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.
Archbishop Ratti also angered some officials in the Church by stating his willingness to deal with the Soviets even if it meant his death. His willingness to talk to the Russians and his efforts to end the political involvement of Catholic clergy in Silesia angered the Poles and he was subsequently recalled from the country. Oddly enough, the Germans also protested on the grounds that Ratti was considered too biased toward the Poles. Nonetheless, he returned to Italy to further recognition when, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV presented him with the red hat, making him Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan. However, less than a year later Benedict XV died and the cardinals gathered in Rome to elect his successor. On the fourteenth ballot the choice fell on Cardinal Ratti who, calling to mind his admiration for the man who had given him his first major job at the Vatican, took the name Pius XI. After the election the new Pope revived the tradition of going out on to the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica to give his blessing “to the city and the world”, a custom which had been suspended since 1870 when Italy occupied Rome. It was the first sign that the new Pope was determined to see the long years of self-defeating deadlock known as “the Roman Question” finally ended.
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.
On religious matters he encouraged missionary activity, emphasized the global mission of the Church and he particularly stressed the point that Christ was to be the center of life in every way, absolute in every area and did this by instituting the Solemnity of Christ the King as a way of illustrating the universal nature of Christianity and that the authority of God was supreme over all. It seemed to most that ecumenism was toned down somewhat by Pius XI, which is not exactly true. The Pontiff was perfectly happy to encourage ecumenism in that he wanted to bring all people everywhere into the Catholic Church. He was simply not prepared to enter into any negotiations in that regard on the grounds that divine truths cannot be the subject of debate. He also reiterated traditional Catholic teachings on marriage and reproduction when the Church of England reversed its opposition to artificial contraception. He also condemned eugenics which were quite popular at the time. Yet, Pius XI was not so traditional as to ignore modern advances and he founded Vatican Radio to spread the message of the Church around the world (originally many broadcasts were in Latin!) independent of the secular media.
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.
Like many world leaders at the time, Pius XI praised Mussolini for making peace with the Church and bringing stability to Italy. However, like most of those who initially praised him, the Pope would later condemn Mussolini and his regime for trying to replace God with the State in the lives of the people. However, for Christians, while Mussolini and his Fascists could be bullies, in countries around the world real persecutions were taking place and this concerned the Pope greatly. He harshly condemned the socialist regime in Mexico that was trying to stamp out religion (and which provoked a Catholic rebellion) and he did all he could to try to ease the immense suffering of the Christians in Russia where the Soviet Union was trying to crush almost all religion of any kind. Today, much of the criticism for Pius XI stems from his words and actions regarding Spain, his strident opposition to the anti-clerical and communist-dominated republic and his perceived support for the rebel nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. However, for many monarchists, the most controversial aspect of Pius XI was his relationship with France.
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.
One group which never quite submitted to that call was “French Action”, a right-wing monarchist movement led by Charles Maurras. They wanted to restore the monarchy, restore Catholicism as the state religion in France and have a new government based on integral nationalism. However, though Catholics dominated “French Action”, Maurras was an agnostic and Pope Pius XI feared he was only using the Church for his own purposes. This was not entirely untrue as Maurras was not a believer but did regard the Church as a vital part of social cohesion and French culture. The group also had an anti-Semitic side to it that the Pope found distasteful. Despite what many believe today, Pope Pius XI had opposed the growing anti-Semitism in Europe (Germany especially) and was outraged at how the rest of the international community avoided the issue. In any event, in 1926 Pius XI condemned “French Action” which he feared was teaching French youth in particular to regard the Church as the means to an end rather than an end in itself. The newspaper of the group even became the first to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Works. Because of this, many monarchists have never forgiven Pius XI since it effectively took the wind out of the sails of “French Action”. However, it would be unfair to place an inordinate amount of blame on the Pope for this, his concerns were well founded and in regard to French politics the Church had not been terribly consistent for a very long time and Pius XI was not responsible for that.
Despite what his many detractors say, Pope Pius XI was a greater advocate for human freedom than any other figure of his time. However, he was, like many, distrustful of the forces of liberal democracy to lead the way into the future. He had seen too many fall victim to the forces of international communism. He was also only too aware of the fact that it was these international communists who were carrying out the worst persecutions of Christians in Mexico, in Spain, in Russia and serious attempts in numerous other countries. He condemned Nazi policies before anyone else did and railed against the Fascist regime in Italy for what he termed the “pagan worship of the State”. His emphasis on Christ the King was a way of reminding Christians that there was a higher authority, above earthly governments, whose rulings could not be appealed and who could not be intimidated. He condemned modernism as his recent predecessors had done, tried to establish a Catholic alternative to the communist-dominated trade unions and called for a system of class cooperation as preferable to the antagonistic relationship in capitalism and communism. He maintained a heavy schedule, despite worsening health, right up until his death on February 10, 1939. He was succeeded by his Secretary of State and closest assistant Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli who took the name Pius XII.
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