Holy popes and the bloodiest of centuries

Looking back on the decidedly unholy twentieth century, we can be assured that the presence of the Church is that of Christ’s Mystical Body, scourged, crucified and rising again in each generation.

One of the joys of co-hosting the FORMED Book Club with Father Fessio and Vivian Dudro is the opportunity it presents to read and discuss some of the newest books published by Ignatius Press. We have just concluded three weeks of discussion on Russell Shaw’s book, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, which is an excellent summary of the role of the papacy in confronting the wickedness and tyranny of the twentieth century, the bloodiest thus far in the wearying annals of mankind.

The doom-laden century dawned as the sun was setting on the papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903), whose encyclical Rerum Novarum had addressed and prophesied many of the ideological demons that would torment the new century. Leo’s groundbreaking encyclical would lay many of the doctrinal foundations upon which subsequent popes would build the body of the Church’s social teaching, a teaching which offers the only hope for political and economic liberty in an age of burgeoning plutocracy and increasing centralization of power.

Leo’s successor was Pius X (1903-1914) whose crusade against the heresy of modernism would hold back the onset of that particular plague for more than half a century. Today, more than a century after his death, his example and teaching still inspire and inform those who continue the fight for truth and tradition against those who would make the Church subject to the meretricious Zeitgeist.

Pius X died as the world descended into the butchery of the first of the bloody century’s two world wars. His successor, Benedict XV (1914-1922), devoted his papacy to restoring peace, not merely by seeking an early end to the war itself but in his efforts to lay the foundations of a sustainable peace in the war’s aftermath. In this noble endeavor, he had a great ally in the Holy Roman Emperor, Karl of Austria. This unity between the spiritual authority of Christendom and its secular equivalent, an all too rare occurrence in European history, could do nothing to prevent the allied powers from imposing an unjust “peace”, which included the removal of Blessed Karl from his throne and his being forced into exile. As for the pope, he was excluded from participation in the peace conference at Versailles. The resulting peace treaty, bereft of the conciliatory wisdom of the pope and the emperor, would be a significant contributory factor in the rise of the Nazis and the consequent second world war.

If the peacemakers, Benedict and Karl, had held sway instead of the warmongers, world history in the past century would have been very different and much less barbaric. It is not merely that the war itself would have ended sooner, saving countless lives, but that an early end to the war would almost certainly have saved the world from the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the Third Reich and the resultant second world war. In this sense, the architects of the extended war and the disastrous peace treaty can be said to have the blood of tens of millions on their hands. Such is the price to be paid for the refusal of the proud to listen to the sanity that sanctity offers.

Pius XI (1922-1939) oversaw the Church’s response to the nightmare scenario that the hawkish architects of Versailles had put in place. In the year in which Pius became pope, Mussolini’s Fascists seized power during the insurrection known as the March on Rome, and Lenin’s Bolsheviks consolidated power after their victory over the anti-communist forces in the Russian Civil War. During the seventeen years of his papacy, the Church suffered persecution at the hands of Marxist regimes in Mexico and Spain, and at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. The world, it seemed, was succumbing to secular fundamentalism of one sort or another.

Pius XI’s response to such darkness was to establish the feast of Christ the King. “When once men recognize,” he wrote, “both in private and public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” In 1931, on the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno, which reiterated and affirmed the wisdom of the Church’s social teaching as the only viable alternative to secularist ideologies. In addition, he published powerful rebukes to the godless policies of Fascism, communism and Nazism.

Whereas Pius XI had presided over the Church in the darkening secularist world between the wars, his successor Pius XII (1939-1958) became pope in the year in which the world was plunged into the second of the world wars that secularism had caused. During the war, Pope Pius gave asylum in the Vatican and at Castel Gandolfo to many refugees, including many Jews. After the war, he was a vociferous opponent of the Soviet Empire, which had descended over central and eastern Europe following another disastrous peace treaty.

It would be another fearlessly anti-communist pope, John Paul II (1978-2005), who would have a crucial role in the bringing down of the Soviet Empire. His visit to Poland in 1979, the year after his election, would precipitate a chain of events, a “Domino” effect (pun intended!), which toppled one communist regime after another, culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union itself on Christmas Day 1991. In the same year, John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus to commemorate and celebrate the centenary of Rerum Novarum, reaffirming the Church’s social teaching, the wisdom of which had been ignored by the powers of the world, with calamitous consequences, for the entirety of the period between the two encyclicals.

Looking back on the witness of such holy popes during the decidedly unholy twentieth century, we can be assured that the presence of the Church is that of Christ’s Mystical Body, scourged, crucified and rising again in each generation. As for the secularist enemies of the Church, in this as in the last century, we can take comfort in John Paul II’s conviction that the fall of Soviet communism was largely the reaction against “the spiritual void brought about by atheism”. In the final analysis, the Church does not need the political power to bring down the powers of secularism because secularism has all the power it needs to bring about its own self-destruction. If the last century teaches anything, it is that the culture of death is always committing suicide and that the sanity of sanctity is always the seed of life.


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About Joseph Pearce 27 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

11 Comments

  1. The Story and history of St Martin will give us some light on the early Church’s understanding of war (Military action) while leading us to the present-day ever-increasing use of violence.

    “The story and history of Saint Martin. Martin was born in Savaria, Pannonia (Hungary) in 316. He was the son of a tribune in the Roman army serving during the rule of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (311-337) who would become the first Christian Roman Emperor. His father was then stationed at Ticinum (Pavia, Italy), where Martin grew up. His father worshipped the pagan Roman Gods but Martin was curious about the new Christian religion, which had been legalized in 316. Martin converted to Christianity, as did his mother, but his father disapproved and remained a pagan. Martin followed his father’s career and joined the Roman Army when he was fifteen years of age. Martin was stationed in Amiens, Gaul (modern France) in 334. Martin is strongly associated with the Legend of the Cloak. The legend tells that Martin, the Roman soldier, cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with a scantily clad beggar. Martin was then baptized in the Christian faith and continuing serving as a Roman soldier until it became apparent that this career was at odds with the teachings of Christianity. He resigned his post and was imprisoned as a traitor and coward

    “Such is the price to be paid for the refusal of the proud to listen to the sanity that sanctity offers”

    but later released. He then moved on and lived his life as a hermit. Martin then lived in the city of Tours, where he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, and together, they established a monastery. In 371 Martin was appointed by the will of the people as the bishop of Tours.”

    “If the last century teaches anything, it is that the culture of death is always committing suicide and that the sanity of sanctity is always the seed of life”

    While clearly understanding “Can there be anything more perverse/duplicitous than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?
    No one has challenged this assertion within my previous posts under different articles on this site. Silence denotes agreement, nevertheless two quotes from another poster on another site, in italics.

    “But it (Violence) must sometimes be used in self-defense” I am sure that we all would respond and defend a loved one or vulnerable person if they were been attacked and attempt to restrain the attacker within the confines of the law and violence could occur but it would not be premeditated. In English law, if a burglar entered your house and in attempting to restrain him, you killed him, you would not be guilty of murder but if you had kept a machete under the bed to use in the possibility of an attempted break-in and you killed the intruder with it, you would be prosecuted for murder as the occurrence would be premeditated. So yes, our intent is the key.

    “According to you we must let Hitler get away with his plan since we cannot fight back”

    Jesus tells us that His kingdom (Values) is not of this world. We are not to be alarmed by wars or rumors of them. And by implication partake in them. Terms such as collateral damage (definition: 1. during a war, the unintentional deaths and injuries of people who are not soldiers.) Are just a cover to justify the premeditated ‘ever-increasing violence’ of war.

    I personally believe as a Christain that we cannot fight back with the weapons of the world for to do so is to contribute to the never-ending ‘increasing’ cycles of injustice within war, leading us further into the “Signs of the End of the Age” see Matt 24:1-28 but we can fight back with the teachings of love found within the Gospels as “the sanity of sanctity is always the seed of life”

    So do we have “Recognition of the True Cross” as St Martin and those early Christians had, who made him bishop, within our hearts also because even today as Christians, do we not, still condone violence?

    Please consider continuing this theme on violence via the link
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/04/01/legends-and-history-of-the-true-cross/#comment-253880

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. The KW post seems to indicate that keeping a weapon of any kind in your home for protection constitutes premeditation if used on an intruder. I don’t believe this is the case, and it is not the position of the Church.
    The Catechism (CCC) states clearly that governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self defense (2266). The fact that military personal have weapons at the ready hardly constitutes a premeditated plan of attack.
    The Catechism goes on to say that, “Legitimate defense is a grave duty for whoever is responsible for the lives of others the common good. (2321)” If it is a grave duty, we do not have the option to refuse to perform the duty.

    • Crusader: In reply to your reference to my post above, the link given in the said post needs to be read to fully comprehend what I am saying in relation to Christ’s teaching on the use of violence.

      From my post via the link
      “ From Donum Vitae “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”

      The term ‘Just War’(Theory) continually shatters the reality of this teaching given by the Church?
      The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

      Prior to Luke 22:36, we have Luke 22:35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out without purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.

      So, from now on we see the divide between the true believer/follower who trusts in God alone whereas those who rely on possessions need to protect them, as in

      Luke22;36 “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one” and since the time of Christ, we see the continual escalation of violence.

      But of course, Crusader society at large must be governed by the rule of law and we need a police force to enact it, etc. But the use of Violence–‘an act of physical force that causes or is intended to cause harm’ was condemned by Christ when Peter struck the High Priest’s slave, cutting off his right ear He said, “Put away your sword,” Jesus then told him. “Those who use the sword (Violence) will die by the sword”

      The USA is one of the few countries to permits its citizen to bear arms it also gives its citizens the legal right to abortion. As Christians we certainly reject the violent act of abortion on an innocent human life but do we apply the same revulsion to the injustices emanating from the premeditated ‘ever-increasing use of violence in war

      So perhaps you can respond to the fundamental question within my post above, one that goes to the heart of the matter (The use of violence) for us as Christians.

      “Can there be anything more perverse/duplicitous than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  3. KW: I accept what the Church teaches about the Just War Theory. I accept what the Church teaches about Legitimate defense being a grave duty for those responsible for the lives of others and the common good. You do not seem to accept this, but rather have your own private interpretation of the scriptural references that you quote. I don’t believe that anything else I might say would be worthwhile.

    • Thank you for your comment Crusader.

      “Can there be anything more perverse/duplicitous than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

      • Kevin, No it is not perverse to do so. Is the individual on either side to be denied salvation. Soldiers are not always able to discern what it is exactly all about. There are many complexities to war. So the individual combatant is not always aware nor capable of discerning what is actually happening. Only God reads the individuals hearts. So yes, combatants on either side should be given Communion and the Sacraments. It would be perverse not to do so! And it is perverse to suggest not to! You make things sound so nice an tidy and clear. They are not always so. Even the saints couldn’t agree who actually was pope during the times of 2 popes. God used many people to do His will. King David, King Saul, etc… They waged war with God’s permission. Saint Joan of Arc was given a vision from Saint Catherine to support the not so good King to unite all of France under Him. And she was told this King she supported by waging war would ultimately betray her, which he did. Your argument does not hold water when reviewing history. We are not pacifists as other sects are. God permits war for many reasons, ultimately it has been a punishment for sin as Our Lady of Fatima said WWI and WWII and the other wars of this century were caused by. It is punishment for our personal moral sins, yours and mine. Our Lady told us to stop sinning, go to confession monthly, pray for others conversion and salvation, and offer sacrifices for souls. Then we will have peace. Just because someone says peace, peace, does not make them a peace maker. The hard work no one wants to do is to repent, pray, and offer sacrifices.

        • Thank you for your comment Tad “Is the individual on either side to be denied salvation? Salvation comes from serving a lively conscience, reception of the Holy Eucharist should enliven it, as Christians, we serve God first.

          “Only God reads the individuals hearts. So yes, combatants on either side should be given Communion and the Sacraments” By giving the Holy Eucharist to a combatant on both sides just before going into battle is to deaden that man’s conscience in relation to the teachings of Jesus Christ the King of Peace, Love, and Justice.

          “Soldiers are not always able to discern what it is exactly all about”
          Knowing and giving the Holy Eucharist by the ordained ministry is to collude with that ignorance by condoning it, in effect, they are propagating the violence of War between Christians. You may not see this as been perverse, I do.

          “There are many complexities to war. So, the individual combatant is not always aware nor capable of discerning what is actually happening”

          Yes as many complexities (Crimes of violence) are associated with war while combatants and military personal often say ” We were just following orders” But our Christian faith demands more of us, as our consciences must serve justice.

          “We are not pacifists as other sects are”

          The first recorded conscientious objector was Maximilianus, conscripted into the Roman Army in the year 295, but “told the Proconsul in Numidia that because of his religious convictions he could not serve in the military”. He was executed for this and was later canonized as Saint Maximilian.

          The subject matter is difficult Tad, as we all walk in our fallen nature, nevertheless, I am sure that throughout the ages many Christians have gone into battle on both sides thinking that they are doing God’s will aided and abetted by a hierarchical church.

          From my first post “So do we have “Recognition of the True Cross” as St Martin and those early Christians had, who made him bishop, within our hearts also because even today as Christians, do we not, still condone violence?

          kevin your brother
          In Christ

  4. Mr. Pearce,

    Thank you for your great courage, clarity, charity, commitment, and sacrifice.
    But most importantly, thank you for devoting your life to Christ and His bride.

    God Bless,
    Jim Gill

  5. KW. You are absolutely correct. You reminded me of a forgotten memory, when I was about 19 yrs old I attended a wedding in Amiens. I felt bleak there and though the wedding was jolly I had to leave the area soon after. Can there be anything more perverse…I understand what you are saying and agree. But, I also think of those Protestant soldiers who in the moment of injury and death welcomed the comfort given by Fr. Doyle. A Jesuit priest from Dublin. Your post gives a lot of food for thought.

    • Thank you, Hannah, for your encouraging comment. Yes, Fr. Doyle was an incredible man and priest (Probably a future Saint) he would have given hope to many at the point of death as many other priests did also.
      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  6. Do we see a curious parallel here(?): World War I was not adjourned, but only suspended (by Versailles which set the stage for World War II); and Vatican I was not adjourned, but only suspended (by the invasion of Rome by nationalist forces) until picked up again by Vatican II.

    “…we […] do suspend the same [Ecumenical Council] until some more convenient and appropriate time, to be assigned by this Apostolic See, praying God, the author and defender of His Church, when all impediments shall have been finally removed, to restore to His faithful bride, as soon as possible, liberty and peace” (Bull, October 20, 1870).

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