Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Joachim Vincent Pecci, Pope Leo XIII

By Henry Sedgwick, Jr.

Pope Leo XIII
The beginning of the next pontificate and the close of that which has just come to an end mark an epoch in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Leo XIII was crowned in 1878; since that time the great material superiority of England, Germany and the United States over the Latin nations has become patent to the world. A church that claims to be universal and aspires to be a great factor in modern civiliza­tion, in order to achieve success, must be more than tolerated in those three countries. It may well be that the Latin nations will con­tinue to play an important part in the world's history; but the more they recognize the material superiority of people of Teutonic stock, the more they will imitate them, and not in purely economic ways only, but also in matters which bear indirectly on material progress; they will follow them in their behavior toward the Roman Catholic Church, paring and clipping down its power where they can. To save itself in the South, as well as to restore itself in the good opinion of the North, the Church must in some way win the confidence and respect of the liberal thinkers of the North, for they guide the liberal thinkers of the South. As a leader in the work of adapting the Church to the habits of mind in the North, Leo XIII was in liberal eyes a disappointment. At the time of his election many hopes were entertained that he would infuse liberal life into the Church. He did not do so. He chose to devote himself to the task of strengthening the Church in her old ways; his chief means was a strict alliance with the interests of conservatism and property throughout the world. He accepted at every point the traditional doctrine that the old ways of the Church were right; he did all that he could do to hinder and oppose liberal thought. But it would be unjust, and in great measure irrele­vant, to judge him by the liberal standard, and to say that in so far as he diverged from that standard he was wrong. Liberal idea have prevailed in many countries, but peace, content and happiness do not seem to be their inevitable companions; it may be that Leo XIII better served the interests of Christendom in strengthening the old machin­ery of the Church than if he had attempted to bring her into harmony with liberal ideas. A far more just method in which to judge him is to judge him in relation to the actual con­dition of the Church during his lifetime. One man, be he ever so able, cannot do what he would with a body like the Roman Church; he may modify it a little, he may mend it a little, or mar it, but make a radical change he cannot.


The Roman Catholic Church is the most wonderful organization in the world. The German Empire, the French Republic, the Italian Kingdom are in their infancy, the United States a little more than a hundred years old; the empires of Russia, Austria and o England cannot run their claims back a thousand years; but within a hundred years after the death of Christ we find a Bishop of Rome writing to other churches with authority; and within a few centuries the Church was organized very much in the same fashion that it is today, and the Pope had become in importance second only to the greatest kings. Exceptional as the Roman Church is in time, so it is in space. The British Empire includes Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand; the Russian Empire extends from the Baltic Sea to the Behring Straits; but the Roman Church, without a rival in Italy, Spain and Portugal, is the chief church in France, Austria, Belgium and Ireland and the states of South America, and a strong church in the United States and Germany; it has a hierarchy side by side with the Church of England and the Kirk of Scotland, and communicants all over the world. So great an organization is both a strength and a weakness. A social organ adapted to peoples so different in ideas and in habits cannot be in the van of civilization. Like a popular government, the Roman Church must con­form to the mean of ideas. It moves slowly; it looks back over 2,000 years, and sees so many new teachings, and the excitement over them all passed away, that it brushes off new ideas as if they were mosquitoes. We can­not judge the Church fairly without bearing in mind the enormous spiritual disadvantages of its great age.

Pope Leo XIII by Franz Von Lenbach
In attempting an estimate of Leo XIII., we must remember that he had to deal with this old, old society, of which every member, clerical and lay, had been taught in infancy, boyhood, youth and manhood to venerate the Church in that very condition in which they found it, as a sacred army fighting for the cause of God; we must also remember that Leo himself did not come to his great office with an education received in the democratic schools and colleges of a republi­can country. On the contrary, he had received the most conservative education possible; this was his greatest hindrance, or his greatcst advantage, according to the point of view.

Joachim Vincent Pecci, Leo XIII., was born on March 2, 1810. He was descended from a noble family of Sienna which, obliged by some political troubles in the beginning of the sixteenth century to seek safety in the states of the Church, had settled in Carpineto, a little mountain town not fax from the rail­road between Rome and Naples. His father, Count Pecci, had been a colonel in Napolecn's Italian guard; his mother, an exceedingly pious woman devoted to religious rites, belonged to a good family of the neighbor­hood. The ancestors of both parents had been subjects of the papacy for two or three hundred years. At eight years of age Joachim was sent with his brother Joseph to a Jesuit school at Viterbo; from there he went to the Roman College in Rome, also a Jesuit institution. At twenty-two he took his degree as doctor in theology, and then attended the Academy of Noble Ecclesiasts, where young Roman noblemen are fitted for taking part in ecclesiastical administration. In 1837, at the age of twenty-seven, he was ordained a priest; and the next year the, Pope appointed him civil Governor of Benevento, a little province lying, like an island, in the midst of the kingdom of Naples. His task was difficult; the petty nobility turned their castles into strongholds and tried to take the law into their own hands, and Benevento was a place of refuge-for brigands and car­bonari flying from the Neapolitan police.

The carbonari were members of a secret society, who, plotting to give political effect to their liberal doctrines, were forced by the oppressive tyranny of the time to adopt lawless methods. At Benevento, Pecci's conservative education was rounded out by the association of the two ideas, liberalism and lawlessness. He remained there three years and was then promoted to be Governor of Perugia, where he increased his reputation for ability and executive capacity. Before long he was promoted again and sent as papal nuncio to Belgium. This office at that time required dexterity and tact, because the liberal party was making great efforts to take the whole system of public education out of the hands of the Church; Pecci filled it with dis­tinction, and made a very favorable impres­sion on the royal family. To be sure, he held to the tenet, probably the first rule taught at the Academy of Noble Ecclesiasts, that in all matters which affect the Church it is for the Pope alone to determine the course of policy, and for all others to follow without taking a step to right hand or left. In 1846 he was appointed Archbishop of Perugia; to please the Pope he accepted this new office and abandoned a diplomatic career. Times were beginning to try ecclesiastical souls in Italy, and the Pope wished to have his capable officers near at hand ready to defend his prerogatives against the lawlessness of liberalism. Pecci made a short tour in England and France before returning to Italy. In England, at that time, the Oxford movement was at its height; Newman had been converted; it looked to Catholic eyes as if a large part of the English nation would return to the fold. Personal impressions are lasting, and one cannot but think that Pecci's attitude toward England was always affected by the High Church color of those pre-Darwinian days. At this time Gregory XVI died and Pius IX succeeded him. Archbishop Pecci returned to Rome, paid his homage to the new Pope, and then began his long and difficult service in Perugia. He devoted his talents and great administrative capacity to strengthening the Church. He busied himself with schools, seminaries, monasteries, churches and pastoral letters; he lived with great frugality and austerity. His conception of education is best shown by a plan for testing scholarship which he intended to adopt in a proposed academy in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas. Every month there was to be a dissertation an discussion on some point in the "Summa Theologia"; the dissertation was to be divided into three parts: the first should define and develop some point in the Saint's teaching; the second should show the strength of the teaching and refute objections to it; the third should apply the teaching to modern systems and errors. It was a strange warfare to fight the very new with the very old, but one in which generalship and courage were needed, and the Archbishop showed both in a marked degree. He engaged with fervor in one long struggle with liberalism and with men whom he deemed robbers of the Church of God.

Pope Leo XIII out for his morning drive
Soon after he was established at Perugia the year 1848 came thundering in. The Pope fled from Rome, and the Republicans under Mazzini and Garibaldi proclaimed a republic. The revolutionary wave passed, but trouble was ahead. In 1859 the Austrians were beaten at Magenta and Solferino, and soon Victor Emmanuel's soldiers marched down into Tuscany and Umbria and the States of the Church, despoiling petty princes and the Pope. Then all Italy except Venice and Rome was united under a king. Venice came after Germany had defeated Austria; and on the 20th of September, 1870, after the French garrison had been called home to defend Paris, the Italian army battered the walls down by the Porta Pia and marched into Rome. This great revolution seemed to the Church like chaos come again. The Italian Government suppressed monastic orders, banished the Jesuits, compelled theo­logical students to undergo conscription, forbade the catechism in primary schools and confiscated church property or forced its conversion into government securities. These events inevitably made papal partisans bitterly hostile toward liberal thought, progress, and modern conception of political life. No man despoiled of rights and possessions which he and his fathers have enjoyed for hundreds of years, can accept his fallen estate as a public good, as a gain to civiliza­tion. Pius IX, at his election, had been full of sympathy for the liberal movement; men had hoped that he would take the lead in freeing Italy; but the headlong zeal of the nationalists turned him and his advisers into bitter enemies. In fact, the attitude of the whole Church has been profoundly affected by the movement of Italian unity; the Church has been soldered in conservatism, and turned against all sympathy with the democratic movement of the last half-century. Leo XIII looked on socialists as Pius IX looked on the followers of Garibaldi.

Pius IX died on February 7, 1878. The election of his successor was held in the Sistine Chapel on February 19th, by the College of Cardinals. Sixty-one were present; each wrote the name of his candidate on his ballot; at the end of the count twenty-three votes were given to Cardinal Pecci, conspicu­ous by his talents and by his zeal in defense of the old order. On the second ballot he received thirty-eight; on the third ballot, which was taken the next day, he received forty-four, more than the requisite two-thirds vote. He was then sixty-eight years old - too late for a man, so bred and trained, to make a change in his views and opinions; but the world soon knew that the Church had a leader. He believed that he was engaged in a holy war; he blew the trumpet of defiance against the enemies of the Church, and ranged the great hierarchy with united front. With great ardor he set himself to maintain and strengthen ecclesiastical discipline and to put new courage into his followers. He made the Church feel that he took a personal interest in the welfare of all its parts, and also that he meant to be obeyed. It was a fine sight to see this old man draw himself to his full height and smite the point of his spear full in the shield of his most dangerous foes.

The Sistine Chapel showing Michael Angelo's "The Last Judgement"
Within the ranks he proved himself the father of his people, the shepherd of his flock, never forgetting his conviction that their first duty is to be faithful to Rome, as the cause of God. He did what he could for persecuted Catholics in China, Turkey and Russia, and in all the ends of the earth; but the most important acts of his long reign were in relation to Germany, France and the United States. At his ascension he found the papal relations with the German Govern­ment much strained. The Kulturkampf had been raging for years. Bismarck, after he had crushed Austria at Koniggratz and had crowned William Emperor at Versailles, determined to round out the imperial rule by breaking the power of the Church in Germany. He tried to take advantage of the intense national feeling, of the prejudice against the papacy for aiding, as was thought, the French cause, and also of the disunion among the Catholics caused by disagreement over the doctrine of papal infallibility which had been decreed by the Vatican council not long before. Severe laws had been enacted with the design of transferring the control of the Church from Pope to Emperor. Leo stood firm beside the German bishops and clergy. After years of contention, concessions were made on both sides. The German Government perceived that the papacy was a bulwark of established order, and an ally against its enemies, the Socialists. Bismarck declared that the laws had been war measures, enacted with a view to peace; they were modified; the Pope, too, was ready for compromise, and peace was made.

In France Leo did his most liberal and unexpected act, in recognizing the republic; but he did not obtain what he hoped. The French Government has shown itself determined to put down clericalism, and it has enacted law after law to that end; and no durable friendliness between it and the papacy, as long as the latter seeks to hold political power, seems possible.

In the United States Leo gave a hard blow to the liberal doctrines entertained by leaders in the Church. In his letter to Cardinal Gibbons "concerning new opinions," dated January 22, 1899, he said:

"The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order more easily to attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made, not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them. It does not need many words, beloved son, to prove the falsity of these ideas if the nature and origin of the doctrine which the Church puts forward are called to mind. The Vatican Council says concerning this point: Tor the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed like a philo­sophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. "

Pope Leo XIII being carried from the Sistine Chapel
Strange as these words ring in liberal ears, we cannot but admire the bold clear­ness of the statement; most leaders in State and Church are timid in announc­ing their beliefs; they trim and come about ready to set their sails to to­morrow's wind; but the Catholic Church does not palter with its faith. She leaves no room for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or doubt. The spirit and letter of her creed are one. There has been no more conspicu­ous instance of political courage than her affront to science in the famous case of St. George Mivart, almost the only eminent man of science in England true to the Catholic Church. She bade him believe the tales of the Old Testament in the very words in which they were written, without a shadow of penumbra in which his intelligence might take refuge. He could not; and the Church denied her rites.

Interesting as the Roman Church is in sociology and in history, its main interest for us is its power and position in the United States. Statistics show its growth: it has more than 9,000,000 members; it has churches in every State; it has a cardinal, archbishops, bishops, many orders and socie­ties; it has a university, colleges, and a great system of parochial schools. Practically all Americans of Irish blood are Catholic, besides many Germans, Italians, Poles and others, and the Irish leaders in the Church show the same skill in ecclesiastical matters that they do in politics. The Roman Church in America is a mighty power which might be, and perhaps is, used for the great good of the country; it concerns itself with the less edu­cated, and has hold over few of the educated classes. Such a church may well be stronger than one to which the educated belong, because the many influences that in these generations attack old creeds and systems act on the educated and leave the ignorant untouched. The day laborer is unscathed by study and reflection; in him familiarity begets loyalty: but the educated man acts on probabilities and policy.

Those who deem the Church not a divine institution, but a social organ to help men lead better lives, are apt to get impatient with its apparent apathy, the fixing of its face on the past, its renunciation of the teachings of science. They would cut it down, hack out the roots, and sweep the rubbish away.

Men cannot sit indifferent before such an organization; they are either for it or against. But if it should suddenly pass away, would the vast space which it covers be found properly tilled to receive the delicate seeds of individual religion? What harvests does history show from such sowing? Here and there a single man is able and willing to think religious thoughts by himself, but the multitude always follows a leader, or custom, the practice of dead leaders. The leader of the Catholic Church, in name at least, is Christ; but who would the new leader be? Protestant churches do not flourish on Latin or Celtic soil; they could not take the place of their mighty mother. The temptations engendered by the struggle for life, by the desire for property and pleasure, are so tremendous that our social structure, erected on the family, needs all the support it can get. As long as notions of right are so closely inter­twined with the ecclesiastical system we cannot afford to let the latter go.

A procession in the Sala Regia
The problem for the Catholic clergy in the United States is very difficult; undoubt­edly many of them, sensitive to their demo­cratic modern education, desire a change in the government and order of the Church perhaps not wholly unlike that which an outsider lightly proposes. The Church is controlled by a band of Italians; it should be governed by an international senate. Powers of appointment and promotion are lodged in the Pope; they should lie in the local churches. Each congregation should elect its own priests, the priests of the diocese should elect the bishop, the bishops should choose their cardinal, and the cardinals or the House of Bishops should elect the Pope. The will of the prince should no longer be law. Power should rise from the people: this is the principle of democracy, and the Church, in theory, is democratic. The laity should be a coordinate body with the priest­hood. There should be room, some breath­ing space at least, for new faith to grow side by side with the old; faith in an ever-increasing revelation of God should walk hand-in-hand with that revelation in Christ which alone the Church acknowledges. This would be a great revolution; but great revolutions have been accomplished within a social body, and that body has lived in greater health than before. The French nation survived the revolution of 1789, the Southern States have outlived the abolition of slavery.  Japan has changed like a butterfly from its grub. It is not necessary that such dreams should prevail; but freedom to entertain them is necessary. If such changes come, they will begin in a loosening of the Roman domination.

It would be a loss if the American church should break loose from the main body; she might gain thereby, temporarily, but at the price of loss to the whole Church; and a Christian church in America cannot wish to gain at the expense of its brethren. A universal church is a great spiritual concep­tion which the world cannot afford to lose. Protestant churches are so strongly affected by local interests, by notions of the town, ideas of the village that they fail to supply that generous blood which circulates through the veins of an international church. Moreover, the Catholic Church has the immense advantage of clinging to mystery, however crudely that mystery may be expressed in the concrete. Transubstantiation, grace, the sacraments, the. motherhood of the Virgin, all keep the mind on the domain of religious hope, the unknown and seemingly unknowable region, behind the veils of life and death, and beyond the bounds of reason.

What are the American priesthood to do? Older men can remember the time when Father Hecker, in the strong zeal of youth, thought that he could bring all America into the Roman Catholic Church. His enthusiasm spread among younger men, since then distinguished prelates. Then came the con­troversy over Americanism, and the Pope's rebuke. But the best hopes of the Roman Catholic Church lie in America, and the strength of her American church consists in the right of priest and layman to entertain and to press opinions which are foisted upon them by American notions of freedom and manhood. The new Pope, exempt from the hard education which held Leo XII, so tight in its old Roman clutches, will have the power to confer that right, and his giving or withholding is momentous, for it may win or alienate the respect of the American people. But perhaps these wise old Roman priests know best, and the straight and narrow path of custom and precedent may be the right road for Catholic feet. We lightly put new wine into old bottles; the old bottles break, the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish.


The World’s Work Magazine.  1903.
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