Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember Leo XIII, a Pope walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity in the late 19th century.

It is the 20th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Sure, the American West in the second half of the 19th century (1800s) was “the Wild West,” but those living through the same period in Western Europe had a similarly wild and wooly landscape.

Consider the century began with the Napoleonic Wars, which saw industrialization, the far reaches of Victorian England, and the unification of modern countries that, up to then, were states and city-states in something like a Holy Roman Empire.

The German states would unify under Bismarck and he would see a Kulturkampf  (culture war) with the Catholic Church. The Italian peninsula would undergo a Risorgimento, a “resurgence” with unification as a proper country (and what would this mean for Rome, the Vatican City, and the Papacy?) France, flipping and flopping from Republic to Empire, will see Christianity, especially “foreign” Catholicism, as its enemy.  

We are witnessing the state-building and nationalism that gave way to the First World War.

The Catholic Church had been represented by Pope Pius IX, Pio Nono, since 1846. The Pope, considered decently progressive, changed his tune after the revolutions of 1848 and oversaw in his, the second longest papacy at the time, a conservative hardline turn. His papacy saw the dogmas of both Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility solidified. If Europe was looking forward, the papacy was strengthening its historical bona fides.

And so there was some concern in February of 1878 when Pope Pius died, and many would look to the Catholic Church to see if it would double down or attempt more of a conversation with the modern age. 3 days into the conclave, there was a considerable shock when the next Pope was quickly decided on, and it was an unlikely figure. Gioacchino Vincenzo Rafaelle Luigi Pecci had previously been named Camerlengo, a lame-duck interim who oversaw the election of the next Pope. Pecci was not a member of the curia but was well-liked by his peers and seen as an able administrator.

What would follow was the, until then, 3rd longest Papacy and a massive pivot in the relationship between the Pope, Catholics, and the Western World.

The new Pope, Leo XIII, would be seen by many as a revolutionary, although we do well to hear from an Italian journal at the time that declared, ‘The new Pope does not … curse, he does not threaten … The form is sweet, but the substance is absolute, hard, intransigent.’

Leo would help diffuse the German Kulturkampf but soured on the Kaiser when he saw that helping the Pope recover  Rome was not on his dance card.

He turned to the Catholic minority in France, hoping to assuage them but also prove useful to the French crown. All of this would lead to the Pope's tepid endorsement of the new market economies, republican governments, and democracy in general. Granted, he said the church could live with these in light of a greater evil. It was a symbol that the Papacy was open to adapting to the new age.

The Pope also knew that this new industrialized economy was crushing the poor, especially the Catholic poor in countries where they were in the minority. This would lead to 1891’s papal encyclical “Rerum Novarum”- with over 80 Encyclicals, Leo XIII issued the most, with the second on the list less than half the number. But few encyclicals hit as hard as this “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke which is very little better than slavery itself’. He argues that the state should be an instrument of grace in legislating for the poor. Leo agreed that Labor Unions were compatible with Catholic teaching.

Leo’s papacy would see the elevation of the theology of Thomas Aquinas as central to modern Catholicism, the opening of the Vatican archives to scholars, and an open posture to modern critical tools in the study of Christianity.

Leo was not wholly concerned with appearing ecumenical as he had an encyclical warning against “Americanism” and called Anglican ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void.” He was open to adapting to the modern world but maintained papal authority until his death in 1903.

One of the most significant and sometimes overlooked Popes, Leo XIII, at the end of the 19th century, came to the office on the 20th of February in 1878.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary from 1 Peter:

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats[b]; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who would like a “Pope or Godfather” game to be made with some of these Italian names- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man writing this on a train in Santa Barbara, delayed due to mudslides; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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