself, proclaimed liberty even as they tightened the screws on the Church — seizing its property or closing its schools, for example. Thus Pius IX quite accurately saw the liberal governments of his day as sworn enemies of the Church and the rhetoric of religious freedom as a rationalization of persecution. For him to have embraced the principle of religious liberty would have been to surrender to governments whom he knew quite well did not practice what they proclaimed. There were two notable exceptions In Europe, England had more religious freedom than any other country. But, ironically, it did not have separation of church and state. The great exception, of course, was the United States, and here I think Pius simply was not paying much attention. He had the habit, based on centuries of history, of viewing the world through conditions in Europe. But, to the degree that the Pope did know about conditions in the United States, he knew that even here religious liberty was accompanied by sometimes violent anti-Catholicism. It was necessary for the modern liberal state itself to evolve before the Church could embrace the principle of religious liberty. To have endorsed it earlier would have required extraordinary detachment from the actual conditions of society. Pius's defense of the papacy's "temporal power" — its possessing independent territorial status and political authority — was dictated by his realistic fear that without such power the Church could not protect itself against hostile governments. Certain other passages in the Syllabus should, I think, be read very strictly. Thus the pope denied that Protestantism pleases God "equally with the Catholic Church," a warning compatible with Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism. Pius also proclaimed that it was unlawful to rebel against "legitimate princes," which merely seems to be a truism. since all rebellions obviously claim that the government in power is illegitimate. But if conditions in 1864 were such that Pius IX could not view the world situation with complete detachment, there is a further troubling question — are modern liberal governments really as benign as we think they are, or is the proclamation of universal freedom still sometimes used to suppress the rights of those who deviate from official policy? The jury is still out in that question. Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University. Copyright ?1998 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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