The Papacy in the Twentieth Century

A. Burt Horsley, “The Papacy in the Twentieth Century,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 117–27.

Today the pope is no longer the holder of vast properties. The papal states have diminished, and his territorial holdings are confined to the space known as Vatican City. This consists of an area approximately 108 acres in size, on one side of the city of Rome. There are several hundred people who live within this walled area, most of them clerics or employees of the government of the Vatican. As a culmination of many centuries of Caesaro-papal conflict, the world has thus seen the final establishment of the pope, politically and territorially speaking, in a relatively confined area.

Tradition and growing liberalism have gradually synthesized themselves into the modern papacy and the modern condition of the church. In retrospect, Catholic tradition has been concerned with the perpetuation of a great idea, the idea of Petrine priority, which included the concepts of Roman supremacy and the primacy of the See of Peter. This idea has been perpetuated in spite of all the problems that have confronted it. Down into the twentieth century has come not only the idea of the papacy, but the fact of the institution itself, perpetuated as an instrument of the voice of Peter.

In the twentieth century there are essentially the same old problems to deal with. New figures have entered onto the scene, and new characters are playing the roles, but for the most part the age-old problems recur over and over again. It is apparent here that history indeed repeats itself.

Nevertheless, in this century, even in Catholic countries, there has been manifest breakdown in the traditional church and state proximity, which has tended to reduce the political influence of the pope and church in those countries, and among Catholic people generally. In 1904 in France, the pope was publicly insulted by the French president. Deliberate attempts were made to bring about a rift between the traditionally Catholic French people and the papacy.

The pope, very much concerned over this problem and over the resulting embarrassment, asked for an apology, and was rebuffed. The French requested their ambassador to return home to Paris. There was a confiscation of ecclesiastical properties in France, and traditional immunities from taxation for the church were no longer granted, resulting in a further widening of the separation of church and state. Under the old traditional agreement, wherever Catholicism had been established as the people’s religion, the priests were supported in part by church tax revenues, now they were left without any means of support.

Not only was the pope confronted with the external problems of political opposition and misunderstanding, but the condition within the French church itself, due to the rising influence of modernism, was becoming an ever increasing problem. There was indeed a tendency among the French priests to lean in the direction of the modernist philosophies of the day. Papal reaction to this condition served only to compound the problem.

In Italy, in the very shadow of St. Peter’s, the laity have drifted generally towards socialism. An aggravated poverty, coupled with general social and economic inequities, drove many into the communist camp. As in France, there was a severely strained relationship between church and state. In Italy, however, the church found itself caught in the middle of a power struggle with socialists of extremely opposite ideological views pressuring from both the right and the left.

With the rise of fascism, the papacy faced serious intrusions into its traditional influence, power, and authority closest to home, as the government attempted to woo the people away from the church. King Victor Emanuel had definitely taken a stand against the papacy, making it improbable that these wounds could be healed easily, and with the coming of Mussolini the rift was widened even more. It is, however, significant to note that in spite of the agnostic mood of the fascists, some kind of agreement was reached in the signing of the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

Similar situations prevailed elsewhere. At mid-century there were riots and demonstrations in Belgium because of an attempt there to break down the close relationship between church and state. The government, seeking to avoid its traditional responsibilities in the support of the Catholic schools, found itself in serious trouble with the students. It required the exercise of police power and the use of fire hoses to quell the riots.

Almost simultaneously in Argentina, there were developments which gave rise to the eventual overthrow of the government and the flight of the dictator, Peron—a definite indication that all was not well in the matter of traditional close ties between devoutly Catholic South American countries and the Vatican. However, in this case, church influence had prevailed.

The presence of Roman Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and the need for the church to extend its comfort and protection to them as far as possible has raised a different kind of problem, and generally each situation has required its own handling and solution. Nevertheless, in its earlier confrontation, an attempt was made on the part of the Roman church to bring to light every available bit of evidence with reference to the so-called ulterior purposes and intents of world communism, to do everything possible to prevent its spread, and to maintain, on all fronts, an aggressive attitude toward Marxism in general. In some instances whole groups of people, who attempted to serve two masters at the same time, Catholicism and communism, were excommunicated.

Essentially, all this means that there has been a continuation of the old Caesaro-papal conflict into our time. It appears in new attire, with modern terminology applied, but substantially it is a story of the same issues of conflict being repeated over and over again.

In modern times, the loss of the papal states has proved to be a great disadvantage politically. In one respect, however, it has been a boon to the papacy, having made perforce more of a spiritual and ecclesiastical leader of the pope than a temporal and political ruler. The recent popes have been inclined to give their attention and their lives in a dedicated way to things spiritual, and to the interests of Christianity and particularly to world Catholicism. Among the popes of the modern period, one would look in vain for anyone who has in any way disgraced the office of the papacy because of misconduct in the manner identified with the age of pornocracy. These leaders have usually been men well trained in theology, men of high standards and high ideals. We see in them a sense of fulfillment of the Christian ideal as they seek to represent, in the way they understand and in keeping with the tradition as best they are able, the mission of Peter to the world. This, of course, is best understood by the Catholic mind.

As we view the status of the papacy in the twentieth century, we are particularly concerned with the lives and contributions of popes Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II.

Pius X, who had led the crusade against liberalism and modernism, and who died in 1914, was the first of the popes in modern times to be canonized, to be made a saint. This was done during the administration of and under the direction of Pius XII, in 1954. Pius XII, himself, came to be recognized as one of the greatest Christians of the twentieth century, primarily because of his unfaltering example, during the world wars, as a crusader for humanity.

Born Eugenie Pacelli on 2 March 1876, in Rome, he was the son of the dean of Vatican lawyers, an aristocrat, one of the nobility of Italy, and was expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. His family was able to provide a great deal for him including an education at the Roman Gregoriana. He did not enjoy the best of health as a youth and was given certain privileges and concessions that assisted him in his effort to prepare for office in the clergy.

After his ordination in 1899, he was appointed professor of law at the Roman seminary, where he made a good name for himself, leaving that position only to enter the papal secretariat of state. In this position the opportunity was opened up to him to relieve the suffering of the world wherever he found need. He dedicated himself to the cause of humanity regardless of race, color, or religious confession. Supervising the work of exchanging prisoners and moving wounded to hospitals during World War I, he allowed no discrimination in administering of aid and compassion to enemy and ally alike.

In 1929, he was recalled to Rome to succeed his friend and teacher Cardinal Gasparri as the papal secretary of state. In the ensuing years he became legate to the Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires, and visited the United States in 1936, where he was well received.

On the death of his predecessor, Pius XI, he was elected pope on the first ballot in the conclave of 1939. The outbreak of World War II provided an almost immediate opportunity for him to show to the world that his humanitarian interests transcended all other things, crossing over the borders of nationalism, creed and race. The fact that he spoke several languages fluently and used others in study and research enhanced his capacity to communicate on an international scale. His work for peace continued throughout the war, including over thirty appeals for peace in seven languages, and the granting of asylum to those who were being persecuted for political or ethnic reasons. This was particularly meaningful during the Nazi occupation of Rome.

After the war, he openly opposed the use of atomic energy in warfare and led in the struggle by Catholics against atheistic communism. The year 1950 was declared a holy year by Pius XII, and for the first time in history television cameras and the other media of communication were given access to the ceremony that took place in St. Peter’s, attesting to his desire to adjust to modern needs and circumstances. His growing concern for such adjustment was further evidenced in his Mediator Dei, wherein he insisted upon greater participation of the laity in the ceremonies. While preserving the essential doctrinal elements along with the beauty of the liturgy, it allowed for improvements and appropriate responses of the lay members in the celebration of the Mass. This laid the groundwork for even further expansion of this principle in the Second Vatican Council (Abbott 161).

In spite of a continuing tendency toward atheism in some parts of the world where the influence of the church had been curtailed, under Pius XII, the Roman Catholic church had grown to become the largest Christian denomination in the world. Its membership comprised more of the population of the Christian nations on the average than all of the rest of Christianity combined, and its influence so obviously worldwide that there were few areas that it had not touched.

In his declining years Pius XII experienced serious illness several times, and was in fact very close to death in 1955 and 1956, yet he carried on the papal duties as vigorously as possible until his death in 1958. He had governed well for nineteen years, but left no particular recommendation as to his choice of successor.

The most memorable contribution of Pope John XXIII, 1958–1963, was the calling of the Second Vatican Council. But more astonishing than the surprise of the council was the man himself. Many insisted that the cardinals had deliberately elected him as an innocuous, temporary, seventy-seven year old expedient, who obviously would not live long and who could then be succeeded by a pontiff more to their liking. More time and appropriate deliberation would be needed to elect the real man of destiny.

Laity and clerics alike, especially his electors, were amazed when he became exceedingly active, traveled abroad, and issued a papal encyclical which touched upon a broad range of current social, political, and economic issues. He denounced nuclear warfare, encouraged the United Nations to move in the direction of world government, made a case for the preservation of free enterprise, and at the same time challenged governments to assume the responsibility for adequate health and welfare insurance for all citizens.

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Sotte il Monte, Italy, in 1881, he was one of ten children. Growing up on a farm, he knew the rigors of peasant life until he was eleven years old, when he entered the seminary at Bergamo. From that time until his death in 1963, his life was dedicated to the church and its ministry. Over a lifetime he served as archbishop, papal nuncio, cardinal, and patriarch of Venice before finally being elected to the papal throne in 1958.

His congenial personality and down-to-earth warmth, coupled with a more intimate closeness to the people, impressed millions both in and out of the church, but his innovative procedures and dislike of traditional protocol caused him to be somewhat controversial among his colleagues in the ministry. He was called “Good Pope John” by the people, but his policies and procedures, lacked full support among all his bishops. Some feared the conciliatory moves toward the communist bloc, and still others among the conservatives would have welcomed a revival of the militant anti-communism of Pius XII.

He squelched the reactionary protestors and critics among the Curia and cardinals who had opposed his calling of the Second Vatican Council, by announcing that it had been called by revelation. And, although he lived only long enough to summon the council and preside over its first session, from September to December 1962, his successor would carry on the work which he began and see the harvest of the seeds sown by John XXIII.

Lest it influence their choice of his successor, Pope John withheld from the cardinals his secret desire that his good friend Giovanni Battista Montini, archbishop of Milan, should succeed him as pope. He had expressed this hope before his death in an unpublished diary, and had taken the preparatory step of elevating Montini to the cardinalcy as one of his first official acts at the time he had become pope in 1958.

Choosing the name Paul VI, Montini did not disappoint his electors, who had anticipated that he would be an outstanding administrator in a time when that particular talent was especially needed. Thirty years of experience in the Vatican secretariat, in addition to his many other assignments, had equipped him well.

He reconvened the Second Vatican Council, presided over the remaining three sessions from 1963 through 1965, and lived to see the results and the impression that it made on the Catholic and non-Catholic world for an additional thirteen years before his death in 1978. What was finally announced to the world as its findings and contributions had his support and approval. Published in four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations were items including (1) a greater role for the ordinary lay member in church matters and greater participation in church functions; (2) a new look at Bible scholarship and study, with recommended regular reading of the scriptures not only in the Catholic version but also in approved non-Catholic Bibles; (3) reference to the non-Catholic Christians as “our separated brethren”; (4) recognition of the holiness in other Christian bodies and the good in non-Christian religions; (5) a statement regarding freedom of religion; (6) exoneration of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus; (7) the possibility of eventually extending the sacrament of matrimony to some of the clergy; (8) and, finally, the policy of leaving the door open for further improvements.

With the close of Vatican II in December 1965, many Catholic modernists and reformists expected the church to move off abruptly in the direction of liberalism. Pope Paul VI, although moderately modernist himself and committed to continue the progressive approach of the Vatican implemented by John XXIII, nevertheless, was determined to move with caution. In assembling around him several aides and consultants of known conservative views, including Cardinal Cicognani as Secretary of State, it became increasingly clear that nearly two millennia of tradition would not be suddenly set aside. In fact, after a few years of some dissent and controversy over certain unsettled issues and anticipated changes, the liberal voices have quieted down to some degree.

The pope’s policies and views of papal responsibility culminated in greater world acceptance and approval of his role as a religious leader. Before his death he sought to put into effect the spirit of some of the resolutions of Vatican II with respect to non-Catholics. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, met with the patriarch of Constantinople (of the Eastern Orthodox tradition), traveled abroad to other places outside Italy, and won the respect and enthusiastic admiration of Protestant Christians in Europe and America.

As we come to the conclusion and summary of this study, we are in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The reigning pope is John Paul II, who like his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI, is held in high esteem by Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, as well as by people of other religions everywhere.

The world was surprised and pleased at the election of a non-Italian, but even more delighted that the electors had seen fit to elevate to the papal throne a relatively unknown Polish cardinal, whose second love was writing poems.

The faithful Catholic refers to him as “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father.” But his official title as “Bishop of Rome, Governor of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Apostolic Prince, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, Ruler of the Pontifical State.”

Born Karol Wojtyla, in 1920, son of a middle class Polish worker, the new pope had studied literature at the University of Krakow before the Nazi invasion in 1939. During the German occupation years, he supported himself by hard work in the quarries and in a chemical plant, and for some time joined the Rhapsodic Theater in Krakow. During part of that time, he became active in the anti- Nazi underground. He enjoyed a normal social life and courted a young lady for a while until he began seriously studying for the priesthood.

His ordination to the priesthood in 1946 and consecration as bishop in 1958 did not so completely occupy his talents and time that he forgot his second vocation. In 1962, he published his poems under a pseudonym, and his identity as a poet was a well-guarded secret almost until the time of his election to the papacy.

In the years of his pontificate, he has traveled widely and has been received with great applause and enthusiasm in Poland, in spite of the communist control of his homeland. He has visited many other countries including Mexico, the United States twice, and even non-Christian countries.

Speaking out firmly on the controversial issues of our time, he ratified the teachings of the Catholic church, “exalting the beauty of marriage,” and condemning divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and the use of artificial contraception, echoing the convictions of Paul VI. And, although he realized it was not possible to avoid criticism or to please everyone, he was able to return home from his visits to the United States knowing that the public opinion polls gave him overwhelming approval and acceptance.

What tragic irony it was that back in the sanctuary of the Vatican itself he should have been cut down by a would-be assassin’s bullet in May 1981, while in the very act of bestowing his blessing on the people. That he recovered and resumed again the routine of his ministry after many weeks of hospitalization caused rejoicing among people of all faiths everywhere who had prayed for him.