The interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s coincided almost exactly with the reign of a former librarian-turned-cardinal, Achille Ratti. For the second consecutive pontificate, the electors turned to a man less than a year a cardinal to lead the Catholic Church.
Ratti had been rather curiously whisked away from his books and sent to Poland as a diplomat under his predecessor, Benedict XV. “Why Benedict of all people should have given this delicate mission to a man like Ratti, utterly without any relevant experience, is a mystery” (Saints and Sinners, 335). As such decisions often do, it changed the course of history.
Ratti returned from Poland well-respected and diplomatically savvy, with a deeply entrenched distrust of communism. He was given the red hat and became Archbishop of Milan. When the conclave in 1922 remained deadlocked for over a dozen ballots between two prominent church leaders, Benedict’s Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri and Pius X’s protégé Cardinal La Fontaine, Ratti was chosen as a compromise candidate. Although he chose the name Pius XI, this was viewed as a conciliatory gesture, for his policies more closely reflected those of Benedict and Gasparri. He solved the ongoing “Roman Question,” as Benedict had tried to do for so long, finally accepting Mussolini’s offer of an independent microstate in the place of the right to rule all of central Italy, as his predecessors had sought to regain.
Much of Pius XI’s reign dealt with social issues. He sought to manage the combustible forces of capitalism, communism, socialism and fascism without diluting church teaching. “He thus looked to Catholic Action as a means of promoting an organicist society, characterized by a plenitude of subsidiary groupings of the faithful. In the words of the pontiff himself, the aim of these organizations was ‘of advancing the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and thereby communicating to human society the highest of all goods … of spreading everywhere the principles of the Christian faith and of Christian doctrine, defending them energetically, and giving effect to them in private and in public life’” (Priests, Prelates, and People, 234). To this end, Pius created the feast day of Christ the King in his document Quas Primas, which was later moved to the important and ceremonial position of closing out the western liturgical year.
Pius was a keen missiologist, penning an encyclical on the topic and internationalizing the highest spheres of the church, naming the first indigenous Chinese, Indian and Japanese bishops. The church rapidly embraced the practice of having local leaders, those who best understood the culture and current events of a given country, head their dioceses.
Pius was or course heavily involved in politics, signing 18 concordats between the Vatican and foreign nations, most notoriously with Hitler in 1933. Behind all these efforts “was a concern not merely to secure Catholic education, unhampered papal appointments of bishops, and free communication with Rome, but to halt as far as was possible the secularizing of European life” (Saints and Sinners, 339).
When Hitler promptly began attacking Catholicism in the media and among his own citizens, Pius was quick to act. He had his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (a rare German draft of a papal document, “With Burning Anxiety”) secretly smuggled into the country and read from the German pulpits on Palm Sunday, 1937. It condemned the paganism and pseudo-religion of Nazism, sharply criticized the increasingly vitriolic racial theory spreading throughout the country, and reaffirmed the eternal validity of the Hebrew scriptures. His speeches of the period reiterated these themes, referring often to “stupid racialism” and “barbaric Hitlerism.” He was, of course, prophetic in his condemnation.
Pius died in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the most vicious and devastating war the world had ever seen. Perhaps Ratti’s most lasting legacy was grooming and preparing the way for the Germanophile nuncio Eugenio Pacelli to become Pius XII upon his own death.
He is buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s and because of his love for mountain-climbing early in life, immortalized by numerous Alpine landmarks named after him.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.