Saturday, November 28, 2015

Who Was Papa Sarto?

Looking toward the future
Hammer of the modernists. A great liturgical reformer. A stodgy dinosaur. A chain cigarette smoker. A pastoral pope with the mind of a parish priest. Pope Pius X, who occupied the Petrine See from 1903 until his death in 1914, has been called all of these things by various factions. All these labels bear a small amount of truth to them, but ignore the fact that precious little is actually remembered about the man. Traditionalists have made him into their favorite pope—although all rad trads know Gregory the Great owns the top place, that is, until the election of Sixtus VI—without much consideration of his real legacy and the Vatican that created it.

J's latest offering on modern Catholic blogosphere vocabulary has generated copious comments on the liturgical changes that Pius X put into force, changes which were just as radical as those effected by Pius XII to Holy Week and Paul VI to the Ordo of Mass, although they were less distasteful in their result. This same who tossed out the psalter used by the ancient Church of Rome since probably the fourth century and which St. Benedict of Nursia proactively sought to imitate in his Rule also went on a zealous hunt against theological and disciplinary dissidents in an effort to preserve what I have termed the "Perfect Society" model of the Church. What could be more modernistic than discarding a fifteen century old liturgical tradition?

Guiseppe Sarto was not the College of Cardinals' first choice for the Apostolic See. An often reliable and much condemned correspondent for National Review, Mary Ball-Martinez, wrote in her Undermining of the Catholic Church that Mariano Cardinal Rampolla del Tindaro, Secretariat of State, was originally elected only to be vetoed by the Archbishop of Krakow on charges of Freemasonry. Mainstream thought, whenever it heard this far-fetched claim, quickly dismissed it. Recent research and leaked papers from the 1903 conclave now validate at least part of Martinez's claim. Sarto assigned the dubious Rampolla to the Holy Office and gave the Secretariat of State to the conclave secretary, Msgr. Merry del Val. A parish priest and unlikely patriarch now found himself at the center of a political institution that had hardly moved since the the Peace of Westphalia.

What differentiates the pontificates of Pius X and Pius XII, at least in this observer's view, is that Pius XII displayed a unified program of policies which he indefatigably followed. Consider, for example, the concerted effort to save Jewish lives during the Second World War, the various offices involved in implementing the new Holy Week, the general concordance of his encyclicals, and the movement towards new methods of communication. Pacelli's Vatican modernized and dealt with the prevailing issues of the time with a somewhat uniform mind, athwart the baroque remnants of prior pontiffs. Pius X's Vatican seems much less unified. Rampolla promoted the careers of his three prized students (della Chiesa, Gasparri, and Pacelli). Benigni hunted dissidents with his own home-grown intelligence network and ghost wrote official documents. Liturgical reformers reformed the Divine Office along the lines of the Jansenist breviaries on vogue in France. Everyone seemingly followed his own desires and none the pope's, which early in his papacy were a return to chant and more frequent Communion.

Was Pius X in complete control of his Vatican or was he, like Leo XIII at the end of his life, a functionary for the larger factions? His inexperience in playing politics and possibly apolitical nature (coming from peasant stock, not a noble) could very well have disincentivized Sarto from favoring or suppressing the urges of any one group. He let them do as they please, or by consent or by surrender. Pius XII had firm control. Did Pius X? If not, it would be difficult to ascribe to him any specific legacy, much less the proto-Lefebvrian image so many assign the parish priest turned pope.

Sarto and his second successor, Pius XI, may have been relatively inactive personally as pontiffs because they were compromise candidates between the reactionary political forces, liberal reformers, and the Rampolla clique, the most powerful of them all. The Rampolla clique eventually got their own Pope in Benedict XV, who died after having expended almost all his effort on preserving the Church through the First World War. Gasparri had already made a bad name for himself and Pacelli was too young to elect in 1922, so another Sarto, another compromise came about in the form of Achille Ratti. The only remaining mystery, if we are right thus far, is why did Pius XII canonize the nominal obstruction of his mentor's program? Was Pius XII above politicking? Was it a humble concession to the miracles attributed to Papa Sarto? Was it a nod to conservative elements in the Curia, to re-boot the liturgical reform program? We may never know. What can be known is this: Pius X, the great reactionary pope of the 20th century, may have been less a reactor than a spectator in his own see.

Passing the baton


  1. I think it is reasonable to accept the proposition that Pius X's pontificate was not as programmatic or "controlled" as that of, say, Pacelli, Pecci, or a hypothetical Rampolla pontificate. It's also reasonable to accept that this was the case because Sarto had less obvious hope of being elected (even if we're skeptical of the Ball-Martinez theory, as I am) and had considerably less experience navigating the treacherous waters of the Curia than most other modern popes. And if there's a warning in all this about how very difficult the office is to make effective in the modern era, it's one many of us could do with hearing.

    Yet I think there is danger in overstating this, for we could still say Sarto's was a consequential pontificate and that much (albeit not all) of that consequence was in some way intended by Sarto himself. It's not entirely off-base for traditionalists to remember him chiefly for his Anti-Modernist campaign, which really *did* have a major impact (both good and ill) on theology and seminary instruction throughout most of the Church for the next half century, rendering much of both more orthodox but sometimes more arid, while driving many crypto-modernists into the lower profile niches of liturgy and scriptural theology where they would eventually wreak tremendous damage.

    The other major projects of his pontificate - the Code, the Catechism, the Breviary, restoration of sacred music, frequent communion, the more combative policy toward secular governments - seem to have been a mixed bag of his own priorities and inherited ones. The Code and Breviary were in the "inherited" category, and in fairness both were fairly perceived as real problems in need of solution, and Pius certainly addressed them with very consequential solutions, however problematic they may have been. The others seem to have been more projects of his own, largely successful - if Tra le sollecitudini was mostly a dead letter, the Catechism and frequent communion did become a reality on the ground in many places, to generally good effect, at least in the short to medium term. His confrontational Church-State policy, generally a reversal of Leo XIII/Rampolla's, was even less successful than theirs, which may underline just how difficult *any* Church relationship with increasingly secular modern governments had become - Rampolla and Pecci's ralliement had failed dismally once the Dreyfus Affair exploded with finality, while Sarto's hardline approach proved fruitless as well.

    A Rampolla pontificate (I prescind from allegations that he was allied with or controlled by freemasons) would have been more programmatic and tightly managed - and some of that program would have overlapped with Sarto's, obviously. But it's less clear whether it would have been more successful or consequential, especially in its own unintended consequences. While I have not studied the matter closely, I have the sinking feeling that the Breviary would have been mangled either way.

    1. P.S. Perhaps it goes without saying, bu thanks for the thoughtful post, RT - it obviously provoked some musing on my part. Keep up the fine work - no one else out there is doing what you're doing.

  2. Dear Rad Trad. ABS was learnt we are a perfect society (so is the State, for that matter) in that , while we are not free from imperfections, defects, and sin, we possess all that is required to fulfill our mission;

    independent from all other societies in existence/action
    not part of another society
    we have an end not subordinate to any other society
    we possess all necessary means to accomplish our ends

    Fr E. Sylvester Berry, STD, summaries it neatly in "The Church of Christ an apologetic and dogmatic treatise"