What better defines modern government, religious or secular, than what Nisbet called that great vacuum of buffer between the governing and the governed? Whereas traditions, institutions, places, and customs once gave the individual identity and gave authority a measure of guidance, modern government gives the individual all his rights, privileges, prerogatives, and policies that govern his life. In light of this, the modern papacy really begins with Pius X and the tradition papacy ends with Pius XI. Papa Sarto began his reign following a controversial conclave, when the metropolitan cardinal of Poland vetoed the election of Mariano Rampolla for any number of speculated reasons. Initially interested in seemingly harmless subjects like ensuring only men sang Gregorian plainsong or giving chant a place of prominence again, but soon interests, either Papa Sarto's own or those of the Vatican bureaucracy around him, began to stick their tentacles into common Christian life. His re-introduction of Communion for the young confused the order of sacramental initiation in most of, but not all of, the Western Church, a mistake some bishops have slowly remedied without a universal correction. His re-jiggering of the Office kalendar and psalter effectively tossed out the Divine Office as Saint Benedict, Saint Bernard, Saint Pius V, and the pope himself knew it, paving the way for the "restoration" of the other unchangeable part of the Latin liturgy, the anaphora. Most notably, he enabled Umberto Benigni to hunt anyone whose opinions differed from his own, be they true heretics or simply those in need of correction. While modest by today's standards, Saint Pius began a practice of the papacy that dictates how one enters the Sacramental life, how Mass is said, what prayers a priest prays daily, and that the priest is someone whose ideas must actively correlate with those of the Roman Bishop's. By contrast, Pius XI had little to do with these things.
In his Phoenix from the Ashes HJA Sire observes that many traditionalists "regard popes Pius IX, Pius X, and Pius XII as models of what a pope ought to be, but (with due respect for their sacred office) really look upon Leo XIII and Pius XI as rather letting down the standards of papal authority. They show little sympathy with social and political pragmatism in the framing of religious policy" (Sire 139). In Pius XI was a resolute orthodoxy tempered by a cautious, healthy distance from the impractical excess condign to arbitrary use of power.
Papa Ratti's foreign policy is the most memorable and mixed aspect of his pontificate. He had the good sense to end the "Roman question", which had been answered since the Italian unification ended the Papal States in the prior century. With traditional monarchies and temporal rule gone, the pope could now, ironically, speak on matters of foreign policy with an authoritative detachment and lack of personal interest that gave moral strength to his statements. History perceives Pius as friendly, or at least amenable, to Fascistic movements in Spain and elsewhere in Europe because he was. While horrifying to post-modern liberals, the only options most had in revolutionary countries were atheistic, class warfare Communism or Fascism—understood as a glorification of the state and its cultural history along with public-private cooperation with major corporations (Nazism was not Fascism, it was something more unique). Because Fascism takes the state as its alpha and omega, Fascism is not Catholicism, but it can tolerate Catholicism and even give a place of respect to Catholic culture; Communism cannot, and as ruthless as the Fascists were in the Spanish Civil War, the Communists matches or exceeded them in brutality, something anti-Fascist adventurer and author Ernest Hemingway begrudgingly depicts in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The pope's vociferous denunciation of Hitler and his deranged racialistic theories of state and expansion redeem the pope to historians; Mit brennender Sorge had to be smuggled into Germany to be read from the pulpit during Passiontide in 1937, and since his Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, succeeded him as pope, one might reasonably assume the swift reaction of the Nazis against the Church was a lesson learned by Pacelli in his more cautious War-time administration. Post-War Europe's coziness with socialism has cooled Pius's legacy, but we must admit given his choices he could have done far worse.
Despite my education being partially in Economics, I have not read the pope's encyclicals on the subject in depth with supplementary resources. And yet I feel familiar enough to say he wrote in continuity with the social teachings of Leo XIII, reflecting Pius XI's pervading theme of upholding doctrine fully with some awareness of his times. The times asked different questions under Leo XIII than under Pius XI, not just in social questions, but the state of the Western economies and of economic literature. Leo wrote during the Industrial Revolution, the abuse of child-workers, new money capitalists, economists writing about rational self-interest as an inherently moral act, displacement from traditional settings of living into atomistic city life, and the like. By contrast, these phenomena were three decades old when Ratti took the tiara. The new concerns were political cults, collectivism's many forms, atheism, interventionist economics, and secular utopianism. In this regard, the pope was quite adroit in keeping up with the signs of the times; would that our modern popes be interested in any issue more current than 1978.
Pius XI was a good pope. He was, in no sense, a great pope. He made any significant contributions to the Church while not entirely succeeding in making lasting changes that he successors felt obliged to keep. Perhaps he never saw himself as a reformer, merely a traditionalist, that is, one handing on the Church as he knew in the best way he could. He was not a modern pope, reforming the Church according to his own ideas. HJA Sire notes that if not for his boundless optimism, John XXIII could have returned the Church to the paternal, familiar style of government Pius XI and Leo XIII personified, gentle, firm, practical, and respectful of tradition. Vatican II was supposed to rubber stamp some very unimaginative documents and move on in eight weeks; what ensued was something quite different, a parliamentary hijacking by bureaucrats whose power derived from a more modern practice of the papacy. John XXIII died and "blessed" Paul VI took his place, succeeding Pius XII more than John XXIII or Pius XI.
Pope Ratti was a good pope, perhaps the most recent thoroughly traditional pope we have seen.