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Pope St. Pius X

ROME — The teaching of the pope many consider the 20th century’s greatest defender of Catholic orthodoxy and opponent of materialist secularism is “urgently needed in today’s Church,” the second highest ranking official at the Vatican said last week.

Speaking in the late pope’s birthplace, the north eastern Italian town of Riese, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said the teaching of Pope St. Pius X – with his insistence on the “sanctity of life,” as “an indispensable condition for the credibility of the sacred ministry” – is of “utmost urgency for the Church today.”

During the pontificate of St. Pius X “could be glimpsed the start of the phenomenon of secularization of society, which would have gradually permeated the new century and would have step by step, led to an increasingly marked distance of behavior away from religion, the faith of the Church, and from God himself,” Parolin said.

He identified Pius’ struggle against secularism as the central conflict between the Church and the world of the time, as it has been similarly identified for our own times by Benedict XVI. The cardinal said that among Pope Pius’ most important insights was that once God is “eradicated from the world scene, the relevance of human dignity, respect for life, social justice, fair participation in the goods of the earth, the courage of peace, democracy itself and the secular state are all lost.”

Pius, the first 20th century pope to be canonized, was a “pastor after God’s heart, humble though energetic, loyal, detached from self, animated by the bowels of mercy, leaning to the human and spiritual needs of the flock of God,” Parolin said.

Born Guiseppe Sarto, from peasant stock, Pius X was elected pope on August 4, 1903 and died August 20, 1914 and is best known to Church history for his war against Modernism, the theological movement he called the “synthesis of all heresies.”

The alarm Pius felt at the rapid growth of secularism, both in the world and within the Church, was the main focus of his pontificate and the subject of several of his major documents, most notably his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, “on the doctrines of the Modernists.” Modernist theologians, starting in France in the 19th century, held that Christianity could be reconciled with the Enlightenment principles that led to the French Revolution and taught a materialist, rationalistic, anti-supernatural approach to interpreting Scripture, denying the miracles and divinity of Christ and historicity of the Gospels.

The famous Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists, drafted by the Holy Office and approved by Pius, identified and unequivocally condemned the theological earmarks of the movement. Among the condemned errors in the document, known in Latin as Lamentabili Sane, were many that will be familiar to Catholics concerned with the restoration of orthodox teaching today, including the idea that since Church teachings are only “revealed truths, the Church has no right to pass judgment on the assertions of the human sciences.”

Modernists, the document says, held that Catholic dogmas “are to be held only according to their practical sense…as preceptive norms of conduct and not as norms of believing.” At the end of its 65 points, Lamentabili condemned the idea that Catholic moral and dogmatic teaching, including on God, creation, revelation, the divinity of Christ and the Redemption, must all “be adjusted” according to the findings of “scientific progress.”

Pius’ fight against theological modernism culminated in a document requiring all priests and theology professors to swear the Oath Against Modernism, a move that forever cemented Pius’ place as a villain in the minds of “progressive” Catholics. Despite its unpopularity among some parts of the Catholic academic establishment, the Oath remained a requirement until Pope Paul VI abolished it in 1967.

Pius’ war against Modernism included a struggle against the notion of religious indifferentism, the idea that all religions are essentially the same, and, like his successor Benedict XVI, against the moral relativism that has led, in our times, to the widespread acceptance of abortion and euthanasia.

Pius’ pontificate has come under a shadow in recent years as modern Church historians have attacked his struggle against theological modernism as a form of “oppression” of freedom of thought. But in his time, Pope St. Pius X was one of the best-loved popes in modern history, and was enormously popular among the common people.

He was known during his life for his strong pastoral sense, having been the only pope of the 20th century to have served as the pastor of a parish. He continued to teach catechism, the basics of Christian doctrine, to children throughout his ecclesiastical career and as pope he published a catechism book for young people that has enjoyed a revival in recent years.

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Coming from humble origins, Pius was another pope who eschewed much of the aloofness and grandeur of the papal office, continuing to personally give homilies every Sunday and taking in hundreds of refugees from the 1908 Messina earthquake into the Apostolic Palace. As a member of the peasant class, Pius knew the importance to ordinary people of being lifted out of their day-to-day conditions by the Church, and oversaw a revival of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony at Mass to raise the standard of liturgical practice in parishes.

But Pius’ zeal for careful and strict doctrinal orthodoxy was not at that time thought to be in conflict with his pastoral care or his concrete works of material charity and help for the poor.

Parolin reminded his hearers that during the investigation for his canonization, the Vatican received “hundreds and hundreds of letters that children, workers, housewives, nuns, pastors, missionaries, seminarians, emigrants sent him along his pontificate, and from all over the world,” testifying to his “vigorous example of apostolic charity.”

This witness was not a matter of “devotional hagiography,” the cardinal said. “His concern for the sick, for those affected by cholera when he was parish priest of Salzano, his care for the dying, the delicate tasks given to his sick bishop, Monsignor Zinelli, depriving himself of food in the pot, the continuous alms to the poor who knocked at his house, and so on.” His cause for canonization was opened quickly following his death, and he was declared a saint in 1954.