St. Pope Pius X (1903–14), born Giuseppe Sarto, vigorously prosecuted Pius IX’s war against Modernism, which targeted, among other things, liberalism, rationalism, communism, socialism, democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, freedom of religion, speech and press. Modernists argued that church doctrine evolved through history; anti-modernists countered doctrine is changeless. First pope since Pius V (1566–72) to be canonized a saint, Pius X championed orthodoxy, including, anti-Judaism, the Church’s 1900 plus year bias against Jews. He condemned “rebels who reject Catholic doctrine and urge the Church adapt itself to modern times.” Like his predecessors, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Republic of Italy, but fearing the rising influence of socialism in Europe, he relaxed the ban on Catholic participation in Italian state elections. In 1907, Pius X issued an encyclical, Pascendi Dominici gregis (“Feeding the Lord’s flock”), in which he declared, “Modernism constituted not a heresy, but the compendium and poison of all heresies.”
Building on the work of Pius IX, Pascendi Dominici gregis reinforced the dogmatic tone of church teaching; reiterated the absolute spiritual authority of the papacy; demanded unquestioning obedience from the faithful; and made clear that intellectual questions within the Church were not matters for scholarly discussion, but matters of faith and morals to be resolved by the pope. This continued centuries of church practice encouraging Catholics to be docile and compliant to authority and, concomitantly, discouraging, conscience based, independent thought or action. The laity’s role was derisively said to be to “pay, pray and obey.” Pius X, moreover, was critical of countries with democratic forms of government because, among other reasons, they accepted pluralism. Instead, he favored countries with authoritative forms of government which respected the Church’s traditional role in society and its conservative worldview. It should be noted that unquestioning obedience to authority and failure of conscience were among the causes of the Holocaust.
The Congregation of the (Holy) Inquisition was formally abolished in 1908, but its functions, including the policing of orthodoxy, were rolled over into a new Congregation of the Holy Office. In 1910, the Holy Office, under Pius X’s firm direction, issued a mandate requiring all priests to swear an oath denouncing Modernism. Known as the “Anti-Modernist Oath,” it demanded unequivocal acceptance of all church teachings and acquiescence in the meaning and sense of all teachings decreed by the pope. John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope, The Secret History of Pius XII, termed the Oath, “a form of thought control unrivaled even under fascist and communist regimes.” Priests were required to take the Oath until it was rescinded in July, 1967, following Vatican Council II.
Pius X’s aggressive stance against Modernism adversely affected Catholic biblical scholarship, based on a literal/fundamental reading of the Bible, as newer, mostly Protestant, modes of study were rejected as heretical. Some scholars/theologians labeled Modernists were exponents of new forms of biblical interpretation that viewed the Bible as a historical document, its truths conditioned by authors with particular points of view who wrote in the context of a particular time and place. Others suspected of Modernism focused on the sciences (e.g., the theory of evolution, geology, archeology or paleontology). Still others focused on social issues connected to democracy, socialism or nationalism and speculated how the Church might respond differently and/or adapt to change.
Theologians suspected of pursuing lines of inquiry tainted with secularism, Modernism, or relativism were threatened with excommunication. Ironically, some of the theologians, viewed with suspicion by the Holy See before 1960, became periti, (theological experts) of Vatican Council II. Theologians viewed with suspicion included Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ; Fr. M.J. Lagrange, OP; Monsignor Louis Duchesne; Fr. M.D. Chenu; Fr. Yves M.J. Congar OP; Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ; Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ; Fr. Hans Ur von Bathasar; Fr. Henri de Lubac SJ, and others. Some of their ground-breaking books were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. Also ironically, a few of these theologians were later elevated to the rank of cardinal.
The Church’s fundamentalist/literalistic approach to Scripture continued into the mid-twentieth century. Modern biblical study methods, reflecting approaches like contextual/ historical, textual, source, form, and redaction criticism, were rejected until 1943 when Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”) which eased the policy somewhat. Pius X, in addition, authorized a network of clergy informants, known as the Sodalitium Pianum (“League of St. Pius V”), who reported to the Holy Office instances of deviation from doctrinal orthodoxy. Serious deviations from orthodoxy led to dismissal from faculty teaching positions in Catholic educational institutions and/or suspension from the priesthood — practices that continued through the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Pius X’s campaign against Modernism within the Church has been compared to a non-violent reign of terror.
Pius’ popularity in the United States plummeted in 1910, when he refused to receive former president Theodore Roosevelt at the Vatican, because Roosevelt was also scheduled to speak at a Methodist Church in Rome. In 1910, Pius condemned Le Sillon, a French ecumenical social movement that attempted to reconcile Catholicism with liberal political views. He also opposed trade unions that were not exclusively Catholic, but was tolerant of the monarchist, counter revolutionary, and anti-Semitic Action Francaise. This right-wing group was founded in 1898 to counter the resurgence of liberalism that arose in defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully accused of treason, spearheaded by Emile Zola’s J’accuse (“I accuse”). J’accuse was an open letter published January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore.” In the letter, Zola addressed President of France, Felix Faure and accused the French government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in 1903 in Russia, alleged a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination and/or to destroy civilization. Best known as an example of a literary forgery and hoax, it was re-published in 1905 by a Russian Orthodox priest, Sergius Nilus, in a book about the coming of the Antichrist. It was promoted as the record of secret rabbinical conferences whose aim was to subjugate and exterminate Christians. Purporting to be a speech outlining how to accomplish world domination, including taking control of media and finance, Protocols not only used text to support its conspiracy theory, but also graphic imagery. Examples of this imagery were routinely employed in Nazi propaganda that, for example, depicted Jewry as an octopus encircling the globe. Pius X favored an official in his Secretariat of State, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, who was Pius’ chief enforcer in purging the Church of modernist theologians. Benigni was one of the two principal distributors of Protocols in Italy. American industrialist Henry Ford in the 1920s would fund the printing of five-hundred thousand copies of Protocols that were distributed throughout the United States . British historian Norman Cohn, author of Warrant for Genocide, The Myth of World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, charged that Hitler used Protocols as a primary justification for initiating the Holocaust—his so-called “warrant for genocide.”
Society of St. Pius X
The Society of St. Pius X, hereinafter “SSPX,” was founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905– 91) in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. SSPX is an international traditionalist Catholic organization which defines its mission as opposing innovation and modernity within the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre, who participated at Vatican II, heading one of its commissions, spent the last two decades of his life battling change within the Church. The traditionalist documents he and other conservative fathers drafted were rejected by the Council. Later, Lefebvre would declare the devil and Antichrists inspired the Council. For him opening up dialogue with Protestants, Muslims and Jews was wrong, because, as “error has no right”, it lent credibility to other religions. Therefore, he rejected the Vatican II document “Declaration of Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae), terming it a misguided effort to put Catholicism on an equal footing with other faiths.
In 1969, the year before SSPX’s founding, Archbishop Lefebvre rejected the revised Vatican Council II recommended Mass rite in vernacular languages as a “bastard rite.” For his defiance of authority, Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre from the priesthood in 1976, but Lefebvre, nonetheless, carried on undeterred, celebrating a Tridentine/Latin rite Mass before six thousand people in Lille, France, and saying, “Let us carry on the religion of our fathers.” In 1978, Pope John Paul II, attempted reconciliation, restoring Lefebvre to the priesthood. Ten years later in 1988, Pope John Paul attempted to head off approaching schism with SSPX by offering to name a priest of Lefebvre’s choice as a bishop of the Church. Lefebvre, however, refused and, soon thereafter, on his own authority consecrated four priests as bishops without Vatican approval — Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, and Alfonso de Galarreta. This proved to be the last straw; Lefebvre and the four priests were excommunicated. Thus in 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre caused the first schism in the Church since the Old Catholics’ split in 1870 after Vatican Council I. In explaining his defiance of church authority, Lefebvre declared, “I prefer to be in the truth without the Pope than to walk a false path with him.”
Politically, Lefebvre was known for his extreme right-wing views. He occasionally supported Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, leader of the right-wing National Front, and often expressed kind words for fascist dictator Francisco Franco of Spain and Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. An opponent of the French Revolution, Lefebvre supported restoration of the French monarchy. “Our future is the past,” he was fond of saying.
Although its main focus is preservation of the Tridentine/Latin rite Mass as a form of worship, SSPX has promoted theological and conspiratorial anti-Semitism. In homilies, writings, web sites and publications, for example, its representatives have accused contemporary Jews of deicide; have endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and have claimed that there is factual basis for the blood libel myth.
When Lefebvre died in March, 1991, the four priests, Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, whom he consecrated as bishops, continued to champion SSPX positions, along with the positions of like-minded organizations of traditionalist Catholics like Opus Dei, founded in Spain in 1928 by Fr. Josemaria Escrivá, canonized a saint by John Paul II in 2002. Opus Dei is portrayed in the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and its 2006 film version of the same name. Opus Dei and its founder St. Josemaria Escrivá have aroused controversy, primarily revolving around allegations of secrecy, elitism, cult-like practices, and Escrivá’s political involvement with right-wing causes, such as the dictatorships of Generals Francisco in Spain (1939 –75) and Augusto Pinochet in Chile (1973–90).
At Lefebvre’s death, SSPX numbered about three hundred priests and between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand congregants. His followers have set up schools and seminaries in Germany, Latin America, Australia and France, the country where he has the largest following. In the United States, SSPX claims about one hundred chapels and twenty-four schools. Its U.S. monthly periodical, “The Angelus,” has about three thousand subscribers. Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the German priest designated by Archbishop Lefebvre to succeed him as head of the order upon Lefebvre’s death, said, “May God reward him (Lefebvre) for his life entirely devoted to defend the Catholic faith against heresy.”
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued a directive allowing the Latin Mass to be celebrated in certain circumstances, thereby narrowing the theological divide between SSPX and the Vatican. In January, 2009, Benedict lifted the excommunication of SSPX’s four bishops and continued to seek reconciliation with the Society until abdicating the papacy in 2013. Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson was subsequently re-excommunicated for refusing to temper his views on the Holocaust. He expelled from SSPX in 2012. It is noteworthy that the Vatican during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI appeared to be far more interested in rehabilitating conservative theologians and clerics who seemingly strayed from orthodoxy than liberal ones.