Leo XIII(1878-1903) was certainly one of the most important Popes in modern times, not only for the length of his pontificate, second only to Blessed Pius IX’s, but above all for the extent and richness of his Magisterium. His teaching includes encyclicals of fundamental importance, such as Aeterni Patris (1879) on the restoration of Thomist philosophy, Arcanum (1880) on the indissolubility of marriage, Humanum genus (1884) against Masonry, L’Immortale Dei (1885) on the Christian constitution of the States and Rerum Novarum (1891) on the question of work and social life.
The Magisterium of Pope Gioacchino Pecci appears as an organic corpus, in continuation with the teachings of his predecessor Pius IX as well as his successor Pius X. The real turning point and novelty of the Leonine pontificate, by contrast, is in regard to his ecclesiastical politics and pastoral approach to modernity. Leo XIII’s government was characterized in fact, by the ambitious project of reaffirming the Primate of the Apostolic See through a redefinition of its relationship with the European States and the reconciliation of the Church with the modern world. The politics of ralliement, that is, of reconciliation with the French, secular, Masonic Third Republic, formed its basis.
The Third Republic was conducting a violent campaign of de-Christianization, particularly in the scholastic field. For Leo XIII, the responsibility of this anticlericalism lay with the monarchists who were fighting the Republic in the name of their Catholic faith. In this way they were provoking the hate of the republicans against Catholicism. In order to disarm the republicans, it was necessary to convince them that the Church was not adverse to the Republic, but only to secularism. And to convince them, he retained that there was no other way than to support the republican institutions.
In reality, the Third Republic was not an abstract republic, but the centralized Jacobin daughter of the French Revolution. Its program of secularization in France was not an accessory element, but the reason itself for the existence of the republican regime. The republicans were what they were because they were anti-Catholic. They hated the Church in the Monarchy, in the same way that the monarchists were anti-republican because they were Catholics who loved the Church in the Monarchy.
The encyclical Au milieu des solicitudes of 1891, through which Leo XIII launched the ralliement did not ask Catholics to become republicans, but the instructions from the Holy See to nuncios and bishops, coming from the Pontiff himself, interpreted his encyclical in this sense. Unprecedented pressure was exercised on the faithful, even going as far as making them believe that whoever continued to support the monarchy publically was committing a grave sin. Catholics were split into two currents of the “ralliés” and the “réfractaires”, as had happened in 1791, at the time of the civil Constitution for clergy. The ralliés accepted the Pope’s pastoral indications as they attached infallibility to his words in all fields, including those political and pastoral.
The réfractaires who were Catholics with better theological and spiritual formation, on the other hand, resisted the politics of ralliement, retaining that, inasmuch as it was a pastoral act, it could not be considered infallible and thus could be erroneous. Jean Madiran, who did a lucid critique of ralliement (in Les deux démocraties, NEL, Paris 1977), noted that Leo XIII had asked the monarchists to abandon the monarchy in the name of religion in order to conduct a more efficacious battle in defense of the faith. Except that, far from fighting this battle, with the ralliement, he effected a ruinous policy of détente with the enemies of the Church.
Despite Leo XIII and his Secretary of State Mariano Rampolla’s endeavor, this policy of dialogue was a sensational failure and unable to obtain the objectives it proposed. The Anti-Christian behavior of the Third Republic increased in violence, until culminating in Loi concernant la Séparation des Eglises et de l’Etat on December 9th 1905, known as “the Combes law” which suppressed all financing and public recognition of the Church; it considered religion merely in the private dimension and not in the social one; it established that ecclesiastical goods be confiscated by the State, while buildings of worship were given over gratuitously to “associations cultuelles” elected by the faithful, without Church approval. The Concordat of 1801, that had for a century regulated the relations between France and the Holy See, and that Leo XIII had desired to preserve at all costs, fell wretchedly to pieces.
The republican battle against the Church, however, encountered the new Pope along its way, – Pius X, elected to the Papal throne on August 4th 1903. With his encyclicals Vehementer nos of February 11th 1906, Gravissimo officii of August 10th of the same year, Une fois encore of January 6th 1907, Pius X, assisted by his Secretary of State Raffaele Merry del Val, he protested solemnly against the secular laws, urging Catholics to oppose them through all legal means, with the aim of conserving the traditions and values of Catholic France. Faced with this determination, the Third Republic did not dare activate the persecution fully, so as to avoid the creation of martyrs, and thus renounced the closing of the churches and the imprisonment of priests. Pius X’s politics without concessions, proved to be far-sighted. The law of separation was never applied with rigor and the Pope’s appeal contributed to a great rebirth of Catholicism in France on the eve of the First World War. Pius X’s ecclesiastical politics, the opposite of his predecessor’s, represents, in the final analysis, an unappealable historical condemnation of the ralliement.
Leo XIII never professed liberal errors, on the contrary, he explicitly condemned them. The historian, nevertheless, cannot ignore the contradiction between Pope Pecci’s Magisterium and his political and pastoral stance. In the encyclicals Diuturnum illud, Immortale Dei e Libertas, he reiterated and developed the political doctrine of Gregory XVI and Pius IX, but the policy of ralliement contradicted his doctrinal premises. Leo XIII, far from his intentions, encouraged, at the level of praxis, those ideas and tendencies that he condemned on the doctrinal level. If we attribute the significance of a spiritual attitude to the word liberal, of a political tendency to concessions and compromise, we have to conclude that Leo XIII had a liberal spirit.
This liberal spirit was manifested principally as an attempt to resolve the problems posed by modernity, through the arms of diplomatic negotiation and compromises, rather than with the intransigence of principles and a political and cultural battle. In this sense, as I have shown in my recent volume Il ralliement di Leone XIII. Il fallimento di un progetto pastorale (Le Lettere, Florence 2014), the principal consequences of ralliement, were of a psychological and cultural order more than a political one. To this strategy the ecclesiastic “Third Party” was called upon, which throughout the 20th century tried to find an intermediate position between modernists and anti-modernists who were contending the issue.
The spirit of ralliement with the modern world has been around for more than a century, and the great temptation to which the Church is exposed to, is still [with us]. In this regard, a Pope of great doctrine such as Leo XIII made a grave error in pastoral strategy. The prophetic strength of St. Pius X is the opposite, in the intimate coherence of his pontificate between evangelical Truth and the life of the Church in the modern world, between theory and praxis, between doctrine and pastoral care, with no yielding to the lures of modernity.