The Syllabus of Errors was a catalogue of sayings, gleaned from earlier papal documents, issued on 8th December 1865, in which certain propositions were condemned as heretical. Amongst the propositions condemned were the following:
“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)
Notice how these condemn precisely those freedoms upon which liberal democracies are founded. In his homily at a mass celebrated on the Epiphany (6th January), three new archbishops were consecrated in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the pope reiterated the last of these errors of modernism, firmly rejecting, in the words of the Reuters report, ”suggestions that the Church should change to suit public opinion.” He told the newly ordained archbishops that courage was needed to stand up to the “intolerant agnosticism.” According to the report the Pope Ratzinger said:
Today’s agnosticism has its own dogmas and is extremely intolerant regarding anything that would question it and the criteria it employs.
He went on to add that
the courage to contradict the prevailing mindset is particularly urgent for a bishop today. He must be courageous.
At the same time the pope denounced attempts “to push religion out of public debate” (which is a close relative of Error Number 55 above).
These are all signs of the pope’s anti-modernism, not unlike the anti-modernism of the 19th century Pope Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (aka Pius IX), in whose long tenure of the papacy the first Vatican Council was held, and the pope’s infallibility when speaking ex-cathedra on matters of faith and morals was defined. Ratzinger took the name Benedict. The last Benedict, Pope Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, reiterated “Pio Nono’s” condemnation of modernism, though moderated some of its excesses. It seems that this Benedict for a new century has determined to turn the hands of the clock back to the religious isolationism of Mastai-Ferretti, determined to eschew moderation in favour of a mindless conservatism, claiming it to be, of course, the very essence of reason itself.
The main issue this time round, as a recent letter (see the report in the Telegraph), signed by more than a thousand Roman Catholic bishops and priests in Britain, raising a hue and cry over the Cameron government’s decision to legalise gay marriage, is what Catholics see as a redefinition of marriage — which, they say, we are not at liberty to do. The letter is perhaps the most hyperbolic statement yet. In the letter
David Cameron’s moves to redefine marriage [are likened] to those of Henry VIII, whose efforts to secure a divorce from Katherine of Aragon triggered centuries of bloody upheaval between church and state.
The priests and bishops suggest that this may signal a return to the centuries of persecution that Catholics experienced in Britain during the Reformation. Catholics in Britain have a tendency to hysterical exaggeration, invoking ghosts of the past, when the pope had excommunicated England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and proclaimed that her assassination would be a holy service, thus at a stroke turning every Catholic in England into a possible assassin in waiting. It is perhaps salutary to remember that the Ayatollah Khomeini was not the first religious leader to call for the murder of the citizen of another country.
The hysteria over gay marriage is especially unreasonable, and parallels with the Reformation and Henry VIII particularly obtuse. Other jurisdictions — Canada, for instance — have legalised gay marriage, without any obvious limits placed on Catholics to continue to express themselves in homophobic and misogynistic ways. It is strange that the church should want to define itself in such narrow terms, but that is its prerogative, and there is no doubt that Catholics can go on freely acting in unreasonable ways, as they have always done. The problem at the heart of the continued Catholic opposition to gay marriage, I suspect, is not so much that it contradicts the church’s definition of marriage, which, for some incomprehensible reason is felt to be unchangeable, because inscribed into the very texture of human life itself, but that the Catholic theological system is fixed and largely unchangeable, and so finds itself quickly outdated.
It is an interesting reflection that the Catholic Church, in response to a decision of the Anglican Church to permit the use of artificial means of birth control, hardened its opposition to contraception in such a way as to make it all but impossible to revise without doing permanent damage to the order of authority and accountability in the church. Thus, faced with a commission that recommended revision of the church’s position on contraception, Pope Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini (aka Paul VI), in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterated and strengthened the ban placed upon contraception by Pope Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti (aka Pius XI), in his encyclical Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage) which was a direct response to a decision of the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930. Casti Connubii itself was published on the last day of 1930, emphasising how urgent its message was thought to be. It is, however, interesting to reflect that the Vatican is still dancing to England’s tune. In this, at least, the analogy with Henry VIII makes some sense.
More serious is the pope’s continuing to pound away at the idea that religion must not be excluded from public debate. Of course, it is true that religious believers must not be excluded from public debate, but whether religions qua religions should have the freedom to involve themselves at will in public debates of importance is another matter altogether. In Massachusetts last November the effect of the church’s involvement was particularly evident. By investing millions of dollars at the last moment the Roman Catholic Church was able to shift the vote on the assisted dying measure that was on the ballot against what seemed (on the basis of polls) to be the general will of the people of that state. It is significant that the letter signed by the English priests and bishops represents itself as showing “the strength of opinion in the pews.” But this is by no means clear. Roman Catholic lay people are, in general, far more liberal in their opinions than their leaders.
Even if this were not so, it is still an infringement on the liberty of citizens to be ruled by beliefs that are peculiar to a particular religion. The Roman Catholic Church is officially opposed to contraception. It does not follow that this opposition should be expressed in the laws of the state. Muslims oppose the use of alcoholic beverages. It also does not follow that, for this reason, beer, wine and spirits should be prohibited. And the same can be said for any number of different religious prohibitions. None of them should be legislated, even if a majority of the population is in favour of such legislation. The liberty of the citizen should be limited only to the extent that such limitation is required to enable the equal liberty of all. Article 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads as follows:
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. [my italics]
This article was invoked by the Supreme Court in its decision in the case of Sue Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General). Essentially, the majority decision in this case acknowledged Rodriguez’s constitutional right to assistance in dying, save only that a limit on that right was “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” It is now widely believed that the court did not in fact justify the limitation of the right, and that, given the widespread change in people’s views respecting assisted dying, a new decision would not necessarily accept the constitutional limitation applied in 1993 to Rodriguez’s right to such assistance. Indeed, the evidence now points in the opposite direction, that such limits are not “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” It is hard to understand why the majority on the court should have thought so in 1993. The Roman Catholic Church’s continuing public involvement in this debate, however, through countless agencies, some of them pretending to be independent of the church’s control and influence, as well as through bishops and archbishops appealing directly to political leaders, is an illegitimate extension of the church’s power and influence in matters that concern the people of Canada as a whole, who should not be made subject to Roman Catholic (and other Christian) belief regarding assistance in dying, abortion, or whatever other moral priorities the church or churches set for their members.
The strong anti-modernist trend of the present incumbent of the Vatican, who is making stronger and stronger claims to have a right to be heard in public debate, whether in Britain, over the legalisation of same-sex marriage, or in other countries over whether and to what extent to legalise abortion or assisted dying, should be rebuffed. The peculiar bias of the Roman Church, and its insistence that it and it alone has the inside track to the moral law inscribed by its god in the very texture of human life itself, makes its voice intrusive in public debate, where faith positions may not be put forward as the grounding basis of law in democratic polities. Notwithstanding Ratzinger’s claim that his moral position is not a confessional or faith position, that is precisely what it is, and, as such, it should be ruled out of consideration as a basis of law. It is high time that organisations like the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, and the various Institutes of the Family, established by the Roman Catholic Church, and closely following its doctrinal prescriptions, be seen for what they are, religious interlopers in a political system where the separation of church (religion) and state is a major legitimating principle. The present pope’s anti-modernist crusade has no place in the counsels of the nations.