One Century Ago

Things were very different.

It often can seem as if the papacy is stuck in a rut. The pope is seldom seen without his traditional papal garments – either the vestments with the miter or his white cassock with the zucchetto, the little white skull cap. Photos from a century ago depict a different face wearing very similar attire. Similarly, the pronouncements from the popes on so many issues – contraception, abortion, homosexuality, women in the clergy, clerical celibacy – seem not to have changed at all in the last one hundred years.

This appearance is quite deceptive. The institution of the papacy has actually changed dramatically. Even a cursory examination of the man who sat on the Throne of Peter in 1913 reveals someone totally different from the last handful of pontiffs. Pius X, who reigned from 1903 to 1914, was the last pope to be declared a saint. The following observations about his pontificate emphasize how far the Church, admittedly a slow-moving institution, has come in that period.

  • By all rights Pius X should never have even been elected pope. Cardinal Rampolla was leading in the votes when a Polish cardinal vetoed his selection. How, one might well ask, did this cardinal have the right to prohibit anyone from being elected the leader of the Church? Because he had in his possession a piece of paper that said that Franz Josef, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor did not want Rampolla. For centuries the Holy Roman Emperor and a few other powerful rulers were awarded the privilege of vetoing papal selections. 1903 was the last conclave in which it was exercised. Pius X abolished the practice, but he did not decline the nomination that resulted from it.
  • Pius X was the third of five pontiffs who claimed to be unable to resume their rightful role as the legitimate king of central Italy because they were were being held prisoner in the Vatican by the Italian government. In fact, the Italian government, while it definitely did contest the pope’s imagined sovereignty over the corridor from Rome to Ravenna, allowed him to move freely around the country. Nevertheless, for the period spanning from 1870 through 1929, no pope ever left the Vatican. Think of that: the head of the largest Church in the world refused to budge from an area that is only one-fifth of a square mile!

    The claim that now seems so bizarre was based on some forged documents from the seventh century that purported to show that Emperor Constantine had bestowed on Pope Sylvester I most of the Roman Empire west of Greece. That these documents were bogus had been clear for at least six centuries before the era of the prisoner-popes.
  • The pope acted like a king, too. He had an elaborate crown, called the tiara. It was shaped like a a bullet and contained three rings of jewels.
  • The pontiff’s feet seldom touched the ground. He was carted around by a dozen or so men in a sedan chair called the sedia gestatoria. Someone kept him cool with a large fan made from ostrich feathers.
  • Pope Pius X banned all music except chant from Catholic services. I suspect that he was tone deaf. I mean, the music of Mozart and Vivaldi (who was a priest) was too wild for him. The only language allowed was Latin.
  • “Modernism” was the target of the pope’s most strident injunctions. It is not easy to pinpoint exactly what he was against, but anything not covered by Thomas Aquinas was pretty much out of bounds, including the scientific method. He forced priests and professors to swear oaths that they would not promote any “modernistic” teachings.
  • The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was still going strong. If you read anything on the list, you could expect to spend eternity tormented by beings with pointed tails, goat-horns, and pitchforks.
  • Loans were taboo. Christians could neither lend to nor borrow from other Christians if interest was charged. In the eighteenth century Pope Benedict XIV had ruled that the biblical ban on usury meant that charging interest on loans was absolutely prohibited, and he also said that no one was allowed to circumvent the prohibition by some elaborate arrangement that resulted in the same effect. This was pretty much the last word until the Code of Canon Law issued in 1917 muddied the subject sufficiently so that everyone could stop paying attention to it.
  • Pope Pius X detested the Italian government and refused to deal with anyone who recognized it.

By most standards today’s Church seems old-fashioned, but Pope Pius X would be moved to rage and then tears if he saw what had become of it. His successor, Benedict XV, was cut from a different cloth. He was equally appalled by what he saw in the world, but for entirely different reasons. I will write about him when the centennial of his investiture in 1914 approaches.