Upon the death of Pius IX, the Cardinal electors took only three ballots to select Gioacchino Pecci as pope. Pecci, a relatively little-known Perugian bishop had been named Camerlengo of the conclave, one of only two acting Camerlenghi ever elected (Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII was the other). This protégé of Leo XII and Gregory XVI chose the name Leo XIII.
Leo’s pontificate included a number of notable events, many of which signaled the initial movement of a thawing of the church’s sometimes glacial attitude toward the modern world. As the first pope to be born in the 19th century, he was the first to be filmed by then-silent news reels, which he blessed afterward, and the first to be audio-recorded, reciting the Ave Maria (both of which are in some indescribable sense compelling and heartwarming, and easily accessible on Youtube).
He was also the first to address the growing European Kulturkampf and anticlericalism realistically, in a manner neither retreatingly conciliatory nor abrasive. While upholding the traditional teaching of the church and appreciating its historical and revelatory treasures, including arguing in his encyclical Aeterni Patris that Thomistic and Scholastic philosophy were a crucial part of Catholic intellectual patrimony and ought “always and everywhere remain” (24), he was courageous and forward-looking enough to view science and social progress as true expressions and modes of approaching that Unchanging Truth which Christians recognize as the triune and personal God.
Leo was a prolific writer, penning a great number of important documents. The most influential were Immortali Dei, Providentissimus Deus, and Rerum Novarum. The first dealt with the relationship between church and state, declaring that the two had interrelated but distinct spheres of authorities and freedoms. While complementary and not antithetical to one another, the two were separate and yet closely tied to one another. He urged Catholics to fully participate in both spheres, and sought to unify disparate factions in the church (namely liberal and ultramontane clergy in France) to come together under the standard of Christ and the papacy without condemning the Republic in a movement called the ralliement.
His view of the compatibility of democratic forms of government and Catholicism did not, however, prevent him from a somewhat unrealistic desire to recover Rome from the Risorgimento. The statues of Garibaldi and Giordano Bruno erected in close proximity to the Vatican were direct insults by the nationalists toward papal authority of any type, and Leo took umbrage and continued the stand-off with the King that Pio Nono had held until his death.
Providentissimus Deus opened the door to modern biblical scholarship. Undoubtedly inspired by the bourgeoning work of exegesis and interpretation being done in Protestant faculties of theology in Europe, Leo agreed that Catholic scholars ought not to be forbidden “to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done” (PD 15). He encouraged academic study of ancient languages, history, and other sciences to better understand the Scriptures.
In 1891, Leo published his most famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum. This is perhaps the most influential and revolutionary document on Catholic social teaching published since the Gospels themselves. In it, Leo carefully balances the right to individual dignity and fair pay for the impoverished with the call to a renewed moral order in society. He welcomes the demand for organized unions, better living and working conditions for the lower classes, and the right to own individual property, contingent upon an amicable relationship between employers and employees which is mediated by civil authorities and the church. He endorses neither unbridled capitalism, which dehumanizes people into mere consumers, nor the trend toward socialism, for the right to ownership is “sacred and inviolable” (RN 47). His vision recognizes the rights and limits of economic progress. As he says, “It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies” (RN 42).
In such a condemnation of the wealthy classes ignoring the personhood of the poor so as to maximize their utility, we see a sure and certain prefigurement of the 20th-century church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Pope John Paull II recognized the unquestioned importance of the document, drafting his own social encyclical Centesimus Annus (“Hundredth Year”) to mark the centenary of Leo’s monumental work.
Leo also composed the famous prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, which was recited after all Low Masses until 1964. Upon his death at age 93, he was entombed alongside five of his papal predecessors in San Giovanni in Laterano, the last pope to be buried outside of St. Peter’s.
Leo lived the longest of any pope in history. The current Holy Father this month became the seventh-oldest, with less than a decade remaining to surpass Leo.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.