Given that the evils against which he fought—totalitarian repression, unrestrained capitalism, sexual immorality, moral heresy, aggressive secularism, racist nationalism, and so on—still cause us such grief, it is striking that Pope Pius XI is little celebrated today. He is remembered for his denunciation of the Nazis, and for the Feast of Christ the King, which Catholics marked on Sunday. But something about him puts people off—perhaps his regal manner. When instituting Sunday’s feast, he taught that every individual, every society, is “under the dominion of Christ,” and that Christ’s Kingship must be recognized “both in private and in public life.” He believed, moreover, that human authority would be more respected if it reflected divine authority; and so, when passing on the teaching of Christ, he spoke and acted with a commanding, almost imperious, confidence.
Some of this was a matter of personal character. Even when he was plain Mgr. Achille Ratti, a respected paleographer and librarian, he did not flinch from a challenge: He and three companions became the first mountaineers to climb Monte Rosa (the second highest of the Alps) from the Italian side. Later, as nuncio to Poland, he asked permission from Rome to stay in Warsaw as the Red Army advanced. (Against all odds, the city held out.)
He carried the same bullheadedness into the papacy. In 1929, Bishop Liénart of Lille publicly donated to a fund in support of striking Catholic workers. There was outrage, and a few reactionaries protested to Rome: This bishop was some kind of Marxist! Pius responded by making Liénart a cardinal.
In 1937, the aging Pontiff issued Mit brennender Sorge, the most significant act of his continuous opposition to Nazism. It was not only the text—a long and ferociously undiplomatic rebuke—which stunned Hitler (for three days, reportedly, the Führer was so upset that he cancelled all appointments). It was also the cleverness with which the encyclical was smuggled into Germany, reprinted in hundreds of thousands of copies, and then read out at packed Palm Sunday Masses. According to the historian Henri Daniel-Rops, Pius made sure to publish a few days beforehand a separate encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, which denounced communism as a “pernicious enemy.” The result was that the Nazi press came out and said that perhaps Pius was a wise man after all, just days before Hitler would be condemned from the pulpit.
Pius’s character is not beyond criticism—he was given, says Eamon Duffy, to “towering rages which left his entourage weak and trembling.” But it was not only his personality which makes him such a definitive example, for good or ill, of the regal style of papacy. It was not as himself that he spoke so thunderously, but as a pope who wished to teach nothing that contradicted his predecessors. G. K. Chesterton seems to have had an intuition of this: On his visit to Rome in 1929, he received the papal blessing and suddenly understood why popes and kings used the plural “we.” (Until then, it had seemed a “senseless custom.”) For when Pius blessed the group, Chesterton realized “that it was indeed ‘We’; We, Peter and Gregory and Hildebrand and all the dynasty that does not die.”
Chesterton’s insight—that in Pius you could almost hear St. Peter and Pope Gregory the Great and so on—is crucial to understanding both Pius and the papacy itself. Pius’s words had such force because he tried to speak as a “We”: He bound himself to what had already been believed by Catholics throughout history and had been reaffirmed by his predecessors. He did not wish to deviate from that tradition by a millimeter.
In Casti Connubii, for instance, Pius gave some moving reflections on marriage before turning to a question which he knew had to be addressed: Is all this moral teaching actually realistic? Are there not circumstances where upholding the laws of sexual ethics becomes counterproductive? And if so, shouldn’t the Church reconcile itself to the fact that not everybody is a hero and people need to get on with their lives, even if that means softening the rules a bit? In response to this tempting line of thought, Pope Pius—while acknowledging with evident sorrow the problems faced by married couples—declared: “No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted.”
But importantly, as soon as he did so, he stressed that he was only following the line of perennial Church doctrine. He cited the Council of Trent and its solemn teaching, derived from the Church Fathers, that “God does not ask the impossible”; and the Church’s condemnation of the Jansenist heresy that “Some precepts of God are . . . impossible of fulfillment.” By standing within a tradition, Pius’s teaching rang out with an authoritative voice.
Pius’s style went out of fashion decades ago, for understandable reasons. Later generations have been less impressed by venerable institutions: As Pope Paul VI put it, modern man listens to witnesses more readily than to teachers. But we will misread Pius XI if we only see his external manner—the severe rhetoric, the regal bearing—and forget the love for souls which was his abiding motive. His friends testified that, when he revitalized the Church's missionary work, when he spoke out for the workers oppressed by liberal capitalism, it was no abstract concern. These things cost him sleepless nights.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.
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