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Source:
A Dictionary of Popes
Author(s):

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

Pius XI 

(6 Feb. 1922–10 Feb. 1939)

Born 31 May 1857 at Desio, near Milan, son of a silk-factory manager, Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti studied in Seveso, Monza (where he learned German) and Milan, was ordained 27 Dec. 1879 in the Lateran, obtained three doctorates—theology, canon law, and philosophy—at the Gregorian University, Rome, was professor 1882–8 at the seminary at Padua, and worked 1888–1911 at the Ambrosian Library, Milan, where he became an Oblate of St Charles. An expert palaeographer, he edited the Ambrosian missal and published other works; in his spare time he was a keen mountaineer. Moving to the Vatican Library in 1911, he became its prefect in 1914. In Apr. 1918*Benedict XV, recognizing his flair for languages, sent him as apostolic visitor to Poland, promoting him nuncio and archbishop of Lepanto; he was ordained bishop in Warsaw cathedral in Oct. 1919. He carried out his difficult mission with skill and credit, refusing to leave Warsaw in Aug. 1920 when a Bolshevik attack threatened. In Nov. 1920, however, when papal delegate to the interallied plebiscite commission for Upper Silesia, he became, through no fault of his own, the target for Polish nationalist resentment. Benedict XV rescued him from an untenable situation by appointing him (13 June 1921) archbishop of Milan and cardinal priest of SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti. He proved an energetic, pastorally innovative bishop but the next year, at the conclave of 2–6 Feb., he was elected as a compromise at the fourteenth ballot. His first public act was to give the blessing Urbi et Orbi from the external loggia of St Peter's, a gesture of peace to the Quirinal not made since 1870.

Pius took as his motto ‘Christ's peace in Christ's kingdom’, interpreting it as meaning that the church and Christianity should be active in, and not insulated from, society. Hence his inauguration in his first encyclical (Ubi arcano: 23 Dec. 1922) of Catholic Action, i.e. the collaboration of layfolk with the hierarchy in the church's mission, his introduction of Catholic Action to numerous countries, and his encouragement of specialized groupings such as the Jocists, a Christian youth organization for workers. Hence, too, his institution of the feast of Christ the King (Quas primas: 11 Dec. 1925) as a counter to contemporary secularism, and his use for this purpose of the jubilee years 1925, 1929, and 1933 as well as of biennial eucharistic congresses. The same theme, with different emphases, reappears in encyclicals like Divini illius magistri (31 Dec. 1929), on Christian education; Casti connubii (30 Dec. 1930), defining Christian marriage and condemning contraception; Quadragesimo anno (15 May 1931), reaffirming but going beyond *Leo XIII's social teaching, and its supplement Nova impendet (2 Oct. 1931), prompted by contemporary unemployment and the arms race; and Caritate Christi (3 May 1932), called forth by the world economic crisis. His numerous canonizations were also intended to promote the same religious ends. They included John Fisher (1469–1535), Thomas More (1478–1535), John Bosco (1815–88), and Teresa of Lisieux (1873–97); while he declared Albertus Magnus (c.1200–80), Peter Canisius (1521–97), John of the Cross (1542–91), and Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) doctors of the church.

In dealing with political issues after the First World War Pius was assisted by able secretaries of state, Pietro Gasparri (1922–30) and Eugenio Pacelli (1930–39: later *Pius XII). To regularize the position and rights of the church he concluded concordats or other agreements with some twenty states. In France he brought about a substantial improvement in church–state relations, confirming in Maximam gravissimamque (18 Jan. 1924) a practical accommodation on the difficult issues arising out of the Law of Separation of 1905. His most significant diplomatic achievement was the Lateran Pacts (11 Feb. 1929) which he negotiated with Benito Mussolini, Italian prime minister since 1922, a treaty which established the Vatican City as an independent, neutral state, a concordat with Italy, and a financial convention. For the first time since 1870 the holy see recognized Italy as a kingdom with Rome as its capital, while Italy indemnified it for the loss of the papal states and accepted Catholicism as the official religion. As time went on Pius was increasingly preoccupied with the new totalitarian states. His repeated efforts to check Soviet anti-Christian persecution had no effect, and in Divini Redemptoris (19 Mar. 1937) he sharply condemned atheistic communism. Distrusting Adolf Hitler's assurances, but believing he had no option, he negotiated (20 July 1933) a concordat with National Socialist Germany which temporarily enhanced the prestige of the regime and curbed Catholic opposition to it, but for which he was heavily criticized. In 1933–6, however, because of its progressive oppression of the church, he had to address 34 notes of protest to the Nazi government. The break came in 1937 when he ordered the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (14 Mar.), denouncing repeated violations of the concordat and branding Nazism as fundamentally anti-Christian, to be read from all pulpits. Shortly before his death he had ordered an encyclical to be prepared, Unitas humani generis, denouncing anti-Semitism: his successor did not publish it. In the twenties and thirties he protested several times against the fierce persecution of the church in Mexico, urging Mexican Catholics in Apr. 1937, when the situation had eased, to organize peacefully and promote Catholic Action. On 3 June 1933(Dilectissima nobis) he denounced the harsh separation between church and state carried through in Spain by the republican government, and supported General Francisco Franco in the civil war which broke out in July 1936. His attitude towards Italian fascism, shaken in 1931 when Mussolini dissolved Catholic youth movements, dramatically hardened in 1938, when the regime adopted Hitler's racial doctrines.

Ardently involved in overseas missions, Pius required every religious order to engage in missionary work, with the result that he saw the number of missionaries doubled in his reign. Following Benedict XV, he pressed on with developing an indigenous Catholicism, personally consecrating (in the face of opposition) the first six Chinese bishops on 28 Oct. 1926. There followed consecrations of a native Japanese bishop (1927), and native priests for India, south-east Asia, and China (1933); the total of native priests rose in his reign from under 3,000 to over 7,000. He founded a faculty of missiology at the Gregorian University, and a missionary and ethnological museum in the Lateran. His calls for reunion between Rome and Orthodoxy met with little response, but he lavished attention on the Byzantine rite churches of the east in full communion with Rome. He at first allowed, later approved, the conversations held between Roman Catholics and Anglicans at Malines in 1921–6. He was wholly negative, however, towards the growing pan-Protestant ecumenical movement, and caused dismay by declaring (Mortalium animos: 6 Jan. 1928) that Christ's church could never be a federation of independent bodies holding differing doctrines, and by forbidding Roman Catholics to take part in conferences with non-Romans.

The first scholar-pope since *Benedict XIV, Pius quietly eased the tensions arising from the Modernist debate, rehabilitating some leading figures who had been demoted. He considered the advancement of science and serious scholarship as a personal challenge, and among other measures he modernized and enlarged the reading room of the Vatican Library, raised three of its most scholarly prefects to the purple, founded (Dec. 1925) the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, erected the Pinacoteca for the Vatican collection of pictures, and removed the Vatican observatory (equipped with modern instruments) to Castel Gandolfo. He instructed the Italian bishops to take proper care of their archives, and radically reformed (Deus scientiarum: 24 May 1931) the training of the clergy. Well informed about scientific research, he founded the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, admitting to membership scientists of distinction from many countries. Armed with a strong sense of personal authority, he preferred to delegate as little as possible, and greatly reduced the role of the sacred college. He installed (1931) a radio station in the Vatican City, and was the first pontiff to use radio for pastoral purposes.

Further Reading

A. Ratti (Pio XI), Scritti storici (selection) (Florence, 1932)Find This Resource

AAS 14–31 (1922–39)Find This Resource

E. Pacelli, Discorsi panegirici (2nd edn., Milan, 1939)Find This Resource

D. Bertetto, Discorsi di Pio XI (Turin, 1961)Find This Resource

RaccCon 11 (Rome, 1954)Find This Resource

D. A. Binchy, Church and State in Fascist Italy (London, 1941)Find This Resource

W. M. Harrigan, ‘Nazi Germany and the Holy See’, Catholic Historical Review, 47 (1961–2), 164–98Find This Resource

P. Hughes, Pope Pius the Eleventh (London, 1937)Find This Resource

Schmidlin iv.Find This Resource

EThC 128–9 (J. Gelmi)Find This Resource

EC ix. 1531–43 (A. Frutaz)Find This Resource

Levillain ii. 1199–1210 (M. Agostino)Find This Resource

Histoire xii. 18–25Find This Resource

NCE xi. 392–6 (G. Schwaiger/T. Brechenwacher/J. Hughes)Find This Resource

J. Dick, The Malines Conversations Revisited (Leuven, 1989)Find This Resource

F. Coppa, ‘Mussolini and the Concordat of 1929’ and J. Biesinger, ‘The Reich Concordat of 1933’ in F. Coppa (ed.), Controversial Concordats (Washington, DC,1999), 81–119 and 120–81Find This Resource

J. Pollard, Catholicism in Modern Italy (London, 2008), 69–120Find This Resource

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