The Great Encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley

Pope Leo XIII

Pontifical Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII – His reign distinguished by a series of philosophical and reasoned Encyclicals – The world needs the Papacy – Atheistic Socialism – Christian Marriage – Rulers and their subjects both need the Church – Freemasonry – The State and its Christian Constitution – Modern Liberties – The condition of Labour – Holy Scripture – England – Devotional Encyclicals

The completion of the twenty-fifth year of the Pontificate of our Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII, ought not to be passed over without some notice on the part of the faithful clergy and laity of this diocese.

It was on 20 February 1878, that Cardinal Joachim Pecci was proclaimed Sovereign Pontiff, and on March 3rd, following, that he was enthroned and crowned. Since the martyrdom of Saint Peter, only one Pope before Leo XIII has reigned for twenty-five years, and that one, as you well know, was Pope Leo’s predecessor, Pius IX. The long reigns of these two Popes have, without doubt, been intended by the Providence of God to be the means of bringing about certain dispositions and ordinances of that Divine Providence, which we can partially recognise even now, but which the world will understand better in another generation. But whatever be God’s purpose in thus prolonging the lives of His Vicars, the fact is itself remarkable and full of interest; and it is no wonder if the Catholic world makes use of such an opportunity to demonstrate its faith, its homage, and its affection. For the whole of the past twelve months ever since the day of last year on which the Jubilee year began there has been prayer, pilgrimage, and the humble offering of gifts. The manifestations of Catholic spirit will naturally reach their height on March 3rd of the present year (1903), when, among other pilgrimages, an important deputation from this country, headed by the Duke of Norfolk, will offer the Holy Father their congratulations and their filial devotion.

The venerable Pontiff who, as we must not forget, enters his ninety-fourth year on March 2nd published on Saint Joseph’s Day last year a touching Pastoral Letter on the subject of his Pontifical Jubilee. In that Letter he reviews the teaching of the twenty-five years of his strenuous and busy pontificate. We cannot do better at this moment than follow him in a retrospect which brings out in a most striking way the unity of aim that has animated this great Pope from the very moment of his accession, and the immense fertility of expression by means of which he has so many times said the same thing with new and powerful effect. It is impossible on the present occasion to recapitulate the history of his reign. This would require a volume. He has had to deal with every State and interest of Europe. The constant assertion of the temporal independence of the Holy See the repeated conflicts with the government of France the Culturkampf in Germany reform in Spain, Austria, and Hungary Anglican Orders and other English interests Russia the United States Canada South America the near and the far East each of these is a heading under which will be found, in the Pope’s collected works, a whole literature of Constitutions, Letters, and Decrees, and each of them recalls periods of exciting history, the details of which will be eagerly read by those who come after us. But we must confine ourselves for the moment to his teaching.

It is well known that the holy Father has published a series of Encyclical Letters which in many respects differ from the kind of Letter that his predecessors were accustomed to address to the Church and the world. These Letters have not been concerned simply with definitions of faith, or with questions of ecclesiastical law. Doubtless the present Pontiff, like those who have gone before him, has had to treat of the faith, and to make or enforce the Church’s law. The very first document that occurs in his collected Acts is the Constitution in which he re-establishes the hierarchy of Scotland. But Pope Leo’s chief Letters have been those of a philosopher; a philosopher who has undertaken to reason with the world on the great and fundamental issue, Is it, or is it not, the truth, that the world’s well-being, progress, and salvation depend upon its accepting the revelation of God and the Church instituted by Christ? As he states in his own words, from the very beginning of his pontificate he has strenuously laboured to make men understand and appreciate the Church her beneficent purpose, and her inexhaustible treasures. He had no sooner been enthroned than he issued the Encyclical beginning Inscrutabili his primary Pastoral Letter to the world in which he shows in eloquent language how truly and deeply the world needs the Church and the Papacy. This Letter is, as it were, his text. During the next quarter of a century he was to enlarge upon that text. In the winter of the same year appeared the Encyclical Quod Apostolici, against the prevailing atheistic Socialism. The world, exclaimed the Pontiff, cannot do without religion. The revolt of the sixteenth century exalted human pride and led the way to the negation of all authority, human and divine. But princes and peoples, the State and the family, are now reaping the poisonous fruit of that false teaching, and there is no longer any tranquillity or peace in public life or in private, because no man has any law but his own cupidity. In the following year came the Letter on Christian Philosophy (1879) a careful and most courageous statement of the Catholic view on questions and methods which underlie all theology and all the formularies of our faith. The general flock can hardly enter into this important pronouncement. Let it suffice to say that this Encyclical has restored unity of language and expression to the Catholic schools; it has given theologians a platform to stand upon, and enabled them to carry on their glorious speculations in the boundless field of revealed truth without having to construct a language or to stick fast in their first steps.

Before the Pope had been two years in the Chair of Peter, he issued a long and carefully prepared Encyclical on Christian Marriage (10 February 1880). His idea in placing an exhortation on marriage at the very beginning of his apostolic teaching is evident, when we read the first lines of the Letter. The contract of marriage lies at the root of all social relations. If the evil spirit of the world can unchristianise marriage, the Christianity of the family and of the State is destroyed. Jesus Christ came to “renew” the world; that is, to purify, raise up, and sanctify all human duties and relations. More especially does His Christian Dispensation elevate and ennoble the union of husband and wife. For the lawlessness, the impurity, and irresponsibility of nature and of paganism, the Gospel and the Church have substituted the modesty, the unity, and the severe obligations of the New Law, surrounding the human contract with the Divine glory of a Sacrament, and guarding it with the awful sanctions of their authority. For it is Christ’s will that men should not live by nature only, but according to grace; and grace means the Church and the Sacraments.

A year later, the Pontiff turns to the princes and powers of the world, and in the Encyclical Diuturnum (29 June 1881) remonstrates with them for their acquiescence in a base and modern doctrine which must make every throne unsteady and all political stability impossible. All earthly power, he shows, is from God. The people may choose the king or the minister, but whether he be king or minister, once chosen his power is from above, and he can claim obedience in God’s name. This is the doctrine which the Church has upheld during all the ages. The throne cannot do without the Church. The people cannot do without the Church. She has to rebuke tyrants, and she has to denounce rebellion. Unhappy the State that pretends to be able to exist without recognising both the eternal law and the law’s earthly exponent the Church of Jesus Christ.

The first six years of the reign of Leo XIII (1878-1884), during which these four great Pastoral Instructions appeared, were years of anxiety and conflict. The German persecution was not yet over; the government of France was harassing the Religious Congregations; the school question was at fever heat in Belgium: with all these troubles and many others the Holy Father had to deal as Head of the Church. But his mind, rising above all the hostility of states men, above mere diplomacy, above the routine of administration and permissible compromise, had seized on great principles, and had seen that what the world and the Church required was not only protests, arrangements, transactions, and denunciations, but the steady insistence on the obligation of every order of men and every individual human being to enter into the supernatural order and to remain in it.

But in the seventh year of his Pontificate, the Holy Father began a new series of great Letters, in which he went more deeply into the reasons of things, and came to closer grips with the enemies of God’s Kingdom on earth.

On 20 April 1884 was given to the world the now well-known Encyclical Humanum Genus on the sect of the Freemasons. This is a long Letter in which the Sovereign Pontiff, in moderate and measured language, expresses his reasoned conviction that the great enemy of Christianity is that widely-spread network of secret Societies which is generally known as Freemasonry. He declares that he has no intention of accusing individual Freemasons, nor even of holding all Masonic Societies responsible for the worst excesses of the sect. There are Freemasons, and even branches of the Society, which in some instances have never realised, and in others repudiate, the extreme consequences of the principles they hold. Freemasonry as practised on the Continent is “naturalism.” That is to say, it is the negation of revelation, and the assertion of the independence of human reason. It is not a mere philosophy it is a propaganda. It translates its principles into acts. It puts forth every effort to defeat and prevent the action of the Church upon society. It works for the separation of Church and State. It strives to banish from the State every trace of what is distinctively Christian. It oppresses the Church, interferes with her liberty, despoils her of her property, and persecutes her ministers. For these ends it uses all the engines of modern government; it labours to control the press; and it lays its deadly hand upon education in all its branches. It is especially hostile to the Roman Pontiff, to his prerogative, to his public acts, and to his temporal independence. It goes much further than this, and openly denies the existence of God and the spirituality and immortality of the soul. The Encyclical enters into all these points, and it concludes by advocating a great counter-organisation; an organisation of the Bishops, with their clergy; of associations like that of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and of Saint Vincent de Paul; of Catholic people in all ranks, and in every kind of Catholic fellowship fellowship of labour, of speech, of the Press, and of works of mercy.

Within a year and a half, this denunciation of the Freemasons was followed by another long and weighty Encyclical, on the State and its Christian constitution. This was the Immortale Dei, dated 10 November 1885. Its theme was the paramount duty of a Christian State to serve God, to foster religion, and to afford freedom and protection to the divinely instituted Church of Christ. Both State and Church are divine. Each in its own sphere is independent. But unless God has willed to set up confusion and unceasing war, one of these two powers must be supreme when men’s religious and eternal interests are concerned. That power is the Church. This principle lies at the root of what is called, by excellence, “Christian” society. In opposition to it, we have what are called the modern doctrines; the doctrines of false liberty, of revolution; the doctrines that would banish the Church from legislation, from education, from family life, and that would bind her as a servant to the civil power, or, at least, treat her as a stranger, and refuse to recognise her divine mission. All Catholics, each in his own sphere, are bound to endeavour to Christianise the State to which they belong. They should take their share in public and political life, doing their best to neutralise the evil principles of modern government, and to infuse into the institutions of their country the life-giving blood of true wisdom and of the Christian virtues. Catholics should be Catholics before they are politicians, and those who follow public life or who write in the public press should never forget that it is their first duty to labour for the interest of the Church of Christ.

The next great Encyclical came out some three years later. This was the Letter beginning Libertas, and treating of the true idea of “Liberty” (30 June 1888). The Church, says the Pontiff, has been accused of being the enemy of liberty. This accusation could only be possible to those whose idea of liberty was utterly erroneous. Liberty, as a physical fact of human nature, consists in being able to choose either good or evil. But Liberty, as a moral attribute of man, is really the being able to do, without hindrance, what is right and good. The being able to do what is bad and wrong is an imperfection and a misfortune. The exercise of freedom, therefore, should always follow right reason. Hence, it should follow the Law because the law is the embodiment of what is right and reasonable. The first of all laws is the natural law, written upon man’s heart by God. The civil law must be founded on the natural and eternal law. True liberty can never give any man the right to break either the natural law or the civil law. The Pope, therefore, thus defines civil liberty: it is “the being able, by the help of the civil law, to live according to the dictates of the eternal law.” Liberty, in this sense, has always had the support of the Church. But what is modern “Liberalism”? What are the modern “liberties”? They are the dethronement of God’s eternal law, and of the laws of the divinely-constituted civil power, and the substitution of individual reason. Modern “Liberalism” the word is here used in its wide European sense, not as we use it politically in this country is mere license. The modern “Liberal” recognises no revealed law. He denies that the Church, or its divinely-appointed Pastorate, has any right to control either the State or the individual. This is an attitude which the Holy See, as the representative of the revealed law of Christ, has consistently opposed. The Popes have always condemned what are called the “modern liberties,” and they will continue to condemn them. Liberty of worship, or the liberty to profess any religion or no religion, must, in the nature of things if there is a divinely instituted Church be unreasonable and indefensible; although, in the present divided state of Christendom, religious toleration is permissible. Liberty of speech, or the freedom of the Press, in its wide sense, must likewise be unreasonable; because the liberty to propagate error and corruption can never be right. Liberty of teaching, again, must always be controlled, unless we would act unreasonably, by the prescriptions of that revelation which Christ has given to the world. Liberty of “conscience,” if we thereby understand the right to choose any religious opinions we please, has no foundation in right reason. But if we take it to mean that right which every man has to discharge without hindrance his duty to his Creator, then it is the most radical and most precious of human prerogatives. The Encyclical concludes by showing what is meant by “toleration,” and explains how the Church has never opposed national independence, or political liberty.

This splendid philosophical and Christian treatise on the nature of Liberty was followed, eighteen months later, by the Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (10 January 1890), which may be said to apply to practical life the principles there laid down. The Pope in this Letter urges upon Catholics that the faith is their inheritance and their treasure. They must fight for their faith; they must propagate their faith. For these purposes they must be united in thought and in action. The} must not confine their acceptance of Catholic truth to matters that are absolutely defined, but must dutifully conform them selves to the teachings of the Pontiff and the Bishops. The Church knows nothing of political parties but all Catholics must be united in Catholic action. They should avoid both the extremes of timidity and of intemperate zeal. They should follow their lawful chiefs, the Bishops of the Church. Any one who refuses to fight for Christ, is against Christ.

It was in the summer of 1891 that Pope Leo XIII sent forth what may well be considered as the greatest of all his Encyclicals. This was the one beginning Rerum novantm, on the rights and duties of Capital and Labour. The Pontiff, like his predecessors, has always recognised that the solution of the constant disputes between masters and men lies in pointing out where both are right and in what both are wrong. It needs a very sure grasp of the true principles of property and justice, natural and Christian, to do this effectually; and modern writers are misleading, in adequate, and often mischievous, precisely because they ignore the Gospel and blunder in the application of the law of nature. The Pope, therefore, begins by laying down the lawfulness of private property. This is directed against what he calls the Collectivists the modern Communists, who hold and preach that “property is theft.” He then explains why it is that “labour” is a necessity, and how the fruits of a man’s labour are his own, so far as the labour goes. But the operation of the stern law of ownership and labour is, in the Christian dispensation, to a great extent mitigated and regulated by “charity” an element which must never be overlooked by a Christian. Moreover, the State is bound, in certain respects, to interfere in the interests of the worker. The State may regulate the hours of labour for the good of the community; it may make laws for special and dangerous trades and occupations; it may watch over the employment of women and children; and it should guard the sanctity of the Sunday’s rest. These matters are set forth by the Pontiff at considerable length; and the effects of his exposition is to sweep away the whole of the confused half-truths which modern journalism is constantly presenting to its readers about property, work, charity, and State interference. But the most important section of this great Letter is that which now follows. The Pope takes up the question of wages. The modern economic school teaches that wages are a mere matter of contract; an employer and a workman make an agreement, the one offering as little, the other get ting as much, as he can. But the Pope shows that this is neither Christianity nor right reason. Wages are not solely a contract, for the simple reason that a large majority of mankind must work for wages in order to live. By nature’s law the worker has a kind of right to a wage. Personal labour is not a thing that can be bought and sold like cattle or merchandise. You are bound to be as considerate to personal labour as you are to the person of a man who is made to the image of God. The man must have a wage; he is a rational being, in God’s likeness, and a brother of Jesus Christ. You cannot apply mere mechanical rules to him, or leave him to the operation of any inanimate and dismal law, like supply and demand, or dear and cheap markets. You cannot accept an offer to work which is wrung from him by sheer despair or by imminent starvation. Consideration for the person and family of the one who labours must therefore always influence the question of wages. This leads the Pontiff to lay down that every man who is willing to labour has a right to such a wage as will secure to himself and his family a frugal and sufficient maintenance. The workman, on his side, is bound to be equally considerate in his dealings with his employer. This Encyclical, of which we have given only the barest outline, and which may be read by all in the authorised English version, naturally attracted great attention, not only from Catholics, but from the world at large. In its pages may be found the true and Christian solution of the controversy between employer and employed. Property, State-interference, labour, capital, wages, combination on all these heads the Pope states the rational and Christian view, in language of classical elegance; and as far as the teaching authorities of the Catholic Church are concerned, this Letter has become the text-book of their social action. The great doctrine of the “living wage,” here for the first time placed on its rational and Christian basis, and consecrated by the head of the Catholic Church, has profoundly affected all economic discussion. Leo XIII has taken the side of the workers, but with all that moderation and just assertion of the rights of property which should appeal to the intelligence of thinking men.

We must pass rapidly in review the Encyclicals of the last ten years. The Letter we have just considered may be said to have completed the series of the Pope’s instructions on the duties of the citizen, the Catholic, the employer, and the worker. He has enforced afresh his profoundly thought-out ideas in numerous minor Letters and addresses. We may especially mention the Encyclical of 18 January 1891, beginning Graves de communi, on the subject of Christian Socialism.

Passing over a very important Encyclical on the Interpretation of Holy Scripture (1894), beginning Providentissimus Deus, and many other solicitous and prudent pronouncements, during the last decade, on the inspiration and interpretation of the Word of God, we must conclude with a rapid glance at his more devotional Addresses to the world. The most remarkable of these are the Encyclicals, some twelve in number, which, year after year, he has published on our Blessed Lady and her Rosary. The Pope, in these Letters, filled as they are with simple piety and fruitful devotion, shows that he firmly grasps the doctrine of the Saints, that happier times for Church and State can only be hoped for through prayer to God and by the intercession of the Mother of Jesus.

At Easter, 1895, appeared the touching and earnest Letter “to the English nation” (ad Anglos}, in which with many expressions of affection, he calls upon all who are dissatisfied with religious uncertainty and confusion to unite in earnest prayer for light and unity. At the end of this Encyclical he prints the prayer, “O Blessed Virgin, Mary,” written by himself, and now recited everywhere in the country during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, for the conversion of England and Wales. In the following year he issued the constitution Apostolicae Curae, in which he decides, by his supreme authority, the question of the validity of Anglican Orders.

A few months after this address to the English, another long Encyclical was given to the world, on the Unity of the Church (29 June 1896). The subject was constantly in the Holy Father’s thoughts. When addressing the English, it was the idea of the one, true Church that gave fire and weight to his fatherly words. Now he treats the matter at length setting forth, from scripture and the early Fathers the proofs that Christ’s Church is one in doctrine, in organisation and in government; and ending with the strenuous call of Saint Augustine, “Beloved brethren, hold fast all of you to this, that as God is your Father, so the Church is your Mother.”

On the 9th of May of the following year (1897), came forth from the pen of the indefatigable old man the fervent and moving Letter “On the Holy Spirit”; and those devotions were instituted at Pentecost, which now take place at each recurrence of that great festival of Divine love. The Letter on Devotion to the Sacred Heart, of May 1899, will still be in your memory; so, doubtless, will be that on “Jesus Christ our Redeemer” (1 November 1900), in which he takes occasion from the approaching end of the nineteenth century, to stir up men’s hearts to turn to Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and in which he reiterates the great Pauline doctrine, so strongly prized by himself, that in Christ must all things be “renewed.” And the last great devotional Letter that shall here be mentioned is that of May 28, of this last year, Mirae caritatis (1902). This is on the Blessed Eucharist which is shown to be the “continuation of the Incarnation,” the chief strength of the Christian, and the great means of our becoming like unto Christ.

Such, dear children in Jesus Christ, are the principal pastoral instructions of the long Pontificate of Pope Leo XIII. There are others innumerable, many of them long and elaborate utterances, ad dressed to Kings, Christian nations, heathen princes, and the Bishops of various countries. We have enumerated a few in order that the faithful may realise, on an occasion like this twenty-fifth year of the Pope’s reign, how he has been labouring, how he has fed the flock, borne testimony to the world, and upheld the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. These Encyclical Letters are not, all of them, in the hands of the flock. Many of them are, or ought to be. They have been translated, and may easily be procured. But they are read by the people’s Pastors, and are made the text and ground of pastoral teaching. The whole flock, therefore, should unite in thanking God for this Pontificate of solid and Christian instruction and exhortation, and in offering prayer to Heaven that the Pontiff who has ruled so long, and has never let a year, we might say hardly a month, pass, without uttering the careful thoughts of his ever solicitous heart, for the good of men, may be blessed with every blessing, by the Heavenly Father for Whom he has laboured.