Foe of Modernist Heresy Has Many Lessons for Today
On Tuesday, the Church began commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope St. Pius X. But despite nearly a century since his passing, his writings continue to be consulted to this day.
Born in 1835 to a poor family in northeast Italy, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto was elected Roman Pontiff in 1903 and served as Successor of Peter until his death on Aug. 20, 1914, the day Germany invaded Belgium at the beginning of World War I.
The first pope to be canonized since the 16th century’s Pope St. Pius V, he had a strong devotion to Our Lady, was deeply pastoral, and had a fervent love for the poor. Today, he is best known for his rejection of modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine and his promotion of traditional devotional practice and orthodoxy.
Commemorating the anniversary, L’Osservatore Romano this week paid tribute to his life with text and pictures. One reflection proposed some similarities between him and Pope Francis. It noted Pius’ disdain for ecclesiastical triumphalism, his sober and modest style, and it claimed that, like Francis, he had a “more pastoral than magisterial interpretation of the role of Peter.” It recalled how Pius XII paid tribute to him at his canonization, describing him as a “country priest” – a label also given to Pope Francis.
The newspaper also pointed out that both popes were elected under extraordinary circumstances: Pope Francis after the retirement of Benedict XVI, and Pius X after Austria-Hungary Emperor Franz Joseph vetoed, via proxy, the election of the favourite in the 1903 conclave, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla.
The Vatican newspaper contended that the similarities between the two popes end there, adding that the times in which Pius X lived are “too distant with respect to those of today.”
But many continue to refer to Pius’ prolific writings, which they continue to see as relevant as ever to today’s relativist and increasingly secularist societies. His most famous encyclical, “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), promulgated in 1907, was enormously influential in its condemnation of modernism, a movement that had evolved via currents in 19th-century Protestantism.
The document aimed to counter the movement’s belief that even solemnly defined Church teachings could change over time, and its sympathy with secularist conceptions of the separation of Church and state.
Pascendi Dominici Gregis has many striking passages, not least his solemn warning that modernists wish to “lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires.” Then, having struck at this root of immortality, he adds, “they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt.” He stresses that agnosticism is the movement’s “philosophical foundation”, and one whose natural end is relativism and atheism.
Three years later, in 1910, St. Pius required all priests, religious superiors and seminary teachers to take an oath against the modernist heresy, a requirement that Pope Paul VI abolished in 1967.
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A less well-known though still often-quoted text of Pius X is from a 1910 letter to French bishops titled, “Our Apostolic Mandate”. Also a powerful rebuttal of modernism, today it is sometimes cited not only to counter today’s post-modernist culture but also to shed light on what many see as secularist thinking that has entered parts of the Church.
Written primarily as a response to “Le Sillon”, a French political and religious modernist movement that tried to bring Catholicism into greater conformity with French socialist ideals, the papal letter takes a stand against ideas that modern society holds inviolable: an erroneous concept of human dignity, liberation from authority, and democratization of the Church. Regarded as both wise and uncompromising, it serves as a rallying cry to French bishops to guard their flock in staying true to the Church’s teaching in the face of doctrinal error.
“Catholic doctrine tells us that the primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas, however sincere they may be,” Pius X explains, adding that although Jesus was “kind to sinners and to those who went astray, He did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared.”
“He loved them all,” Pius says, “but He instructed in order to comfort them.”
Jesus, he continues, “was as strong as he was gentle” and “He reproved, threatened, chastised.” He lifted up the lowly, but “not to instil” rebelliousness and disobedience. Jesus did not announce a “reign of an ideal happiness from which suffering would be banished,” Pius adds. “He traced the path of the happiness which is possible on earth and of the perfect happiness in heaven, the royal way of the Cross.”
Such teachings are “eminently social” he says, and show Jesus Christ as someone “quite different from an inconsistent and impotent humanitarianism.”
St. Pius X doesn’t hold back from reprimanding Catholics who seek to establish “the reign of love and justice” on earth based solely on the uniting influence of a “generous idealism and moral forces drawn from whence they can.”
He reminds them that establishing the “Christian City” needs much more than a “vague idealism and civic virtues”, and instead requires “the sufferings of millions of martyrs, and the light given by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the self-sacrifice of all the heroes of charity, and a powerful hierarchy ordained in heaven, and the streams of Divine Grace – the whole having been built up, bound together, and impregnated by the life and spirit of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, the Word made man.”
He goes on to deride the values derived from the French Revolution – “Liberty, Justice, Fraternity, Love, Equality” – so favoured by the Sillon movement. Such values rest on “an ill-understood human dignity”, he says, leading to a “seductive confusion,” a “tumultuous agitation” and a “sterile” end that brings “socialism in its train.”
He expresses concern that such thinking among Catholics aims to create a “One World Church” which shall have “neither dogmas nor hierarchy, neither discipline for the mind, nor curb the passions, and which, under the pretext of freedom and human dignity, would bring back to the world [the] reign of legalized cunning and force, and oppression of the weak and of all those who toil and suffer.”
He addresses the problem of democracy, and while his thinking on this subject would probably be unpalatable to many Catholics today, he puts his finger on perhaps why, today, public opinion of democratic institutions has reached such a low ebb.
At that time there was a growing belief, and one which holds sway today, that a government’s authority derives from its people, and which the people have the right to revoke. But such a view was condemned by Leo XIII, Pius recalls, who restated that Catholics believe the right of government “derives from God as its natural and necessary principle.”
“If the people remain the holders of power,” Pius says, “what becomes of authority? A shadow, a myth; there is no more law properly so-called, no more obedience.” The result, he argues, is a society that “will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings.” But then any precept would eventually be viewed “as an attack upon their freedom”, he says, and subordination to any form of superiority “would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace.”
Presciently, St. Pius says he fears worse is to come. “The end result of this developing promiscuousness, the beneficiary of this cosmopolitan social action, can only be a Democracy which will be neither Catholic, nor Protestant, nor Jewish,” he says. Instead it will “be a religion [more] universal than the Catholic Church, uniting all men to become brothers and comrades at last in the “Kingdom of God”, “We do not work for the Church, we work for mankind.””
With this in mind, Pius X encourages the bishops to “carry on diligently with the work of the Saviour of men by emulating His gentleness and His strength.” He urges them to “preach fearlessly their duties to the powerful and to the lowly” and to “form the conscience of the people and of the public authorities.” He further calls on the bishops to “ take appropriate measures, with prudence but with firmness also” with regards the Sillonists, and ends by calling on the Church to pray that the Lord may cause them to understand the “grave reasons” for any particular sanction placed on them.
Pius X was a prolific writer during his 11 years as Pope, penning 16 encyclicals all of which can be read in English on the Vatican Web site here. While some passages are clearly suited to another era, for many Catholics St. Pius X’s uncompromising style makes welcome reading in a world where the modernist heresy has long taken hold.