Having blogged about Russell Shaw’s Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press), I had many questions I wanted to ask the author – not least, does he have a personal favourite from among personalities as varied as St Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, St John XXIII, St Paul VI, John Paul I and St John Paul II? Shaw tells me, to my slight surprise, that he would choose Pius XI. “I didn’t know much about him when I started researching the book, but I soon found out he was pope at a tumultuous time in history – the early 1920s to the late 1930s – and on balance responded quite well to the challenges that he and the Church faced.”
Shaw goes on: “What challenges? Well, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Nazism and Soviet Communism, the persecution of the Church in Mexico and Spain, the drift towards World War II and the first stirring of the revolution in moral values that exploded on the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Pius XI didn’t solve all these problems – no-one realistically can be said to “solve” problems like those – but he did position the Church to face up to them in a series of strong, intelligent encyclicals that still stand up pretty well.”
He adds, “He was soft on Mussolini at the start, but a lot of people were soft on Mussolini then, and eventually he saw the light.”
Shaw reflects, “All these popes faced enormous challenges, but if we consider those from within the Church, the hands-down winner is Pope St Paul VI. He faced the task of leading the bishops through three concluding sessions of Vatican II and then presiding over the implementation of the Council in what had become a very difficult cultural and ecclesiastical environment.”
As I had anticipated, Shaw believes that “far and away Pope Paul’s greatest challenge was the rejection – and often the personal vilification of himself – that greeted his encyclical Humanae Vitae and its reaffirmation of the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Paul was, among other things, an extremely sensitive man, and I do believe the reaction broke his heart. I am glad he received the posthumous recognition he deserved, in being declared a saint.”
Another question that interests me, given the long controversy about it, is Shaw’s opinion of the likelihood of Pius XII being canonised? He points out that “It depends on the scholarly consensus that emerges from study of the newly released Vatican archives covering World War II. That could take a long time; it is not something you can expect serious historians to do overnight, though I see one historian who took a quick look at some of the documents is already sounding off in the media.”
He adds earnestly, “Personally, I think Pius XII has got a very bum rap: he saved thousands of Jews and he publicly condemned Hitler and the Nazis, though that was done in his own convoluted, diplomatic style. But people at the time understood who the target was and it was then that Hitler, whether seriously or not, started talking about kidnapping the Pope. Anyway, Pius’s record was creditable and honourable and the fact that Jewish organisations and prominent Jews praised and thanked him after the war speaks volumes in his favour. I hope he is canonised reasonably soon.”
In his book, Shaw cites several memorable encyclicals of these popes. Which, in his view, have had the most influence? He responds promptly, “I’d name four. First, Pope St Pius X’s Pascendi, which condemned the heresy of Modernism. Of course, the great-great-greatgrandchildren of Modernism even now dismiss Pascendi as, at best, the work of some sort of holy fool, but in fact it is a systematic, sophisticated analysis of the intellectual roots of this error. Next, together, Pius XI’s Casti Connubii and Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Both condemn contraception very clearly and firmly and in doing so both encyclicals declare the Church’s stand in the face of the sexual revolution that was already starting to show its face in Pius XI’s day and was in disastrous full bloom in Paul VI’s time. Both encyclicals were wise and farsighted in anticipating the terrible consequences that would come from rejecting the Christian tradition on marriage and human sexuality – I mean things like the widespread collapse of marriage and the family, the rise of cohabitation, the frightening increase in out-of-wedlock births, the approval of same-sex marriage, the abuse of women and the general coarsening of popular culture.”
Shaw concludes his list with Pope St John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, “which sets out the fundamental moral principles underlying Catholic moral teaching. The encyclical has provided very timely guidance for people trying to find their way in the moral confusion of our times.”
Having recently debated within my family on the wisdom of Pius XI arranging a Concordat with Nazi Germany in 1933, I am curious as to Shaw’s view of it. He responds soberly, “With the wisdom of hindsight, I think it clearly was a mistake. The Vatican hoped in this way to protect the interests of the Church in the face of what it foresaw would be trouble coming from the regime of Adolf Hitler. But no sooner was the Concordat in place than the Nazis began violating its terms. Unfortunately, the same thing appears to be happening now in the wake of the Vatican’s agreement – still not made public – with the Communist regime in China. The lesson here is that a treaty between two parties is of very little use unless both parties intend to honour what they’ve agreed to.”
Lastly, I am keen to know which pope in his view has had the most influence on the modern world. Shaw says, “Pope St John Paul II: by the role he played, along with Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. John Paul also made very impressive efforts to enter into dialogue with modern secularism in several of his great encyclicals, especially perhaps Fides et Ratio. Modern secularism does not appear to have paid much attention up to now, but maybe the secular establishment will start to listen, now that the Modern Era has finally come to an end.”
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