Pius XI

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Pius XI

Pius XI (1857-1939) was pope from 1922 to 1939. During his reign the Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and Italy was signed.

Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, who became Pius XI, was born at Desio near Milan, Italy, on May 31, 1857. Ordained a priest in 1879, and having already acquired a name as a brilliant scholar, he devoted most of the subsequent 43 years to work as a Church librarian. He was known as a Latin paleographer and developed new library classification systems. Already known to Benedict XV as a man of exceptional qualities, he was selected by Benedict for diplomatic service and sent as apostolic visitor in 1918 to Poland. The following year he became apostolic nuncio in Poland. He returned to Italy in 1921 and became cardinal archbishop of Milan. He was elected pope on Feb. 6, 1922.

The first crisis facing Pius XI concerned the newly born Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini. At the heart of Vatican policy as formed by the preceding three popes, there lay a fundamental principle of Church political policy and, in addition, an urgent desire to solve the "Roman question." The principle dictated that the Church should always have and seek the protection of a secular arm to protect it from attack, to grant it special immunity and privileges, and to channel its teachings. The Roman question concerned the status of the Vatican as a temporal power. When the Italian nationalist movement of 1870 deprived the papacy of its territorial possessions, the succeeding popes refused to acquiesce in the act. They refused to leave the Vatican even for short visits.

Pius XI, in the tradition of latter-day popes, saw in the new Fascist state the secular arm which the Church always sought. He supported the Fascist regime with certain qualifications, and in 1929 the government of Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican. According to this, the Vatican recognized the kingdom of Italy and, in return, was recognized as a fully sovereign state. As such, the Vatican was granted a small but clearly indicated portion of Rome (the Vatican State) together with other holdings throughout the city and elsewhere in Italy. A financial indemnification was made by the Fascist regime to the Vatican in return for the Vatican's definitive renunciation of all claims to the former Papal States. Most importantly, the neutrality of the Vatican was guaranteed for all future military conflicts. A concordat was also signed, between the regime and the Vatican, which regulated the position of the Church in Italy. It provided for Church marriages, compulsory religious instruction in schools, and the exclusive position of Catholicism as the state religion of Italy.

Pius XI was also successful with the Mexican government in negotiating a peace between Church and state. But his concordat with Hitler's Germany was quickly violated. Pius denounced the violation in his encyclical letter Mit brennender Sorge (1937). In pursuance of Vatican policy and with an innate fear of Soviet Marxism, Pius sided with Franco's cause during the Spanish Civil War. It was a policy which Pius XII, his successor, was to pursue with unfavorable results during World War II. When Mussolini's government introduced anti-Semitic legislation in 1938, Pius denounced it together with all prevalent racial theories. Pius set out from the beginning of his reign to establish the Church on the international scene by increasing the number of diplomatic missions abroad, thus taking advantage of the desire of many governments for collaboration with the Vatican as a moral force in international politics.

In the field of missionary activity, particularly in Africa and Asia, Pius XI set out to rid Roman Catholic missions of their very close identification with various imperial and nationalistic powers. He encouraged plans for developing an indigenous clergy to replace the foreign missionaries.

Within the Church, Pius gave his sanction to the building of Catholic Action groups in order to provide the hierarchies with an indirect say in political matters. On the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, Pius XI issued his own letter on social affairs, Quadragesimo anno (May 15, 1931). He elaborated on Leo's teachings concerning social reform and the economic structure of human society in relation to religious belief and practice. Toward non-Catholic Christianity, Pius had a negative attitude and issued his Mortalium animos (1928), in which he imposed a stern attitude toward non-Catholics and the nascent ecumenical movement among Protestants. The closing years of Pius XI's reign were marked by a close association with the Western democracies, as these nations and the Vatican found that they were both threatened by the totalitarian regimes and ideologies of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Soviet Union. In the last months of his life, Pius XI saw the gathering clouds of World War II. Although he used every resource of the Vatican, he was unable to prevent the final union of wills between Hitler and Mussolini. He died on Feb. 10, 1939.

Further Reading

Pius XI's writings were translated and edited by Edward Bulloch as Essays in History Written between the Years 1890-1912 (1934). Biographies of Pius XI include Philip Hughes, Pope Pius the Eleventh (1937), and Zsolt Aradi, Pius XI: The Pope and the Man (1958). Pius XI is also discussed in Carlo Falconi, The Popes in the Twentieth Century (1967; trans. 1968).

Additional Sources

Anderson, Robin, Between two wars: the story of Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti, 1922-1939), Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977. □

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Pius XI, 1857–1939, pope (1922–39), an Italian named Achille Ratti, b. Desio, near Milan; successor of Benedict XV.

Prepapal Career

Ratti's father was a silk manufacturer. He studied in Milan and at the Gregorian Univ., Rome, and was ordained in 1879. His excellence in philosophy brought him to the attention of Leo XIII. He taught in the Milan seminary, was appointed (1888) one of the college of doctors of the Ambrosian Library, Milan, and won a name for his studies in paleography. In 1907 he was made chief librarian. Called by Pius X to Rome, he became vice prefect of the Vatican Library.

In 1918, Benedict XV entrusted him with the difficult legateship in Poland. There he put the church on good terms with the new government and helped, as much as possible, the Roman Catholics of Russia. In 1919 he was made nuncio to Poland. Two years later Benedict appointed him archbishop of Milan and created him cardinal. Cardinal Ratti was elected pope eight months later (Feb. 6, 1922).


Pius's pontificate was marked by great diplomatic activity and by many important papers, often in the form of encyclicals. In diplomatic affairs Pius was aided at first by Pietro Gasparri and after 1930 by Eugenio Pacelli (who succeeded him as Pius XII). Cardinal Gasparri's greatest success was the Lateran Treaty (1929). Also in 1929, the Vatican supported the candidacy of Mussolini after he agreed to purge Freemasons, Jews, and other "anticlerical parties" from his ticket. Pius XI came to regret this decision when the full racial laws came into effect. Mussolini's Fascist government and the pope openly disagreed over the restriction of youth activities; this culminated in a strong papal letter (Non abbiamo bisogno, 1931), showing the impossibility of being at once a Fascist and a Catholic. Relations between Mussolini and the Holy See were cool thereafter.

It fell to Cardinal Pacelli to negotiate a concordat for all Germany (1933). The Hitler government never pretended to observe the treaty. In 1937, after interference of every sort by the Nazis in Catholic life, the pope denounced the government and the Nationalist Socialist theory in a powerful encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge. A few days later he issued a definitive analysis of Communism from the Roman Catholic point of view in On Atheistic Communism. Pius also denounced persecutions in Russia, Mexico, and Spain. With England, the Netherlands, and France (where he condemned the royalist Action française movement in 1925) the pope was on unprecedentedly cordial terms. He spoke out continually against nationalism, racism, and totalitarianism and their menace to human dignity; hence the new feast of Christ the King, established to recall the rights of religion in the state, and hence, too, Pius's denunciation of anti-Semitism.

The pope, highly critical of laissez-faire capitalism, urged social reform especially in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931), which renewed the plea made 40 years earlier by Leo XIII. Pius appealed directly to the laity for greater participation in all things religious—this he called Catholic Action. In the church's missionary activity he laid great stress on the necessity of integrating Christianity with native cultures rather than trying to make them European. This is seen in the Pontifical Work of St. Peter the Apostle for the Native Clergy, which he set up in 1929. To protect Catholics of Eastern rites from Latin influence he augmented the powers of their congregation and established a commission to study their canon law. He also called on Western Catholics to exhibit greater understanding of the Orthodox and other ancient churches of the East, notably in the encyclical Rerum Orientalium (1928).

Pius took delight in new technological developments. He established a broadcasting station at the Vatican and advanced the modernization of the Vatican Library. He also reconstituted the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences (1936), with a large international membership.


Many of Pius's papers have been published. See biographies by P. Hughes (1938) and Z. Aradi (1958); D. I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini (2014).