Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Bishops And The Syllabus

( Originally Published 1870 )


WE enter upon a delicate question that of the real sentiments entertained by the Catholic bishops respecting the rash individual act of their chief.

We call it a rash individual act. There have, however, been two versions of the affair. According to one, this description is just. None, save a few confidants, had any previous cognizance of the two documents ; no one expected them. According to the other, they had been communicated to a certain number of bishops ; and either because these bishops had been carefully selected, or because none dared to disapprove, it was possible at Rome, if not to believe, at any rate to make the Pope believe, that the episcopate was favourable.

In reality it matters little. Whether previously informed and consulted or not, the bishops suddenly found that a great task had devolved upon them that of presenting and recommending to the nations this finally complete revelation of the Ultramontane idea.

This task has evidently been found by many to be one of great difficulty. The length, the vagueness, the confusion of most of the pastoral letters published, show clearly enough that the writers would have much preferred to be relieved from the necessity of displaying so much cleverness.

But before considering the numberless artifices with which it has been necessary, almost everywhere, to accompany the publication of the Papal missives, I should wish, for a brief space, to follow them to the moment when they came into the hands of those men who were condemned beforehand to regard them as the most perfect expression of faith and morals.

This, then, is what met their eyes : All and each of the wicked doctrines and opinions specified in our present letters we proscribe, disallow, and condemn by our Apostolical authority, willing and ordaining that all children of the Church do hold them as entirely proscribed, disallowed, and condemned. This, at any rate, is clear. There can be no picking and choosing among the several assertions of the Encyclical, and the eighty-four declarations of the Syllabus. All is to be accepted as infallible collectively, and infallible in detail.

But may a bishop, or, if you like, any individual Catholic, consider himself as bound only to obey in deed, and not to contradict ? This is what M. De Maistre, in one of those fits of ill-humour that were habitual to him, seemed on a certain occasion to teach. After all, said he, what is infallibility in the Church but what is called sovereignty in the State ? Must there not everywhere be a power with which the ultimate decision rests, and which one is bound to obey ? If this is how M. De Maistre believed in infallibility, he did not believe in it at 'all ; for the very notion of infallibility implies not only obedience, but adhesion and faith. If, being a citizen, I obey laws which I dislike if, being a soldier, I fight for a cause that is odious to me if, even in both these cases, I am compelled to be silent and to appear to approve at any rate my conscience remains my own. I can protest in my heart, and all know that I can. But under the rule of infallibility the conscience itself professes to be bound : to admit an infallible chief is to undertake to believe as well as to obey ; nay more, for to disobey might be an accidental omission, but not to believe is to overthrow the system. Thus, to accept the Encyclical as a law that must perforce be accepted before men, but which one may in private examine and condemn, would be to cease inwardly to be a Catholic, and outwardly to become a liar. Submission here is nothing but a farce, unless accompanied by abdication.

Is abdication possible ? I will not answer, No. Accustomed to liberty, I cannot know what may take place in a mind accustomed to the yoke. But there is a difficulty that habitual servitude would not, as it seems to me, hide from my eyes, for it springs from the very nature of the ground on which I should then stand.


The Pope, I should say to myself, is infallible. There is no longer any question about that. He can only be so, however, on one condition, viz. that it is he, he in truth, the successor of St. Peter, the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken and written to me.

It is true his name stands at the foot of the Encyclical. But did he draw it up ? That is not -very probable. It is, however, necessary it. least that I should consider it as the expression of his own thought of his very own, I mean, not of some other thought foisted upon his ignorance or weakness ; I must in his word be able to recognise not only the official word, which is merely a form, but the real, personal, self-sufficing word of the Vicar of Christ.

This is what I should say to myself, or something like it. I wrote one day as follows to a bishop on this subject :

You know the Pope ; you know the circumstances and the people by whom he lives surrounded. Have you endeavoured from these data to gauge the value of the Encyclical ?

' You know the Pope, I say. I have not had, like you, the honour of conversing with him : I am told, however, that if I had, I should have received the impression doubtless your experience confirms this that he is not well informed as regards modern questions. His extempore allocutions turn invariably on the same subjects, the ills of the Church, the dangers of the Papacy, especially of the temporal Papacy, which is so grateful for the guns, and the good rifled cannon presented by the Catholic world. He sometimes lias a certain eloquence, but without ever rising to a higher level than indignation at the misdeeds from which he suffers, and the firm determination to suffer all rather than yield. The non possumus is not only his motto, but his horizon the levelling instrument which he applies imperturbably to all questions, religious, philosophical, or political : as soon as he ' knows enough about them, to enable him to apply the word, he cares to know no more. He has never, therefore, studied the systems he condemns ; he has never opened the greater proportion of the books he censures. Books and systems, I confess that a great many are bad, even very bad, and that the Pope is quite right in condemning them ; but-even in such passages, how many words are used at haphazard ! What inaccuracies ! What mistakes ! What signs of passion or ignorance ! Forget for a moment that the Encyclical is the Encyclical ; consider its pages as forming part of a book that you dared to criticise, and then tell me what you would think of those vague definitions of those questions always either magnified or minified out of due proportion of those subjects sometimes joined, though unlike, or separated, though similar of those grave lectures which the most insignificant professor would not dare to read to his class, without imparting to them at least the appearance of more philosophical seriousness and historical truth. To conclude ; if the Pope were acquainted with these questions, he would not have signed such pages ; and if he signed them, without very well knowing what he was signing, can you, though an upholder of the infallibility of the Pope, can you affirm that they are the expression of that infallibility ?

` You know, as I said, the circumstances and the men by whom he lives surrounded. You know, like all the world, and better, I am sure, than many, to what a small extent he is himself, I mean how far he is from deriving from himself alone the germs of his thoughts, acts, and impressions. You cannot be one of those who have been deceived by what there is sometimes of spontaneous and unforeseen in his words or ways ; you know well that he speaks, acts, and wills only as certain men make him will, act, and speak. This, more or less, is the history of all the Popes ; whenever they speak, some one else is speaking by their mouth. The aged Innocent XIII. used, it is said, to weep for joy in reading his bulls. " See," he cried, " how posterity will admire my beautiful Latin !--questa bella latinità nostra." Now, not a single word was his own. I don't know whether Pius Ix. is proud of the Latin of the Encyclical ; I hope not, for, be it said in passing, the old Papal Latin has grown even worse than it was, now that it is compelled to express so many new ideas. However that be, if the name of Pius Ix. figures at the bottom, its real authorship may be read in every sentence and in every line.

` It emanates from that party which at all times has desired that the Papacy should be omnipotent and infallible, but, at the same time, appropriating the Papacy to its own uses ; the party which has never yet forgiven Pius Ix. for his liberalism of 1846, and which, either to make doubly sure that he shall never fall into it again, or, as one would be tempted to think, for the purpose of making him expiate his fault, multiplies at pleasure these irreparable breaches between the Church, and the age, and liberty. Yes, in perusing the Encyclical, one seems to notice here and there traces of some old grudge, or, at least, of a certain distrust of the power which is itself supposed to be speaking. The party evidently wished to enclose it in the circle drawn by its own words. Pius Ix. in 1846 hesitated ; Pius Lx. in 1864 shall burn his ships. That Rome should once more drive him out, that the Encyclical should send him forth into some new exile, there to leave his bones, the party cares very little ; the essential point is, that the Papacy should be irrevocably bound to the doctrines, views, and hatreds of its masters. The conclusion to be drawn is this : a party has dictated the Encyclical to the Pope. What you have before you, therefore, is the opinion of a party of a party, no doubt, to which Pius ix. himself belongs, but still of a party, and not of the Pope himself ; and consequently, I repeat, as it does not emanate in reality from the infallible source, how can it be infallible to you ?'

This is what I wrote to a certain bishop. Of course he passed my remonstrances by. He continued to represent the Encyclical as the work of the Pope, the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God.


In speaking of the Ultramontanes, or, if you prefer it, of the Jesuits, I have called them ` a party ;' and if obedience to leaders, union in following a certain object, and zeal in crushing or casting to one side all obstacles constitute a party, never has the naine been better applied. And yet in substance the term is false and incorrect. The Jesuits are not a party ; they are the Church, they are Catholicism ; and when they proclaim that they alone are consistent and alone Catholic, they have in their favour both logic and history. They have a right to say that everything which they have inserted in the Encyclical is not their own ; and even if the Church were to hesitate to adopt their work, they might prove that in the general scope, as in matters of detail, they had only expressed or completed the thought already a thousand times ex-pressed by her Councils and her Popes, already a thousand times confirmed by the most significant facts. Yes, Protestants, who are always so ready to excuse the Church, your enemy, by making distinctions between Catholicism and Jesuitism ; yes, Catholics, who seek in that same distinction for an excuse to remain members of a Church in which so many things are repugnant to you ; yes, Protestants or Catholics who will not believe that such are, in very truth, the doctrines of a Church called Christian, to refuse to believe this assertion is charitable, no doubt, but it is to show yourselves singularly blind. Those pre-tensions which you call ` the pretensions of another age,' and consequently regard as no more than the dream of a small number of antiquated fanatics, be assured that the Church has never abandoned them, and that in her estimation they rest on rights that are sacred and eternal. Those unheard-of advances of Papal omnipotence are but the consequences of a principle ; and if the Church has sometimes opposed those advances, she is to-day in favour of them, so that she may become stronger and more united. That power which asserts itself with so much disdain for the rights of conscience, the Church claims it as indissolubly attached to her mission on earth, and to the functions of her chief. That summons to all princes to consider themselves as the soldiers, the servants, the gaolers, and, in case of need, the executioners of the Church, never has the Church ceased to din it in the ear of princes, whenever she had the slightest hope of convincing or frightening them. That imperturbable in-tolerance which shuts all heretics out of heaven, and which, on earth, either persecutes or weeps dolefully because it can no longer persecute, it is the spirit, the tradition of the Church, a tradition indestructible, full of life, having its roots in the heart of a Gerson, of a François de Sales, as well as in the heart of a Torquemada, and remaining immoveable through the softening of manners and all the advances of universal charity. To wonder at this would be to forget that intolerance is not in Catholicism, as it may have been elsewhere, an aberration, a momentary oblivion of principles, but a fact reappearing incessantly, inseparable from principle, nay, in itself a principle ; and if doubt on this point was possible up to the publication of the Encyclical, from that date it became evident and incontestable.


I have already said that in my heart, and in that of many besides, a painful feeling was mingled with the joy of seeing our adversaries unmasking with such imprudence. It is impossible to love the Gospel and not to be deeply saddened to see it so disguised and made unrecognisable ; it is impossible to love the Church, the Church of Christ, the pillar and stay of the truth on earth, without being grieved and indignant to see it thus become the pillar and stay of so many things that are so entirely and miserably human.

But we were to witness a spectacle still more painful, if that be possible.

The Encyclical and the Syllabus had at any rate one merit that of frankness. 'You believed that I was becoming somewhat reconciled to the age. It was a mistake. You thought that I was slowly getting to tolerate tolerance. It was a mistake. You were under the impression that I was gradually suffering that the Church should trust to no other weapons than those of persuasion. It was a mistake. You trusted that I had given up the thought of linking the past to the present. It was a mistake. What I was, I am ; what I never succeeded in becoming, that I will now be.' So spoke the Pope.

But the words had scarcely passed his lips, when from nearly every side other voices were raised to demonstrate to the world that this was not what he had said. It is in vain that the text itself is in every hand, overloaded with words, as we have seen, and always repeating the same thing at least once, if not two or three times ; it is in vain that everything has been made so clear that there is no room for the shadow of a doubt, either as regards the general intention, or as regards the details. Men will be found to assert positively the contrary of what every one has read. You thought that the Pope had declared open war against the age. It was a mistake. You believed that the word madness, applied to liberty of conscience, to freedom of worship, meant that it was condemned. Not at all. You were under the impression that the Pope appealed to force, or at least complained that he could not appeal to it ; you imagined that he regretted the good old times of Papal authority, and hoped to revive them and make them more full of life than ever. Fallacies, fallacies ! Religious liberty, political liberty, all liberties, in fact, he loves them as much as you do, and even more. He is perfectly contented with modern times ; and if modern times are wise, they will trust to him to open for them all the treasures of civilisation. This is what has been read in innumerable pastoral letters. Give to these fallacies whatever form you please, add all the amplifications which a satirical fancy might suggest, and you may feel pretty nearly sure that you will find the result in some one or other of those pastoral letters.

And the extraordinary point is, that the more the thoughts of the Pope are altered and disguised, the more ardent are the protestations, not of obedience merely, but of veneration and admiration. The Pope has given utterance to the highest wisdom, human and divine. There is not a line but must be carried down from age to age as an oracle of the Holy Spirit. These are not truths only, but the truth. It will be impossible henceforward to doubt that round the Pope alone dwell light and life, and that everywhere else is darkness and death. A pagan coming into the midst of this explosion of enthusiasm could only have thought that it was caused by some new revelation, and a revelation of a very different importance from the Bible. With admiration for the author was mingled admiration for the man one of the greatest, so it was said, that the world has ever seen, and the greatest very certainly of this century ; to admiration for the man was joined the glorification of his supreme office, which having passed into such hands, leaves nothing to be desired in the way of holiness and of authority. Volumes literally, several volumes might be made of the pages in which the Catholic episcopate has celebrated, has hymned all this, and to conclude with what ? With making the Pope say something entirely different from what he had actually said and meant to say.

A few, however, whether it was that they were bolder, or dwelt in more Catholic countries, have seriously received and preached everything. To these, at present, I have nothing to say. I must believe, I wish to believe, in their sincerity. At most I will repeat a question I have already asked : Have they all sufficiently, before God, considered the grounds of their adhesion ? M. De Maistre has said, with a strange contempt for truth : ` The important point is, not that a thing should be decided in one way or in another, but that it should be decided.' Hence this line of argument, which a representative of Roman authority is always in danger of following, even unconsciously : ' I must have affirmations. Here they are. God sends them me.' Alas ! this is the very point requiring examination. But to examine is destruction. He closes his eyes ; he holds on to the mantle of the Pope ; he has the sincerity of fear : and it is not to the bishops alone, nor to the priests alone far from it that this observation is applicable.

This kind of sincerity may also, no doubt, have been found in some measure among the bishops who bowed down before the Encyclical at first, and then made what they liked of it afterwards. Is that an excuse for their sophistries ? They may have been really glad to show that their chief had faith in his own authority and in himself ; they might, perhaps, and still sincerely, have softened such and such of his declarations that are actually susceptible of different interpretations ; but to do what they have done, to plunge into those monstrous falsifications, was to authorize any one to say to them, ` You are mocking at the Pope as well as at truth.'

One man especially might have told them so, and this was the Pope. One cannot help asking what he must have felt when he read if he ever did read first all that farrago of praise, and then all that farrago of accommodation. Socrates exclaimed, on reading the first dialogues of Plato, ` What wonderful things that young man puts into my mouth !' The Pope might have uttered the same exclamation, and I add that he ought to have done so ; for, if he in very truth believed that he was the mouthpiece of the Holy Ghost, should he have allowed any of the divine oracles to be altered ?

But there is a principle which the Papacy and the Church regard as more important than all others : the interest of the Church, the interest of the Papacy. If the Pope, on the whole, feels sure of you, he will allow you every latitude in matters of detail. It will be for you to decide, in all circumstances, what it is best to say or not to say ; for you to make him say it or not say it ; to make him command or forbid, as the occasion or the condition of the country may require. He will condemn and anathematize all kinds of liberty ; but he will regard it as excellent that you should express the most high-flown liberal sentiments, and openly pro-claim them to be Catholic and approved. He will brand all reform, all progress, as revolutionary ; but he will allow you to caress and favour the most brutal of revolutions, if anything to his advantage can be gleaned from their ensanguined field. He will encourage every persecution permitted by the state of modern manners ; but he will allow you to maintain, and even to swear that Rome has never persecuted, or praised persecutors. He will give himself out to be the inflexible guardian of Catholic doctrine ; but he will allow you to modify and arrange it ; to veil this and to cover that ; to have one Catholicism for men, and another for women ; one for the educated, another for the masses ; one for the Catholics, and another for the Protestants. All this had been seen long before the publication of the Encyclical ; and from the day on which it appeared we might have predicted all the feats of skill which the Pope would allow in the interpretation.

The first ruse, if indeed it be one, is always to ex-press indignation that any one should accuse the Pope of thinking and willing what ? What he has written in plain terms. ' You accuse the Encyclical ! You attack the Syllabus ! You repeat what a few miscreants allege that they have discovered in it ! But read, read, read but with our help, for you would be in danger of misreading, as you necessarily misread the Holy Scriptures, if you did not read with our eyes.' And, in truth, a good deal of resemblance might be shown to exist between the Roman method of reading the Bible, and the Episcopal method of reading all that comes from Rome. The Bible must teach all that the Church has taught ; an Encyclical must teach only what can be accepted, more or less, in each country. And so a word of grave import is passed over in silence ; a very simple word is made to mean a thousand things. Everything about which there is no question is enlarged upon ; what ought especially to be said, if accuracy were an object, is abridged or overlooked. Substance is drowned in form, idea in sentiment, and sentiment in sentimentality. Darkness is made to the cry of, Light, light ! At the commencement this sad task had perhaps been undertaken with regret. But as the writer proceeds he warms to his work ; he takes pleasure in it ; he finds amusement in wrestling with difficulties, in building up his paradox, in making the impossible possible, and he comes at last to be almost sincere in his joy at having pleaded so well, and made confusion so complete.


Let me be allowed to quote, with reference to all this, what I wrote to the same bishop on his interpretations of the Encyclical.

That bishop lived, and lives still, in a free, a very free country, where the Papal missive had made a terrible discord with the laws, manners, and customs, laws and customs with which it was strongly to the bishop's interest to remain on good terms. No one had cried from the house-tops in louder tones than he that Catholicism is not only the friend, but the father of all liberties ; no one came more completely within range of the mortifying contradiction which Rome had hurled at the defenders of this strange theory. Therefore it was necessary, at any price, to demonstrate that no contradiction existed. A pastoral letter, however, was likely to prove very dangerous in a country so little accustomed to content itself with sophistries ; a sermon would furnish a better opportunity of saying what could be said, of hiding what was hollow with a veil of oratory, and of giving to the feats of argumentative legerdemain a pomp and a grandeur that would disguise their perplexity. Such was the course pursued. But the sermon, taken down by a friend of the bishop, was published in a French newspaper. I read it there, and this is how, in my letter, I summed up the opinion I had formed of it :

'My best course now would be to transcribe your sermon, and, trusting in what I have already said, to leave my readers to form their own judgment respecting it. With your pompous exordium on the magnificences of the manifesto of Pius Ix., they would confront the paltriness I have pointed out to them, paltriness of substance, paltriness of form, sillinesses, incoherences, blind hatreds, and narrow prejudices.

`To your first head, no less pompous, on the ravages of materialism, they would answer, that no one has ever dreamt of blaming the Pope for saying a word on this point, and consequently that you appear to linger here, in order that elsewhere you may be able to hurry.

`To your second head, on marriage and family life, they would reply, that all you say respecting marriage without God, the family without God, is again beside the question ; for the real point here would be the exorbitant pretensions which the Encyclical bases on the Catholic marriage, the marriage sacrament.

`To your third head, on public education, they would rejoin, that you were quite right in painting a godless education in such black colours ; but that here again this is not the real question, which relates not to the thing in itself, but to what the Encyclical says about it. What it does say is, that public education must be placed in the hands of the priests. Of this you do not whisper a syllable.

`To your two last heads, on the Church, the State, society, etc., they would object that you pass unnoticed some points of grave importance, such, for instance, as constraint and temporal punishment, and then that you elude the real battle-field, and do not march straight up to the attack. The Pope is reproached with denying the rights of conscience, which in fact are destroyed whenever the truth alone Catholic truth, be it understood can speak and exist ; and you ask, Should he then profess indifferentism, and should truth and falsehood appear to him equal ? He is reproached with condemning the freedom of public worship ; and you ask, Should he tolerate every species of worship, every immorality, every folly that assumed the form of worship ? He is reproached with sacrificing everything to unity, with reopening the door to most oppressive and cruel measures ; and you ask, whether unity is not desirable, and whether Protestants themselves do not seek it ? He is reproached with speaking of progress, that is to say of the general modern movement, only in terms of distrust, contempt, and hatred ; and you ask, whether there are not at Rome electric telegraphs, and whether the Pope did not send to the bishops a formula for the benediction of railways ? He is reproached with anathematizing the idea of a reconciliation being possible between him and liberalism ; and you ask, whether he does not welcome all good liberties? There is only one thing which you forget here, —to tell us which are those that he does welcome. I have done my best, and re-read the Encyclical I do not find any liberties welcomed ; and when I reckon up those that are suppressed or condemned, I am really at some loss to imagine what those good liberties may be which he welcomes, as you tell us.

` It is true that you do not fail to celebrate liberty, and even, in speaking of the liberties of the country, to say, our liberties, which, be it observed, is not a little curious ; we should only like to know how you reconcile this in your conscience with the prescriptions and spirit of the Encyclical. For you may say, if you will, like the French bishops, that the Pope was exhibiting an ideal, an ideal far transcending all realities, and that consequently every country may retain its laws, its customs, and its liberties including religious liberty. This would prove, at most, that the Pope authorizes you not to condemn openly those laws, customs, and liberties from which you derive so much advantage ; but to approve of them and to love them, —to love them, I mean, otherwise than as they profit you, it is clear that the Pope does not permit this, inasmuch as, on your own showing, the ideal he sets before you does not admit them. An ideal ! Is it even true that this is the Pope's view of the matter ? And, besides, what is an ideal if it be not an idea that ought to be realized, that may perhaps never attain to realization, but which ought everywhere and at all times to tend towards it ?

'An ideal ! But show us first a single country, a single epoch, in which your Church has been able to realize it, and has not done so, in which she has voluntarily left standing a single one of the things condemned in the Syllabus. An ideal ! It is mere mockery of the Pope, as well as of ourselves, to pre-tend that he can have traced an ideal, and traced it so energetically, without at the same time intending to command that all should put their hands to its realization wherever anything can be done. An ideal ! Ask the Spanish bishops whether they did not last year make the most desperate efforts to obtain that that ideal should become the law of the land. An ideal ! Why, if it were true that the Pope does not seek to realize it, if we did not see it anywhere realized, would it not be enough to justify our attacks that such an ideal exists, is published, and comes to us bearing the signature of the Pope ? Is that, or is it not, the doctrine of your Church ? If you say no— But you will not say it. You may have been willing to drown that no in a flood of words ; you will not record it in plain letters. But if you cannot write it, if you cannot utter it, then retract all that you have said, in the pulpit and elsewhere, during so many years, respecting the alliance between Catholicism and the age, respecting Rome enlightened, liberal, accepting and guaranteeing all modern liberties. All that you have said, all that you have done, in order that Catholicism might not in a free country have the appearance of an intruder and an enemy, your chief, with one touch of his hand, has swept it away. This does not mean, assuredly, that he intends to disavow what you have done in the past, and to hamper you for the future. We are well aware that you will still be free to affirm, to deny, to speak, or to be silent, so long as all goes smoothly. The Encyclical, as I see very well, only asks to be allowed to sleep in your country. It will be for us, as I warn you, to take care that it is not too completely forgotten, and to compel it from time to time to bear into the light of day its despairing Catholicism.'

But we have done with this subject. What a condemnation already results from the very efforts made by so many persons to veil, to soften, and even, if possible, radically to alter the thoughts of the Pope ! What a confession of the truth of all that we have said, of all that we might have said, had we gone into fuller detail ! But already we have said enough to introduce a few more general observations.

Home | More Articles | Email: