Friday, February 22, 2013

Flashback, February 1878: Leo XIII Begins Surprising Papacy

For years, Gioacchino Pecci, Cardinal Bishop of Perugia, had hardly seemed papabile (“pope-able”—i.e., a plausible candidate for Roman Catholic pontiff). He wasn’t a member of the Curia, the Vatican’s administrative unit; he had so botched an early diplomatic posting to Belgium that he had been withdrawn at the urging of that country’s royal family; he had run afoul of the powerful papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli; and now, after being elected pope on the third ballot on February 20, 1878, Pope Leo XIII appeared, in his frail, 67-year-old body, unlikely to be more than a caretaker for a venerable but embattled institution.

Instead, Pope Leo surprised everyone by lasting for 25 years, advancing scholarship within the Roman Catholic Church, soothing the Church’s troubled relationship with rulers and activists in the streets, and, most important, kick-starting the social-justice movement within the Church through a series of encyclicals.

As the College of Cardinals prepares to gather for another conclave to elect a pontiff in the wake of Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation—the first pope to resign in six centuries—speculation has run rampant over possible candidates and whether the eventual winner might change the Church. Leo’s tenure offers one possible scenario of how an evolution can occur in an institution that, to the frustration of many, often reacts to events and new schools of thought at a snail’s pace.

Leo was hardly a radical; indeed, one doesn’t exist for years in the Church hierarchy without absorbing its basic assumptions. Moreover, a number of his positions were not out of step with those of his predecessor, Pius IX. All the way into his 90s, for instance, Leo believed that he would recover the Papal States, the territories under direct sovereign rule of the popes for an entire millennium before they were lost in the midcentury drive for Italy's unification. Moreover, disturbed by continued anti-clericalism in Europe, he launched an unnecessary pre-emptive strike against the “Americanism heresy” of separation of church and state—a move that the most prominent American prelate of the late 19th century, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, regarded as a slap at the faithful in the growing United States.

With that said, the reign of Leo represented a welcome change from that of Pius. Recently, columnist E.J. Dionne noted that Benedict XVI was “a kind of neo-conservative — not in his foreign-policy attitudes but in sociological terms,” a moderate progressive who ended up recoiling not just from the student rebellions of the late 1960s in his native Germany but also from nearly any deeper examination of Church theology. 

In a sense, Pius was the Church’s neocon prototype—only he turned away from what he perceived as the nationalist, secularist excesses of Europe  in the late 1840s. By the end of his reactionary three-decade period as the Vicar of Christ, he had refused to accept his diminished temporal power (even to the point of becoming a rather farcical "prisoner of the Vatican") and pushed through the doctrine of papal infallibility. In the process, he encouraged Protestants who believed Catholicism was, by its nature, antithetical to any notions of democracy, republican government or, scientific, philosophical or even theological innovation. His was the longest pontificate in history, and it did some of the worst damage.

With a culture that stresses tradition, the Vatican is slow to change, even in those instances where it is clearly perceived, even at the time, that a mistake has been made. For one thing, the pope who made the initial move has already stacked the Church hierarchy with his own appointees; second, the work culture of the Vatican reflects the la dolce vita lifestyle of Italy as a whole (recall Pope John XXIII’s wisecrack when asked how many people work at the Vatican: “About half”); and third, an immediate admission of an error obviously calls into question papal infallibility.

For this reason, popes advance the Church incrementally, in ways often not immediately apparent to casual observers. Favorites of the last pontiff find themselves sidelined to less conspicuous positions; those previously in disfavor see their thinking and achievements recognized at last; canon law is tinkered with at the margins; rhetoric is recalibrated, to a notably less fevered pitch; and new initiatives are launched.

Leo was not about to undo everything Pius did; in fact, the centralizing tendencies of his predecessor would prove central in his attempt to steer the Church in a different direction. But his elevation to his new office unleashed an unanticipated burst of energy in the aging cardinal, so much so that within hours of his election he cried out, "I want to carry out a great policy!"

The papacy under Leo, then, offers a good example of the type of evolution we might expect to see in a pontiff of the near future with conservative, but not reactionary, instincts:

*Henry Cardinal Manning, who had used his position as an ally of Pius to undercut fellow Catholic convert John Henry Newman, saw his rival become a cardinal himself in 1879.

* “The new pope does not…curse, he does not threaten…The form is sweet,” editorialized the Italian journal Riforma—and Leo used that tone to re-set the Vatican’s disastrous relationship with Otto von Bismarck, who had used Pius’ promulgation of infallibility as an excuse to push his policy of Kulturkampf, or subordination to the new German state. Within a few years after Leo’s ascension, Bismarck began to rescind the worst of the anti-Catholic legislation.

*Many in the Vatican bureaucracy had resisted opening its archives to historians, who they felt were prejudiced in favor of Protestants, if not secular. Leo would have none of it. “There are some of you who, if you had lived in the time of Christ, would have wanted to suppress the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter,” he answered. In 1881, Leo opened the archives to historians, including Protestants—a boon to research about Europe’s past.

*In the greatest paradox of all, Leo—though of aristocratic birth—decided to confront the twin specters of unfettered capitalism and socialism with Rerum Novarum (1891), one of 85 encyclicals—the most of any pontiff. (By comparison, the energetic John Paul II, in the same length of time, issued only 14.)

Consider this line from the encyclical: “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke which is very little better than slavery itself.” Mainstream thought in the current Republican Party would regard that as unmitigated class warfare. The impact in its own time was revolutionary. “Leo’s attack on unrestricted capitalism, his insistence on the duty of state intervention on behalf of the worker, his assertion of the right to a living wage and the rights of organized labor, changed the terms of all future Catholic discussion of social questions…” wrote Eamon Duffy in his history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners. “Without being either a democrat or a radical himself Leo opened the door to the evolution of Catholic democracy.”

No comments: