Leo XIII (1810-1903), who was pope from 1878 to 1903, is known for his social reforms and his recognition of the rights of the worker. During his reign the Roman Catholic Church achieved an international prestige it had not enjoyed since the Middle Ages.
Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, who became Pope Leo XIII, was born on March 2, 1810, in Carpineto, Italy. He was educated by the Jesuits at Viterbo and in Rome. After becoming a priest on Dec. 31, 1837, he was named apostolic delegate to Benevento. After a period as delegate to Perugia, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Brussels in January 1843 and became an archbishop. Already at Perugia he had shown himself to be a social reformer. At Louvain he mediated in the bitter controversy between the Jesuits and the university. Reappointed to Perugia in 1846, he was made cardinal in 1853 by Pius IX. He spent the next 25 years restoring churches, promoting education of the clergy, and advocating social reform.
Leo became pope at a low ebb in the prestige of the papacy. The Pope had been a "prisoner" in the Vatican since 1870. Tension existed between the Vatican and most European governments. There were no strong Catholic political parties in Europe. The democracies and the Vatican traded no friendship. Within the Church there existed a polarization because of the authoritarian rule of Pius IX. Between the Italian state and the Vatican there were the utmost frigidity and ill feeling.
Elected pope at the age of 68, Leo was not expected to hold the post long or to make any great changes. His pontificate, however, lasted 25 years. One of his first undertakings was to offset the secularizing philosophies of governments imbued with anticlerical, antipapal, and anti-Church policies. It was the age of the Kulturkampf in Germany and of governmental anticlericalism in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Leo's methods were in the main conciliatory and quite simple in intent. His strength lay in his obvious and proven enthusiasm for learning, for scientific achievement, and for a relatively open-minded discussion with all comers. As part of his program he set out to strengthen the Catholic political parties in Europe. His policies bore fruits within his lifetime, and their acceptance was aided mightily by the ever-growing threat of socialism and an early form of communism which had started with the Communist Manifesto of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in 1848. Thus Germany's chancellor Otto von Bismarck came to see the newly revived Catholic Center party as a bulwark against socialism. Extreme anticlerical legislation was repealed by his government by 1887. In 1881 the Prussian government had re-appointed an envoy to the Vatican (the first since 1874). Similarly, in Belgium, Catholics gained political power and helped mitigate anticlericalism and secularizing policies. In France, Leo was less successful. His appeal was laced with too political a motivation, which divided Catholic supporters and created antagonism lasting well beyond Leo's death.
For Italy, Leo adopted a policy marked by an intransigence which produced more or less the same bitter fruits as in France. Leo hoped Germany would force a solution of the "Roman question" and restore the papacy to a position of temporal power. But the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria, and Italy dashed these aspirations. Leo could expect no help from France, where his policies had, rather, fomented antipapal feeling. When Mariano Rampolla became secretary of state for Italy in 1887, he sought the friendship of the democracies, the United States, and France particularly. Leo was much more in favor of a monarchical paternalism than of a democratic form of government; he feared the latter as an open door to anticlerical and secular policies. In Italy, Leo allowed Catholics to participate in municipal politics, but he maintained the traditional ban on all Catholic participation in national politics almost to the end of his life. In his encyclical letter Immortale Dei (Nov. 1, 1885) Leo denounced democracy as irreconcilable with the authority of the Church, although he did allow that with proper conditions Catholics could work within such a democratic framework. In Libertas praestantissimum (June 20, 1888) he declared personal liberty and freedom to be a legitimate political goal, but he tied the success of such a goal to adherence to Roman Catholicism. Leo sought, in other words, to reconcile the liberalism of his day with traditional Roman Catholic teaching. Although he did not succeed, he laid the foundations for a later development in the mid-20th century. The policies of John XXIII, for instance, reflected Leo's thoughts but took some essential steps forward.
On the general plane of diplomatic relations, Leo was successful. He established cordial relations with Spain, Austria, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, and many South American countries. The tension between the Vatican and Russia was relaxed. His centralization policies included a new organization of pilgrimages to Rome, more frequent audiences for the visiting faithful as well as for non-Catholics, an expanding panache of papal ceremonial and glory, and the encouragement of cordial ties of collaboration and mutual respect between Catholic academic institutions and corresponding institutions in Europe and the Americas.
Leo is remembered more for his encyclical letter Rerum novarum (May 15, 1891) than for many other acts. The letter was part of his attempt to halt the drift of working people and industrial labor away from his Church. In part a rather dramatic departure from traditional policies of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church's outlook, the letter vindicated for workers and poor people the rights which never before had received such papal or ecclesiastical sanction.
The minimum standards Leo demanded for workers, such as a means of frugal sustenance and a minimum wage, now seem to be grossly underestimated. But in Leo's day, they represented violent if well-timed departures from the traditional norms. The letter's value lay much more in its accurate prediction of social reforms which, if implemented, might have averted such later developments as the Russian Revolution and the rise of Soviet bolshevism.
In Rerum novarum Leo also defended the rights of the family and the right to private property, themes which later became acute when communism spread throughout Europe and these rights were attacked and encroached upon by a dictatorial statism. His recommendations for effective legislation, his approval of labor unions and cooperative organizations, and his lauding of labor and its fruits as worthwhile and as dignified human elements helped shape the policies of many labor movements throughout the world. Concretely, Rerum novarum strongly influenced the formation of Catholic political parties and labor syndicates outside Italy and Spain, thus combating the spread of Marxism.
Leo also strengthened Rome's ties with Eastern-rite churches and carried the centralization policies of his predecessors to a considerable length. He relaxed the intransigence of his predecessor, Pius IX, by opening the Vatican archives and library to qualified historians of all faiths.
It would be a mistake, however, to assess Leo's pontificate as a radical or even a strong departure from that of his predecessors. He built on the strong centralization of Pius IX, who, although he failed in international politics, left Leo a strongly united Church and a store of spiritual resources. When Leo died on July 20, 1903, he enjoyed a vast personal prestige; his Church was enthusiastic for the papacy; but Leo, like his predecessor, had not been able to adapt Church structure and thought to the new realities of the emergent 20th century.
Further Reading on Leo XIII
For studies of Leo see Henry Edward Manning, Leo XIII on the Condition of Labour (1891); Eduardo Soderini, The Pontificate of Leo XIII (1932; trans., 3 vols., 1934-1935); and Henry Somerville, Studies in the Catholic Social Movement (1933).