Pope Pius XI has, unjustly or not, a rather mixed reputation among many monarchists. He was born Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti on May 31, 1857 in Desio, near Milan to a merchant family. He entered the priesthood in 1879 and during his time studying at the Gregorian University in Rome earned doctorates in theology, philosophy and canon law after which he taught at the seminary in Padua. His expertise was in historic Church documents and after his time at the seminary worked as a Church librarian from 1888 to 1911. He edited a new edition of the Ambrosian Missal, wrote a book about St Carlo Borromeo, restored numerous historic Church documents and eventually was appointed to the post of prefect of the Vatican Library by Pope Pius X in 1914. In a dramatic change in the course of his career, in 1918 Pope Benedict XV made Ratti the papal nuncio to the newly independent country of Poland and was promoted to archbishop the following year. When the Bolsheviks attacked Poland Archbishop Ratti, a robust man who was a mountaineer in his free time, impressed the Polish people by his courage, refusing to leave when Warsaw was targeted for attack.
The political issues that were at the forefront during the pontificate of Pius XI have caused some controversy and criticism from almost every quarter. Given that his reign coincided with the rise of fascism between the two World Wars, this was, perhaps, unavoidable. When all was said and done, Pius XI would be saddled (rather unjustly) with a reputation for favoring authoritarian regimes. Socialists condemned him for his constant opposition to their program and his defense of private property whereas those further to the right criticized him for pointing out the defects in capitalism and placing the “common good” above private property rights. Republicans criticized him for his support for those opposed to their regimes in some countries while monarchists (particularly in France) criticized him for saying that the Church was not tied to any one form of government and that he would work with anyone to ensure that the rights of the Church to carry out her spiritual mission were respected.
The most significant political event, for the Church, of his reign was signing the Lateran Treaty with the Kingdom of Italy in 1929. The nearly sixty years of Italy and the Church diplomatically ignoring each other came to an end as the Pope recognized the Kingdom of Italy and Italy recognized the independence of the State of Vatican City as well as giving the Church large payments as compensation for what had formerly been the Papal States. Catholic Christianity became the official state religion of the Kingdom of Italy, religious instruction returned to Italian schools and so on. Pope Pius XI became the first Pontiff since 1870 to leave the Vatican and enter St Peter’s square; a small distance but one of immense symbolism. The Church agreed to refrain from interfering in political matters and Mussolini (the dictator of Italy) agreed to let Catholic organizations stay Catholic. Of course, the ink had hardly dried when it became clear neither side would really stick to those promises but no major trouble ensued.
France and the Church had not been on very good terms for a long time. The clerical and anti-clerical factions struggled for power and, for the most part, the pro-Church party was monarchist and the anti-Church party was republican. The French Third Republic was notoriously anti-clerical and the situation had not been helped by the rather erratic “foreign policy” of the Church regarding France which only further entrenched the mentality of the anti-clericals and even many moderates in France that the Holy See should simply be ignored. For many years tensions were so high that any incident could set off a crisis. French pilgrims, for example, visited the Church in Rome where the first King of Italy was buried and spit on the tomb which caused a patriotic Italian to hit the man and a brawl broke out which almost became an international incident between the Kingdom of Italy and the French Republic. On the other hand, there was the papal anger, loudly proclaimed, when the President of France visited the King of Italy in Rome without first paying his respects to the Pope. This prompted an anti-clerical backlash in France among those who took offense at the notion of their President being scolded by anyone for a state visit. However, from the strident opposition represented in those incidents, Pope Leo XIII famously changed course and called on Catholics to embrace the republic even if only to use the democratic process to hopefully restore the monarchy some day.