Leo XIII: The First Liberal Pope Who Went Beyond His Authority

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In a previous article, I cleared up the misunderstanding that has led some traditionalists to blame ultramontanes and a so-called spirit of Vatican I for the “papolatry” exhibited by some Catholics who believe that the pope must be obeyed even when acting against the Church’s traditional teaching. I will now demonstrate that it was not the ultramontanes but liberal Catholics who pushed the limits of papal infallibility far beyond those set by Vatican I’s dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus[Editor’s note: “liberal” in the 19th century meant Catholics who wanted to compromise with the Liberal world created by the Masonic French revolution. This terminology and its meaning is similar but also different from the term “Liberal” as used in English to refer to churchmen alive today.]

This drift toward absolutism began with the ralliement (1884), a papal policy of rallying around the Republic that Pope Leo XIII imposed on French Catholics. Liberal Catholics, eager to reconcile the Church with revolutionary modernity, enthusiastically welcomed this course of action. On the contrary,  ultramontane Catholics emphasized the limits of the pope’s magisterial power and opposed his undue intrusion in France’s temporal affairs.

The episode was masterfully analyzed by Professor Roberto de Mattei in his book Le ralliement de Léon XIII – L’échec d’un projet pastoral (Leo XIII’s Ralliement – The Failure of a Pastoral Project). To avoid separation between the Church and the French State, Pope Pecci urged Catholics to unite with the Republic and fight anti-clerical laws from within the system. Vatican diplomacy sought to obtain the French government’s goodwill to recover the territories that the Kingdom of Italy had taken from it.

Leo XIII’s new policy had two major difficulties. First, it challenged the monarchical convictions of a majority of the French clergy and laity. Second, French elections had brought Masonic and secularist governments to power. These governments had introduced divorce, expelled the Jesuits, forbidden priests and religious to teach in public schools, abolished religious instruction in schools and imposed military service on clerics.

Pope Leo XIII was an intellectual with solid principles, but he was a liberal at heart. He naively believed that republican anticlericalism could be defused by convincing liberals that the Church did not oppose the Republic but only its secularism. Unlike the pope, the French faithful clearly saw that the de-Christianization of France was not an accessory element but the very raison d’être of the republican regime. For these Catholics, accepting the Republic meant acquiescing to the “republican spirit,” that is, the egalitarian and anti-religious bias of the revolutionary ideology of 1789 that would then be allowed to permeate society as a whole.

Leo XIII chose Cardinal Charles Lavigerie (1825-1892), archbishop of Algiers as the “authorized intermediary” between Paris and the Vatican to implement the ralliement policy. Toasting at reception for officers of the French Mediterranean war fleet gathered in Algiers in 1890, he urged them to accept the republican form of government, arguing that the union of all good citizens was France’s supreme need and “the first wish of the Church and her Pastors.”

Leo XIII joined the fray a few months later, granting an interview (the first ever by a pontiff) to a pro-government Parisian daily, Le Petit journal. He stated, “Everyone can keep his personal preferences, but in the field of action, there is only the government that France has given itself. A republic is a form of government as legitimate as any other.” His encyclical Au Milieu des sollicitudes [On The Church and State In France] came out three days later, soon followed by the Apostolic Letter Notre consolation a été grande [Our Consolation Has Been Great]. In the latter, the pope insisted on his idea of “accepting the civil power as it actually exists without ulterior motive and with that perfect loyalty which befits a Christian.”

For Catholics accustomed to fighting the Masonic Republic, this about-face posed a problem of conscience. It is similar to that raised by Cardinal Joseph Zen and the Catholics of the underground Church in the face of the ominous agreement signed between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist regime.

At the time, the majority of the French episcopate gave a cold reception to the ralliement policy. Some prominent ultramontane figures, such as Bishop Charles-Émile Freppel of Angers, openly opposed it. Cardinal Lavigerie let loose the first salvo of “magisterialism”— the error of giving more importance to a pontiff’s teachings and gestures than to that of Tradition. Lambasting those “intransigent” Catholics who claimed to follow Pius IX in order to oppose Leo XIII, the cardinal declared, “The only rule of salvation and life in the Church is to be with the pope, with the living pope. Whoever he may be.”[1]

The same instruction soon came from the pope’s own pen. The occasion was a letter from Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pitra, one of the prominent representatives of the “partito piano” (party of Pius IX) to a Dutch correspondent. The recipient promptly published the text he had received from the cardinal. Its most crucial passage defended ultramontane journalists and praised the Catholic expansion that had taken place under Pius IX, without saying a word about his successor. A press campaign was then unleashed against the old cardinal, accusing him of seeking to oppose Leo XIII’s policy with his own. A Belgian newspaper even accused him of being “the schismatic leader of a small church that wants to lecture the pope, posing as more papal than the pope.” The secular press joined with liberal Catholic newspapers demanding that the cardinal be punished.

At the instigation of Cardinal Lavigerie, the pope published a letter in the Osservatore Romano addressed to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris. The missive demanded that the faithful obey him in an exclusively political matter that had nothing to do with faith, morals, or ecclesiastical discipline. It would be much like Pope Francis making mandatory his beliefs on immigration or climate change. The abuse of magisterial power manifested in Leo XIII’s letter deserves being transcribed in its entirety. However that would be beyond the scope of this article. Thus, I will cite its more significant parts (with my comments in italicized square brackets).

It is not difficult to see that, perhaps because of the misfortune of the times, there are some Catholics who, not content with the submissive role the Church has assigned to them, believe they can take up one in their government. At least they imagine they are allowed to examine and judge the acts of authorities according to their own way of seeing things. That would be a serious disorder if allowed to prevail in the Church of God, where, by the express will of its divine Founder, two distinct orders have been established most clearly: the teaching Church and the taught Church, the Pastors and the flock, and among the Pastors, one who is the Head and Supreme Pastor for all. Pastors alone have been given the full power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful has been imposed the duty to follow these teachings, to submit with docility to these judgments, to allow themselves to be governed, corrected, and led to salvation. [Yes indeed, this is true in matters of faith, morals and church discipline, but regarding everything else, the faithful are free to have personal opinions.]

And to fail such a sacred duty, one need not make an act of open opposition to the bishops or to the Head of the Church: it suffices to make opposition in an indirect manner, which is all the more dangerous as people seek to hide it more with contrary appearances. [This is a reference to the ultramontanes, who were the champions of papal infallibility.]

It is also a proof of insincere submission to establish an opposition between one Supreme Pontiff and another Supreme Pontiff. [Sounds familiar…] Those who, [choosing] between two different directions, reject the present one and stick to the past do not show obedience to the authority, which has the right and duty to direct them. In some respects, they resemble those who, after a condemnation, would like to appeal to a future council or a better informed pope. [This is another attack on the ultramontanes, which accuses them of being conciliarists.]

Displaying centralism and authoritarianism hitherto unknown, Leo XIII added:

What one must hold on this point, then, is that in the general government of the Church, apart from the essential duties of the apostolic ministry imposed on all pontiffs, it is up to each of them to follow the rule of conduct which he deems best according to the times and other circumstances. In this, he is the sole judge, having in this matter not only special insights but also a knowledge of the general situation and needs of Catholicity, according to which his apostolic solicitude should be regulated. [But is the pope infallible in everything he does? If not, one can then legitimately have a contrary opinion.] It is he who must procure the good of the universal Church, with which the good of its various parts is coordinated. All others subject to this coordination must assist the action of the Supreme Director and serve his purposes. [Not if they believe in conscience that he is mistaken.] As the Church is one, as her Head is one, so is her government, to which all must conform.” [The present canon law recognizes the right of the faithful to express their disagreement with due respect to pastors.]

Six days later, one leading parish priest in Paris described the new climate in the Church as follows:

The bishops must recognize and proclaim that the pope is always right. The parish priests must proclaim and acknowledge that their bishop is always right. The faithful must recognize and proclaim that their parish priest, united to his bishop and united to the pope, is always right. It is like the gendarmerie, but it is not very practical, and history testifies that it has not been very practical. [2]

For his part, Cardinal Lavigerie congratulated Leo XIII for resisting the winds of discontent from the faithful and ultramontane newspapers: “By this act of truly pontifical vigor, Your Holiness has condemned a tyranny of the new kind, which was trying to impose itself on the Catholic hierarchy.” [3]

After publishing the Encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes, the pope further hammered the nail into the coffin. While recognizing that his policies dealt with a temporal matter, he wrote to the bishop of Grenoble:

There are some, We regret to say it, who, while claiming to be Catholics, believe they have the right to oppose the direction given by the Head of the Church under the pretext that it is a political direction. Oh well! Facing their erroneous claims, we maintain each of the acts that previously emanated from Us in all their fullness and continue to say: ‘No, undoubtedly, We do not seek to make politics; but when politics is closely connected with religious interests, as is happening in France at present, if anyone has the mission to determine the conduct that can effectively safeguard religious interests, of which the supreme end of things consists, it is the Roman Pontiff.’[4]

As soon as the encyclical appeared, Mr. Émile Ollivier ─ a former minister of Emperor Napoleon III, who was far from being ultramontane  ─ wrote in a column in the daily Le Figaro:

While waiting for the future to decide between Pius IX and Leo XIII, one can freely choose between two opinions; for, like our forefathers, we can say: non de fide—it is not of faith. As for those who consider the papal letter an ex-cathedra definition, it would be a waste of time to argue with them. One must send them back to school.[5]

The former Bonapartist minister was not exaggerating. After moral theology professors concluded that papal directives obliged on pain of mortal sin, two liberal Catholic newspapers wrote that those who continued to publicly support the monarchy were committing a grave sin. It was reported that some faithful had been denied absolution for having committed the “sin of monarchy.” In his memoirs, Cardinal Domenico Ferrata, the former nuncio to Paris, commented that the Apostolic Letter Notre Consolation “henceforth excluded all equivocation: one had to accept it or declare oneself a rebel to the word of the pope.” [6]

The ultramontanes avoided both pitfalls. They neither rallied to the Masonic Republic as Leo XIII wanted nor rebelled against his authority. They simply resisted him as Saint Paul had resisted Saint Peter “to his face” (Gal 2:16) or mutatis mutandis, as Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira resisted Paul VI’s Ostpolitik.[7]

Between October 1891 and February 1894, a small group of religious and laity met monthly in an ad hoc association called Our Lady of Nazareth. Its aim was to “act on the next conclave and obtain that the present pope not be given a successor who continues his liberal and political erring ways, so disastrous for the Church.” In July 1892, the group’s main leader, Father Charles Maignen, released a study “whose conclusions [were] likely to allay concerns of French Catholics who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to adhere to a government that persecutes the Church.” He stated, “Leo XIII did not act by virtue of the spiritual power that the Supreme Pontiff can exercise indirectly in the temporal order [ratione peccati], and consequently, his teachings, advice, or even orders, do not bind French Catholics in conscience.” In another study that was never published, titled Un pape légitime, peut-il cesser d’être pape? (Can a legitimate pope cease to be the pope?), Father Maignen addressed the delicate problem of a pope-heretic. [8]

Therefore, we can conclude without hesitation that exaggerated devotion and submission to the pope to the point of believing oneself obliged to obey him in matters unrelated to the faith or when he teaches or commands error does not come at all from exaggerated “ultramontanism” or a supposed “spirit of Vatican I.” On the contrary, it comes from the liberal Catholic current.

What was the result of the policy of “rallying” around the republic? As Leo XIII himself recognized, it was a complete failure. At an audience shortly before his death to Jules Méline, former President of the French Council, he said:

I have sincerely attached myself to the Republic, and that has not prevented the current government from recognizing my feelings and ignoring them. They unleashed a religious war that I lament and which harms France even more than the Church.[9]

If Pope Francis is sincere, like his predecessor, he will soon have to say the same thing about his agreement with Xi Jinping. And acknowledge that Cardinal Zen was right.

Image: Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789.

[1] Roberto de Mattei, Le ralliement de Léon XIII – L’échec d’un projet pastoral , CERF, 2016,  95.

[2] Ibid., 111-112.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] Ibid., 322.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid., 170.

[7] See  “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments – Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?”

[8] Roberto de Mattei, op. cit., 248-249.

[9] Ibid., 223.

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