‘The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ’: Rediscovering Pope Pius XI
February 7, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – This February 10th marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti), who reigned on the throne of Peter from 1922 to 1939. Perhaps one should not be surprised in a world of rapid-fire texting that someone who began his pontificate a century ago would be largely forgotten. But Pius XI, whose resounding motto gives my article its title, deserves to be better known and warmly loved for his splendid encyclicals, which are full of fire, clarity, and courage. Indeed, these documents are a precious source for all ages, not merely for the tense interwar period in which this pope was called to serve the Church of Christ.
The future Pius XI came from a humble background and enjoyed the placid career of a scholar with a doctorate in theology who eventually served as head of the Vatican Library. His later successes as nuncio in Poland and archbishop of Milan made him a good choice for pope upon the death of Benedict XV.
It did not take long for the Church and the world to see the mettle of which this new pope was made. His inaugural encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (1922) described the world situation after World War I with a spiritual penetration that no secular historian could equal, and proposed as the only cogent solution a serious appropriation of Catholic social doctrine. This insistence on implementing the Church’s social magisterium – this effort to articulate a genuinely Catholic alternative to spiraling socialism, feverish fascism, and cruel capitalism – was to occupy Pius XI in many of his more than 30 subsequent encyclicals. The old adage “the more things change, the more things stay the same” seems especially pertinent to the encyclicals of Pius XI. The faithful still face the same challenges about which he wrote, even if the “key” or “tempo” of the music has changed.
Next in order, and of enormous significance in the Church’s magisterium, is the much-discussed encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), promulgated on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). Of all the social encyclicals from Leo XIII to John Paul II, none is more hard-hitting, incisive, and comprehensive than this one, with its analysis of international finance and the undercurrents of exploitation that shape economic markets. It is high time we recover our birthright as Catholics by returning to the richest sources of the Church’s social wisdom, among which this encyclical indubitably deserves to be numbered.
The fundamental note of Pius XI’s teaching was the kingship of Jesus Christ over all men, all societies, all nations, all institutions. This vision of the primacy and pervasiveness of Christ motivated his thoughts, desires, interventions, and counsels. And it is this vision that remains absolutely relevant for us. The Catholic Church will flourish in this period of “late modernity” only to the extent that it knows and lives the teachings Pope Pius XI so boldly proclaimed in his encyclical letter Quas Primas (1925), one of the most important papal letters of the 20th century. By this letter Pius XI established a new Feast, that of Christ the King – a feast that has become familiar to every Catholic throughout the world, although its original intention has been somewhat clouded over by subsequent liturgical changes.
Pius XI’s classic Casti Connubii (1930) is the single best treatment of the Catholic understanding of marriage ever promulgated by a pope, with its noble and realistic vision of the sacrament. We are in serious danger of misinterpreting the later teaching of John Paul II on marriage if we do not see it against the backdrop of, and in continuity with, Casti Connubii. No encyclical could be better reading for marriage preparation.
This pope gave us the “Magna Charta” on the education of Christian children and youths, Divini Illius Magistri (1929). Homeschoolers will note with joy that Pius XI defends the view that children being educated at home by their parents is the God-given norm and standard, while education through schools run by non-relatives is the modern exception, fraught with dangers to the moral and religious formation of children. This does not, of course, prevent the Pope from explaining the principles that all educators, whether family or professional, must observe in the education of Christian pupils. This encyclical has a sort of haunting ring to it today, when so many of the novel evils that Pius XI deplored, such as sex education, have become routine realities. On the positive side, much of what the Pope has to say about effective pedagogy and the hierarchy of subjects remains valid and applicable.
The pair of encyclicals from 1937 on the Soviet and Nazi aberrations – Divini Redemptoris and Mit Brennender Sorge – powerfully transport the reader into the bloodchilling eras they address. In spite of their time bound aspects, there is a Catholic political philosophy articulated in these encyclicals that remains true for our day and for all times, as well as a potent critique of errors that, despite their continual refutation by facts, somehow never cease to crop up in every society that is either affluent and bored or poor and desperate.
In Ad Catholici Sacerdotii (1935), Pope Pius XI opens up his heart to all the priests of the world and all who would be priests. This encyclical is one of the most impassioned, eloquent, and well-reasoned treatises ever written concerning the nature, privileges, and demands of the Catholic priesthood, and for this reason ought to be required reading for seminarians. Pius XI seems to oscillate between singing the high praises of this magnificent calling and pointing to its uncompromising requirements. The impression left in the reader’s mind is that this state, as well as the vocation to it, is a sublime and rewarding gift from the Father of lights – one that many more ought to be hearing and heeding. I actually believe that the very reading of this encyclical would increase vocations to the priesthood!
Lastly, I would mention the fascinating encyclical on motion pictures, Vigilanti Cura (1936), written at a time when this form of entertainment was really “coming into its own.” If there has ever been a man who knew the shape of the future, it was Achille Ratti. Here, he laments the initiation into “lust and desire” that many movies promote, and offers stringent guidelines for censorship exercised by bishops and committees of laity. The now relatively feeble advice on movies given by staff workers for the U.S. bishops is the less than worthy descendent of the precise, artistically sensitive, morally sound principles articulated by Pius XI in 1936. If we could make a return, one way or another, to the plain, child-like sanity of Vigilanti Cura, we would have made a tremendous step towards sanctity.
The end of Pope Pius XI’s life coincided with the gathering gloom that would erupt into World War II. On his deathbed, Pius XI offered his life for world peace. Reading his encyclicals puts us in touch with a pope of uncompromising Catholicism who, since he genuinely cared for his people, did not allow them to wander down false paths, but instead, pointed out again and again the path to life traced by Catholic experience and tradition. We would do well to benefit from his wisdom, lest we, too, misled by prelates cut from a different cloth, walk down false paths that our world passes off as the unavoidable expedients of a postmodern society.