In 1903, the Patriarch of Venice was an emotional and pious former peasant pastor, Giuseppe Sarto. This Patriarchate has often served as a stepping stone on a prelate’s way to the papacy (Along with Sarto, John XXIII, John Paul I, and the currently papabile Angelo Scola have served as La Serenissima’s chief ecclesiastical figure).
Sarto’s first letter as Patriarch bemoaned the ills of contemporary society and argued that allegiance to the pope was the only remedy to the tribulations of the anticlerical developments in the 19th century. He was rewarded for this extreme ultramontanism and upon his election as pontiff chose to honor Pio Nono and his hard-line policies against the Italian nationalists and be called Pius X.
Sarto, which is coincidentally Italian for “tailor,” certainly cut a dashing figure in the pontifical white, personifying an “approachability and warmth which contrasted absolutely with his predecessor [Leo XIII]” (Saints and Sinners, 320).
Pius instituted a number of reforms in projects close to his heart, including a revision of the Code of Canon Law (which actually did not come to completion and publication until 1917, well after his death) and encouragement to receive the Eucharist more widely and frequently, even lowering the minimum age of reception to the age of reason, which the church came to define as 7 years old. He emphasized “that Communion was a remedy for shortcomings, not a reward of perfection” (Saints and Sinners, 323).
He gave birth to modern liturgical reform, backing the work of the Benedictine monks of Solesmes on Gregorian chant and plainsong, and gave the Sunday Eucharist priority over most saints’ days, even in Ordinary Time.
While Pius was highly laudatory of the laity, he viewed with suspicion their involvement in social action and any form of “Christian Democratic” political agenda. He exhibited a more pre-Leonine mentality toward the class struggles and labor disputes of the day, regressing markedly from Rerum Novarum’s hopeful attitude toward economic and social progress.
While he sought charitable relief efforts for the impoverished, he demanded these movements submit to the inherently “unequal society” of pastors and flock, the former “alone moves and controls,” the latter suffers “itself to be governed and to carry out in a submissive spirit the orders of those in control.” In this way he sought to tighten the reigns on Catholic Action movements.
The bulk of Pius’ pontificate was dedicated to battling the intellectual liberalism he famously labeled “Modernism.” In documents such as Lamentabili and Pascendi, Pius condemned the growing trend of submitting Catholic thought to developing scientific, historical and archeological studies, most succinctly embodied in the work of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell. In their thought the rigidity of dogmatic formulations was coming to be loosened to include a more organic, developmental paradigm of church doctrine.
Pius saw this as shaking the very foundations of faith. While much of the “Modernist crisis” lay in Pius’ inability or unwillingness to differentiate between subtle streams of thought, instead choosing to indiscriminately condemn “the synthesis of all heresies,” he was in some sense attempting to fulfill his charge of defending orthodox thought. The elements of conspiracy, paranoia and witch-hunts brought about by the secret theological police called the Sodalitium Pianum (The Society of Pius V), including investigating a young seminary professor named Angelo Roncalli (later to become Pope John XXIII), were shocking in their scope and intensity.
Pius demanded that all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries swear an “Oath Against Modernism,” which remained in effect until 1967. This text made one swear “until their dying breath” that “rationalist misinterpretations” of the faith were to be rejected along with anything denying “that the absolute and immutable truth preached by the apostles from the beginning may never be believed to be different, may never be understood in any other way” and may never be tailored to the trends of the times.
A notorious quote continues to plague the memory of the now St. Pius X concerning the severity with which he sought to purge the church of these tendencies. He claimed some people of the day wanted the Modernists “treated with oil, soap and caresses: but they should be beaten with fists.” While he was obviously speaking metaphorically, Pius remains a controversial figure in academic theological circles because of such an attitude, despite his undeniable personal warmth and affability.
Some believed that his pontificate endorsed “a stifling ethos of unjust and suspicious hyper-orthodoxy…discouraging all originality” which was to last for more than a generation (Saints and Sinners, 330).
Popes, like all human beings, display different characteristics, each of which help to form a mosaic of images and personalities that reflect Scriptural values. While Leo XIII emphasized and embodied the regal and diplomatic roles the pontiff held, Pius provided a stark and confrontational prophetic stance against what he saw as missteps in cultural developments, a role equally indispensable to the Office.
Without question, it is easy to see the good that he did and the undeniable beauty of the moniker given him by Pius XII, that of the “Pope of the Eucharist.” He undoubtedly sought to serve the poor and uneducated, in whom he saw Christ’s face writ large, and should be lauded and respected as a great, if imperfect, leader and protector of our church.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.