It was the dawn of the 20th century. The hedonism of the Belle Époque whirled through Europe’s capitals; like Poe’s raven, the precursors of civilizational decay tapped at the windows of the West. The ideologies originating in the Age of the Enlightenment were nearing full fruition in what American historian Lawrence Sondhaus would term the “global revolution”: the Great War, only a few years off.
An influential leader wrote in 1903 of the gathering clouds:
We were terrified beyond all else by the disastrous state of human society today[.] … Who can fail to see that society is at the present time, more than in any past age, suffering from a terrible and deep-rooted malady which, developing every day and eating into its inmost being, is dragging it to destruction?
Who can avoid being appalled and afflicted when he beholds, in the midst of a progress in civilization which is justly extolled, the greater part of mankind fighting among themselves so savagely as to make it seem as though strife were universal?
On all sides, voices called for peace, but fruitlessly. “To want peace without God is an absurdity,” he declared. “[W]here God is absent thence too justice flies, and when justice is taken away it is vain to cherish the hope of peace.”
The leader in question was Giuseppe Sarto, better known as Pope St. Pius X, writing his first encyclical, E supremi apostolatus (1903). The cancer in society to which he traced all the ills of his time was quite simply apostasy from God.
“We find extinguished among the majority of men all respect for the Eternal God, and no regard paid in the manifestations of public and private life to the Supreme Will — nay, every effort and every artifice is used to destroy utterly the memory and the knowledge of God,” he lamented, in words that might justly be applied to the 21st century.
He singled out the evil of humanism: “Man has with infinite temerity put himself in the place of God, raising himself above all that is called God[.] … [H]e has contemned God’s majesty and, as it were, made of the universe a temple wherein he himself is to be adored.”
Historian Yves Chiron points to E supremi apostolatus as a kind of manifesto. “We have no other program in our Supreme Pontificate,” St. Pius X proclaimed, “but that ‘of restoring all things in Christ,’ so that ‘Christ may be all and in all.’ … The interests of God shall be Our interest, and for these We are resolved to spend all Our strength and Our very life.”
How did he propose to carry out this program? Not by self-styled parties of order. “There is but one party of order capable of restoring peace in the midst of all this turmoil, and that is the party of God,” he declared.
Rather, it would be accomplished in “bringing back to the discipline of the Church human society, now estranged from the wisdom of Christ; the Church will then subject it to Christ, and Christ to God.”
To this end, Yves Chiron identifies three concrete steps proposed in E supremi apostolatus. First, a reformation of the clergy, that they might truly “bear stamped upon themselves the image of Christ.” Pius X adjured bishops to govern their seminaries in such wise that they might “flourish equally in the soundness of their teaching and in the spotlessness of their morals.”
Secondly, holy and well formed priests were to provide better and more thorough religious instruction for the faithful. Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote of this mandate in the preface to Cristina Siccardi’s 2014 biography of St. Pius X: “The Holy Father identified ignorance of Christian doctrine as the chief cause of the decline of faith, and therefore judged that sound catechesis was of primary importance in its restoration. It is easy to see how current the observations and conclusions of St. Pius X are today.”
Thirdly, Pius X asked lay Catholics to offer every assistance to this work of religious education. He insisted that all lay Catholic initiatives keep as their primary goal the maintenance of Christian life among their own members.
“It is of little avail,” he told them, “to discuss questions with nice subtlety, or to discourse eloquently of rights and duties, when all this is unconnected with practice. The times we live in demand action — but action which consists entirely in observing with fidelity and zeal the divine laws and the precepts of the Church, in the frank and open profession of religion[.]”
Like another leader in a time of crisis, Winston Churchill, Pius X held that nothing could be permitted to stand in the way of success. “[W]e must use every means and exert all our energy to bring about the utter disappearance of the enormous and detestable wickedness, so characteristic of our time — the substitution of man for God.”
Thirty-seven years later, Churchill would rally wartime Britain in not dissimilar terms: “to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime …”
Like Churchill, Pius X refused to set his sights on anything less than victory. “No one of sound mind can doubt the issue of this contest between man and the Most High,” Pius X declared with confidence. “Man, abusing his liberty, can violate the right and the majesty of the Creator of the Universe; but the victory will ever be with God[.]”
The restoration of all things in Christ would mean that “the upper and wealthy classes will learn to be just and charitable to the lowly, and these will be able to bear with tranquillity and patience the trials of a very hard lot; the citizens will obey not lust but law; reverence and love will be deemed a duty towards those that govern.” This was Pius X’s vision of peace.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey mused as the first guns of August rang out. Pius X died scarcely two weeks later; the darkest years of the century, for the world and the Church, were still to come.
The apparently universal rejection of Christ’s rule might prove a temptation to despair, as it was for Matthew Arnold 50 years earlier. “Dover Beach,” his lament for the retreat of faith in God that once embraced the earth “like the folds of a bright girdle furled,” ends in despair: “the world … hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain …”
The reality that paralyzed Arnold spurred Pius X to action. His program gives the ordinary Catholic concrete measures to take in the face of civilizational collapse: to maintain the practice of Christian life, to seek out true Catholic formation for oneself and those under one’s charge, and to proclaim the sovereign rights of Christ over human society.
It is not too much to hope that in making St. Pius X’s manifesto our own, the lamps of Europe and the world will be relit, one by one; and that when all things are restored, the nations will enter a new Golden Age under the scepter of the sole Sun of Justice, the Light of the World.
Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, Crisis Magazine, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.