The Catholic Church and the Modern Era

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

Roughly at the same time as the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), which defined the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the Italian unification process took shape under Victor Emmanuel, threatening the Papal States.

Back in the 8th century, the Carolingian Frankish King Pepin the Short, who was the father of Charlemagne, had given the Papal States (Patrimonium Petri) to the pope for his secular rule. The temporal powers of the pope were threatened by the unification of Italy, especially because Rome was the center of the Papal States and the future capital of a unified Italy. Indeed, the pope lost his temporal power in 1870. However, he would later be recognized as the head of state of the smallest independent nation of the world: 0.44 square miles. (To accomplish this, Vatican City and the Republic of Italy signed the Lateran Treaty in 1929.)

In the late 19th century, Europe was undergoing many changes. Areas that were parts of empires became separate countries. This era defined France, Germany, and Italy as countries. Germany formed a nation and saw the pope as a threat to its unification. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) passed laws that persecuted the Catholic Church in Germany. This conflict between the Catholic and German government was called the kulturkampf (literally, “conflict of cultures”). This environment led to a vast emigration of German Catholics fleeing persecution in the fatherland to the United States.

In this setting, Leo XIII (1878–1903) became pope. The Industrial Revolution was also in full swing in England, Germany, and the United States at this time. The common rights of workers were threatened and denied. As a result, Pope Leo wrote the magnificent papal encyclical Rerum Novarum on the sanctity of human work, dignity of workers, and the justice that’s owed to them. He condemned all sorts of radical stances, such as extreme capitalism and atheistic communism, while defending the rights of private property and the right to form guilds or trade unions. This social encyclical gave the impetus for Catholic unions in the United States.

Pope St. Pius X (1903–1914) followed the reign of Leo XIII. He was known as the pope of the children. He extended the right to receive Holy Communion to all Catholic children who had reached the age of reason — 7 years old. Also, he composed a syllabus of errors. In it he condemned certain tenets of modernism, a heresy that denied aspects of the faith and accepted all sorts of progressivism to the point that it damaged the integrity of the faith. To be a modernist didn’t mean that you were a modern thinker and able to communicate to your contemporaries. Rather, to get its message across, modernism used falsehoods to prove its point. If anything, modernism was nothing more than elaborate academic skepticism run rampant.

World wars, communism, and fascism

World War I (1914–18), the war that was supposed to end all wars, was truly bloody. Many lives were lost on both sides, and in the end, the Austrian Hungarian Empire was divided up. People in the old empire who hated Austria saw that the Church was in line with the old regime; therefore, the Church was persecuted in these areas. Otto von Bismarck and his Germany were defeated, going into deep economic depression.

When a worldwide depression hit in 1929, fascism gained power. Europe was in turmoil. In Spain, anti-Catholic communists combated royalists in a terrible civil war. As in the French Revolution, many Catholic priests and sisters were martyred. However, under General Francisco Franco (1892–1975), the communists were defeated in 1939. Though the Church was able to flourish, Spain remained under Franco’s dictatorship until the 1970s.

Italy, ruled by the House of Savoy after its unification in 1870, came under the influence of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) in 1928. Later, he teamed up with Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) during World War II (1939–1945). It was in Nazi Germany that fascism reached the depth of depravity and evil.

The Church was unanimously against the evils of communism on the one hand and fascism on the other. With the onslaught of World War II, Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) diplomatically tried to help those affected by the diabolical evil of Adolf Hitler. Though maligned terribly by some in the secular press today, Pius XII actively worked for the safety of the Jewish people. Shortly after his election as pope (March 2, 1939), the Nazi newspaper Berliner Morganpost blasted the news that his papal election wasn’t popular in Germany because he was well known as a Nazi opponent.

At one point during the war, the Vatican, considered neutral territory by the Geneva Conference, hid and cared for up to 3,500 Jews. Through its nuncios (ambassadors), the Church falsified documents to aid Jews by providing fictitious baptismal certificates that identified them as Catholic Christians. Many priests, nuns, and Catholic laymen lost their lives rescuing and sheltering their brother and sister Jews. Recently released Vatican records indicate that the Catholic Church operated an underground railroad that rescued 800,000 European Jews from the Holocaust.

Pope Pius XII accomplished a lot to help the Jews during World War II, but the most eloquent testimony to his efforts is the conversion of the chief Rabbi of Rome, Israele Anton Zolli, to Roman Catholicism in 1945 in appreciation. He even took the baptismal name Eugenio because it was Pius XII’s baptismal name. When Pius XII died, Prime Minister Golda Meir sent a eulogy praising him for his efforts during the war to help Jews.

The Church’s rocky road in Eastern Europe

Czarist Russia fell to the Communists in 1917 during World War I, resulting in a godless government coming into being that proved to be a nemesis for the Orthodox Church, as well as the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe. After World War II, many of the Eastern countries were occupied by the U.S.S.R., which actively persecuted the Church and anyone who belonged to it. Bishops couldn’t be appointed to their diocese. Seminaries were illegal. The Catholic faith stayed alive in Eastern Europe because of the underground Church.

Catholicism post World War II

Not all was gloom and doom after World War II. The Catholic Church greatly expanded in the United States. From 1910 to 1930, the population of the country grew tremendously as a result of a vast emigration from Southern and Eastern Europe — mainly Catholic countries. By the 1950s, these emigrant groups grew financially, politically, and socially. The 1950s saw a rise in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Churches, seminaries, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, and other institutions grew tremendously.

With the death of Pius XII, a new era in the Church began with the reign of Pope John XXIII (1958–1963). Some of the man-made customs that had crept into the Church since the Council of Trent were archaic and needed reform. John XXIII called for a new council, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), also known as Vatican II. One year into the Council, John XXIII died. Paul VI (1963–1978) was elected after him and concluded the council. The council didn’t define any new doctrines, nor did it substantially alter any. It didn’t abolish any Catholic traditions or devotions but asked that they be kept in proper perspective to the revealed truths of the faith and subservient to the Sacred Liturgy of the Church. Vatican II didn’t create new teaching but explained the ancient faith in new ways to address new issues and concerns.

Paul VI wrote many encyclicals (letters from the pope addressed to the world), his most famous one being titled Humanae Vitae or On Human Life. It challenged modern-day society, which had given in to the contraceptive mentality. He predicted in 1968 that if people didn’t respect human life from the beginning, they wouldn’t respect it in the end. He claimed that artificial contraception would lead to an increase in abortions, divorce, broken families, and other social troubles. Twenty-five years later on the anniversary of the encyclical, Pope John Paul II wrote another encyclical, titled Gospel of Life. In it, he stated that the warnings of Paul VI had come true.

Paul VI died on August 6, 1978, and John Paul I was elected his successor 20 days later. He chose to take the names of his two most immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI, the two popes of the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, he lived only one month as pope and died mysteriously in his sleep on September 28, 1978. Rumors abound about the circumstances of his untimely demise, but nothing credible has ever been established or demonstrated.