Two Popes


The twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II is an auspicious time to look back to Leo XIII, through the prism of the current pontificate, and rediscover a remarkable line of continuity between the two popes separated by exactly a century.

Twenty-five years as pope is no small thing. When John Paul II celebrates his papal jubilee this October 16, he will be only the third pope in history to have done so. So rare is the milestone that when Plus IX (1846-1878) reached it in 1871 his image was placed over the famous bronze statue of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica with an inscription stating that he had equaled the reign of the apostle himself (pious tradition gave Peter twenty-five years as pope, though the dates are historically uncertain). His successor, Leo XIII (1878-1903), was elected at sixty-eight, with the expectation that a briefer reign might be in order. Providence surprises, and Leo died five months after he celebrated his own twenty-fifth anniversary. And now John Paul II.

The centenary of Leo XIII's death passed on July 20 without much fanfare, which is understandable given that the Catholic Church is preparing itself for John Paul II's own jubilee this fall. What is less understandable is that Leo XIII himself largely passes unnoticed, though his long pontificate was one of the most important of the modern period in terms of the depth and breadth of his teaching. The twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II is an auspicious time to look back to Leo XIII, through the prism of the current pontificate, and rediscover a remarkable line of continuity between the two popes separated by exactly a century.

The dates themselves are suggestive. Leo XIII was elected in 1878, John Paul II in 1978. But the continuities between Leo and John Paul are more than just a calendrical coincidence. The backgrounds they brought to the papacy, the challenges they faced, and the themes upon which they taught are remarkably similar. Indeed, in piety and pastoral practice, as well as in his body of teaching, Leo seems a forerunner to John Paul himself. Many of the latter's accomplishments that will be celebrated this October are the fruit of seeds planted a century ago by Leo. The importance of remembering Leo is twofold: for what he accomplished in his own right, and how he and John Paul II serve as bookends for an extraordinarily impressive century in papal history.

Leo XIII (Gioacchino Pecci), born in 1810, lived a nineteenth-century life that witnessed the first blasts of modernity against the Church. In fact, his career as a papal diplomat was cut short when the King of Belgium requested the young nuncio's removal over an education dispute. Pecci was then appointed bishop of Perugia, where he served for thirty-one years. While anticlerical storms lashed the Church all over Europe, and the risorgimento moved against the papacy in Italy, Pecci was a devoted diocesan bishop, with no inkling that he would be called to the See of Peter.

Most of Pecci's successors would take more traditional routes to the papacy, serving as diplomats, curial officials, or archbishops of major Italian sees. But Karol Wojtyla followed something of the Pecci route. Born in 1920, he has lived a twentieth-century life, experiencing firsthand the brutality of the modern totalitarian state. While an academic philosopher by training, he too was occupied with pastoral work, first among university students and later as Archbishop of Krakow for fifteen years. Like Pecci before him, he had ample opportunity to reflect on modernity's hostility to the I Church at some distance from Rome.

But that distance did not betray ignorance. From their own dioceses, both Pecci and Wojtyla were consulted on broad international issues and maintained an active interest in problems besetting the Church universal. Both had studied in Rome and, more important, both had the experience of an ecumenical council to broaden their solicitude for all the churches. For Pecci it was Vatican I (1869-1870); for Wojtyla it was Vatican II (1962-65).

Both Pecci and Wojtyla ascended the throne of Peter full of confidence that they knew in which direction to lead the Church. From the start, both walked lightly in the shoes of the fisherman. Neither felt obligated to slavishly follow their predecessors. While Leo XIII defended the defiance of Plus IX over the reunification of Italy and the Roman question, he struck a more hopeful tone. John Paul II affirmed all that his predecessors taught, but while an aura of despondency cloaked Paul VI's final years, John Paul began speaking of a new springtime for the faith. Both Pecci and Wojtyla had long pastoral experience upon which to ground their hopefulness. In the face of the challenges of the day, they had already tested their pastoral intuitions and thus were confident that they knew what would work for the Church universal.

When Karol Wojtyla appeared on the central loggia of St. Peter's for the first time as John Paul II, he immediately spoke of how a pope from a "faraway country" shared with the large Italian crowd before him a desire "to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church." Strong Marian piety is not surprising in popes, but Leo XIII and John Paul II are exceptional. Both could be called Marian popes.

Leo XIII wrote some eleven encyclicals on the rosary and decided that October would be dedicated to it. In his rosary encyclicals, Leo repeatedly recommended the Marian prayer and shared with his readers some of his own meditations. In a teaching corpus dedicated in large part to church-state problems, the rosary encyclicals give a more personal window into Leo's soul. The Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 were the signal Marian event of the nineteenth century, and Leo was ardent in his devotion to Mary under that title. He established a feast of Our Lady of Lourdes for the whole Church, and built in the Vatican gardens (a refuge of great personal importance to the popes during the "prisoner in the Vatican" period) a replica of the grotto at Lourdes. In the context of his series of Marian letters, Leo XIII also wrote one on St. Joseph in 1889.

John Paul's Marian devotion is even more transparent, beginning with his motto, Totus Tuus. Only weeks after his election, he spoke of the rosary as his favorite prayer, and devoted a lengthy letter to the rosary on the occasion of his twenty-fourth anniversary last year. In that letter, he added five new mysteries to the rosary, and declared that his twenty-fifth anniversary year would be known as the Year of the Rosary. It was as though he wanted to prepare for his own jubilee celebrations with a worldwide renewal in Marian devotion. The Fatima apparitions were the signal Marian event of the twentieth century, and John Paul II extended the feast of Our Lady of Fatima to the universal Church. There is also a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Vatican gardens, but the date does not read 13 May 1917 — the date of the first apparition — but instead 13 May 1981, the day of the assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square. John Paul has attributed his survival to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, and has visited the Portuguese shrine three times on the May 13 anniversary to give thanks. For his part, John Paul II commemorated the centenary of Leo XIII's letter on St. Joseph with one of his own in 1989.

Eucharistic piety is yet another similarity. Last spring, after treating exhaustively almost every other topic, John Paul II released an encyclical on the Eucharist. He stayed away from liturgical questions per se, choosing a more devotional approach. Leo XIII too, in his twenty-fifth year as pope, after having written encyclicals on every conceivable topic, devoted an encyclical to the Eucharist. Like John Paul 11, Leo XIII avoided liturgical questions for the most part during his pontificate but wanted, at the end of his days, to rekindle eucharistic devotion. In Mirae Caritatis (1902), as in Ecclesia de Euchanstia (2003), it is an old pope who wishes to say that, notwithstanding all the many other issues pressing in upon us, we ought not forget what lies at the heart of the Church, the source of her life and the purpose of her mission.

While biography and spirituality closely link Leo XIII and John Paul II, it is in their teaching that the similarities are most obvious. Separated by a century, Leo and John Paul seem to look out at the world through the same window.

Leo wrote some eighty-five encyclicals, most of them fairly brief. The style of the time was to get more involved in practical problems, and so one finds Leo addressing himself to the spread of Asiatic cholera in Italy (Superiore Anno, 1884), dueling in the Germanic countries (Pastoralis Officii,1891), and the government regulation of Catholic schools in Manitoba (Affari Vos, 1897). Nonetheless, in reading his considerable output today, it is remarkable how often one finds themes later echoed by John Paul II.

In Caritatis (1894), Leo addresses himself to the bishops of Poland, availing himself of a "delightful opportunity to congratulate the Polish nation on the glory of their ancestral faith, which lives vigorously despite so many and such difficult trials." Leo addressed many encyclicals to national hierarchies, but that he would do so to the Poles is notable, for there was no Poland on the European map in 1894. Yet Leo recognized that the Polish nation was a religious reality before it was a geopolitical one, a point that John Paul himself would make on his epic 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, declaring that "without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland." John Paul's remark that Poland was a "land of particularly responsible witness" could have come from Leo.

With his eyes turned eastward, Leo XIII extended the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius to the whole Church (Grande Munus, 1880), in order to "thank the Slavic peoples and to effect a common benefit for them." In 1985, John Paul II would elevate the brother evangelists to the status of patron saints of all Europe, along with St. Benedict (Slavorum Apostoli).

There are other noteworthy similarities. In 1892 (Quarto Abeunte Saeculo), Leo XIII celebrated the fourth centenary of Columbus' voyage as the mission of a man who, "not unmoved" by human ambitions, sought above all to "open a way for the gospel over new lands and seas." Notwithstanding the temper of a more politically correct time, John Paul would celebrate the fifth centenary in exactly the same spirit.

John Paul's understanding of and affection for the United States have led some to call him, only half in jest, the first "American" pope. Leo saw the potential across the seas toward the end of his pontificate, when he wrote that while "all the nations which were Catholic for many centuries give cause for sorrow," the state of the Church in the United States "cheers our heart and fills it with delight" (In Amplissimo, 1902). He praises the American constitutional system for doing nothing "to restrain [the Catholic Church] in its just liberty."

Other interventions in America have a contemporary ring. In erecting the Catholic University of America (Magni Nobis, 1889), Leo admonished the bishops of the United States to "vigilantly superintend the preservation of the correct system of studies and the discipline of students in your academic institution." Leo tosses that off as an almost unnecessary warning; one hundred years later, John Paul would make a similar plea the cornerstone of his appeal for Catholic education (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990).

Leo would, in preparation for the Holy Year of 1900, consecrate the whole world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus — a pious act that also had political overtones, insofar as devotion to the Sacred Heart was favored by those who rejected the secularizing ideologies regnant in northern Europe, especially France. John Paul, in preparation for the Holy Year of 2000, would entrust the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a pious act that was replete with anti-Communist significance.

Above all, though, the principal continuity between Leo XIII and John Paul II is their defense of the person, and especially his proper liberty. It would be too much to argue that the robust Christian humanism of John Paul can be found in Leo, but Leo sets out on a path that is remarkable for his time. His most significant intuition was that the problems of the modern age were principally philosophical and anthropological in nature, so it behooved the Church to move beyond political and diplomatic disputes, as pressing as those were.

George Weigel has argued that John Paul is a "post-Constantinian" pope in that he treats culture as primary, with economics and politics as secondary. Leo's vision was not similarly "post-Constantinian" — his political theology favored altar-and-throne arrangements where possible — but he too saw, more than his predecessors, that the important battles were cultural and not political. Indeed, Leo came to a papacy shorn of its temporal power; he was the first pope in centuries to be faced with "post-Constantinian" facts. The moral authority of the twentieth-century papacy, exercising the power of the spirit and conscience rather than the raw politics of arms and alliances, is the fruit of Leo's wise reaction to the loss of the papal states.

One of his most important, and earliest, encyclicals was devoted to a renewal of philosophy under the light of St. Thomas Aquinas (Aeterni Patris, 1879). This was not an abstract matter; Leo recognized 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-nineteenth-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 and needed the response of Christian philosophy. He could not have imagined that a Thomistic philosopher would be exactly what the Church got as pope a century later. The renewal called for in Aeterni Patris was an important factor in the academic formation of the young Karol Wojtyla, something testified to by his own encyclical on the role of philosophy, Fides et Ratio (1998).

Central to Leo's philosophical turn were his efforts to develop a better Christian sense of the liberty of the person, especially in regard to the social order. In a series of important encyclicals on the state (Inscrutabili, 1878; Diuturnum, 1881; Immortale Dei, 1885), Leo took dead aim at the totalitarian impulse, insisting that all civil power was limited and that no human authority could usurp all authority in a society. To be sure, he argued for this limitation as necessary for the liberty of the Church, but Leo also argued that it was in the nature of civil society itself that authority must be limited. Leo began to sketch out a necessary zone of personal freedom.

In Libertas (1888), Leo ringingly endorses liberty as the "highest of natural endowments" and then treats liberty from an anthropological perspective as that gift which distinguishes man from the animals and makes him most human. In light of contemporary debates, Leo XIII wants to distinguish between the "good and evil elements" in "modern liberties," in order to show that the Church is not "hostile" to human liberty properly understood. To this end, he insists that the Church has been a friend of human liberty, not only as a necessary requirement for moral action, but also in the social sphere. "Thus, the powerful influence of the Church has ever been manifested in the custody and protection of the civil and political liberty of the people," writes Leo. Regardless of the historical merit of the claim, its importance lies in the fact that it is being made. Liberty in the civil or social sphere is not only something that Leo XIII wishes to tolerate, he is claiming that it is a good in principle, a good important enough and apparent enough that the Church has always promoted it.

The spirit of liberty runs through Libertas and the encyclical remains in its principal argument, if not in all its particular judgments, a paean to the possibilities of human freedom. Leo XIII's vision is one that puts human freedom at the center of social life, but a freedom strongly regulated and channeled toward the common good by public authorities. Already his argument is clear: freedom has many pitfalls, but the solution lies in freedom better governed, not in freedom eliminated. In Rerum Novarum (1891) he applies that principle with great force to the economic questions of the day.

Today, Leo XIII is most often studied for the encyclical that launched the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching — a teaching that reached its fullest expression in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (1991), written to commemorate Rerum Novarum's centenary. What is most striking about Rerum Novarum is that it is a labor encyclical which devotes significant energy to condemning socialism, not capitalism. Unrestrained capitalism is rejected, to be sure, but Leo inveighs much more vehemently against the spectre of socialism. The reason is that Leo, with extraordinary prescience, saw that economic freedom was necessary for political freedom writ large and that private property was necessary for economic freedom.

Leo XIII develops in two stages what might be called a workingman's defense of private property. In the first stage, he defends ownership as the invested fruit of wage labor. In the second stage, he defends ownership as an appropriate expression of the workingman's person. Taken together, Leo XIII offers much more than a practical defense of private property. He offers a personalist basis for private property that, in grounding his claim in human action or labor, establishes a strong foundation for what will later be developed into a right to economic freedom.

It is possible to see here the first reference to economic freedom in the modern tradition of Catholic social doctrine — a century before John Paul II would articulate it fully. The workingman ought to have the freedom to dispose of his wages, for upon this depends his ability to improve his material prosperity. Leo XIII advances it first as a practical argument, but he soon strengthens his claim by stating that "every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own." Such ownership is necessary for the basic sustenance of life, which belongs by nature to man's responsibility for himself, prior to any state action: "Man precedes the state, and possesses, prior to the formation of any state, the right of providing for the substance of his body."

The key argument can be summarized as follows. Man has a responsibility to provide for his material well-being, which includes both sustenance and selfimprovement; this obligation also applies to adequate provision for those for whom he is responsible. This responsibility is prior to the state and so constitutes an obligation that needs to be met not through state action, but by his own action. Private property and the freedom to dispose of his property as he judges best are necessary for man to meet his responsibilities, and therefore he has a right to both. These rights are natural, must be respected by the state, and are grounded precisely in man's personal status — they are, as we would say today, human rights.

So strong is Leo XIII's defense of private property that he notes that while the earth belongs to all mankind, this principle "can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property." Subsequently, Catholic social doctrine would often use the universal destination of all goods as a brake upon the right to private property; Leo XIII here begins in the opposite fashion, warning that the universal nature of goods ought not be used to do away with private property. Michael Novak has called economic freedom the "second liberty," with religious liberty being the first. Novak's argument is that economic freedom puts limits on the power of the state over day-to-day activities, creating a zone of free initiative and action that supports all other political and legal freedoms. Economic freedom is not only important in itself, but also as an essential piece of a culture of freedom. The "first liberty" of religious freedom was far beyond Leo's vision, but he laid a secure foundation for the "second liberty." As Leo died at the dawn of the totalitarian century, that was no mean achievement.

Readers familiar with John Paul's personalist approach to work (Laborem Exercens, 1981), his articulation of the right to economic initiative (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987), and his endorsement of capitalism rightly regulated or, as he prefers to call it, the "free economy" (Centesimus Annus, 1991), will find nothing in Leo XIII's defense of liberty and nascent economic freedom unusual. But what is unusual is that he was doing all this one hundred years ago.

Rocco Buttiglione has written that the "general principle" that undergirds the whole teaching of John Paul II is that "nothing good can be done without freedom, but freedom is not the highest value in itself. Freedom is given to man in order to make possible the free obedience to truth and free gift of oneself in love." That could not be said about Leo, but it could be said that Leo recognized that the dangers of freedom abused could only be overcome by freedom lived in accord with the moral law. In applying this to the social order, Leo was a pioneer.

The novelty of Leo XIII is especially evident when the work of his successors is evaluated. Leo's point of departure for his social teaching was the condition of the suffering workers, and he sought remedies that would secure their dignity. While this thread is picked up in John Paul 11, it was left aside for much of the interim period. Plus XI, who made a landmark contribution to Catholic social teaching (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931; Divini Redemptons, 1937), began his social analysis with the problem of income inequality. Later, Paul VI would do the same. The result was that Catholic social teaching focused on the aggregates of social class and on income redistribution. The latter task being a state function, Catholic teaching took on a rather statist bent from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Such teaching also claimed to be rooted in the teachings of Leo XIII, but in fact its reliance on his writing was rather one-sided; it neglected the more original and penetrating contributions of Leo regarding the importance of the person at the heart of the social order. John Paul II brought to fruition these neglected aspects of Leo XIIFS thought, so that one can say that Leo and John Paul share an outlook that is unique and quite different from the one espoused by intervening popes. These two streams of social teaching are not contradictory, but their emphases are clearly different. The person-centered focus of Leo and John Paul does appear today to be the more theologically rich approach.

Much papal commentary emphasizes contrasts rather than continuities. That there are contrasts is obvious enough, but in comparing Leo and John Paul, it is surely the continuities that are most striking. The various achievements of John Paul will be celebrated this month, and justly so. It would also be just to spare a thought in the midst of those festivities for John Paul's nineteenth-century predecessor — might one say model? — whose impressive twenty-five years as pope have found an echo in the twenty-five years now being celebrated


Raymond J. de Souza. "Two Popes." First Things 136 (October 2003): 36-40.

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Raymond J. de Souza was ordained for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, last year. He is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House at Queen's University.

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