Who Was Pope St. Pius X?
Born in 1835 in Venice, Guiseppe Melchiorre Sarto was pope from 1903 to 1914 under the name Pius X. He was a staunch defender of the truth, a liturgical reformer, and a man of great faith.
Pope St. Pius X is well known globally for his repression of Modernism and his caution against the separation of Church and State, especially in France. Within the Church, he is most noted for his preparation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and advancing the Liturgical Movement.
There is a plethora of great biographical pieces on the late pontiff, but let us dive into each of these items a little bit further to get a sense of the contributions of Pope St. Pius X.
What is Modernism?
In 1907, the Pope wrote a letter called Pascendi Dominici Gregis which spoke at length on the doctrines of the modernists. He goes into detail and depth on the problems that he sees in the year 1907. Modernism, to him, is rooted in an agnostic view of Faith which undermines the view of God as transcendent. For the Modernist, everything is here, present, and observable. Science really is the greatest and best tool, according to the Modernist, which must confirm the content of the Faith. The errors of Modernism overemphasize the role of personal experiences and deemphasize the proper role of Tradition in the Church. Of course, these errors ripple out to do tremendous harm to the Church as a whole.
The Modernist does not believe that doctrine develops naturally and authentically; they believe that it evolves, that there is a true change in doctrine from age to age. Of course, the teachings of Jesus Christ cannot and will not change substantially. The Modernist reads the Bible in this way as well, treating it as just another historical text. There is a denial of mediation and a denial of miracles.
After laying out all of the errors of the heresy of Modernism, the Pope wrote this:
“And now, can anybody who takes a survey of the whole system be surprised that We should define it as the synthesis of all heresies? Were one to attempt the task of collecting together all the errors that have been broached against the faith and to concentrate the sap and substance of them all into one, he could not better succeed than the Modernists have done (Pascendi, 39).”
The words of the Pope in this encyclical letter still echo down to us, over one hundred years later. Modernism has taken hold of the Church in many sectors and still has yet to be fully banished.
Separation of Church and State
Another error of which the Pope spoke passionately was the errors and extremes of liberalism and democracy. At the Second Vatican Council, several decades later, the Church dealt more extensively with religious freedom. But Pope St. Pius X was dealing with a group of Christian Democrats in Italy who were undermining the Church’s authority with the people and the Church in France were dealing with a growing secular society that wanted a complete separation of Church and State.
The Pope recognizes in Pascendi Dominici Gregis that the Church “does not occupy the world all by itself; there are other societies in the world, with which it must necessarily have contact and relations (Pascendi,24).” He explains that just as faith and science are not independent of one another, neither are the Church and the State. However, they must be in proper order and relationship to one another.
The Pope, drawing from the inspiration of his predecessors, reminds his readers that the Catholic citizen is both Catholic and a citizen. These two can no more be separated than the body can be separated from the soul while someone is still living. So, the Catholic citizen has the right and duty to work for the common good under the direction and authority of the Church.
Pope Francis, in an address to Philadelphia in 2015 likewise said,
This issue has not gone away and seems to have devolved in many parts of the world. For example, in the United States, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix wrote the wonderful document Catholics in the Public Square to answer many of these issues. The bishop reminds us that, in the United States, “There is nothing in the Constitution excluding people from bringing their faith into the public square.”
The 1917 Code of Canon Law
The subject of the laws governing the Church requires more space than can be afforded in this short article. In summary form, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was the first attempt in the history of the Church to gather all of the disparate laws of the Church into one Code. In fact, this first Code of Canon Law covered five volumes. The law was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 but the commission was started and set to task by Pope St. Pius X.
The Liturgical Movement
Like the Code of Canon Law, the Liturgical Movement deserves its own treatment in a separate article. However, it is ill-suited to an article on Pope St. Pius X and his contributions to not mention the Liturgical Movement.
The Movement began in the 19th Century and carried into the 20th Century. In the 16th Century, Pope St. Pius V formally codified and united the Roman Rite under the Tridentine Form of the Mass. This task was monumental and did a great service to a Church that was being battered and beaten by the winds of the Protestant Revolution. The Liturgical Movement picks up in the 19th Century with a scholarly desire to reform the Sacred Liturgy with a view to the ancient and Medieval forms of worship. But more on that for another day.