The claims to papal infallibility to which John Henry Newman objected came at precisely the time when Pius IX was on the hot seat with Italian republicans and Europe’s ruling class.
The military defeats suffered by Pius IX, far from leading him to make peace with the new regime, prompted him to go newly on the attack. In 1862, his allocution, Maxima quidem laetitia, reaffirmed that the Pope could not be free to do his spiritual duty without temporal power, and on December 8, 1864, he issued one of the most famous – and controversial – encyclicals of modern times, Quanta cura, with its accompanying Syllabus of Errors.
The idea of preparing an inventory of the errors of modern times had long been championed by the Jesuits of Civilita Cattolica. A team of Vatican experts drew up the list, and the Pope’s encyclical and the Syllabus were sent out together to all bishops with a cover letter sent from Cardinal Antonelli. The Cardinal explained: “The Pope has already in Encyclicals and Allocutions condemned the principal errors of this most unhappy age . . . . Therefore the Pope wished a Syllabus of these Errors to be drawn up for the use of all Catholic bishops that they may have before their eyes the pernicious doctrines that he has proscribed.”
For the Pope’s enemies, the Syllabus simply confirmed their belief that the pontifical state – if not the papacy itself – was a glaring anachronism in the nineteenth century. Among the pernicious doctrines the Pope condemned were that people should be free to profess whatever religion they thought best; that even those not in the Catholic Church could aspire to eternal salvation; that Catholics could disagree with the need for the Pope to have temporal power; that there should be a separation of Church and state; and “that the Pope could and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
Even many loyal Catholics – perhaps most – were shocked by the Syllabus, in which the Pope seemed to condemn progress and modern civilization. For the anticlerical forces, the Syllabus was “manna from heaven,” in the words of Roger Aubert, Pius IX’s biographer. One Piedmontese newspaper, noting that the Pope had condemned modern science, delightfully (if maliciously) asked whether he now planned to ban trains, telegraph, steam engines, and gaslights from his – albeit recently reduced – lands. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 257-58)
(Parenthetically, Protestants were and continue to be a mixed bag when it comes to progress and modern science. And that may be too charitable, since postmillenialism too readily morphed into paeans to modernity as the outworking of God’s special purposes. At the same time, Protestants who read Wendell Berry and figure out how to bemoan the dislocating effects of modernity often turn to Roman Catholicism as the Christian answer to the woes of progressive civilization. These folks find the Syllabus of Errors congenial if not prophetic. Too bad that every pope since Vatican 2 has refused to agree with Pius IX. These post-Vatican 2 popes have wanted the church to engage the modern world and update the Roman Catholic faith. Which makes me wonder why the Protestants who convert to Rome as a conservative response to modernity don’t join forces with the SSPXers who are truly opposed to modernity and to the contemporary Vatican’s indifference to if not outright rejection of Pius IX’s Syllabus.)
Kertzer also points out that Pius IX not only doubled down on his divine status in troubled times, but also continued to oversee the Roman Inquisition’s abduction of Jewish children.
In 1864, another episode involving a Jewish boy demonstrated anew the Vatican’s intention to hold out against the forces of secularization. The case involved 9-year-old Giuseppe Coen, who lived in Rome’s ghetto. One day Guiseppe failed to return home from his job at a nearby cobbler’s shop. His parents soon discovered that he had been taken to the House of the Catechumens, forced there, they said, by the Catholic cobbler. For the Jews and the enemies of Church temporal power, this had all the makings of Mortara redux.
At the beginning of August, when protests about the new case began to appear in the liberal press the church-allied Giormale di Roma painted its own picture of what had happened. Giuseppe Coen, a Jewish boy of the Rome ghetto, had long nourished the wish to become a Christian, along with the fear that he would be severely punished if his parents heard of it. “For fifteen days he begged his employer to take him to the House of the Catechumens.” Finally, on July 25, taking advantage of the visit by a relative of the cobbler who happened to have a priest with him, Guiseppe’s pleas were answered. They took him to the Catechumens, whether the boy convinced the Rector of his fervent desire to become a Christian.
The Coens had wasted no time in seeking French aid, for in the wake of the Mortara case, they had no illusions of getting their son released simply by petitioning the Church. Three days after the child’s disappearance, the French ambassador went to see Cardinal Antonelli on their behalf, and he returned to the Vatican the following morning to renew his angry protests.
The French liberal press quickly took the case up, demanding to know why French soldiers were standing by while Jewish children were being stolen from their parents. On August 13, the papal nuncio in Paris wrote to Cardinal Antonelli to report on his recent unpleasant meeting with the French minister of foreign affairs, Drouyn de Lhuys. The Minister railed against the holding of the boy, calling it an action contrary to the laws of nature, “carried out and sanctioned by the Holy See under the eyes of the French troops.” The nuncio reported, “I responded that France’s protection of the pope’s temporal power did not give it the right to involve it in measure and actions that regarded the Pontiff’s spiritual jurisdiction.” (258-59)
Echoes of Unam Sanctam were still reverberating in the Vatican, apparently. The papacy did not have the temporal power strong enough to make its spiritual power stick. The papal states were no match for Austria or France. But even if the papacy depended on the French and Austrians for protection, its officials could not recognize that the papacy was not temporally or spiritually independent. If Pius IX regarded his temporal power as essential to his spiritual authority, and yet he was not strong enough to defend his Legations, then the Church was not truly free. But this did not prevent the Vatican from regarding the stronger political powers as beholden to the pope. Apparently, the Vatican’s spiritual power not only depended on the integrity of the Papal States (temporal power), but also on the civil muscle of Roman Catholic emperors and kings. All power, civil and ecclesiastical, flowed from the Eternal City.