Papal Blasts From the Past

Leaving my apartment building last February 18, I fell on the icy front steps and broke both bones of my right forearm, the radius and ulna, about two fingers below the wrist bone. It wouldn’t be until six weeks later that I could hold a pen and another two before I began to use it. As for typing, I’m still not up to speed and may never be. I also can’t yet get a fork to my mouth with my right hand unless like a little kid I hold it in my fist.

Now, except for somebody who insists on describing in detail a dream he has had, is anybody a greater bore than a person talking at length about his troubles, as if everyone hasn’t plenty of his own? I don’t intend to do that here. What I’m doing is providing background as to how it is that in a few moments I’ll be quoting from four neglected papal encyclicals, one from the end of the nineteenth century and the three others from early in the twentieth.

If my temporary inability to write or type was vexing to me, it was mainly because at the time of my fall I was aiming to finish a book by June 1. The book, obviously not now completed under the circumstances, consists of notes or reflections on Christian social order. It is not about the Church’s social teaching as such, not if by that term is meant nothing but the teaching as presented in the modern social encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and Quodragesimo Anno. Catholics also have a 2,000-year heritage of the writings of Fathers and Doctors of the Church, other great saints, philosophers, historians and other scholars, great Catholic statesmen and even a couple of novelists to show them what a Christian society looks like, or would if one existed in our day.

Not being physically able to write after I broke my wrist didn’t mean I couldn’t work at all. One thing I could continue to do was read. My reading or, more exactly, rereading included some of what the modern popes have had to say in their social encyclicals, which do figure in the book even if they aren’t its focus. As I went along, it struck me that visitors to the SBC website, especially fellow Americans, might be interested in the material. Certainly it ought to get them to thinking, or so I hope. Accordingly, I’ve selected short passages from the four documents with that in view.

I do this knowing that even Catholics who take the Faith seriously, as do visitors to this website, often are not familiar with authoritative documents that antedate Vatican Council II. This is not entirely their fault. Since the Council itself, high Churchmen have seldom cited documents promulgated before it took place.

Three of the documents explicitly condemn the rigid separation of Church and state that exists in U.S.-style liberal democracy. The fourth might as well. It is important to grasp in this regard that demolition of the famous “wall of separation” (Thomas Jefferson’s phrase) would not necessarily entail making Catholicism the religion of the state, as many traditional Catholics seem to think. Indeed, my belief is that would not be desirable. As I have pointed out on other occasions, two of the greatest Catholic statesmen of the twentieth century, Salazar of Portugal and Dollfuss of Austria (who was in constant consultation with Pope Pius XI), refrained from making Catholicism the state religion when they had the political power to do so.

They had good reasons. I’ll simply observe here that it would guarantee nothing. As we have seen in our own day, having Catholicism as the state religion did not prevent abortion from being legalized in the Principality of Monaco. Nor did it prevent divorce from being legalized in Malta. Then there is the example of the U.K., where bishops of the established Church of England have seats in Parliament. What has it gained the English? What would we have gained, had prelates like Joseph Bernardin or Roger Mahoney been members of Congress during past recent decades? Having Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., in the U.S. House of Representatives was bad enough.

The truth is that if a people are not disposed to living according to the teachings of the Faith, having the Pope himself as head of state would not make a nation Christian.

The quotations I’m offering now follow. The first is drawn from Longingue Oceani (On Catholicity in the United States), promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1895. Diplomatic in tone, it can be seen as prefatory to Leo’s sterner 1899 Apostolic Letter Testem Benevolentiae that condemned the heresy of Americanism. That heresy originated in France but got its name because it was in our country it found the soil to take root and bishops to nurture it. Of course heresies never really die. All a condemnation can do is condemn. That may put the error to ground for a time, but it will spring up again, often in new form and perhaps even becoming characteristic of a particular historical age – like belief in universal salvation among Christians in our day. After Leo’s condemnation, the Americanist heresy eventually backwashed to Europe and beyond, helping shape implementation, if not actually coloring the letter, of key Vatican II decrees.

“Thanks [for the prosperous condition of Catholicity in the U.S.] are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of your well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and Government of your Nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for the Church and State to be, as in America, separated and divorced.”

The following is from Vehementer Nos promulgated by Pope St. Pius X in 1906 after enactment the year before of a French law that mandated complete separation of Church and state and the expulsion of religious orders from France and her overseas territories.

“That Church and State ought to be separated is an absolutely false and pernicious error. Based as it is on the principle that the State should not make profession of any religious worship, this doctrine is, first of all, a grave insult to Almighty God. For the Creator of mankind is also the Founder of human societies, and He preserves them just as he maintains individuals in existence. To give Him due honor, we owe Him then not only private veneration, but public and social worship. Besides, this thesis involves the unconcealed denial of the supernatural order. It limits the action of the State exclusively to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life, though this is only the proximate raison d’etre of political societies…. Since the present temporal order of things is subordinate to the conquest of man’s supreme and absolute good, eternal happiness, the civil authority ought not only to hinder that victory but should efficaciously contribute thereto.”

The following is also from Pope St. Pius, specifically from his 1910 Letter to the Bishops of France condemning the Sillon, an influential French movement of the day that sought to bring the Church’s social teaching into conformity with the principles of liberal democracy.

St. Pius speaks of the “folly” of attempting “to establish upon earth above the head of the Catholic Church, the reign of justice, and of charity, by means of agents from everywhere, of all religions and of no religion, with or without creed, provided they forget what divides them, that is, their religious and philosophic convictions, and provided they place at the common service what unites them, namely a noble idealism, and moral force derived ‘no matter whence’.”

A little later in this same encyclical St. Pius urges the bishops of France to see that some of their best priests be trained in “the practical study of social science,” but he goes on:

“However, let not these priests allow themselves to be led astray in the maze of contemporary opinion by the mirage of false democracy…. Let them be persuaded that the Church, which has never betrayed the happiness of the people by compromising alliances, has no need to disown her past, that it is enough for her, with the cooperation of the real workmen of social reorganization, to take up again the organizations shattered by the Revolution, and in the same Christian spirit which inspired them, to adapt them to the new environment created by the material evolution of contemporary society; for the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries nor innovators, but men of tradition.”

The final document I’m quoting here is Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI’s 1925 encyclical enjoining on the Church everywhere the observance of the Feast of Christ the King. At least the existence of this document is better known than that of our other three, even if its content is not. (As far as I can ascertain it was never officially published in the U.S.) Today we usually hear the idea of Christ as King presented as His being no more than Ruler of individual souls, but Pope Pius makes the point that “the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men, including even all who are outside the Christian faith.” He continues:

“Nor, in this connection, is there any difference between individuals and communities, whether family or State, for collectivities are just as much under the dominion of Christ as individuals. The same Christ assuredly is the source of the individual’s and of the community’s salvation…. If, therefore, rulers of nations wish to preserve their own authority and to promote their countries’ prosperity, let them not refuse, themselves and their people, to give public observance of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”

Footnote: In 1988 when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops, it was reported in U.S. newspapers and on television that in his homily on that occasion he “attacked Zionism.” I was flabbergasted. I knew from an extensive correspondence that a Triumph magazine colleague had carried on with the Archbishop twenty years before that his view of worldly realities was cleared-eyed. He had to realize that by 1988 the term “anti-Zionist” had become synonymous with “anti-Semitic”. Why would he provide the media an opportunity to tar him with that brush?

He did not. As soon as I saw a French text of the Archbishop’s remarks, I understood what happened. In speaking of several modern errors, he referred to the Sillon. English-speaking reporters with a bad ear for French, and doubtless ignorant of history, thought they heard sionisme when the Archbishop said sillonisme. Commentators besides myself who also spotted the mistake also went into print to try to correct it, but none of us had the reach of the wire services, New York Times and Washington Post. The damage was done.