Le Pape Pie XI et L'opinion (1922-1939)

By Kent, Peter C | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Le Pape Pie XI et L'opinion (1922-1939)


Kent, Peter C, The Catholic Historical Review


Le Pape Pie XI et l'opinion (1922-1939). By Marc Agostino. [Collection de l'Ecole Frangaise de Rome, 150.] (Rome: L'!cole Francaise de Rome, 150.] (Rome: L'ltcole Francaise de Rome. 1991. Pp. vi, 820. Paperback.) The reign of Pope Pius XI, claims Marc Agostino, was one of the most significant of modern times because its development contained many of the key elements of the evolution of the Catholic Church and of the Catholic movement in the twentieth century" (p. 8). From the beginning of his reign in 1922, Pius XI deliberately challenged the secularization of the age in which he lived by promoting a Christian reconquest of the world to create the Peace of Christ in the reign of Christ," through which Christian values would permeate modern society. This central religious message formed the substance of his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano Det, of December, 1922, and informed every action of this pope. The central question raised by Agostino has to do as much with the medium as with the message. To what extent, he asks, did public opinion recognize, receive, and understand the Pope's message? Agostino examines the impact of the papal message on the public through a study of the press and popular opinion in France and in Italy, two countries which provided striking social and political contrasts in the interwar years. Agostino notes that Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), the predecessor of Pius XI, meant well but had no significant influence on his times. Pius XI, in contrast, Agostino claims, demonstrated a flair for public relations with the result that, by the time of his death in 1939, the universal values for which he stood were widely understood and shared by many in European society and formed the basis for the post-1945 revival of Catholic religious, social, and political influence.

Agostino first assesses the variety of means available to Pius XI for the transmission of his message. Some means were traditional such as the dissemination of papal encyclicals and official church publications; the appointment of selected individuals as bishops, members of the papal Curia and Secretaries of State; and the celebration of canonizations, great church festivals, and other public occasions. Other means were modern and were used by Pius XI with great skill and effectiveness. These means included public exhibitions, the press and the radio, especially Vatican Radio, which was founded in 1931 to became one of the media for the papal message. To assess reaction to the papal message, Agostino conducted a thorough study of the press of France and Italy between 1922 and 1939. He is interested in both the Catholic press-those organs of the press which promote the interests of the Catholic Church yet are independent of the Vatican or the local hierarchy-and the lay press, including newspapers and journals of record as well as the partisan press. While the message of Pius XI was not entirely clear to the public at the beginning of his pontificate, it was understood in France and Italy by the time of his death in 1939 because of the way that the pope deliberately kept his message in the public eye and manipulated public opinion to his advantage.

Agostino divides the papacy of Pius XI into roughly five phases. During the initial phase, from his election in 1922 until 1925, the pope first enunciated his vision in Ubi Arcano Dei, then used the events of the Holy Year of 1925 to bring it to the world's attention. It was clear, however, that the message was not being understood at the time in either France or Italy. Issues of nationalism and anticlericalism clouded any assessment of the position of the Pope in France and, in Italy, the need for a settlement of the Roman Question dominated Italian opinion.

In the second phase, from 1926 to 1929, Pius XI decided that he had to capture the attention of the people of both France and Italy for his central religious message by dealing directly with the fundamental issues in those two countries.

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