The Long Shadow of Pius XI, One Hundred Years Later

The problems of today trace not back to the 1960's, as many believe, but back to World War I, and Pope Pius XI saw them before anyone else.

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One of the very best histories of World War I, The Long Shadow, by Cambridge historian David Reynolds (both a book and a BBC documentary series), deals not so much with the causes of that terrible war as with how the conflict would shape the world over the next century. Reynolds, of course, has the historian’s advantage of looking back. 

But Catholics, if they wish, can consult a very different guide, a papal encyclical written in the aftermath of the war, which diagnosed how things stood then and presciently warned about even greater calamities which were to come unless a certain definite remedy was adopted.

I mean the first encyclical of then newly-elected Pope Pius XI, called Ubi arcano Dei consilio, published on December 23, 1922, exactly 100 years ago today. 

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The title translates as When in the Inscrutable Designs of God, which is Pius’ humble way of referring to his own election as pope. He felt unworthy and couldn’t understand why he was picked.  

Nonetheless, he would shepherd the Church through the Anglican bishops’ disastrous embrace of artificial birth control at Lambeth in 1930 (Casti Connubii); the 40th anniversary of the founding of Catholic Social Doctrine (Quadragesimo Anno); and the rise of vicious anti-Semitic racist ideology (Mit Brennender Sorge).

With a humble servant, “God can and does write perfectly, even with the leg of a table,” as St. Josemaria remarked. Pius XI died on February 7, 1939, one year after Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria and only a few months prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the start of the next World War.  

You may have believed that World War I ended “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918. Not so, says Pius XI. The Treaty of Versailles was only a piece of paper. Pius gave a long list of continuing conflicts and woes to prove that, despite the Armistice, the World remained in a state of war. 

He, of course, was right. The first thing that Hitler insisted upon when he captured Paris was that the French sign their papers of surrender in the very same railway car in which the Germans had offered their surrender in 1918. Let evil Hitler testify to the fact that the Second was a continuation of the First World War. But the Second was followed by the Cold War. And after the Soviet Union collapsed, did the world finally attain peace? Or are we in the same state of war which Pius recognized? Is the Great War continuing today, by other means?

Read Pius’ description, and you decide:

  • Polarization: “Public life is so enveloped…by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for the common people so much as freely to breathe therein.”
  • Anger: “A much more serious and lamentable evil than these threats of external aggression is the internal discord which menaces the welfare not only of nations but of human society itself.”
  • Class and race conflict: “We must take cognizance of the war between the classes, a chronic and mortal disease of present-day society, which like a cancer is eating away the vital forces of the social fabric, labor, industry, the arts, commerce, agriculture—everything in fact which contributes to public and private welfare and to national prosperity.”
  • The failure of politicians: “[T]he contests between political parties…do not originate in a real difference of opinion concerning the public good or in a laudable and disinterested search for what would best promote the common welfare, but in the desire for power and for the protection of some private interest.”
  • Abandonment of fathers, decline of marriage: “the fact of the absence of fathers and sons from the family fireside during the War and by the greatly increased freedom in matters of morality which followed on it as one of its effects…. Too often likewise have we seen both the sanctity of the marriage tie and the duties to God and to humankind, which this tie imposes upon men, forgotten.”
  • Anxiety and depression: “We cannot but lament the morbid restlessness which has spread among people of every age and condition in life.”
  • Sexual revolution and social decadence: “We lament, too, the destruction of purity among women and young girls as is evidenced by the increasing immodesty of their dress and conversation and by their participation in shameful dances, which sins are made the more heinous by the vaunting in the faces of people less fortunate than themselves their luxurious mode of life.”
  • Gangs, thugs, and malcontents: “We cannot but grieve over the great increase in the number of what might be called social misfits who almost inevitably end by joining the ranks of those malcontents who continually agitate against all order.”

Serious Catholics may be disposed to regard these problems as new, arising in the 1960s, but Pius XI is here to tell you that they are old, a century old at least. True, the United States, by its isolation from Europe, may have been for a brief while something of a separate case, in some respects. But even so, remember that the United States itself had been torn apart by war only a few decades before the time when Pius was writing and that that “war,” too, continued in the form of segregation and race hatred. Also, we must keep in mind the constant fear of nuclear destruction during that era, like a pedal tone underlying everything else. Serious Catholics may be disposed to regard our problems as new, arising in the 1960s, but Pius XI is here to tell you that they are old, a century old at least.Tweet This

After arguing that the world was still at war, Pius asks what are the causes of this war. He gives two. One is a focus on material goods and especially the search for equality understood as an equality of material possessions: 

[M]aterial goods (and in this they differ greatly from those of the spirit which the more of them we possess the more remain to be acquired) the more they are divided among men the less each one has and, by consequence, what one man has another cannot possibly possess unless it be forcibly taken away from the first. Such being the case, worldly possessions can never satisfy all in equal manner nor give rise to a spirit of universal contentment, but must become perforce a source of division among men and of vexation of spirit.

The other cause, deeper and more profound, is the attempt to construct a public philosophy, a basis of government, or framework of education, without due recognition of God: 

Because men have forsaken God and Jesus Christ, they have sunk to the depths of evil. They waste their energies and consume their time and efforts in vain sterile attempts to find a remedy for these ills, but without even being successful in saving what little remains from the existing ruin. 

He specifically mentions “legislation…which did not recognize that either God or Jesus Christ had any rights over marriage”:

The high ideals and pure sentiments with which the Church has always surrounded the idea of the family, the germ of all social life, these were lowered, were unappreciated, or became confused in the minds of many. As a consequence, the correct ideals of family government, and with them those of family peace, were destroyed; the stability and unity of the family itself were menaced and undermined, and, worst of all, the very sanctuary of the home was more and more frequently profaned by acts of sinful lust and soul-destroying egotism—all of which could not but result in poisoning and drying up the very sources of domestic and social life.

Are you still in doubt that the world today is not in a “new” or “recent” condition but in the same condition that Pius recognized?

After discussing the causes, Pius considers the remedy. There is only one remedy, he says, which can give true peace—that Christ reign over individuals, who follow his law; over families, where the holy ideal of the sacrament of matrimony is lived; and over societies, when “they accept the divine origin of and control over all social forces” and “the position in society which He Himself has assigned to His Church is recognized.”

The secularization of Western societies was just beginning when Pius wrote. It would have been easy for Catholics to presume that the reign of Christ would be advanced in some top-down fashion, imposed by clerics or governments. But what if, in contrast, the remedy would need to be advanced mainly by laypersons, respecting always the just freedom of fellow citizens?—through their example, by persuasion not coercion, by proposing not imposing (as St. Pope John Paul II liked to say). This alternative approach begins to look like the role of the laity as envisioned by Vatican II.

Pius XI chose as his motto, “The peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ,” and Arcano explains this conception. Three years later, he instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King with the encyclical Quas Primas. Today, we observe the Solemnity, and many know about Quas Primas.  

But few understand that the Solemnity is meant to testify to a remedy. Most Catholics do not know the diagnosis, and they look upon our present “condition of warfare” with anger, discouragement, or perhaps even a sense of fatalism or complacency. Aren’t our own crises singular, unusual, without parallel?—to which a Holy Father from a century ago says, “Get back to the work of peace.” 

[Image: Portrait of Pope Pius XI by Philip de Laszlo]


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