Leo and John Paul are like brothers


Earlier this week Pope John Paul II passed Pope Leo XIII on the papal longevity list, vaulting into third place in history, behind St. Peter himself and Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878).

Pope Leo XIII

Leo served 25 years and 5 months, exactly one hundred years before John Paul II. Elected in 1878, he saw in a new century before his death in 1903, and though he is now largely forgotten, many of the great achievements of John Paul echo the pioneering ways of Leo. It was Leo who first saw that the public influence of the Church in the 20th century would be neither political nor economic, but primarily cultural. And it was he who began what one historian would call the "human rights revolution" in the Catholic Church.

In fact, Leo and John Paul are like brothers across the century, the two principal figures marking an extraordinary period of papal engagement with the modern world. Biographically, they were shaped by similar experiences of occupation and persecution. Leo was archbishop of Perugia for three decades, during which time his diocese was occupied by the Piedmontese forces of the Italian Risorgimento. John Paul survived the long night of the Nazi occupation of Krakow, and then served as archbishop under the persecution of Soviet-imposed communism.

Leo XIII was the first pope in centuries not to wield temporal power, the papal states having been confiscated in 1870 by the new Italian republic. Moreover, Leo faced hostility not only from the Italian state, but from the Kulturkampf in Germany, and the prospect of new battles with anti-clerical France. Stripped of political alliances and impoverished due to the loss of the papal lands, Leo realized that he would have to be first and foremost a teacher — or to use a richer biblical term, an evangelist.

Just a year after his election, with the complexities of European politics pressing in on him from every side, Leo wrote one of his most important encyclicals — which he dedicated to the renewal of Christian philosophy according to the method of St. Thomas Aquinas. This was not an abstract matter; Leo diagnosed that the "bitter strifes of these days" were the consequence not of wicked kings or ambitious revolutionaries, but of "false conclusions concerning divine and human things which have originated in the schools of philosophy." Leo was content to heap condemnations on the predations of the late 19th century European powers, but he did not think that another, better Congress of Vienna would be the solution to Europe's strife and the Church's difficulties.

Leo saw that the crisis was philosophical in nature — false ideas about God and false ideas about man. The Church therefore had a cultural contribution to make — not a political or economic one. In defending the truth about God and the dignity of man, the Church would wield her public influence. It would be almost 20 years before the European empires and alliances would definitively collapse in the aftermath of the First World War, but Leo was already positioning the Church for a century in which false ideas — totalitarianism in economics and politics, militant secularism, lethal utilitarianism — would be the new engines of violence and oppression.

In the mid-1980s, Sir Michael Howard, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, remarked that there had been two great 20th-century revolutions. The first was that of Lenin's Bolsheviks. The second was the transformation of the Catholic Church from the "last bastion of the ancien regime to the world's foremost institutional defender of human rights."

The 19th-century Church, which responded to the ferocity and barbarity of the French Revolution's terror and the grand larceny of Napoleon's conquests with attempts to enlist diplomatic and military allies, became in the 20th-century not a political actor but a cultural actor insisting on the primacy of human rights. Stalin's dismissive question — How many divisions has the pope? — was outdated by at least 50 years, belonging to the world of 19th-century alliances. Stalin's successors would find that the Church did not need divisions when she could appeal to consciences — not only in the Soviet Empire, but in places such as the Philippines or East Timor.

It was Leo who took the first steps down the human rights road in 1891 when he issued a robust defence of workers, at the time exploited and lacerated by the rough edges of the industrial revolution. Leo did not call simply for economic redistribution or state intervention. Rather he spoke about the rights of workers themselves, to hold private property and to form labour unions. And most dramatic of all, 16 years before the Bolsheviks hijacked the Russian Revolution, Leo inveighed against communism, calling it a cure worse than the disease.

A hundred years later, Leo would be vindicated, as communism fell, not least of all because workers were insisting upon their rights to property and free labour unions. But if the future vindicated Leo, it was because it was a future that Leo did much to create.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Leo and John Paul are like brothers." National Post, (Canada) 18 March, 2004.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. De Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2004 National Post

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