July 22, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Church rebounds: Pope Leo XIII’s intellectualism

John F. Fink(Fourth in a series of columns)

I’ve noted several times in this series that the Catholic Church lost the Papal States when Italy took them over, and made Rome the capital of Italy in 1870. After that, for almost 59 years, from Sept. 20, 1870 until Feb. 11, 1929, no pope left the Vatican.

Beginning with Pope Pius IX, and through the papacies of Leo XIII, Pius X and Benedict XV, and part of Pius XI’s, the popes considered themselves a “prisoner in the Vatican.” They refused to leave the Vatican to keep from seeming to accept Italy’s authority over Rome.

That means that those popes didn’t travel to the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, or to Castel Gandolfo. But they also refused to appear in St. Peter’s Square or in front of St. Peter’s Basilica because the square was occupied by Italian troops.

Obviously, this was a low point for the Church—one of many in its history. However, the popes were determined to exert their spiritual influence, even if they had lost their temporal holdings. As we saw in my last column, Pope Pius IX did that in part by defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

There were only two popes during the second half of the 19th century. Pius IX’s papacy was the longest on record, from 1846 to 1878. That was followed by Pope Leo XIII from 1878 to 1903—the third longest, after St. John Paul II. He reigned until his death at age 93.

Leo XIII did his best to make the Church rebound from its low point. He did it by teaching. He issued 86 encyclicals, far more than any other pope. Eleven of them were on the rosary, earning him the name the “Rosary Pope,” and he approved two new Marian scapulars.

He revitalized the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, which had fallen out of favor after the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century. Pope Leo issued his encyclical “Aeterni Patris” in 1879, in which he wrote that all theologians should give pre-eminence to the teachings of the theologian known as the Angelic Doctor.

He followed up his encyclical by naming St. Thomas Aquinas the patron of universities. One of his successors, Pope Pius XI, commanded that only Thomas’s theology be taught in Catholic universities, and that was done for nearly 50 years.

Leo’s most important encyclical, though, was probably “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Human Labor”), which he issued in 1891. It was the first of a long line of social justice encyclicals issued by his successors, and was the Church’s response to the harsh conditions that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

Pope Leo soundly rejected socialism and defended the right to own private property, but said that this right required just wages for workers, and he defended the right of workers to organize into unions. The encyclical introduced the concept of subsidiarity—that laws should go no further than necessary to remedy evils or remove dangers.

Leo’s intellectual output helped the Church regain much of the prestige lost with the fall of the Papal States. †

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