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Dignitatis Humanae and the Syllabus of Errors

Daniel J. Castellano


It is often averred that Dignitatis Humanae contradicted or abrogated the teachings expressed in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. On the contrary, not only is there no direct contradiction between the two documents (see Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae), but there are many places where the Vatican II declaration confirms the teachings of the Syllabus.

Below is a summary of the relevant errors condemned in Pope Pius’s Syllabus, followed by quotations from Dignitatis Humanae confirming the repudiation of these errors.

Syllabus Error #3:
Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations.

Dignitatis Humanae:
On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (DH, 1)

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. (DH, 3)

Syllabus Error #4:
All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason; hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...the highest norm of human life is the divine law—eternal, objective and universal... (DH, 3)

Syllabus Error #15:
Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

Dignitatis Humanae:
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. (DH, 1)

Syllabus Error #19:
The Church is not a true and perfect society, entirely free—nor is she endowed with proper and perpetual rights of her own, conferred upon her by her Divine Founder; but it appertains to the civil power to define what are the rights of the Church, and the limits within which she may exercise those rights.

Dignitatis Humanae:
In human society and in the face of government the Church claims freedom for herself in her character as a spiritual authority, established by Christ the Lord, upon which there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature. The Church also claims freedom for herself in her character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith. (DH, 13)

Syllabus Error #20:
The ecclesiastical power ought not to exercise its authority without the permission and assent of the civil government.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms... (DH, 4)

Syllabus Error #21:
The Church has not the power of defining dogmatically that the religion of the Catholic Church is the only true religion.

Dignitatis Humanae:
We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church... (DH, 1)

Syllabus Error #24:
The Church has not the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect.

Dignitatis Humanae:
[Neither affirmed nor denied. In practice, the Church continues to exert temporal power through ecclesiastical courts, the Vatican state, and less direct applications.]

Syllabus Error #26:
The Church has no innate and legitimate right of acquiring and possessing property.

Dignitatis Humanae:
Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government... in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties. (DH, 4)

Syllabus Error #27:
The sacred ministers of the Church and the Roman pontiff are to be absolutely excluded from every charge and dominion over temporal affairs.

Dignitatis Humanae:
[Neither affirmed nor denied. In practice, the Church forbids her ministers from holding civil office, but she allows them to administer temporal affairs: e.g., property and finances; educational and medical institutions.]

Syllabus Error #39:
The State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious. (DH, 3)

Syllabus Error #44:
The civil authority may interfere in matters relating to religion, morality and spiritual government: hence, it can pass judgment on the instructions issued for the guidance of consciences, conformably with their mission, by the pastors of the Church...

Dignitatis Humanae:
Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad... (DH, 4)

Syllabus Error #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.

Syllabus Error #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.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...the rights of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all. (DH, 5)

Syllabus Error #49:
The civil power may prevent the prelates of the Church and the faithful from communicating freely and mutually with the Roman pontiff.

Dignitatis Humanae:
Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government,... in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad... (DH, 4)

Syllabus Error #55:
The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. (DH, 4)

Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life,... (DH, 5)

If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society,... (DH, 6)

Syllabus Error #56:
Moral laws do not stand in need of the divine sanction, and it is not at all necessary that human laws should be made conformable to the laws of nature and receive their power of binding from God.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...the highest norm of human life is the divine law... (DH, 3)

Syllabus Error #63:
It is lawful to refuse obedience to legitimate princes, and even to rebel against them.

Dignitatis Humanae:
...this Vatican Council urges everyone... to do their utmost to form men who... will respect the moral order and be obedient to lawful authority... (DH, 8)

Syllabus Error #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.

Dignitatis Humanae:
[Neither affirmed nor denied. It is acknowledged that confessional states may still legitimately exist. (DH, 6)]

Syllabus Error #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.

Dignitatis Humanae:
[Not explicitly contradicted. DH favors permitting public worship to the maximum extent compatible with public order. (DH, 3, 4, 7) This involves a prudential decision as to what sorts of public religious acts will corrupt or scandalize public mores.]

Syllabus Error #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.

Dignitatis Humanae:
[Not contradicted. The position condemned here is one of absolute license, which is not the morally circumscribed religious liberty defined by DH. (DH, 3)]

Syllabus Error #80:
The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.

[Not explicitly contradicted. While DH and the Vatican Council generally did try to come to terms with “progress, liberalism and modern civilization,” these concepts had acquired substantially different content in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. The liberalism, progressivism, and modernism condemned by Pius IX was overtly hostile to the Church, presuming to subsume all ecclesiastical functions under civil authority. See Errors 20, 26, 28, 32, 37, 39, 44, 49, 50, 51, 52, and 53 for examples of extreme anti-clericalism. None of these positions would be espoused by Western states at the time of the Council, as a much more sanguine attitude toward the rights of churches had developed.]

In summary, Dignitatis Humanae frequently confirms the Syllabus, and contradicts it nowhere. Where Dignitatis Humanae is silent, post-Conciliar practice establishes that the Church still claims temporal rights, and even privileges in Catholic countries.

The one substantive change in practice is that the Church has mostly abandoned the use of the temporal sword or coercive force, even in matters not pertaining to the act of belief. Yet the Church always retains the discretion not to exercise her rights, and has never formally disavowed that she has a right to temporal power. Thus the Church’s modern practice need not imply a condemnation of all earlier uses of temporal power by the Church. An ethical and historical evaluation of past practices is reserved for another work.

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2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org