Letter: Pope's stand against women priests is not infallible

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Sir: Andrew Brown's attack on the new catechism ('And the word was all male', 31 May) presents an unbalanced view of recent papal history, especially where he treats Pope Pius IX's condemnation of 'progress, liberalism and modern civilisation' (in the Syllabus of Errors, published in 1864, not in 1861).

I would not defend the document wholesale, but it has a historical context in the attacks in Latin Europe and Latin America on the existence of the religious orders; in the wholesale expropriation of ecclesiastical property; and in the destruction of Catholic education. The 'progress' and 'liberalism' condemned by Rome were generally those values espoused by the sort of revolutionary anti-clericalism which was to take a Marxist form in this century.

The Syllabus was a blunt instrument, and caused suffering to British and American Catholics for whom 'liberalism' meant not the closure of churches and monastries but a novel freedom to open them. Their way of understanding the Syllabus appears in John Henry Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk in 1875.

Just as Pius IX's successor Leo XIII found a modus vivendi with social democracy, so John Paul II's successor will no doubt come to terms with whatever is good in feminism. But, far from leading to terminal decline, as Andrew Brown's argument might imply, the efforts of these two popes together led to a vastly invigorated and expanded church, which distinguished in the end between what was right and what was wrong in the spirit of the age.

Yours faithfully,


Department of Theology

University of Durham


31 May