In the Piazza del Gesù in Rome stands the mother church for the Society of Jesus, the Church of the Gesù. Inside one finds artist Pierre Le Gros’ classic marble relief, Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred (pictured above). Long recognized by art historians as an archetypal image of the Church Triumphant, the Web Gallery of Art notes:
In Le Gros’ work, Religion hurls down thunderbolts upon an old woman representing Hatred while a male figure of Heresy writhes vanquished beneath; to reinforce the point, a putto cheerfully tears pages out of a volume by the Swiss reformer Zwingli, and a tome beneath the figure of Heresy bears Luther’s name prominently on its spine.
In a similar vein as Le Gros’ masterpiece stands Pope Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical, Mirari Vos, On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism. Written during a time of great political and ecclesial tumult, and by a pope only in the second year of his pontificate, Mirari Vos employs the full authority of the papacy to boldly combat error. The language is direct and triumphalist in tone, differing significantly from what we have seen so often in recent years. Pope Gregory is also succinct in stating his purpose. At a mere 24 paragraphs total, Mirari Vos is most effective in part because of its brevity.
“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…” (13)
Regarding what Pope Gregory calls the “freedom of error”, or an individual’s “liberty of conscience”:
“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…” (14)
In the wake of the modern ecumenical movement and interfaith discussions, and at a time when religious truths often play second fiddle to religious liberty, the triumphalist language found in Mirari Vos is refreshing. As in Le Gros’ masterpiece in the Church of the Gesù, pray that we will once again see heresy and error condemned with such boldness by the Holy Father and his brother bishops. Mercy and charity call for no less than this.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared at OnePeterFive on June 22, 2015.