Anti-Separationist Pope on the Fast Track for Catholic Sainthood

Church & State, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Anti-Separationist Pope on the Fast Track for Catholic Sainthood


A 19th-century pope who condemned church-state separation as an "error" has taken a major step toward sainthood.

Pope Pius IX, who served as head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1846 to 1878, is a highly controversial figure with a record of hostility toward Jews and non-Catholic faiths. However, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 4, a move often seen as a precursor to sainthood.

Pius IX labored to assert the political authority of the church at a time when Italians were moving toward unity as a secular nation. In 1864 he issued a "Syllabus of Errors" purporting to list various theological errors denounced by the church.

Among the propositions listed in the Syllabus as errors are the belief that "the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church" and the idea that "Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true."

In the Syllabus, Pius also rejected the notion that "the Roman pontiff can and should reconcile and harmonize himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization."

Pius played a key role in mandating some of the church's most familiar theological beliefs. In 1854 he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the teaching that the mother of Jesus was born without original sin. In 1869 he convened a church council that, while condemning materialism and atheism, also approved the doctrine of papal infallibility, the belief that the popes speak without error on theological matters.

Given his strong views, Pius' relations with other religions were rocky. He confined Jews in Rome to a ghetto and once referred to them as "dogs," complaining that "there are too many of them present" in the city. In 1858 he sparked a worldwide uproar by permitting church police to seize a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been baptized as a Catholic by an illiterate serving gift in the Mortara home. Despite international appeals that the boy be given back to his parents, Mortara was raised at the Vatican; he became a priest upon reaching adulthood.

Adding contemporary fuel to the fire, a top Vatican official, the Rev. Daniel Ols of the Congregation for the Promotion of Saints, recently appeared to defend the church's actions in the Mortara case. Ols said he would still "find it beautiful" for a child to be baptized Catholic without his parents' knowledge, arguing that the "good of eternal life" would supercede the parents' wishes.

Jewish organizations criticized John Paul's decision to beatify Pius IX. In an Aug. 23 letter, the American Jewish Committee, the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Israel Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations called on the pope to reverse course, saying Pius falls "far short of saintliness."

John Paul apparently shrugged off these concerns. …

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Anti-Separationist Pope on the Fast Track for Catholic Sainthood
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