Pope Pius XI, who was Bishop of Rome from 1922 until early 1939, is little remembered these days, which is a shame. For in the last years of his pontificate, he became something of a Churchillian figure, forcefully condemning Italian fascism, German national socialism, Soviet communism, and Mexican Stalinism as affronts to human dignity and terrible dangers for the world. At his death, D’Arcy Osborne, the British chargé d’affaires in Rome, who was no uncritical sycophant, wired the Foreign Office that Pius XI’s courage in the face of totalitarianism had made him “one of the outstanding figures in the world,” someone who “may be said to have died at his post.”
Pius XI’s courage was not limited to world affairs, however. When he saw internal dangers to the Church, expressed in what he perceived to be gross misbehavior or defiance of legitimate Church authority, he did not hesitate to take serious disciplinary action, no matter how high-ranking the cleric involved. Two such disciplinary cases stand out as potential lessons for the present.
In 1911, a prominent Roman-based theologian, Louis Billot, was named cardinal by Pope Pius X, four years after the French Jesuit helped draft the pope’s encyclical against modernism, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. It was not his theology, however, but his politics that created a controversy with Pius X’s second successor, in whose election Cardinal Billot had participated. Pius XI was determined to bring to heel the arch-reactionary French Catholic movement Action Française: a monarchist, anti-Semitic organization led by political theorist and publicist Charles Maurras. The pope believed that it was impeding the Church’s work in France. Maurras and the rest of the movement’s leaders would not bend, however, even after Pius XI put their eponymous newspaper on the Index of Forbidden Books.
Cardinal Billot for his part, wrote a letter of sympathy and concern to the editors of Action Française; he may not have intended the letter to become a public matter, but the editors, understandably, printed it. The pope hit the roof, and the net result was that Cardinal Louis Billot suddenly reverted to being Father Billot (cardinals were not necessarily bishops in those days). The Wikipedia entry on Billot takes at face value the nonsense printed in the New York Times of October 16, 1927, according to which Billot asked the pope in a private audience to be allowed to resign his cardinalate and retire to a monastery. If you believe that, I have an impressive canyon in northern Arizona to sell you.
Billot may have made such a “request,” but it was almost certainly after Pius “requested” him to make such a request — and had done so in no uncertain terms. Billot’s resignation was an act of obedience by an old-school Jesuit. But the prime mover in this drama of a lost cardinalate — the only such episode in the 20th century — was Pius XI, who knew what was damaging to the mission of the Church and who was not afraid to act on that knowledge.
The case of another French Jesuit, Bishop Michel d’Herbigny, is even more dramatic. D’Herbigny, the head of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, was the Vatican’s leading Russian expert, and Pius XI was eager to reestablish some sort of Catholic life in the Stalinist Soviet Union. The full story of what ensued as Pius pursued that goal through Michel d’Herbigny has never been told, and likely never will be; 30 years of discreet inquiries in Rome about the disposition of the d’Herbigny files have led me to the conclusion that they are very deeply buried, somewhere, and are unlikely ever to see the light of day, although the records of Pius XI’s pontificate are now open to scholarly study. But the bare facts of this extraordinary tale are known.
The pope decided to try and reestablish a clandestine Catholic hierarchy in the Soviet Union, without the knowledge, much less the permission, of the Soviet regime — a high-risk adventure, to be sure, but one the pope felt obliged to undertake in order to save what could be saved of Catholicism under the Bolsheviks. So d’Herbigny was secretly consecrated a bishop in 1926 by the nuncio in Berlin, Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII), and sent into Russia on what was described as a pastoral visit to Western European Catholics living there. On this first mission to the USSR, d’Herbigny secretly consecrated four bishops who were to serve as apostolic administrators of what had once been Catholic dioceses; those bishops were to try to reignite the Catholic life that had been snuffed out by Lenin, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and the Soviet secret intelligence services. Further missions, and more clandestine consecrations, followed.
But by the mid-1930s, all of d’Herbigny’s episcopal ordinands (and virtually all the priests these clandestine bishops ordained) had been condemned to the Gulag, executed, or exiled, having previously been scooped up by the NKVD, successor to the Cheka and predecessor to the KGB. It may be assumed (and almost certainly was by Pius XI) that the mission had been compromised, and that errors and indiscretions committed by Bishop d’Herbigny had been one cause of what had become a catastrophic failure, which had rendered the Catholic situation in the USSR worse than it had been before. Others may also have been at fault, but d’Herbigny was in charge of the operation and Pius was determined to hold him accountable. So in 1937, the Pope removed d’Herbigny from all his ecclesiastical offices and, presumably with Pius’s approval, the Father General of the Jesuits, Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, laid on perhaps the most draconian ecclesiastical disciplinary sentence of modern times: D’Herbigny was to be confined by himself in various religious houses in Belgium and France, with no contacts beyond a confessor and correspondence with his family. The sentence was confirmed by the new pope, Pius XII, on his election and remained in force until d’Herbigny’s death in 1957.
These decisions by Pius XI may seem antiquated and brutal to those who know only post–Vatican II Catholicism. But severe as they were, they were taken in defense of the Church, its evangelical mission, and the discipline essential to that mission. Such decisive measures, and the motivations that prompted them, should be kept in mind by the relevant authorities in Rome these days, as they consider recent revelations about the betrayals and crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — and as they weigh the grave and ongoing damage to innocent persons, and to the reputation of the Church and its bishops, that those betrayals and crimes have caused.
— George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This article was originally published on National Review Online