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Mirari Vos: On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism by Pope Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI (b. 8 September 1765 – d. 1 June 1846), born Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, began his pontificate on 2 February 1831. On 15 August 1832, he issued a papal encyclical about liberalism and its implications.

This encyclical is approximately 4,100 words in 24 paragraphs. Gregory XVI opens by describing the general state of affairs:

5. We speak of the things which you see with your own eyes, which We both bemoan. Depravity exults; science is impudent; liberty, dissolute. … The divine authority of the Church is opposed and her rights shorn off. … Furthermore, academies and schools resound with new, monstrous opinions, which openly attack the Catholic faith; this horrible and nefarious war is openly and even publicly waged. Thus, by institutions and by the example of teachers, the minds of the youth are corrupted and a tremendous blow is dealt to religion and the perversion of morals is spread. So the restraints of religion are thrown off, by which alone kingdoms stand. We see the destruction of public order, the fall of principalities, and the overturning of all legitimate power approaching. Indeed this great mass of calamities had its inception in the heretical societies and sects in which all that is sacrilegious, infamous, and blasphemous has gathered as bilge water in a ship’s hold, a congealed mass of all filth.

Gregory XVI mentions in passing the attacks on clerical celibacy and marriage before the main topics of concern. He begins with “religious indifference”, which is not merely “not caring” but rather the deliberate failure to distinguish between religions. This type of indifference not only waters down the truth, but also waters down any truth claim which makes any constructive discussion impossible.

13. Now We consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care. With the admonition of the apostle that “there is one God, one faith, one baptism” may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. … Indeed Augustine would reply to such a man: “The branch has the same form when it has been cut off from the vine; but of what profit for it is the form, if it does not live from the root?”

Regarding “liberty of conscience”, this is an example of the evil in power who calculatedly use the “right” words in a vague manner to mean the wrong thing. In this case, “liberty of conscience” is intended to fool the naïve to think “freedom to obey one’s conscience” but is actually closer to “do whatever you want”. Popes at the time including Gregory XVI saw through this.

14. This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to 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. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws—in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.

As distasteful as it is nowadays, the Church had no qualms banning and burning books, way before the horrific events of the past century. Makes one wonder who copied who… It’s not just what one does but also why.

15. 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. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?

Gregory XVI goes on to remind the faithful of the submission due to civil authority as long as it does not contradict God and His Church. This is presumably in response to the revolutions in recent memory and the revolutionary trends at the time.

17. We have learned that certain teachings are being spread among the common people in writings which attack the trust and submission due to princes; the torches of treason are being lit everywhere. …
18. And it is for this reason that the early Christians, lest they should be stained by such great infamy deserved well of the emperors and of the safety of the state even while persecution raged. This they proved splendidly by their fidelity in performing perfectly and promptly whatever they were commanded which was not opposed to their religion, and even more by their constancy and the shedding of their blood in battle. “Christian soldiers,” says St. Augustine, “served an infidel emperor. When the issue of Christ was raised, they acknowledged no one but the One who is in heaven. They distinguished the eternal Lord from the temporal lord, but were also subject to the temporal lord for the sake of the eternal Lord.” …

Related to revolutions is the issue of “separation of Church and State”. This is another example of the use of “right” words in a vague manner to mean the wrong thing. As one can see below, there is the recognition of the distinction between church and civil authority as well as its operation. That is right and proper. But those who promote said separation are pushing for the civil authority to be totally divorced from whatever church authority might stand for as well as to put church authority under civil authority (which is what we have today).

20. 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 to break the mutual concord between temporal authority and the priesthood. It is certain that that concord which always was favorable and beneficial for the sacred and the civil order is feared by the shameless lovers of liberty.

Not surprisingly, Gregory XVI not so subtly points to secret societies such as freemasonry as the promoter of liberalism.

21. But for the other painful causes We are concerned about, you should recall that certain societies and assemblages seem to draw up a battle line together with the followers of every false religion and cult. They feign piety for religion; but they are driven by a passion for promoting novelties and sedition everywhere. They preach liberty of every sort; they stir up disturbances in sacred and civil affairs, and pluck authority to pieces.

Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Gregory XVI

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