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Summi Pontificatus


The first encyclical letter of pius xii, on the function of the state in the modern world, issued Oct. 20, 1939, to members of the Catholic hierarchy throughout the world. Pius XII had been elected pope on March 2, 1939, only a few months before the outbreak of World War II. His preoccupation with the world crisis is apparent throughout this important encyclical. Its four principal parts include an introduction in which Pius rededicates his pontificate to the Sacred Heart, thus emulating the action taken by leo xiii 40 years earlier in his Annum Sacrum (1899); a second section outlining the causes of the existing disastrous conditions; a third part treating the errors resulting from the prevailing new morality; and finally a presentation of basic principles for the establishment of a new order after the restoration of peace.

The pope singled out as a fundamental cause of all the grave social problems of the time a widespread denial of a universal norm of morality. According to the encyclical, two major errors have resulted from the abandonment of an objective moral law. The first is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race. On this point the encyclical provides a concise but complete philosophical and theological justification for the "oneness" of mankind, despite racial and ethnic diversity. The second error condemned is the secularization of the modern state, manifest in the separation of civil authority from any connection with divinity. From this results the omnipotent, absolute, autonomous state that considers itself the final end of all things.

Pius declared it imperative that the postwar social order should be founded on principles of natural law and divine revelation, that such evils as economic instability and the unequal distribution of wealth should be corrected, and that mankind should be reeducated in religious and moral values. He appealed for freedom of action for the Church so that it could make its contributions to social unity and lasting peace. In concluding, he reviewed the efforts of the Holy See to prevent the war and begged for charity toward the victims of war.

Bibliography: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 31 (1939) 413453, 538564, gives Lat. text and Eng. tr. For other Eng. tr., see Catholic Mind 37 (1939), 889918, and pamphlet eds. pub. by the National Catholic Welfare Conference and America Press. m. c. carlen, Guide to the Documents of Pius XII (Westminster, Md. 1951), comment.

[t. j. harte]

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