The Sillon, Religion, and the State

Pio-XYesterday was the centennial of Pope S. Pius X’s Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique, condemning the Sillonist movement. One of the problems that S. Pius saw with the Sillon was the position they came to hold that political action ought to be neutral toward religion. Originally a Catholic organization, they came to invite into their movement persons “of all religions and of no religion, with or without beliefs, so long as they forego what might divide them – their religious and philosophical convictions, and so long as they share what unites them – a ‘generous idealism and moral forces drawn from whence they can.'” Saint Pius points out that this supposed neutrality toward religion ends up becoming itself a religion:

the end result of this developing promiscuousness, the beneficiary of this cosmopolitan social action, can only be a Democracy which will be neither Catholic, nor Protestant, nor Jewish. It will be a religion (for Sillonism, so the leaders have said, is a religion) more universal than the Catholic Church, uniting all men become brothers and comrades at last in the “Kingdom of God”. – “We do not work for the Church, we work for mankind.”

Where does the Sillon’s error come from? S. Pius sees the root of this (and all Sillonist errors) in a false conception of human dignity:

at the root of all their fallacies on social questions, lie the false hopes of Sillonists on human dignity. According to them, Man will be a man truly worthy of the name only when he has acquired a strong, enlightened, and independent consciousness, able to do without a master, obeying only himself, and able to assume the most demanding responsibilities without faltering. Such are the big words by which human pride is exalted, like a dream carrying Man away without light, without guidance, and without help into the realm of illusion in which he will be destroyed by his errors and passions whilst awaiting the glorious day of his full consciousness.

This conception of human dignity is exactly what Charles de Koninck calls “personalism” (in the subtitle of his book On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists): “personalism” in this sense is defined as the assertion of the primacy of “personal,” private goods over the common good of a community. The common good, for the personalist, is merely instrumental, the sum-total of those conditions which allow the person to realize his own dignity.

How does the error of the neutrality of political action toward religion (what Leo XIII would call “separation of Church and State”) arise our of this “personalism”? I have tried a rough sketch of how this works in a comment on Aelianus’s excellent post on “theistic neutrality” at Laodicea. There I argue that “separation of church and state” arises directly from the misunderstanding of the distinction between “private goods,” which are inferior to and ordered to the one for whom they are good, and “common goods,” which are more excellent than those who share in them. Those who share in common goods really share in them as their own good, but they are ordered to the good rather than the other way around. The common good par-excellence is God himself, and every other common good is intrinsically ordered to him. The intrinsic good of any community is order which is a reflection of the unity of God. Reason is naturally ordered to the common good, but because of the fall man is more apt to pursue the private good, which is above all the good of the senses. S. Thomas teaches that it is impossible to love the common good properly without grace:

It is manifest that the good of the part is for the good of the whole; hence everything, by its natural appetite and love, loves its own proper good on account of the common good of the whole universe, which is God. Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “God leads everything to love of Himself.” Hence in the state of perfect nature man referred the love of himself and of all other things to the love of God as to its end; and thus he loved God more than himself and above all things. But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature. (Ia IIae 109, 3)

Thus religion is not merely necessary to the state insofar as the state is the order of men and men have a duty to worship God, but it is necessary for the state, if it is to be a real political community at all, to order itself to the divine Good. Hence De Koninck writes:

When those in whose charge the common good lies do not order it explicitly to God, is society not corrupted at its very root? […] Political prudence rules the common good insofar as the latter is Divine. For that reason Cajetan and John of St. Thomas held that the legal justice of the prince is more perfect than the virtue of religion.Undoubtedly the reasons why we are ignorant of the common good are the very same ones on account of which we are ignorant of political prudence. “We have too long been in error concerning the role of the intellect. We have neglected the substance of man. We have believed that the virtuosity of low souls could assist in the triumph of noble causes, that clever selfishness could lift up the spirit of sacrifice, that aridity of heart could, through the wind of discourse, found fraternity or love.” The intellect has succumbed to the senses, to the senses riveted to the singular good. The conflict which exists between man and society does not come from the perfection of the person, nor from a supposed common good which is contrary to the person; it comes properly from the sensible part of man, from the revolt of this inferior part of man against the good of the intellect. […] The common good, and not the person and liberty, being the very principle of all law, of all rights, of all justice and of all liberty, a speculative error concerning it leads fatally to the most execrable practical consequences.

Even the pagans such as Aristotle seemed to have an inkling of this (Speaking of the offices which are essential to the state Aristotle writes: “Fifthly, or rather first, there must be a care of religion, which is commonly called worship.” (Politics, Bk. VII, ch. 8, 1328b 13)), but of course the rebellion of sensible nature against intellectual nature is the effect of the fall (cf. De Civitate Dei XIV), and the only one who can save us from that is Christ the King.

Unfortunately the changed strategy of the Church’s social Magisterium on these matters since the council, a strategy which arises from the new situation of the Church in a radically secular world, has lead to formulations on “healthy secularity” that are easy to read through a Sillonist lens. It is of pressing concern to develop a reading of the post-conciliar social Magisterium which uses a “hermeneutic of continuity,” reading,  for example, Dignitatis Humanae by the light of Notre Charge Apostolique and Immortale Dei (and visa-versa). Incidentally, it is precisely the failure to make any serious attempt at such a reading that lead to Archbishop Lefebvre’s schism, and it is the unlikelihood of such an attempt being seriously made in the near future that make me pessimistic about the chances of the Holy See’s recent attempts at reconciliation with the “Society of St. Pius X.”

6 thoughts on “The Sillon, Religion, and the State

  1. I am aware of the existence of such a tome. My question has always been why it has to be 3,000 pages. Surely, if the argument is worth making, it could be summarize in, say, a book of less than a hundred pages. A three thousand page study seems the work of a neurotic who is trying to convince himself of something that isn’t the case. Then again, I get that same impression from the Gadamerian phrase, “hermeneutic of continuity”. So many syllables that mean so little.


  2. Whether or not you like the number of syllables in the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity”, the fact remains that one cannot read a text without some principles of interpretation (whether implicit or explicit) and the nature of the Social Teaching of the Church is such that one cannot interpret it correctly unless one is guided be the principle referred to by that phrase. For the same reason, whatever might be the mental condition of Dom Valuet (and simply having written a long study on a difficult question seems insufficient proof of neurosis), what he is trying to do must be possible in principle.


  3. Well, I don’t happen to be Protestant, but there are plenty of people who are, and who interpret Trent with a Protestant hermeneutic without their heads exploding. The Protestant hermeneutic governing the reading of Catholic Teaching seems to be: “this stuff is probably wrong, blasphemous, and (which comes to the same thing) contrary to the plain meaning of the Bible.” And that seems to be pretty much the same as the hermeneutic guiding your reading of Vatican II, inserting “and the pre-Vatican II magisterium” after “the Bible”.


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