Pius XI: Stalwart witness to true order

Although he surely didn’t intend it, Joseph Stalin’s cynical question — “How many divisions does the pope have?” — pointed to an important fact: The real weapons of a pope are prayer, diplomacy, moral truth and the blood of martyrs.

With the possible exception of diplomacy, it’s hardly likely any of these impressed the Soviet dictator. But the papacy’s worldly weakness and moral fortitude are both strikingly visible in the pontificate of Pope Pius XI.

Grave crises marked his 17-year tenure — global economic collapse during the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarian states ruled by what one historian calls “men of violence,” wars and preparations for war, and bloody persecution of the Church even in traditionally Catholic countries like Mexico and Spain. Pius XI died on the eve of the 20th century’s second and most destructive global conflict, World War II.

Along with these terrible events, Pius XI was called to face grave challenges of another sort — early signs of a cultural revolution that was to explode in the middle years of the century — by upholding Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality and defending the rights of parents and the Church in education.

The climb

Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti was born May 31, 1857, in the town of Desio, Italy, near Milan. Ordained a priest in 1879, he studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, earning doctorates in philosophy, canon law and theology. He taught at the seminary in Padua, then began work at the famous Ambrosian Library in Milan, serving there until 1911. Along with his scholarly interests, he was an avid mountain climber who scaled famous peaks like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.

In 1911 he moved to the Vatican Library, becoming prefect in 1914. In April 1918 Pope Benedict XV sent him to Poland on a diplomatic mission with the delicate assignment of re-establishing ecclesiastical institutions and relationships after years of German, Russian and Austrian dominance. In 1919 the pope named him nuncio and raised him to the rank of archbishop. In 1920, during hostilities between Poland and the Soviet Union, he was one of the few diplomats who remained in Warsaw at a moment when it seemed likely to fall to the Red Army.

In June 1921, Pope Benedict appointed him archbishop of Milan and made him a cardinal. Following Benedict’s death, the cardinals chose him as pope on Feb. 6, 1922. His first public act was to deliver his “urbi et orbi” blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica — a gesture signifying openness to improved relations with the Italian state, strained since 1870, when nationalists had seized Rome and Blessed Pius IX declared himself “prisoner of the Vatican.”

The proper order

Pius XI was a no-nonsense pope who once told a cardinal who said it was his duty to offer advice, “Yes, when you’re asked for it.” As his motto, he chose Pax Christi in Regno Christi (“The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”), spelling out what that meant to him in an encyclical (Quas Primas) in which he established the liturgical feast of Christ the King.

Although Christ’s kingdom is essentially spiritual, he wrote, it would be “grave error ... to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs.” On the contrary, Christ’s moral and spiritual authority is universal. “Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the State, for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual; in him is the salvation of society,” he declared.

The pope’s preferred vehicle for applying this ambitious vision in secular affairs was the lay movement Catholic Action. His enthusiastic promotion of the group — understood to be a form of participation by the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy and so, ultimately, under clerical control — earned him the title “pope of Catholic Action.” He also defended the rights of parents and the Church in education in a 1929 encyclical (Divini Illius Magistri) and provided a comprehensive treatment of Catholic doctrine on marriage, family and human life in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii.

Appearing soon after the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference had broken ranks with the previous consensus among Christian denominations against artificial birth control, Casti Connubii stated the wrongness of contraception in these forceful terms: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

In 1931 Pius XI made a notable contribution to Catholic social doctrine in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (“In the 40th Year” — since Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum). Published at the height of a global economic crisis, the papal document criticized both socialism and liberal capitalism, offering a corporatist vision of economic life that emphasized cooperation between classes and groups in place of competition and class conflict.

It also spelled out the principle of subsidiarity still invoked by writers on political and economic affairs as a brake on government overreaching: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and ... a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

Global threats

Meanwhile the pope was learning more about the evils of totalitarianism from events in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union.

Like many people, Italians and non-Italians alike, Pius XI seems at first to have taken a benign view of Italy’s fascist ruler, Benito Mussolini. In 1929 the Vatican and the Italian government settled the prickly “Roman question” by an agreement setting the terms of their relationship. In return for giving up claims to the former Papal States and Rome and recognizing the Kingdom of Italy, Vatican City was recognized as an independent state. The Holy See received the equivalent of $100 million in payment for its lost territories, and Catholicism was formally recognized as the religion of Italy.

But the fascists’ totalitarian impulses soon made themselves felt, with the Mussolini regime moving to clamp down on Church-sponsored youth groups and Catholic Action. In 1931 Pius XI responded with an encyclical (Non Abbiamo Bisogno) protesting the government’s encroachments.

Soon it was Germany’s turn. After coming to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler saw advantages in an agreement with the Church and pressed for a concordat in negotiations with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. But once the concordat was in place, the Nazis began violating it, drawing 36 formal protests from the Vatican in the next three years.

In 1937 Pope Pius published an encyclical — Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”) — that was smuggled into Germany and distributed secretly to priests for reading from pulpits on Palm Sunday. In it the pope protested not only persecution of the Church but the regime’s racism — including anti-Semitism — together with the “aggressive neo-paganism” and “myth of blood and race” underlying it.

In the Soviet Union, hostility to religion had been a prominent feature of the Communist regime from the start. “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” Lenin wrote. In his encyclical Divini Redemptoris, published within a few days of Mit Brennender Sorge, the pope declared: “Society is for man and not vice versa. ... Communism impoverishes human personality by inverting the terms of the relation of man to society.”

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Persecution of the Church also was a grim reality in Mexico and Spain. Under the Mexican regime of Plutarco Elias Calles, some 5,000 Catholics — clergy, religious and laity — lost their lives in the 1920s. In Spain, churches were burned and nearly 8,000 clergy and religious were killed during the early days of the civil war that broke out in 1936.

Pope Pius XI canonized well-known saints such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Thomas More. In 1931 he founded Vatican Radio as an instrument for the use of new communication technology to carry the Gospel around the world.

He suffered two heart attacks in November 1938 and a third, which killed him, the following Feb. 10. As pope he had faced what a historian calls a “new breed of polity,” combining authoritarianism, totalitarianism and “incredible addiction to violence and mass destruction.” As events would soon show, there was even worse to come.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.