Pests of this kind

The phrase in my heading is from the Syllabus of Errors, whose 150th anniversary we also celebrated, yesterday. It was published quite intentionally on the tenth anniversary of the Dogmatic Definition of the Immaculate Conception — tacked onto the encyclical, Quanta Cura, itself a magnificent condemnation of the whole, unqualified idea of “freedom of conscience,” and related “human rights,” “pluralism,” “democracy,” and so forth. It was a riposte to anti-clerical governments and movements that had been sweeping Europe. Outwardly, they triumphed, so that today, among the intellectually debilitated, incapable of thinking beyond popular cliché, the other side of the argument is invisible.

Yet the intent and actual arguments of the encyclical were misrepresented, then as now. Example: parents already had civil “rights,” and the idea that education should be secularized might conceivably be among them. If they wanted to found or support secular schools, they could. But this was not what the anti-clericals were doing. Instead they were seizing Church property, including Church schools, and forcibly secularizing them.

The exponents of the “rights of man” have always been totalitarians. As Christ taught, the Devil is not only the father of lies, but was from the beginning a murderer. It is no accident that the great revolutionaries and liberators of history were all dripping in blood: for all have served the Prince of This World, and all have been inhabited by demons.

Pius IX was a liberal, or at least, all Europe was convinced of this at his election in June, 1846: a “moderate liberal” in the political parlance of today. Many cardinals were absent, and the conclave was somewhat rushed, to make him Pope before vetoes could arrive from Milan and Vienna. He was the last Pope to serve as sovereign ruler over the Papal States in central Italy, and one of his first acts in that capacity was to empty the gaols of political prisoners. This was like closing Guantanamo: for there was no gratitude from the other side, and most of the inmates went right back into the field as subversives and terrorists.

Worse was to come. We may hold Pius IX responsible for the introduction of railways to central Italy, and the provision of street-lighting in Rome. He advanced many other “forward-looking” projects and institutional “reforms” in the districts he governed. This could only whet the appetites of the progressives.

Pius IX was also the convenor of Vatican I. (Broken up, as gentle reader may recall, when the jackboots of the Risorgimento marched into Rome, and made the Pope “a prisoner in the Vatican.”) And, the definer of the dogma of “papal infallibility” (which is to say, the Pope who drew its limits).

He was our longest-serving Pope (thirty-something years), which helps to explain why he’d acquired the reputation of a reactionary by the time he died. It is called on-the-job training. But long before the end of his reign, he had appalled many of his initial supporters by proving that he actually was a believing Catholic, with an obsessive regard for the salvation of souls, and no interest in compromising basic Catholic doctrine. He set his neck against the lies — both philosophical and theological — upon which opponents of the Church depended, both intellectually and spiritually. He was a very brave man.

The Syllabus of Errors, among my favourite papal documents of all time, condemns eighty propositions that “nice, liberal people” are inclined to take for granted, and gives directions in the literature to where they are confuted. There is a wonderfully masculine flavour to the thing: there is no shirking from plain fact and plain Latin. The document could perhaps be restated in the language of the present day, to expose a few more of the conceits of post-modern sloganeering; but there is nothing in the list that would need to be abandoned, nor anything essential that was overlooked. For the idiocies which govern the contemporary mind have been with us continuously since the Enlightenment, and were prefigured in the Reformation.

One of the remarks isn’t numbered. Between items 18 and 19 we find a blanket condemnation of “pests of this kind,” referring to socialists, communists, biblical societies, liberal clerical associations, and so forth. It is merely a reminder that there are cockroaches about, or rats spreading plague. The ideas they carry are the same as those enumerated through the rest of the document; but the passage adds a useful warning that they are vectors for these spiritual diseases in their most virulent forms.

Thanks to the triumph of secular education, current critics of the Church and her teachings — in media, academia, the law schools, bureaucracies, and elsewhere — may lack the intelligence of critics in earlier generations. But alas, so do many of her defenders. The revival of Christendom will require the reanimation of the battle of ideas which Pope Pius IX fought, so gallantly.