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Pope Pius XII celebrating Mass.True Restoration / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

May 19, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — In our times, the phrases “world peace” and “human fraternity” are constantly on people’s lips. One often has a sinking feeling that the phrases have not only lost their original meaning, which was either Christian or compatible with Christianity, but have also become codewords for errors to which the Church is and ought to be opposed. Worse still, it seems that it is most often members of the Church hierarchy who misuse these slogans as they sign agreements and shake hands (or perhaps bump elbows) with globalist hegemons who wear invisible crowns of enormous financial power and behind-the-scenes political influence.

There was once a time when the popes thought, spoke, and acted more independently, drawing upon three millennia of Christian, Jewish, and pagan thought, giving voice to natural law and divine law.

Beholding the precarious peace of Europe shattered as dictatorships of Left and Right threw their armies into battle, Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) used the occasion of his inaugural encyclical Summi Pontificatus, promulgated October 20, 1939, to set forth the Catholic vision of the principles of unity that bind men and nations, and to implore the world, for love of peace, to return to the Church’s salutary teaching on political realities. After an introduction in which the pope, recalling Leo XIII’s consecration of mankind to Christ the King forty years earlier, states his intention of consecrating his pontificate to advancing the reign of Christ in the world, the leading motif is stated:

At the head of the road which leads to the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the present day stands the nefarious efforts of not a few to dethrone Christ … In the recognition of the royal prerogatives of Christ and in the return of individuals and of society to the law of His truth and of His love lies the only way to salvation. (§21–§22; cf. §103).

Right from the start, Pius XII makes it clear that he sees Christ’s kingship as pertaining not only to individuals, but also to societies, as his predecessor Pius XI had emphasized in his encyclical Quas Primas of 1925. Summi Pontificatus proceeds to a critique of “popular modern errors” (§25):

The radical and ultimate cause of the evils which we deplore in modern society is the denial and rejection of a universal norm of morality as well for individual and social life as for international relations; we mean the disregard, so common nowadays, and the forgetfulness of the natural law itself, which has its foundation in God, Almighty Creator and Father of all. (§28)

The pope regards the “darkness over the whole earth” that accompanied the death of Jesus (Mt. 27:45) as a “terrifying symbol” of the effects of banishing Christ from public life (§30).

The peace of nations is disturbed above all by two errors: “forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men … and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ” (cf. §35–§51) and “those ideas which do not hesitate to divorce civil authority from every kind of dependence upon the Supreme Being — First Source and absolute Master of man and of society — and from every restraint of a Higher Law derived from God as from its First Source” (§52ff.).

In the first portion, Pius XII identifies the sources of the objective unity of the human race (§36–§43). In Adam and Eve, the triune God created mankind after His own image and likeness; from this first couple the human race is descended. All members of this race have the same metaphysical nature, composed of material, perishable body and spiritual, immortal soul. All live together on the same earth, enjoying the same rights of dominion over it; all share the same end and mission within the world; all are called to the same ultimate end, divine happiness, by the same means, the Church and her sacraments. In the Son of God all men were created, by His blood redeemed, by His grace sanctified, by His love empowered to love. “In the light of this unity of all mankind, which exists in law and in fact, individuals do not feel themselves isolated units, like grains of sand, but united by the very force of their nature and by their internal destiny, into an organic, harmonious mutual relationship” (§42). Only in the Catholic Church and the civilization inspired by her can different nations, races, and cultures work peacefully together, sharing their diverse gifts for the upbuilding of the human race; apart from the Church, pluralism turns into antagonism (§44–§49). Wherever the Church has gone, she has sown peace by spreading the knowledge and love of God. The “corrupt and corrupting paganism” (§30) of modern times does the opposite: by denying to God and His law a reigning, regulative place in social life, it chokes noble aspirations, nurtures egoism, provokes conflict.

This brings us to the second error, which is the object of the pope’s most vehement condemnation: totalitarianism.

Once the authority of God and the sway of His law are denied in this way, the civil authority as an inevitable result tends to attribute to itself that absolute autonomy which belongs exclusively to the Supreme Maker. It puts itself in the place of the Almighty and elevates the State or group into the last end of life, the supreme criterion of the moral and juridical order, and therefore forbids every appeal to the principles of natural reason and of the Christian conscience. (§53)

No one in 1939 could have failed to see that Pius XII was speaking chiefly of the National Socialists of Germany, the fascists of Italy, and the militant communism of the Soviet Union, and his position was never misunderstood by these regimes, which did all in their power to thwart the pope’s efforts.

Pius XII then invokes the teaching of Leo XIII on the State’s authentic purpose: to “facilitate the attainment in the temporal order, by individuals, of physical, intellectual and moral perfection” and to “aid them to reach their supernatural end” (§58). Accordingly, “it is the noble prerogative and function of the State to control, aid and direct the private and individual activities of national life that they converge harmoniously towards the common good” (§59). To ward off faulty notions of the common good, the pope continues: “That good can neither be defined according to arbitrary ideas nor can it accept for its standard primarily the material prosperity of society, but rather it should be defined according to the harmonious development and the natural perfection of man” (ibid.). Against totalitarianism the pope reaffirms that “man and the family are by nature anterior to the State” (§61) and that the family has rights peculiar to itself (§63ff.), such as the parents’ right to educate their own children (§66).

Having proved that it harms the internal life of nations, Pius XII then shows why totalitarianism, being a sort of voluntarism or egoism writ large, inevitably leads to international discord, breaking the “reciprocal ties, moral and juridical” that bind the human race “into a great commonwealth” (§72).

To tear the law of nations from its anchor in Divine law, to base it on the autonomous will of States … would [leave international law] abandoned to the fatal drive of private interest and collective selfishness exclusively intent on the assertion of its own rights and ignoring those of others. (§76)

After this analysis of the situation in 1939 at the outset of the Second World War, Pius XII, in a powerful rhetorical move, imagines a hard won cessation of hostilities and then asks of this postwar period: “Will that future be really different; above all, will it be better? … Or will there be a lamentable repetition of ancient and of recent errors?” (§79). “Safety does not come to peoples from external means, from the sword which can impose conditions of peace but does not create peace. Forces that are to renew the face of the earth should proceed from within, from the spirit” (§81). The “new order” emerging after the war, if it is to prove any better than the interbellum order, “must rest on the unshakable foundation, on the solid rock of natural law and of divine revelation” (§82).

Echoing the teaching of Pius XI before him, Pius XII insists that the problems of the modern world are not due principally to economic factors:

Their root is deeper and more intrinsic, belonging to the sphere of religious belief and moral convictions which have been perverted by the progressive alienation of the peoples from that unity of doctrine, faith, customs and morals which once was promoted by the tireless and beneficent work of the Church. (§83)

Anticipating Vatican II’s accent on the role of the laity, the pope underlines that every baptized Christian has the mission of preaching the Gospel to the world, “the most noble and most fruitful work for peace” (§84; cf. §84–§91). The “first and essential duty” of the lay apostle is “individual sanctification,” especially in these times, when “obstacles and oppositions [are] vast and deep and minutely organized as never before” and “the conflict between Christianity and anti-Christianism grows intense” (§85–§86). In this combat “the family has a special mission, for it is the spirit of the family that exercises the most powerful influence on that of the rising generation” (§90).

In his closing observations, Pius XII returns to a charge often leveled against the Church: that she interferes with worldly progress and civil authority. In reality, “there is no opposition between the laws that govern the life of faithful Christians and the postulates of a genuinely humane humanitarianism, but rather unity and mutual support” (§93). He prays that the

present difficulties may open the eyes of many to see our Lord Jesus Christ and the mission of His Church on this earth in their true light, and that all those who are in power may decide to allow the Church a free course to work for the formation of the rising generation according to the principles of justice and peace.

Here the pope is stipulating the minimum negative duty of States toward the Church — allowing her freedom of action and education (§94). The Church in no way usurps the rights of civil authority; on the contrary, she preaches submission to earthly rulers as long as they strive to exercise their offices justly (§102). The Church is moving in a different sphere and has different aims: “Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace to men of good will” (§102). She is “the City of God, whose King is Truth, whose law is love and whose measure is eternity” (§110, quoting St. Augustine). If only today’s shepherds would awaken to the fact that they have an indestructible God-given right and duty to pursue the Church’s supernatural mission above and beyond anything that the State says or does to the contrary!

Beautifully, the encyclical draws to a close with an appeal to children to pray for peace: “In this way you will put into practice the sublime precept of the Divine Master, the most sacred testament of His Heart, ‘That they all may be one’” (§115, Jn 17:21).

Summi Pontificatus is a permanent record of sound Catholic teaching on the unity of the human family, the duty of men and nations toward one another, and the role of the one true religion in bringing about those goods that secularists say they want but can never obtain by their own methods.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,