Earlier this month Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan called called for the world-wide repeal of laws against blasphemy
. He was delivering the opening address at a conference in Milan commemorating the edict of the Emperor Constantine in 313 that granted official tolerance to Christianity (which soon became the state religion and embarked on a long career of persecuting and suppressing other religions). Scola is no run-of-the-mill Cardinal, but someone who was considered among the front-runners to be chosen Pope at the last papal election. That alone would be enough to make this event worth noticing.
Part of the context for Scola's condemnation of blasphemy laws is the fact that in many parts of the world today, especially in some Muslim-dominated societies, blasphemy laws are frequently used to target and persecute Christians
, including Catholics. (The remaining blasphemy laws in Europe, by contrast, tend to be vestigial.) But there is more to it than that. What was striking was that Scola linked his call for abolition of blasphemy laws to a generalized defense of freedom of conscience and commitment to the principles of religious liberty and "religious pluralism". In fact, he described religious freedom as “a true litmus test” of a civilized society.
"In those countries still dominated by state religion ... protecting religious freedom means above all encouraging religious pluralism and opening to all forms of religious expression, for example eliminating laws that criminally punish blasphemy,” the cardinal said May 8.
In some ways, what is most remarkable about Scola's statements is the extent to which they're unremarkable. For a major Catholic prelate to defend religious freedom and religious pluralism in principle
is no longer as remarkable as it once would have been. Over the course of the past century, and especially since Vatican II in the early 1960s, there has been a dramatic shift in the Church's official doctrine regarding these matters. Scola's declaration marks one more milestone in that long-term evolutionary process.
Even some recent Popes who have worked hard to tighten up authoritarian control and suppress dissent within
the Church, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have defended the general principles of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, both individual and collective, in sweeping and forceful terms. Some people may see a tension there, even a certain amount of hypocrisy, and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to that reaction. But very existence of that tension is significant. And the Church's turn toward a strong public commitment to the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, which really does mark a historic shift, is a phenomenon too important to be casually dismissed.
In an address that Pope Benedict XVI delivered in September 2012
—during a visit to the Middle East, which was undoubtedly not coincidental—he went so far as to say the following:
Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and
inalienable right. It includes on the individual and collective levels the
freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time,
freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to choose the religion which one
judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public. [....] Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect. [....]
Benedict went on to draw a very significant distinction. Even in countries where religious tolerance exists, "There is a need to move
beyond tolerance to religious freedom."
Furthermore, he embraced the principle of separation between religion and the state:
A healthy secularity [....] frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows
politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the
necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between
the two spheres.
So why should any of that seem so surprising? Well, only a few centuries ago—which not a long time, from the perspective of an institution that has been around almost two millennia—the dominant views of the Catholic Church on these issues were sharply different. For example, in Pope Gregory XVI's 1832 encyclical Mirare Vos
, the Pope denounced
that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. "But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error," as Augustine was wont to say. [....]
And for good measure, Gregory warned against the catastrophic evils that flow from "immoderate freedom of opinion" and "license of free speech".
Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. [....] Nor can We predict happier times for religion and government from the plans of those who desire vehemently to separate the Church from the state [....]
And so on.
These anathemas were reiterated more systematically, and just as emphatically, as part of the famous "Syllabus of Errors
" issued by Pope Pius IX in 1864. As my friend Mark Gerson remarked when we were discussing Scola's speech, "The Church has come a long way since the Syllabus of Errors!" I had the same reaction.
=> So in order to help put these matters in historical perspective, this might be a good moment to revisit Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors
" and ponder it a bit.
For those of you who aren't already familiar with it, let me assure you that it's worth some attention, because it's a very important and
illuminating historical document—quite fascinating, actually. It's a declaration of intransigent anti-modernism, principled dogmatism,
and explicit opposition to "liberalism" and to any suggestion that (in
the words of proposition #80) "The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to,
reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and
Nor is it relevant exclusively to the 19th century. In many ways, it continued to exemplify a whole world-view of pre-Vatican II anti-modernist and ultramontane
Catholicism well into the 20th century. In terms of many of the issues addressed by Pius X, the Church has indeed come a long way—with a lot of wider social, cultural, and political consequences.
(On the other hand, in some ways the spirit of Pius IX is not completely dead, either. Both Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI and US Senator Rick Santorum, just to pick two random examples, help illustrate that in certain respects.)
The "Syllabus of Errors", which sums up the animating spirit of the whole Pontificate of Pius IX, represents only one kind of response by the Catholic Church to the challenges of modernity. But for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, this kind of circle-the-wagons, defend-every-inch, make-no-concessions rejectionist and ultramontane approach was the dominant one in the Church, even though there were some countervailing currents. In a larger historical perspective, I suppose, this intransigent circle-the-wagons reaction against the dangers of modernity can be seen as a 19th- and early 20th-century century analogue to the circle-the-wagons reaction embodied in Counter-Reformation Catholicism four centuries earlier.
One striking feature of the "Syllabus" is precisely its form. It is a list of "errors" and "condemned propositions". Instead of propounding positive claims, it lists and condemns a set of (widely held, frequently advocated) beliefs that all good Catholics are prohibited
from holding, expressing, or even treating with sympathetic indulgence. (In this respect, it is reminiscent of the condemnations of ideological errors and "deviations" that later became a standard feature of totalitarian regimes and movements.) So the view of the world underlying this document is built up by the gradual accumulation of positions it rejects.
In light of the issues discussed earlier, one substantive point worth noticing and emphasizing is that this document rejects the idea of religious liberty or freedom of conscience (for non-Catholics) in principle
. Of course, the Church always recognized that in countries where Catholics are in a minority, or where the state is dominated by non-Catholic forces--Protestant, Muslim, secular, or otherwise--it is important to protect the faith of believers and to defend the Church as an institution from interference or oppression by the state. In those unfortunate circumstances, one has to make pragmatic compromises. But in countries where Catholicism is socially and politically dominant, it is the duty
of believers to assure the privileged institutional position of the Catholic Church, the supremacy of the Catholic religion, and the suppression of heretical tendencies (e.g., Protestantism).
In connection with this principled rejection of the idea of religious freedom or toleration in the "Syllabus of Errors", we might note for example the following condemned propositions:
15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true. [....]
16. Man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation, and arrive at eternal salvation. [....]
17. Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ. [....]
18. Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church. [....]
77. 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. [....]
78. Hence 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. [....]
79. Moreover, it is false that the civil liberty of every form of worship, and the full power, given to all, of overtly and publicly manifesting any opinions whatsoever and thoughts, conduce more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism. [....]
And to sum it all up, it is utterly wrong and prohibited to believe that
80. The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization. [....]
(Each item refers to previous Church documents that spell out the reasons for the condemnation, but I've deleted those references and elaborations here.)
In these respects, as we can see, the official position of the Catholic
Church has changed quite dramatically since the time of Pius IX
(especially in the wake of Vatican II). In intra-Catholic debates, by the way, the notion that freedom of conscience might be a good thing in principle
was often described as part and parcel of part of the more general heresy of "Americanism
" (a term used by Pope Leo XIII in an admonition
he sent to the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899). And perhaps those accusations weren't entirely incorrect, since the American Church did adapt to the distinctively American system of religious "denominationalism", and over time American Catholics did help promote tendencies toward acceptance of the notion that religious freedom and religious pluralism might actually be good ideas in principle.
(Of course, one should not assume that this
transformation in outlook has been complete or irreversible. There are still ultramontane traditionalists who are convinced that the Church
took a comprehensive wrong turn with Vatican II, and who still reject the heresy of "Americanism".)
=> It is worth noting that positions similar or analogous to the ones expressed by Pius IX in his "Syllabus" remain pervasive and consequential today in much of the Islamic world (except, of course, for those elements in the "Syllabus" pertaining to the Church as a centralized institution with a single ruler, which has no precise equivalent in Islam). Those positions are by no means universal or uncontested, but they're widespread, they enjoy considerable popular support, and they're often codified in law.
For example, there are few majority-Muslim countries where it is not legally condemned or, at least, legally problematic to convert from Islam to a non-Islamic religion—though conversion from non-Islamic religions to Islam is fine. (There are some exceptions—in the Arab world, Lebanon is the most striking—but they're exceptions.) Prohibitions against "apostasy
" are enforced with greater or lesser severity in different places, but in many countries the dominant trend right now is for those restrictions to get strengthened
, not weakened. Legal penalties for "blasphemy
" are also in force in most Muslim-majority countries, and they have teeth
. In fact, for some years Islamic governments have been campaigning systematically to get prohibitions against "blasphemy"—in other words, restrictions on freedom of expression—smuggled into international "human rights" documents under the guise of condemning "defamation" of religion as hate speech. (Ann Mayer's Islam and Human Rights
includes a careful and systematic critical analysis of that campaign.) And so on.
To be sure, one would need to complicate that historical analogy a bit. For over a thousand years the Catholic Church, wherever it was predominant, tried to impose monolithic religious uniformity by suppressing or expelling all non-Catholic religions, and in many cases it succeeded. It is well known that one big difference between the historical records of Catholicism and Islam is that, on the whole, Islamic law generally prescribes that some non-Muslim religions, though not all, should be tolerated and accorded a "protected" status as long as they remain subordinate, deferential, and subject to certain special burdens and restrictions. There are striking exceptions to that toleration—Saudi Arabia, for example, prohibits any form of public worship or religious expression by non-Muslims, and in other countries sects are that considered heretical or apostate, like the Baha'i
in Iran and Ahmadis
in Pakistan, are subject to ferocious persecution—but that pattern of (qualified) toleration remains common.
(Though it should be added that in much of the greater Middle East, Christian minorities have been steadily shrinking or disappearing from the 20th century through the present. The ones that still remain are almost all under threat. In Egypt, for example, one demographically significant Christian minority still remains, the Copts; but they are under heavy pressure and have been rapidly shrinking though emigration. And since the middle of the 20th century the whole area has been almost completely ethnically cleansed of Jews, except of course in Israel. A lot of this tendency toward ethno-sectarian "simplification
" has to do with the interplay between religious/sectarian tensions and the rise of modern nationalism ... but that's another story.)
However, there are very few Muslim-dominated countries that make even a pretense of according legal and cultural equality
to non-Muslim religions. All forms of available evidence, from opinion polls to public discourse to the results of the recent Egyptian elections, make it clear that the majority of Muslims in those societies continue to find the idea unacceptable and even offensive. And in some places where the principle of legal equality between different religions began to get introduced into the formal legal codes during the liberal-reformist era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there has been a strong reaction against them, and the legal codes have been modified accordingly. (Again, there are some exceptions.)
In these respects, it seems fair to say that most of the Islamist world is still highly reluctant to come to terms with what Pius IX identified and condemned as the forces of "progress, liberalism and modern civilization". (One might add that this is also true for the dominant tendencies in, say, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Chinese Communist Party.) Nor can we assume, in the manner of what used to be called "Whig history", that the triumph of those forces is simply a matter of time. It's an ongoing drama.
=> By the way, apropos of another issue that has remained timely, the "Syllabus" also condemns the notion that any system of universal non-sectarian public education ("freed from all ecclesiastical authority, control and interference") is acceptable. Holding any of the following beliefs is strictly condemned and prohibited:
45. The entire government of public schools in which the youth of a Christian state is educated, except (to a certain extent) in the case of episcopal seminaries, may and ought to appertain to the civil power, and belong to it so far that no other authority whatsoever shall be recognized as having any right to interfere in the discipline of the schools, the arrangement of the studies, the conferring of degrees, in the choice or approval of the teachers. [....]
47. The best theory of civil society requires that popular schools open to children of every class of the people, and, generally, all public institutes intended for instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education of youth, should be freed from all ecclesiastical authority, control and interference, and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power at the pleasure of the rulers, and according to the standard of the prevalent opinions of the age. [....]
48. Catholics may approve of the system of educating youth unconnected with Catholic faith and the power of the Church, and which regards the knowledge of merely natural things, and only, or at least primarily, the ends of earthly social life. [....]
=> Before leaving this subject, might be worth emphasizing one last point to help avoid superficial misunderstandings. The social doctrines of the Catholic Church have never mapped very neatly into the divisions between "left" and "right" in US politics—or in a
lot of secular European politics, either. That was true in the 19th century, and it continues to be true today.
Pius IX's main concern in the "Syllabus" has to do with rejecting and resisting various aspects of what might be termed cultural, religious, and political "liberalism" (including the principles of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, separation of church & state, etc.). In those areas, as I said, Church doctrine has made some significant accommodations (which I applaud).
However, it's important to add that the Church has never really accepted the moral and ideological claims of economic
liberalism in the (historically and theoretically correct) 19th-century sense of that term—that is, laissez-faire economics, free-market-fundamentalism, Social Darwinism, the notion that untempered individual selfishness should be regarded as acceptably "rational" action, etc. On the contrary, Catholic social doctrine has consistently rejected the radical self-interested individualism and moral
indifference embodied, according to a long series of papal documents, in the vision of laissez-faire capitalism. (At the same time, of course, the official doctrine of the Church has also rejected most historically available forms of socialism.)
With respect to this principled rejection of economic liberalism, the paradigm 19th-century statement is Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum
. The sentiments expressed there remain very much part of official Catholic social doctrine (Pope John Paul II
restated them quite strongly in Laborem Exercens
and Centesimus Annus
) ... though it's worth noting that many American Catholics seem largely unaware of this in practice.
American Catholics who vote Republican and oppose the idea of universal health care, for example, often don't seem to appreciate the tensions involved there. I'm not saying that they should necessarily agree with the Church's position on these matters, any more than they agree with the Church's prohibition of "artificial" contraception, which the vast majority of American Catholics ignore in practice. But the interesting point is that so many of them appear to be be unaware that they are
in deep disagreement with Catholic social doctrine on many economic issues. In fact, on a very wide range of important issues including income inequality, health care, unions, social
justice, war, and the death penalty, the official social doctrine of the
US Catholic Church would strike most Americans as wildly left-wing ...
if they took those positions seriously, or even knew about them. The same is true, of course, for most political journalists and pundits, Catholic or non-Catholic.
On the other hand, if they're clueless about so many dimensions of Catholic social doctrine, it's not entirely their fault. One reason for this widespread lack of awareness is that when it comes to election time, most of the US Catholic hierarchy focuses exclusively on
the very narrow range of issues where they happen to be in tune with the
Republican right—above all, abortion. And who appointed those Bishops and Cardinals? In an awful lot of cases, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.