views updated Jun 11 2018


early life and career
between traditionalism and accommodation

LEO XIII (1810–1903), pope from 1878 to 1903.

The conclave of 1878, following the long and contentious pontificate of Pius IX (r. 1846–1878), proved difficult as conflict in the college of cardinals continued, dividing those who favored confrontation from those who sought conciliation with the modern world. Pius IX had reasserted Rome's traditionalism vis-à-vis "modern civilization," but embroiled the church in bitter conflicts with the kingdom of Italy over the loss of Rome (the Roman Question), and with the German empire in the Kulturkampf, or cultural struggle between the Catholic Church and the state. Papal and clerical support for a monarchical restoration in France embittered Republicans, who eventually triumphed and retaliated against the church. Pius IX's concordat with Russia was never implemented, and the persecution of Catholic Poles continued. Relations with Austria and Switzerland were little better, and in much of Europe papal infallibility provoked controversy. The Vatican appeared estranged from the working classes, and its diplomacy was deemed a colossal failure.

On 20 February 1878 the conclave, avoiding the extremes of reform and reaction, settled on the sixty-eight-year-old Gioacchino Vincenzo Rafaelle Luigi Pecci. The cardinals selected Pecci for varied reasons, with some favoring a short pontificate and interim pope after the long reign of Pius IX. Their hope for a transitional pope seemed assured by Pecci's advanced years and frail health. Their assessment proved inaccurate, as Leo XIII would have a long and momentous pontificate that figuratively and literarily brought the church and papacy into the twentieth century.

early life and career

Initially there was neither a positive nor negative reaction to Pecci's election, for outside of the conclave, Perugia, and Belgium, he was little known. This son of Count Luigi Domenico Pecci was born on 2 March 1810 in Carpineto (Frosinone), to a family of Sienese origin. He studied at the Jesuit College of Viterbo (1818–1824), followed by the Roman College (1824–1832) where he received a degree in sacred theology (1832), entering the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics and preparing for a future in the Roman diplomatic service. Ordained a priest in December 1837, Pecci was appointed apostolic delegate at Benevento, and in 1841 was named papal delegate to Perugia. In 1843, Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831–1846) dispatched him to Belgium as nuncio (1843–1846). Three years later, Gregory named him bishop of Perugia (1846–1877), where he remained even after he entered the college of cardinals in 1853. Conservatives complained that Pecci's support of the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and its condemnation of the modern age was lukewarm. However, at the Vatican Council he aligned with the majority favoring infallibility and denouncing contemporary errors, but stipulating that the condemnations did not necessarily anathematize the modern world or all progress.

Pecci transcended the limited perspective offered by rural Italy in midcentury, having been exposed to industrial Europe and its social and economic problems. In Brussels he had an opportunity to study the country's Catholic movements, and he visited London, Paris, and the Rhineland. In Perugia, Pecci showed interest in the material well-being of his flock, considering social injustice to be sinful. In a pastoral letter of 1877, he decried the abuses imposed upon "the poor and the weak," invoking legislation to correct the "inhuman traffic" of children in factories. Although he shared Pius IX's insistence on the need for the temporal power, he did not condemn all manifestations of the current age. Examining his speeches at Perugia and during the Vatican council, reformers prayed Leo XIII would be more attuned to the modern world, while others hoped he would abdicate his role as "prisoner in the Vatican" and seek reconciliation with Italy.


Following his election, Leo showed himself sensitive to the broad social currents of the age as well as its diplomatic realities. Basing his thought on the Gospels, the new pope perceived Catholic social doctrine central to his mandate to defend humanity and preserve its spiritual heritage. Leo opened a diplomatic campaign to parallel his social one, writing the president of France seeking rapprochement with the Republic. Other letters followed: to the emperors of Germany and Russia, and the president of the Swiss Confederation, informing them of his election and paving the way for reconciliation. He reestablished diplomatic relations with Germany in 1884. The new cardinal secretary of state, Alessandro Franchi (1819–1878), dispatched George Conroy, bishop of Ardagh to Canada as apostolic delegate, reminding its conservative clergy that in condemning liberalism the Holy See did not intend to attack all liberal parties or practices. Finally, the pope personally appealed to Belgian Catholics to sustain their constitution, even though it provided for a separation of church and state, because on balance he considered it beneficial. In 1879, recognizing the immense contribution of the independent-minded John Henry Newman (1801–1890), Leo made him a cardinal. These actions, and the pope's determination to make the Vatican Archives accessible to scholars, contributed to the positive reaction to Leo's pontificate.

The optimistic expectations were somewhat diminished by Leo's first encyclical, which examined God's inscrutable design (28 April 1878) and revealed his adherence to Pius IX's traditionalism. While Leo stressed the need to have love temper exchange, he bewailed the evils of the day including civil strife and dissension within and between nations, war, and bloodshed. Like Pius IX, Leo believed these ills flowed from the fact that the voice of the church was either ignored or despised. Leo praised Pius IX's stance on the Roman Question, proclaiming that deprived of the temporal power, the head of the church was no longer free.

Determined to preserve the principles of the faith as well as the papacy's claims to Rome, Leo nonetheless sought to bring the papacy and church into some accommodation with the modern world. Unlike Pius IX, the more pragmatic successor showed himself willing to cooperate with secular governments ranging from monarchies to republics. He softened his tone toward the German empire, and was rewarded by a lax enforcement of the Falk laws (or May laws, which regulated the church and clergy in Prussia and Germany). Eventually, most of this legislation was repealed. In turn, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) recognized the importance of the papacy by inviting Leo to mediate the dispute between Germany and Spain in the Caroline Archipelago in the South Seas. His settlement was accepted in December 1885. Subsequently, the Reichstag passed the "fourth law for peace," which virtually brought the Kulturkampf to a close. In 1890, provision was made to restore to the Catholic Church the entire capital formed by the confiscation of priests' salaries during the Kulturkampf.

Relations proved more difficult with Catholic Italy and France. In January 1881, the Italian government was empowered to close, confiscate, or devote to other usage church property in its dominions. Leo objected to these and other anticlerical measures, invoking prayers for the "intolerable" position of the papacy in Rome. The pope urged the Italian faithful to undertake vigorous action in provincial and municipal elections on behalf of the church, the only domain open to them in light of the papal prohibition on Catholic participation in Italian national affairs. Relations deteriorated further in July 1881 following the demonstration orchestrated against the papacy when the body of Pius IX was transported from St. Peter's to its final resting place in San Lorenzo outside the walls. Harping on the perilous position of the papacy in the eternal city, Leo pleaded for foreign intervention.

Papal relations with the French Third Republic were little better, as the pontiff protested the attempt to impose military service on French seminarians. President Jules Grévy (1807–1891) urged Leo to persuade French Catholics to abandon the royalists, thereby disarming the republican opposition to the church. Leo accepted the suggestion, having the Osservatore Romano criticize the ultra-legitimist trend of the Journal de Rome, while continuing his efforts to seek reconciliation with the Republic. Leo was seconded in his efforts for a Ralliement, ordétente, between French Catholics and their anticlerical government by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro (1843–1913), who shared his vision, and the primate of Africa, Cardinal Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie (1825–1892), who pressed the pope to make some dramatic move in the matter. In October 1890, Lavigerie visited Rome, where it was decided that the cardinal would appeal to French Catholics to adhere to the Republic. Meanwhile, Rampolla encouraged the faithful in France to follow the course of the Holy See, which recognized all established governments in order to defend religious interests. In 1892, Leo explained that while the anticlerical measures might be opposed, the Republic should still be respected. Difficulties remained between Catholics and the Republic, but Leo had improved relations between Paris and the Vatican, in 1894 recognizing the Third Republic and urging Catholics to rally to it.

Pope Leo also sought a rapprochement of sorts with the modern world by having Christianity address the problems raised by the economic and social revolutions. Like his predecessors in the century, Leo rejected the notion espoused by liberal economists that labor was another commodity whose price was determined by supply and demand. He displayed a Christian concern for the poor, insisting on the need to alleviate their suffering. The human dignity of the worker mandated a just wage as the first step toward distributive and social justice. For this among other reasons, he proved more sensitive to labor's plight than the archbishop of Quebec, who had condemned the Knights of Labor, an American union under the presidency of Terrence Vincent Powderly (1849–1924). Leo did not condemn organized labor, although he favored cooperation rather than confrontation between owners and workers.

In 1891, Leo revealed his sensitivity to the problems of workers in Rerum novarum. The best known of Leo's encyclicals, Rerum novarum proclaimed the workers' right to protection against economic exploitation, suggesting that when the workers could not defend their own rights, the state had to intervene on their behalf. The pope recommended societies for mutual help for the workingman and his family, as well as institutions for the welfare of the young and the aged. Concerning workingmen's leagues, Leo preferred the guilds of the past to modern industrial unions. Nonetheless, he recognized that these workingmen's associations should be organized to improve the worker's material as well as his spiritual wellbeing. Publication of this "social Magna Carta of Catholicism" earned Leo the title "workingman's pope," inspiring Catholic social action in Europe and abroad to the present.

Two of Leo's letters in 1888 and 1890 aimed to expedite the abolition of African slavery. Historians, in turn, acclaimed his opening of the Vatican Archives in 1883 (Saepenumero), while Catholic philosophers applauded his advancement of Thomism and the restoration of Christian philosophy in the schools (Aeterni Patris,1879). Leo encouraged biblical studies (Providentissimus Deus, 1893) and established a permanent biblical commission in 1902. He fostered the growth of religious orders, favored missionary activity, and during the course of his twenty-five year pontificate, worked to remake the college of cardinals. There were setbacks, including his failure to resolve the Roman Question, which continued to trouble relations between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy.

In 1895, in his encyclical Permoti Nos on the social question in Belgium, Leo stressed its relationship to religion and morality. The pope invoked cooperation, with the workers trusting their employers, and the latter treating their workers with kindness and care, both aiming for the common good. The workers' plight, the pope counseled, required a Catholic rather than a socialist solution. By this time, however, some Catholics called for political action to protect the masses, considering this the proper goal of Christian Democracy. The pope disagreed. In his encyclical on Christian Democracy, Graves de Communi Re (18 January 1901), Leo called for cooperation rather than conflict between classes, repeating that a just solution to the social question could only be found in the precepts of the Gospel. Thus, the pope refused to see Christian Democracy as a political movement, viewing it as a beneficent Christian action on behalf of the people, without favoring one type of government over another. Furthermore, while safeguarding the needs of the working classes, the movement he envisioned embraced all groups, irrespective of rank or position, as members of the same family, redeemed by the same savior. Christian Democracy, he insisted, should flourish free of political entanglements, rejecting the efforts to create political parties that linked Christian principles to secular doctrines, and the church to any form of political organization.

between traditionalism and accommodation

Seeking a Christian solution to the social question, Leo did not completely abandon the conservatism of Pius IX. He was distressed by the liberal faction that supposedly had emerged in the American church, which allegedly sought to adapt Catholicism to American culture. Conservatives called for a condemnation of this movement, subsequently known as Americanism, and the pope complied. Leo addressed the controversy in an apostolic letter (Testem Benevolentiae, 22 January 1899), rejecting the notion that the church in America should differ from that which prevailed in the rest of the world. Although he sought reconciliation with the Church of England in 1896, his papal bull Apostolicae Curae found Anglican ordinations invalid. At the same time, the pope dismissed the criticism of external spiritual direction, adhering to the Roman centralization and papal primacy championed by his predecessor. Nonetheless, this nineteenth-century figure who adhered to traditionalism prepared the church for the twentieth century. Leo's diplomatic endeavors ended papal isolation while his pontificate marks the Vatican's official effort to restate the traditional social teachings of the Catholic Church in an industrial era, representing a watershed in the history of the modern papacy.

See alsoCatholicism; Catholicism, Political; Kulturkampf; Roman Question.


Primary Sources

Carlen, Claudia, ed. A Guide to the Encyclicals of Roman Pontiffs from Leo XIII to the Present Day, 1878–1937. New York, 1937.

——. Papal Pronouncements. A Guide, 1740–1978. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990.

O'Reilly, Bernard, ed. Life of Leo XIII: From an Authentic Memoir Furnished by His Order. London, 1887.

Wynne, John J., ed. The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII. New York, 1903.

Secondary Sources

Burton, Katherine. Leo the Thirteenth: The First Modern Pope. New York, 1962.

Gargan, Edward T. Leo XIII and the Modern World. New York, 1961.

Hughes, John Jay. Absolutely Null and Utterly Void: The Papal Condemnation of Anglican Orders, 1896. London, 1968.

Wallace, Lillian Parker. Leo XIII and the Rise of Socialism. Durham, N.C., 1966.

Frank J. Coppa


views updated Jun 11 2018


LEO XIII (Vincenzo Giaocchino Pecci, 18101903), pope of the Roman Catholic church (18781903). The sixth child of noble parents, Giaocchino Pecci was born in Carpineto in the Papal States on March 2, 1810. Educated at the Jesuit college in Viterbo (18181824), the Roman College (18251832), and the Roman Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics (18321837), he was made a domestic prelate in 1837 and began a career as a papal civil servant.

Following his ordination as a priest in late 1837, he held the post of papal delegate (provincial governor) successively at Benevento (18381841), Spoleto (briefly in 1841), and Perugia (18411843). As a result of his success as an administrator, in 1843, Pope Gregory XVI made him papal nuncio to Belgium and promoted him to the rank of bishop. At the request of King Leopold I, he was recalled to Rome and named to the vacant see of Perugia in 1846.

During his long Perugian tenure (18461878), he developed and displayed the complex attitude toward modernity (combining a principled resistance to the currents of the age with a pragmatic accommodation to the same for the church's welfare) that was later to mark his pontificate. Thus, on the one hand, he identified with Pius IX's program calling for the definition of papal infallibility and the convening of an ecumenical council to solidify the church's teaching authority. He also reflected Pius's views in condemning both the Sardinian annexation of Perugia (1860) and the anticlerical legislation that followed it. On the other hand, he revamped the seminary curriculum of his diocese to include the study of modern developments, founded the Academy of Saint Thomas to help the church meet the philosophical challenges of the age, praised the advances of modern science, technology, and scholarship in a series of pastoral letters (18741877), and sought accommodation with the Sardinian regime.

Pecci's complex stance toward modernity produced mixed reactions. Giacomo Antonelli, the cardinal secretary of state, distrusted him, while some bishops hailed his perspicacity. Although he did not sympathize with him entirely, Pius IX recognized Pecci's abilities. Consequently, in 1853 he made him a cardinal, and in 1877 he appointed him the camerlengo, the cardinal to whom fell the responsibilities of governing the church and organizing the electing conclave during a papal interregnum.

Following Pius's death in 1878, Pecci was elected pope. At the time of his election, the church's prospects were not very promising. Leo's sympathy with Pius's attitudes toward modernity led him to continue or at least to echo some of the latter's sentiments and policies, most notably concerning compensation for the loss of church lands (the Roman Question), the centralization of church authority, and a distaste for modern political developments (which in 1878 he voiced in the encyclical Inscrutabili ). But his contribution to modern Catholicism lay in his discerning that Pius's strident hostility to modernity had not won for the church the influence that both men desired.

With a pragmatism that his detractors interpreted as rank opportunism, Leo realized that the church had to come to terms with the intellectual, political, and socioeconomic conditions of the times. Although his statesmanship succeeded both in ending German repression of the Catholic church (Kulturkampf) and in establishing correct relations with Britain and cordial ties with the United States, it was Leo's revitalization of the church's philosophical tradition that allowed Catholicism effectively to come to terms with the two major currents of the age: democracy and industrial life.

In 1879, Leo issued Aeterni patris and called for a Catholic return to the study of Thomism. As time went on, it became clear that in his plan for a revival of Thomas, Leo revered him above all as a methodological mentor who pointed the way to a reconciliation of church and world. As Thomas had used the intellectual advances and categories of his day to reconcile faith and reason, enhancing the teaching prestige of the church by giving it a philosophy that was solid, plausible, and useful, so also Leo wished to enhance the prestige of the modern church by advancing a philosophical system that was solid because it was based on natural-law principles and both plausible and useful because these same principles could be translated into modern terms. Once this translation had been made, Leo believed that the church would be able to understand the modern world, converse with the natural-law adherents of the Enlightenment, and offer plausible and lasting solutions to the problems of contemporary society.

In Leo's hands, Neo-Thomism proved a remarkably supple and useful instrument for confronting the political and socioeconomic conditions of the age. Spurred on by crises in the French church, Leo used his new philosophical method to rehabilitate democracy for the church. In a series of encyclicals running from Diuturnum illud (1881) to Au milieu des sollicitudes (1892), he used natural-law thought to distinguish between the forms and functions of states. Although he never personally reconciled himself with the idea of popular sovereignty or the revolutionary aspects of modern democracies, he was able to accept democratic republics as long as they fulfilled the functions assigned them by natural law and did not interfere in the religious sphere.

Leo likewise used his Neo-Thomist method to frame a universal Catholic response to the problems of worker unrest, unionization, and socialism. Building on the work of ecclesiastics such as Henry Manning (d. 1892) and Wilhelm von Ketteler (d. 1877), in 1891 Leo issued Rerum novarum. In this encyclical, he used natural-law social thought to condemn both liberalism and socialism and to champion the rights of workers both to earn a living wage and to organize in unions. In addition, he used the natural-law understanding of the positive function of the state (i.e., the promotion of the common good) to sanction state intervention for the alleviation of worker distress. Although Leo's encyclical came relatively late in the history of European industrial growth, and although it was frequently construed as a purely antisocialist document, it earned for him the sobriquet Pope of the Workingman, and its sympathy for the rights of labor was generally credited with stopping or at least slowing the exodus of industrial workers from the church.

Although he met with defeats (most notably his failure to interest European governments in his plans for the return of the papacy's temporal power) and although he never gained for the church that degree of power for which he yearned, Leo XIII did, through his diplomacy, his revitalization of Catholic scholarship, his social concern, and his sincere desire to touch the world, leave the church more secure, more respected, and more able to deal with the modern world than it had been at the time of his accession to the papal throne in 1878.


Camp, Richard L. The Papal Ideology of Social Reform: A Study in Historical Development, 18781967. Leiden, 1969. Deals with the growth of sophistication in papal social documents from Leo XIII to Paul VI. Helpful for seeing Leo's long-term influence on the church.

Gargan, Edward T., ed. Leo XIII and the Modern World. New York, 1961. A collection of essays marking the sesquicentennial of Leo's birth. Joseph N. Moody's contribution on Leonine social thought and James Collins's article on Leo's philosophical program are especially helpful.

Jedin, Hubert, and John Dolan, eds. The Church in the Industrial Age, vol. 9 of The History of the Church. New York, 1981. This work benefits from the contributions of Oskar Kohler, which place Leo in his historical context.

Moody, Joseph N., et al., eds. Church and Society: Catholic Social and Political Thought and Movements, 17891950. New York, 1953. Has the virtue of gathering together extended essays and primary sources that, among other things, shed light on the development of Catholic social thought.

Murray, John Courtney. "Leo XIII on Church and State: The General Structure of the Controversy," "Leo XIII: Separation of Church and State," "Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government," Theological Studies 14 (1953): 130, 145214, 551567; and "Leo XIII: Government and the Order of Culture," Theological Studies 15 (1954):133. A series of four important articles that offer a progressive and historically sophisticated interpretation of the political thought of Leo XIII.

Soderini, Eduardo. The Pontificate of Leo XIII. 2 vols. London, 19341935. Written with the aid of the Vatican Archives. Only two of the original volumes have been translated into English.

Wallace, Lillian P. Leo XIII and the Rise of Socialism. Durham, N.C., 1966. Argues that the rise of socialism forced the church to come to terms with the problems of industrialization, and that the church's entrance into the field of economics blunted the advance of socialism.

Joseph M. McShane (1987)


views updated May 17 2018


Leo XIII (1810-1903), who was pope from 1878 to 1903, is known for his social reforms and his recognition of the rights of the worker. During his reign the Roman Catholic Church achieved an international prestige it had not enjoyed since the Middle Ages.

Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, who became Pope Leo XIII, was born on March 2, 1810, in Carpineto, Italy. He was educated by the Jesuits at Viterbo and in Rome. After becoming a priest on Dec. 31, 1837, he was named apostolic delegate to Benevento. After a period as delegate to Perugia, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Brussels in January 1843 and became an archbishop. Already at Perugia he had shown himself to be a social reformer. At Louvain he mediated in the bitter controversy between the Jesuits and the university. Reappointed to Perugia in 1846, he was made cardinal in 1853 by Pius IX. He spent the next 25 years restoring churches, promoting education of the clergy, and advocating social reform.

Political Revival

Leo became pope at a low ebb in the prestige of the papacy. The Pope had been a "prisoner" in the Vatican since 1870. Tension existed between the Vatican and most European governments. There were no strong Catholic political parties in Europe. The democracies and the Vatican traded no friendship. Within the Church there existed a polarization because of the authoritarian rule of Pius IX. Between the Italian state and the Vatican there were the utmost frigidity and ill feeling.

Elected pope at the age of 68, Leo was not expected to hold the post long or to make any great changes. His pontificate, however, lasted 25 years. One of his first undertakings was to offset the secularizing philosophies of governments imbued with anticlerical, antipapal, and anti-Church policies. It was the age of the Kulturkampf in Germany and of governmental anticlericalism in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Leo's methods were in the main conciliatory and quite simple in intent. His strength lay in his obvious and proven enthusiasm for learning, for scientific achievement, and for a relatively open-minded discussion with all comers. As part of his program he set out to strengthen the Catholic political parties in Europe. His policies bore fruits within his lifetime, and their acceptance was aided mightily by the ever-growing threat of socialism and an early form of communism which had started with the Communist Manifesto of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in 1848. Thus Germany's chancellor Otto von Bismarck came to see the newly revived Catholic Center party as a bulwark against socialism. Extreme anticlerical legislation was repealed by his government by 1887. In 1881 the Prussian government had re-appointed an envoy to the Vatican (the first since 1874). Similarly, in Belgium, Catholics gained political power and helped mitigate anticlericalism and secularizing policies. In France, Leo was less successful. His appeal was laced with too political a motivation, which divided Catholic supporters and created antagonism lasting well beyond Leo's death.

Italian Policy

For Italy, Leo adopted a policy marked by an intransigence which produced more or less the same bitter fruits as in France. Leo hoped Germany would force a solution of the "Roman question" and restore the papacy to a position of temporal power. But the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria, and Italy dashed these aspirations. Leo could expect no help from France, where his policies had, rather, fomented antipapal feeling. When Mariano Rampolla became secretary of state for Italy in 1887, he sought the friendship of the democracies, the United States, and France particularly. Leo was much more in favor of a monarchical paternalism than of a democratic form of government; he feared the latter as an open door to anticlerical and secular policies. In Italy, Leo allowed Catholics to participate in municipal politics, but he maintained the traditional ban on all Catholic participation in national politics almost to the end of his life. In his encyclical letter Immortale Dei (Nov. 1, 1885) Leo denounced democracy as irreconcilable with the authority of the Church, although he did allow that with proper conditions Catholics could work within such a democratic framework. In Libertas praestantissimum (June 20, 1888) he declared personal liberty and freedom to be a legitimate political goal, but he tied the success of such a goal to adherence to Roman Catholicism. Leo sought, in other words, to reconcile the liberalism of his day with traditional Roman Catholic teaching. Although he did not succeed, he laid the foundations for a later development in the mid-20th century. The policies of John XXIII, for instance, reflected Leo's thoughts but took some essential steps forward.

Diplomatic Relations

On the general plane of diplomatic relations, Leo was successful. He established cordial relations with Spain, Austria, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, and many South American countries. The tension between the Vatican and Russia was relaxed. His centralization policies included a new organization of pilgrimages to Rome, more frequent audiences for the visiting faithful as well as for non-Catholics, an expanding panache of papal ceremonial and glory, and the encouragement of cordial ties of collaboration and mutual respect between Catholic academic institutions and corresponding institutions in Europe and the Americas.

Social Reform

Leo is remembered more for his encyclical letter Rerum novarum (May 15, 1891) than for many other acts. The letter was part of his attempt to halt the drift of working people and industrial labor away from his Church. In part a rather dramatic departure from traditional policies of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church's outlook, the letter vindicated for workers and poor people the rights which never before had received such papal or ecclesiastical sanction.

The minimum standards Leo demanded for workers, such as a means of frugal sustenance and a minimum wage, now seem to be grossly underestimated. But in Leo's day, they represented violent if well-timed departures from the traditional norms. The letter's value lay much more in its accurate prediction of social reforms which, if implemented, might have averted such later developments as the Russian Revolution and the rise of Soviet bolshevism.

In Rerum novarum Leo also defended the rights of the family and the right to private property, themes which later became acute when communism spread throughout Europe and these rights were attacked and encroached upon by a dictatorial statism. His recommendations for effective legislation, his approval of labor unions and cooperative organizations, and his lauding of labor and its fruits as worthwhile and as dignified human elements helped shape the policies of many labor movements throughout the world. Concretely, Rerum novarum strongly influenced the formation of Catholic political parties and labor syndicates outside Italy and Spain, thus combating the spread of Marxism.

Leo also strengthened Rome's ties with Eastern-rite churches and carried the centralization policies of his predecessors to a considerable length. He relaxed the intransigence of his predecessor, Pius IX, by opening the Vatican archives and library to qualified historians of all faiths.

It would be a mistake, however, to assess Leo's pontificate as a radical or even a strong departure from that of his predecessors. He built on the strong centralization of Pius IX, who, although he failed in international politics, left Leo a strongly united Church and a store of spiritual resources. When Leo died on July 20, 1903, he enjoyed a vast personal prestige; his Church was enthusiastic for the papacy; but Leo, like his predecessor, had not been able to adapt Church structure and thought to the new realities of the emergent 20th century.

Further Reading

For studies of Leo see Henry Edward Manning, Leo XIII on the Condition of Labour (1891); Eduardo Soderini, The Pontificate of Leo XIII (1932; trans., 3 vols., 1934-1935); and Henry Somerville, Studies in the Catholic Social Movement (1933). □


views updated May 14 2018

Leo XIII (1810–1903). Pope from 20 Feb. 1878. Born Giocchino Vincenzo Pecci, he was sent to Perugia as archbishop in 1845. He immediately set about improving the education of his clergy, and encouraged the study of Thomas Aquinas in the diocesan seminary (Thomism was later to be strongly advocated in the encyclical, Aeterni Patris). He carried his support of neo-scholasticism into his pontificate, and one of his first acts was to write the encyclical commending the study of Aquinas's philosophy. He was a considerable patron of learning, insisting that the Church had nothing to fear from the truth. He failed to reach an accommodation with the new kingdom of Italy, and his encyclical Rerum Novarum gave support to those wishing to restore the ancien régime, though his endorsement of the workers' movement was of great psychological importance as the first such act by an authority of international standing.