Rorate Caeli

Special Series: "1919—2019 A Centenary Meditation on the Church"
- Part III: Doctrine and Great Catholic Names in the Interwar Era

A Centenary Meditation on the Church and a Quest for “Purification” Gone Mad

III. Purification and Doctrine in the Interwar Era

Insistence on a purification achieved through submission of the natural to the supernatural world, taught by the nineteenth century Catholic revival movement and vigorously supported by the Papacy since the time of Pius IX (1846-1878), very clearly still characterized the teaching, in encyclicals, allocutions, and letters to individual bishops and episcopacies, of the two quite different popes of the bulk of the interwar period: Benedict XV (1914-1922) and Pius XI (1922-1939). Both placed emphasis upon doctrines and devotions that well illustrated how nature was purified through connection with the supernatural, perhaps most significantly with reference to those concerning the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as in Pius XI's Miserentissimus Redemptor (1928) and Caritate Christi compulsi (1932). A lasting postwar purification, this same pontiff declared in Ubi arcano dei consiglio(1922), was only possibleby ensuring the peace of Christ in the reign of Christ.

Purification, in the minds of the nineteenth century protagonists of Catholic revival, was intellectually very much dependent upon a deeper ecclesiology, one that truly understood the Roman Catholic Church as the Mystical Body and the fullness of her role as such in transforming the world in Christ. The earlier historical development of Catholic ecclesiology had been interrupted because of the politicization of the Papacy and the influence of an anti-speculative, philosophical and theological Nominalism from the thirteenth century onwards. Serious progress was only begun again at Trent, but here, too, had still been severely hampered due to the opposition of regalist States demanding firm control of their “national” churches. First Vatican Council’s much more serious labors in the ecclesiological realm were also halted in the face of numerous factors, theological and political, so that what was accomplished under its aegis proved tragically incomplete.

Nevertheless, Ultramontanist pressure at Vatican One ensured the definition of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, thereby greatly strengthening the position of the Holy See in the life of the Universal Church. This stronger influence was reflected in the new code of Canon Law of 1917 (Providentissimus Mater) and took yet further practical shape in the interwar era. A “papal” outlook was encouraged through the clerical elite formed at the various national and specialized colleges of the Eternal City, which then transmitted the Roman message back to their homes. Certain prelates, men like William Henry Cardinal O’Connell (1859-1944), the Archbishop of Boston (1907-1944), were looked upon by many as serving as something akin to papal “viceroys” in their specific countries. This ultramontane exaltation of the Holy See was further confirmed through the canonization of saints known for their commitment to Rome, such as Robert Bellarmine (1930)and two of the English martyrs, John Fisher, and Thomas More (both in 1935).It was therefore a much more self-confident Papacy, certain that the Roman Church held the key to the purification of a troubled world, that rejected, in Mortalium animus (1928), the appeal for an ecumenical Christian effort to purify the globe made by men such as Charles Brent (1862-1929), Episcopal Missionary Bishop of the Philippine Islands and Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), the Archbishop of Uppsala, at such postwar gatherings as those at Oud Wassenaar in the Netherlands in 1919.

Mobilization of all intellectual forces to aid in teaching the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Mystical Body, and Christ as King of a purified universe flowed from the very nature of the concepts involved. In philosophical terms,Rome continued to argue that good teaching required offering of pride of place to the Thomist revival officially promoted by the Church since the pontificate of Leo XIII.Both the encyclical Studiorum Ducem, issued in the context of the general celebration of the six hundredth anniversary of the canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1923, as well as the canonization of Albertus Magnus in 1931, helped to make this Roman commitment clear. Men like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964), Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges (1863-1948), Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), and, on the popular level, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), all contributed to the interwar era’s reputation as a great age of Catholic Neo-Thomism.

Nevertheless, the reigns of Benedict XV and Pius XI allowed much more scope for the expression and mobilization of non-Thomist theological and philosophical schools of thought as well. While never condemned as such under Pope St. Pius X, these other approaches had indeed been treated as ipso facto suspect at the height of the anti-Modernist campaign. An easing of tensions permitted further opportunity for the teachings of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Max Scheler (1874-1928) to find their way into the work of phenomenologists like Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) and Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977).Those of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) had an impact even upon such passionately Thomist thinkers as Maritain.

Positive theology, which had also fallen into the shadows under Pope St. Pius X, was another beneficiary of the change of atmosphere. The influence of the biblical criticism of Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938) and his students took firmer root. The last volume of Ludwig von Pastor ‘s (1855-1928) History of the Papacy was published in 1930, with further critical work being done by Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), the young Henri Daniel-Rops (1901-1965), and, once again on the popular level, by men like Chesterton and his compatriot, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). Agostino Gemelli, O.F.M. (1878-1959), a psychologist,was instrumental in founding the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan (1921) for the broad education of Catholic men and women.

Speculative and positive theological studies were given official organizational backing in Rome. The Dominican dominated Angelicum, where Garrigou-Lagrange taught from 1909-1960, was the key Thomist center. A “Gregorian Consortium”, created by the Jesuits in 1930, combined the original institution bearing that name together with the Biblicum, established in 1907, and the Oriental Institute, founded in 1917, wherein the influence of Eugene Tisserant (1884-1972), another student of Lagrange, was to become significant. The Gregorian of the interwar years expanded the scope of its work, missiology (1932) becoming one of the additions most pregnant with consequences, as will be seen below. Meanwhile, an already existing scientific institution was transformed in 1936 into the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and placed under the leadership of Gemelli, with eleven Nobel Prize winners among the early members.

These intellectual forces then, in turn, worked to validate and stimulate human effort to enlisteach and every natural element to play its role in God’s redemptive---and purifying---plan. No Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was needed to convince the contemporary Roman Catholic Church intellectually just how much occupation of the "spaces" of culture in general--- that of the masses as well as of the elite---was essential to a victory over society at large. Roman concern for artistic matters was reflected in papal addresses of various kinds, focusing on the newer cultural problems of mass sport, radio, and the cinema, along with those of more venerable character. The Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi of the Pantheon, another old establishment given new life by Pius XI in 1928, sought to encourage architects, painters, filmmakers, sculptors, academicians of art and music, poets, and novelists alike.This grasp of the importance of control of the culture was also very much reflected in the interwar period in the extremely perceptive commentaries of the contemporary Portuguese Catholic economist, statesman, and general social critic, Antonio Oliveira de Salazar (1889-1970). And, needless to say, interwar Europe did indeed witness a flowering of Catholic activity in manifold cultural spheres.

Intense spiritual reinforcement was given to the Catholic teaching of the need for a purification of all the spaces of life obtainable only through nature’s recognition of its dependency upon the supernatural. Perhaps most symbolic in this regard was the establishment of the Feast of Christ the King through Quas primas (1925). The four canonizations completed under Pope Benedict and the twenty-one of Pius XI all emphasized the role of Mary and the saints in grasping or reflecting the consequences of natural-supernatural union made palpable by the Incarnation. Hence, the canonizations associated with saintly devotion to the Sacred Heart, such as those of Margaret Mary Alacoque (1920) and John Eudes (1925), or with Mary as the conduit for the “health” of the world in general---as seen through the raising to the altar of Bernadette Soubirou (1926) and recognition of the “purifying” significance of the grotto at Lourdes. It is instructive to note in this regard that Pius XI viewed the canonization of Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Thérèse of Lisieux (1925), the saint most linked with the offering up of all the smallest aspects of life ad majoram Dei gloriam, as the star of his pontificate.

International congresses promoting a deeper understanding of the Eucharist and its liturgical context were another powerful interwar spiritual tool. These were held the globe over: in Rome (1922), Amsterdam (1924), Chicago (1926), Sydney (1928), Carthage (1930), Dublin (1932), Buenos Aires (1934), Manila (1934), and Budapest (1938). Eucharistic congresses not only served as a spur to practical personal sanctification, but also, through the purification of the individual,to the proper functioning of social institutions, ecclesiastical and secular alike.For it was only by means of men and women awakened to their need to transform themselves in Christ through the Eucharist that the world could be given the authorities of Church, State, and society at large capable of carrying out their purifying missions in a truthful, virtuous, Christian manner.

Nineteenth century theorists deeply concerned with this purification of the social order as a whole retained Trent's conviction that practical labor be rooted in sound doctrinal principles. Such work had to be preceded by a clear understanding of what the Faith sought to achieve through the occupation of public spaces; what they labeled the Catholic “thesis”. Given the character of the Church’s central mission, the Catholic "thesis" had to emphasize the primacy of the spirit, and “the spiritual, above all else” could easily be viewed as the motto of the Papacy in the interwar period.

Pius XI was deeply disturbed by Catholic temptations to succumb to pressures to subordinate the spiritual to natural guidelines. This temptation was impressed upon him before becoming Pope, when, as Nuncio to the newly restored Poland, he was told by the local episcopacy that it required no theological “update” after all the years of subjection to non-Catholic rule, since a proper understanding the Faith was already guaranteed by mere possession of the “national soul”. Such a statement was redolent of the error of the Abbé de Lamennais (1782-1854), condemned in the previous century, which taught that the sense of the Faith, and therefore the guide to understanding its teaching, was something emerging from the natural endowment of Catholic Peoples themselves---in effect, aside from and potentially in opposition to the supernatural magisterium of the bishops and the pope. Pius XI was vehement in his insistence that Catholics active in the political and social realm accept the primacy of the supernatural revelation and avoid this and other inversions of the hierarchy of values, tantamount to proclaiming what was essentially natural as the key to things spiritual.

Still, a basically spiritual Catholic "thesis", was nevertheless rooted in the reality that the supernatural had been linked with nature in a new way through God becoming man. This meant that the supra-rational truth of the Incarnation, the fact that God had confirmed the validity of a natural world which nevertheless had to be redeemed and corrected of its flaws, had practical consequences which the Catholic purifier of the social order was obliged, doctrinally, to take into account in his work.

The first of these was that both the knowledge of the specific natural character of any aspect of life as well as its subjection to the supernatural tools of correction and transformation were essential to Catholic Action. Hence, to take but one example, the natural functioning and "laws" of economic life must be taken seriously, but always with a recognition of their human and sinful limitations and need to be subordinated to the supernatural laws of justice and charity. The natural and the supernatural must be made to work together simultaneously.

Secondly, just as the Incarnation and the creation of the Mystical Body taught that the individual can only be purified through membership in and obedience to Christ and His Church, their message for all of man's earthly activity underlined the truth that individuals are meant to work on the natural plane as social beings, through societies, under the guidance of social authorities. The individual is perfected naturally and aimed upwards towards the worship of God not as an isolated atom, but through social institutions, whose purpose is fulfilled insofar as they recognize that this perfecting and uplifting labor is their raison d'être.

The need for the Catholic to treat as doctrine the spiritually rooted "thesis" insisting upon the value and harmony of all things natural and supernatural, individual and social, as the basis for every aspect of human life and action was stressed throughout the interwar period, as in the encyclicals on education(Divini illius Magistri, 1929), on the family (Casti connubii, 1930), and on economics (Quadragesimo anno, 1931). A doctrinal need to reject as unacceptable any modern ideology that denied the primacy of the spiritual, the validity and harmony of things earthly and supernatural, and the need of the individual to be subject to social authorities which understood their mission to be that of the perfection of the human person according to both natural and divine law was also made clear. Hence, the condemnations of an economically materialist communism in Acerba Anima (1932), Dilectissima nobis (1933), and Divini Redemptoris (1937) and a racially materialist National Socialist in Mit Brennender Sorge(1937), both of these forces fundamentally subordinating the spirit to nature, and in ways that were destructive to the dignity of each individual body and soul. Rome’s doctrinal trenches in an interwar period that manifested dangers on all fronts might, therefore, be viewed, as though they were well manned and well maintained. Commitment to the “thesis” seemed to be assured.