Affirmation today of the dogma that outside the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) is usually immediately qualified with “but…” The qualification is meant as a sign by whoever affirms the teaching that he does not really fall within the parameters set by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, eighteenth-century godfather of liberalism, in his most important book, The Social Contract: “Whoever dares to say outside the Church is no salvation should be driven from the state.”
That declaration flowed naturally from Rousseau’s liberal conception of freedom as being free to do whatever is humanly possible, including what Christians know to be evil (abortion, same-sex marriage, enriching oneself at the cost of impoverishing others are examples). He begins The Social Contract by stating, “All men are born free.” He was correct insofar as all are born ignorant of the constraints of religious practice and civilized living. They have to be learned, which is what education is about. However, his conception of freedom as a desirable social end being central to all he says, Rousseau eventually dictates: “Whoever refuses to obey the general will [to be ‘free’] shall be compelled to do so by the whole body, which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free.”
Rousseau’s vision of men forced to be “free” according to liberalism’s notion of freedom was realized in France by means of the guillotine and the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution of 1789 — that were the Revolution. If the notion eventually replaced Christian teaching in the lives of most men throughout the West, it was condemned in 1864 by Bl. Pope Pius IX as the “liberty of perdition.” That was in his encyclical Quanta cura.
Bl. Pio Nono was not the first pope to condemn liberalism. That was Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism) promulgated in 1832. However, reference to him and Quanta cura puts me in mind of one of the Blessed’s successors as pope and an encyclical he promulgated. The successor was Pius XI and the encyclical Quas primas.
Enjoining on the Church everywhere observance of the Feast of Christ the King, Quas primas was dated December 11, 1925. That was within the lifetime of some Catholics yet living today, but the encyclical’s teaching is as poorly remembered now as the very existence of the document itself. That is practically never. Why?
The sway of liberalism now being nearly universal, perhaps those to whom Quas primas was addressed, the Church’s bishops, feel embarrassed by it as well as by Bl. Pio Nono’s Quanta cura and its attachment the Syllabus of Errors with its anathematized proposition that “the Roman Pontiff has, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
After all, if you were an official of an institution, what could be more embarrassing to you today than to have the institution’s head, even one in the past, declare that anybody in his position should oppose progress, liberalism and (the sum of all good things) modernity itself? How do you disembarrass yourself?
What you do, for the sake of keeping your job, is pay immediate lip service to the declaration, then fall silent about it — forever. Though the declaration will be archived and is therefore liable to be brought to light on occasion, as we are doing here, it will be forgotten by most. Meantime, you’ve distanced yourself from it by showing the intention of doing nothing to uphold it.
After Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors, that was how the bishops of the United States would also deal with Testem benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 Apostolic Letter condemning the heresy of Americanism. Decades later, it was how the bishops of nearly all developed countries treated Humanae vitae, Bl. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on artificial contraception. These documents were dropped down Orwell’s memory hole. Thus also Quas primas after 1925.
Early in the encyclical it is observed that the teaching on Christ’s Kingship is as old as His own as recorded in Holy Scripture: “After his resurrection, when giving to the Apostles the mission of teaching and baptizing all nations, he took the opportunity to call himself king (Matt. 25: 30-31), confirming the title publicly (John 18: 37), and solemnly proclaimed that all power was given to him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28: 18).”
Knowing full well what was being said on every side by 1925, more than a century after the rise of political liberalism, Pope Pius XI went on to proclaim: “It would be a grave error to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs…. He is the author of happiness and true prosperity for every man and every nation… If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority and increase the prosperity of countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”
If the public reverence and obedience owed to His rule were already so widely neglected by 1925 for Pope Pius to try to remind the world of their necessity, they are totally non-existent anywhere in ex-Christendom today.
What else taught by modern popes before Vatican II is now forgotten or ignored? Pope Leo XIII is best remembered today for promulgating the first so-called social encyclical, Rerum novarum. However, during his long pontificate he wrote much more often about governance than economics. His 1881 encyclical Diuturnum illud (On the Origin of Civil Power) can be easily related to Pius XI’s Quas primas: “Modern writers in great numbers…declare that all power comes from the people, consequently those who exercise power in society do not exercise it from their own authority, but from an authority delegated to them by the people and on the condition that it can be revoked by the will of the people from whom they hold it. Quite contrary is the sentiment of Catholics who hold that the right of government derives from God as its natural and necessary principle.”
Of course the pre-Vatican II popes wrote about worship. On this score, even many “traditional” Catholics of today ignore the motu proprio of November 23, 1903, in which Pope St. Pius X prohibited women from singing in church choirs.
Then there is Veterum sapientia. It was an Apostolic Constitution promulgated in 1962 by Pope St. John XXIII, the very pope who convened Vatican II. Apostolic constitutions are the highest level of decrees issued by popes. They are a step above encyclicals. The subject of this one was the study and use of Latin. “We are fully determined,” Pope St. John wrote, “to restore this language to its position of honor, and to do all we can to promote its study and use.” He even decreed that late-vocation priests without any classical education had to learn Latin before they could be ordained.
By the time the Catechism of the Catholic Church was being written two decades after Pope St. John’s death, the committee of theologians who wrote it knew so little Latin they had to write it in French!
There is a lesson to be learned here. Whenever we hear Christ presented as no more than the King of individual souls instead of society, or of a father who does his duty but sees his family torn apart by a wife who deserts the home in order to “fulfill” herself, we are reminded that a leader can lead, a pope the Church, a father his family, but will be powerless today if nobody follows.
Today, we say, because there used to be a time when popes could rely on the Church’s episcopacy (even if it took some arm-twisting), as when the world’s bishops at Vatican I tried to buttress papal authority against the rising tide of liberal democracy by defining the dogma of the pope’s infallibility in matters of faith and morals, and fathers had positive law to support them. That was before the tide became a flood that swept Christ from His throne and left “the people” in His place.