After him came the modern popes

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI. It is the sort of thing only I would pay attention to.

I am an unusual member of the church justice movement. I consider dead popes my dear friends, even as I laser-critique the two popes who are living.

When one of my theology professors remarked that Pius XI would have been a fun pope to have a beer with, I enthusiastically agreed. In fact, I exceeded his sentiment. I thought Pius would have been a really fun pope for me to have a beer with.

Ratti as a child was called “the little old man.” He worked his way through an algebra book “for fun.” He was not unlike me, who memorized all two-hundred-plus popes at age eleven “for fun.”

Meanwhile, as a former library clerk and an erstwhile cataloger for a special collection, I appreciate that Ratti was a longtime librarian and archivist. Nay, more: he was a paleographer, a scholar of “old writing.” And I share his instinctive, unquestioning esteem for crabbed Greek letters inked onto delicate parchment, for Latin sentences chiseled into silent stone.

Pius wouldn’t like my blog, but he would be enthusiastic about blogging. He was the pope who hurled the church into the communications age by founding Vatican Radio. Its first broadcast featured his modest utterance: “Listen, heavens, while I speak; earth, hear the words that I am saying.” (He was quoting Deuteronomy 32.) Pius also lectured a group of nuns on the many glories of the telephone.

I imagine having a pint with this stocky, bespectacled churchman would provoke a remarkable running monologue: “The malty overtones are intriguing, but most unlike what is recommended in classic medieval treatises I have translated concerning monastery brewing. Also, the Stygian darkness of this tavern makes me think of a canto in Dante’s Inferno, which I will quote to you. But first, I observe that your American bar stools are inferior in terms of workmanship.”

Oh, how I would love it.

But not with an uncritical, unalloyed love. For I would remember that Pius, acknowledged by even the hypercritical Garry Wills as a “learned and generous Pope,” nevertheless had no idea what he was getting everybody into.


In 1911 Ratti, then an ordinary priest save for his title “monsignor,” and relatively obscure outside of academic circles, arrived in Rome from Milan as vice-prefect (i.e., assistant director) of the Vatican Library. He soon rose to prefect and then, on the strength of his linguistic talents, became Vatican ambassador to Poland. In 1921, he returned home as cardinal-archbishop of Milan. Only months later, on February 6, 1922, Ratti was elected pope as a compromise candidate.

It had taken a mere decade. It was one of the quickest rises to the papacy in recent memory, and one of the swiftest ascents for a pope who proved so pivotal.

Some of Pius XI’s legacies are positive. He calmed the church following the anti-Modernist purge. In 1907 Pius X, who feared theologians were embracing contemporary philosophy and historical-critical methods (they were), condemned a diffuse heresy he called “Modernism.” He then deputized investigators to root it out of seminaries while using the “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it” model. Pius XI, like Benedict XV immediately before him, realized the campaign was a disaster and wound it down.

Pius also pointedly promoted scholarly and scientific work, understanding it as part of his job. His Vatican Radio was a vital instrument during World War II, serving as clearing house and broadcaster for more than a million humanitarian messages. And Pius wrote the pro-union encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, extending a lineage of progressive papal social justice documents that began with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and continues today.

That said, Pius XI also created–there is no other word for it–a mess.

In 1930, his encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii, threw down the gauntlet against contraception. While the teaching was already longstanding, Casti Connubii began a twentieth-century pattern of popes defining themselves against the world in one very vocal, particular way. Everything afterward–Pius XII’s approval of what is now called natural family planning (NFP), Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”–defended and expanded on Casti Connubii.

In 1929, Pius concluded the Lateran Treaty with Italy, establishing the 108.7 acres of Vatican City. Sixty years after the end of the Papal States, the popes were temporal sovereigns once more. Sometimes it was useful: Vatican Radio couldn’t have done its WWII job without such independence. But the popes were now back in tension with Jesus who had told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world.

With the Lateran Treaty came a financial settlement. Pius feared debt and insolvency: his predecessor, Benedict XV, had been such a soft touch for the poor and suffering that the Vatican needed a loan of a hundred thousand dollars to finance his funeral and the ensuing conclave. So Pius used the settlement to initiate a mighty investment portfolio, much of it overseen from 1942 onward by the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly called the IOR or Vatican Bank. Under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Vatican Bank erupted in scandal over allegations of money laundering and links to organized crime, not to mention the crass spectacle of billions of dollars passing back and forth under papal noses.

Most infamously, in 1933, Pius’ diplomatic team negotiated a concordat with the Third Reich, securing rights and safeguards for the church in Nazi Germany. Pius was no admirer of Hitler; in fact, by the end of his reign he would snub Hitler and turn on Germany, though not early enough make a dent. Still, the episode highlighted a damning truth. The church as institution, and the pope as Vatican City’s sovereign, had to cut unsavory deals to protect the machinery.

Today, in 2014, Pope Francis speaks of economic justice and structural sin using language that was always there, but that he had to recover from selective emphasis and neglect. At the same time, he picks financial and managerial chimney sweeps who are indeed independent in Vatican Bank terms, but not so independent in Wall Street terms: McKinsey & Company, KPMG, Promontory Financial Group. He pleads that we not talk about sex and birth control issues “all the time,” while his representatives stare down the U.N. over just what role the Vatican, in its capacities as city-state and Holy See, plays in the clergy abuse crisis.

One way to understand the mishmash is to see Bergoglio wrestling with his predecessor’s ghost. For despite Good Pope John and his Council, despite the telegenic JP2 Superstar and the controversies of “God’s Rottweiler,” and despite the goodwill of Francis, in many ways Rome still runs on the fumes of Pope Pius XI, who died in the predawn hours of February 10, 1939, at the age of eighty-one.


During my trip to Europe, in the late spring of 2006, I stayed in Rome. I visited St. Peter’s Basilica and the grotto beneath it where popes are buried. One of the tombs I saw belonged to Pius.

It is, to say the least, a sight. I walked by it only briefly. The black-suited and shoulder-holstered vigilanza with earpieces preferred that the traffic in the crypt keep moving. But my eyes were riveted, and I have studied photographs of the funeral monument a number of times since.

The sarcophagus is grand. Atop it is the classic funeral effigy of a bishop: a man in miter and chasuble, hands folded, at rest. Along the edge: PIVS XI PONT MAX. Gazing down from seas of glittering mosaic tiles are Christ the King, whose feast Pius added to the liturgical calendar in 1925; St. Ambrose, who was Pius’ predecessor in the episcopal seat of Milan; and St. Therese of Lisieux, whom he canonized.

Therese, the Little Flower with her Little Way, seems out of place in this setting. The imperial Jesus and the crosier-wielding Ambrose do not. Up there, too, is the phrase PAX CHRISTI IN REGNO CHRISTI, “Christ’s peace in Christ’s kingdom,” the late pope’s motto.

It is the last monument of its kind. Succeeding pontiffs were laid in floor niches, or sealed in comparatively unadorned and streamlined marble boxes. It is fitting, for Pius was the dividing line. The problems of church and state and sex and lucre, while ancient, had now congealed in their present-day form.

After him came the modern popes. All have had to reckon with the toolbox he left behind, while tussling with ever more rude and demanding signs of the times.

2 thoughts on “After him came the modern popes

  1. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 2/14/14 | Catholic Majority

  2. Pingback: Next up for beatification: Paul VI, the “Hamlet Pope” | Young Adult Catholics

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