Pius XII: La solennità della Pentecoste

Introductory Note

It remains one of The Josias’s aims to make available to Catholics some of the great statements of the Church on the social question. It is unfortunately the case that many important documents are either unavailable in English or very scarce. This series of documents continues with Pius XII’s June 1, 1941 radio address, La solennità della Pentecoste (“The Feast of Pentecost”), commemorating the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s great social encyclical, Rerum novarum.

Standing on its own, La solennità della Pentecoste is a significant intervention in the social magisterium. Despite the conflict raging when Pius spoke, the Pope focused primarily upon the social questions as they had developed between 1891 and 1941, expanding upon themes that he identified in Leo’s Rerum novarum and Pius XI’s 1931 social encyclical, Quadragesimo anno. The address would continue to have significance in the Church’s social magisterium in the following years, despite the disruption caused by the war. Pius himself returned to it at length in his 1952 apostolic constitution on migrants, Exsul Familia Nazarethana. His successor, St. John XXIII, relied upon it heavily for his own social encyclical, Mater et magistra, and his encyclical on peace and development, Pacem in terris. Despite the great importance that Pius XII and St. John XXIII attached to La solennità della Pentecoste, it became something of a missing link in the Church’s social teaching in later years. Neither Paul VI nor St. John Paul II relied upon it especially heavily in their own social encyclicals. Today, it is available on the Vatican’s website in Italian and Spanish. However, it has not been, to the editors’ knowledge, widely available in English before now. 

Pius’s address is first and foremost an act of “humble thanks” to God for the “gift” of Leo’s Rerum novarum. In the course of the address, Pius focuses intensely upon the right, which he describes as a natural right, “to make use of the material goods of the earth.” While this right may be implemented in positive law, Pius holds that “[t]his individual right cannot in any way be suppressed, even by other clear and undisputed rights over material goods.” It soon becomes plain that the great Pope saw this right as fundamental for the Church’s social teaching. It is connected, he tells us, not only with a just distribution of property, but also with the duty to support one’s family and the corresponding right to dignified work. Indeed, for Pius XII, the connection between the universal destination of goods and integral human development, especially the development of the family, was plain as day. 

The question of private property is one of the most difficult points in the Church’s social magisterium. On one hand, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas taught that private property was necessary for life in society, if not a natural right per se. On the other hand, Leo taught that the right to private property was sacred and inviolable. Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, explained that the right to private property must be subordinated to the common good in some instances. In La solennità della Pentecoste, Pius XII expands upon this teaching and explains that the right to private property flows from the right to make use of the goods of the earth. But, by the same token, the right to private property must be ordered to the universal right to the fruits of the earth. It must also serve man’s fulfillment of his duties, particularly his duties to his family, and his development. 

It is in this same vein that Pius XII explores the question of migration. For the Pope, the family requires a “vital space”—a homestead of its own—for it to make use of the earth and to secure a living for itself. Pius looks to the diversity of the environment and sees opportunity for families to migrate across the face of the earth to find suitable land to carve out for themselves a vital space and to develop not only themselves but also the society of their new homes. The applicability of La solennità della Pentecoste to a question much debated by Catholics today—the question of migration—shows in one way the great value of Pius’s thought. 

The Feast of Pentecost

Radio message of June 1, 1941 on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Rerum novarum

Pope Pius XII

AAS 33 (1941) 201, as translated in Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 531–35, lightly edited for The Josias.

THE FEAST OF PENTECOST, that glorious birthday of the Church of Christ, is to our mind, dear children of the whole world, a welcome and auspicious occasion and one full of high import on which to address to you in the midst of the difficulties and strife of the present hour a message of love, encouragement and comfort. We speak to you at a moment when every energy and force, physical and intellectual, of an ever-increasing section of mankind is being strained to a degree and intensity never before known beneath the iron, inexorable law of war; and when from other radio aerials are going forth words full of passion, bitterness, division and strife.

But the aerials of the Vatican Hill, ground dedicated to be the uncontaminated source of good tidings and of their beneficent diffusion throughout the world from the place of martyrdom and the tomb of the first Peter, can transmit only words animated with the consoling spirit of that preaching with which, on the first Pentecost day as it came from the lips of Saint Peter, Jerusalem resounded and was stirred. It is a spirit of burning apostolic love, a spirit which, conscious of no more vivid desire to holier joy than that of bringing all, friends and enemies, to the feet of the Crucified One of Calvary, to the tomb of the glorified Son of God and the Redeemer of the human race, to convince all that only in Him and in the truth taught by Him and in the love which He, doing good to all and healing all, taught by His example, even to sacrificing Himself for the life of the world, can there be found true salvation and lasting happiness for individuals and for peoples.

In this hour, pregnant with events that are known only to the divine counsels which rule the story of nations and watch over the Church, it is for us, beloved children, a source of sincere joy and gratification in letting you hear the voice of your common father to call you together, so to speak, in a world-wide Catholic meeting so that you may experience and enjoy in the bond of peace that “one heart” and “one soul” (Acts 4:32) which hold together under the impulse of the Holy Spirit the faithful of Jerusalem on Pentecost Day. As the circumstances created by the war make direct living contact between the Supreme Pastor and his flock in many cases difficult, we greet with all the more gratitude this most expedite bridge which the inventive genius of our age throws across the ether in a flash to unite across mountains, seas and continents every corner of the earth. And thus what for many is a weapon of war becomes for us a heaven-sent means of patient, peaceful apostolate which realizes and gives new significance to the words of holy scripture: “Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the world.” (Psalms, xviii, 5; Romans, x, 18). Thus does it seem as if were renewed the miracle of Pentecost, when the different peoples who had assembled in Jerusalem from regions speaking various languages heard the voice of Peter and the apostles in their own tongue.

With genuine delight we today make use of so wonderful an instrument in order to call to the attention of the Catholic world a memory worthy of being written in letters of gold on the calendar of the church: The fiftieth anniversary of the publication on May 15, 1891, of the epoch-making social encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum novarum.

It was in the profound conviction that the Church has not only the right but even the duty to make an authoritative pronouncement on the social question that Leo XIII addressed his message to the world. He had no intention of laying down guiding principles of the purely practical, we might say the technical side of the social structure; for he was well aware of the fact—as our immediate predecessor of saintly memory, Pius XI, pointed out ten years ago in his commemorative encyclical, Quadragesimo anno—that the Church does not claim such a mission. In the general framework of labor to stimulate the sane and responsible development of all the energies, physical and spiritual, of individuals in their free organization there opens up a wide field of action where the public authority comes in with its integrating and coordinating activity, exercised first through the local and professional corporations and finally in the activity of the State itself, whose higher moderating social authority has the important duty of forestalling the dislocations of economic balance arising from plurality and divergence of clashing interests, individual and collective.

It is, on the other hand, the indisputable competence of the Church, on that side of the social order where it meets and enters into contact with the moral order, to decide whether the bases of a given social system are in accord with the unchangeable order which God, our Creator and Redeemer, has shown us through the natural law and revelation, that twofold manifestation to which Leo XIII appeals in his encyclical, and with reason: For the dictates of the natural law and the truths of revelation spring forth in a different manner, like two streams of water that do not flow against one another but together from the same divine source; and the Church, guardian of the supernatural Christian order in which nature and grace converge, must form the consciences even of those who are called upon to find solutions for the problems and the duties imposed by social life. From the form given to society, whether conforming or not to the divine law, depends and emerges the good or ill of souls, depends, that is, the decision whether men, all called to be revived by the grace of Christ, do actually in the detailed course of their life breathe the healthy vivifying atmosphere of truth and moral virtue or the disease-laden and often fatal air of error and corruption. Before such a thought and such an anticipation how could the Church, loving mother that she is, solicitous for the welfare of her children, remain an indifferent onlooker in their danger, remain silent or feign not to see or take cognizance of social conditions which, whether one wills it or not, make difficult or practically impossible a Christian life in conformity with the precepts of the Divine Lawgiver?

Conscious of such a grave responsibility, Leo XIII, addressing the encyclical to the world, pointed out to the conscience of Christians the errors and dangers of the materialist Socialist conception, the fatal consequences of economic liberalism so often unaware or forgetful or contemptuous of social duties, and exposed with masterly clarity and wonderful precision the principles that were necessary and suitable for improving—gradually and peacefully—the material and spiritual lot of the worker.

If, beloved children, you ask us today, after fifty years from the date of publication of the encyclical, to what extent the efficacy of his message corresponds to its noble intentions, to its thought so full of truth, to the beneficent directions understood and suggested by its wise author, we feel that we must answer thus: It is precisely to render to Almighty God from the bottom of our heart our humble thanks for the gift which fifty years ago he bestowed on the Church in that encyclical of His vicar on earth and to praise Him for the life-giving breath of the spirit which through it in ever-growing measure from that time on has blown on all mankind, that we on this Feast of Pentecost have decided to address you.

Our predecessor, Pius XI, has already exalted in the first part of his commemorative encyclical the splendid crop of good to which Rerum novarum like a fertile sowing had given rise. From it sprang forth a Catholic social teaching which gave to the children of the Church, priests and laymen, an orientation and method for social reconstruction which was overflowing with good effects; for, through it there arose in the Catholic field numerous and diverse beneficent institutions that were flourishing centers of reciprocal help for themselves and others. What an amount of well-being, material and natural; what spiritual and supernatural profit, has come to the workers and their families from the Catholic unions! How efficacious and suited to the need has been the help afforded by the syndicates and associations in favor of the agricultural and middle class to relieve their wants, defend them from injustice and in this way by soothing passion to save social peace from disorder!

Nor was this the whole benefit. The encyclical Rerum novarum, coming down to the people and greeting them with esteem and love, went deep into the hearts and esteem of the working class and inspired it with a sense of Christian sentiment and civil dignity; indeed, its powerful influence came with the passage of the years to expand and spread to such an extent that its norms became almost the common property of all men. And while the State in the Nineteenth Century, through excessive exaltation of liberty, considered as its exclusive scope the safeguarding of liberty by law, Leo XIII admonished it that it had also the duty to interest itself in social welfare, taking care of the entire people and of all its members, especially the weak and the dispossessed, through a generous social program and the creation of a labor code. His call evoked a powerful response; and it is a clear duty of justice to recognize the progress which has been achieved in the lot of workers through the pains taken by civil authorities in many lands. Hence was it well said that Rerum novarum became the Magna Charta of Christian social endeavor.

Meanwhile, there was passing a half-century which has left deep furrows and grievous disturbance in the domain of nations and society. The questions which social and especially economic changes and upheavals offered for moral consideration after Rerum novarum have been treated with penetrating acumen by our immediate predecessor in the encyclical Quadragesimo anno.

The ten years that have followed it have been no less fraught with surprises in social and economic life than the years before it and have finally poured their dark and turbulent waters into the sea of war whose unforeseen currents may affect our economy and society.

What problems and what particular undertakings, some perhaps entirely novel, our social life will present to the care of the Church at the end of this conflict, which sets so many peoples against one another, it is difficult at the moment to trace or foresee. If, however, the future has its roots in the past, if the experience of recent years is to be our guide for the future, we feel we may avail ourselves of this commemoration to give some further directive moral principles on three fundamental values of social and economic life; and we shall do this animated by the very spirit of Leo XIII and unfolding his views which were more than prophetic, presaging the social revolution of the day. These three fundamental values, which are closely connected one with the other, mutually complementary and dependent, are: The use of material goods, labor and the family.

The encyclical Rerum novarum expounds, on the questions of property and man’s sustenance, principles which have lost nothing of their inherent vigor with the passage of time, and today, fifty years after, strike their roots deeper and retain their innate vitality. In our encyclical Sertum laetitiae, directed to the Bishops of the United States of America, we called the attention of all to the basic idea of these principles, which consists, as we said, in the assertion of the unquestionable need “that the goods which were created by God for all men should flow equally to all according to the principles of justice and charity.”

Every man as a living being gifted with reason has in fact from nature the fundamental right to make use of the material goods of the earth while it is left to the will of man and to the juridical statutes of nations to regulate in greater detail the actuation of this right. This individual right cannot in any way be suppressed, even by other clear and undisputed rights over material goods. Undoubtedly the natural order deriving from God demands also private property and the free reciprocal commerce of goods by interchange and gift as well as the functioning of the State as a control over both these institutions. But all this remains subordinated to the natural scope of material goods and cannot emancipate itself from the first and fundamental right which concedes their use to all men; but it should rather serve to make possible the actuation of this right in conformity with its scope. Only thus can we and must we insure that private property and the use of material goods bring to society peace and prosperity and long life, that they no longer set up precarious conditions which will give rise to struggles and jealousies and which are left to the mercy and the blind interplay of force and weakness.

The native right to the use of material goods, intimately linked as it is to the dignity and other rights of the human person together with the statutes mentioned above, provides man with a secure material basis of the highest import on which to rise to the fulfillment with reasonable liberty of his moral duties. The safe guardianship of this right will insure the personal dignity of man and will facilitate for him the attention to and fulfillment of that sum of stable duties and decisions for which he is directly responsible to his Creator.

Man has, in truth, the entirely personal duty to preserve and order to perfection his material and spiritual life, so as to secure the religious and moral scope which God has assigned to all men and has given them as the supreme norm, obliging always and everywhere, before all other duties.

To safeguard the inviolable sphere of the rights of the human person and to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties should be the essential office of every public authority. Does not this flow from that genuine concept of the common good which the State is called upon to promote? Hence it follows that the care of such a common good does not imply a power so extensive over the members of the community that in virtue of it the public authority can interfere with the evolution of that individual activity which we have just described, decide on the beginning or the ending of human life, determine at will the manner of his physical, spiritual, religious and moral movements in opposition to the personal duties or rights of man and to this end abolish or deprive of efficacy his natural rights to material goods. To deduce such extension of power from the care of the common good would be equivalent to overthrowing the very meaning of the words common good and falling into the error that the proper scope of man on earth is society, that society is an end itself, that man has no other life which awaits him beyond that which ends here below.

Likewise the national economy, as it is the product of the men who work together in the community of the State, has no other end than to secure without interruption the material conditions in which the individual life of the citizens may fully develop. Where this is secured in a permanent way a people will be in a true sense economically rich because the general well-being and consequently the personal right of all to the use of worldly goods is thus actuated in conformity with the purpose willed by the Creator.

From this, beloved children, it will be easy for you to conclude that the economic riches of a people do not properly consist in the abundance of goods measured according to a purely and solely material calculation of their worth but in the fact that such an abundance represents and offers really and effectively the material basis sufficient for the proper personal development of its members. If such a just distribution of goods were not secured or were effected imperfectly, the real scope of national economy would not be attained; for although there were at hand a lucky abundance of goods to dispose of, the people in not being called upon to share them would not be economically rich but poor. Suppose, on the other hand, that such a distribution is effected genuinely and permanently and you will see a people even if it disposes of less goods making itself economically sound.

These fundamental concepts regarding the riches and poverty of peoples it seems to us particularly opportune to set before you today when there is a tendency to measure and judge such riches and poverty by balance sheets and by purely quantitative criteria of the need or the redundance of goods. If, instead, the scope of the national economy is correctly considered then it will become a guide for the efforts of statesmen and peoples and will enlighten them to walk spontaneously along a way which does not call for continual exactions in goods and blood but will give fruits of peace and general welfare.

With the use of material goods you yourselves, dear children, see how labor is connected. Rerum novarum teaches that there are two essential characteristics of human labor: it is personal and it is necessary. It is personal because it is achieved through the exercise of man’s particular forces; it is necessary because without it one cannot secure what is indispensable to life; and man has a natural, grave, individual obligation to maintain life.

To the personal duty to labor imposed by nature corresponds and follows the natural right of each individual to make of labor the means to provide for his own life and that of his children; so profoundly is the empire of nature ordained for the preservation of man.

But note that such a duty and the corresponding right to work is imposed on and conceded to the individual in the first instance by nature and not by society as if man were nothing more than a mere slave or official of the community. From that it follows that the duty and the right to organize the labor of the people belongs, above all, to the people immediately interested: the employers and the workers. If they do not fulfill their functions or cannot because of special extraordinary emergencies fulfill them then it falls back on the State to intervene in the field of labor and in the divisions and distribution of work according to the form and measure that the common good, properly understood, demands.

In any case, every legitimate and beneficial interference of the State in the field of labor should be such as to safeguard and respect its personal character both in the broad outlines and as far as possible in what concerns its execution; and this will happen if the norms of the State do not abolish or render impossible the exercise of other rights and duties equally personal; such as the right to give God His due worship; the right to marry; the right of husband and wife, of father and mother to lead a married domestic life; the right to reasonable liberty in the choice of a state of life and the fulfillment of a true vocation; a personal right, this last, if these ever was one, belonging to the spirit of man and sublime when the higher imprescriptible rights of God and of the Church meet as in the choice and fulfillment of the priestly and religious vocations.

According to the teaching of Rerum novarum nature itself has closely joined private property with the existence of human society and its true civilization and in a very special manner with the existence and development of the family. Such a link appears more than obvious. Should not private property secure for the father of a family the healthy liberty he needs in order to fulfill the duties assigned him by the Creator, regarding the physical, spiritual and religious welfare of the family?

In the family the nation finds the natural and fecund roots of its greatness and power. If private property has to conduce to the good of the family, all public standards and specially those of the State which regulate its possession must not only make possible and preserve such a function—a function in the natural order under certain aspects superior to all others—but must also perfect it ever more. A so-called civil progress would in fact be unnatural which—either through the excessive burdens imposed or through exaggerated direct interference—were to render private property void of significance, practically taking from the family and its head the freedom to follow the scope set by God for the perfection of family life.

Of all the goods that can be the object of private property none is more conformable to nature, according to the teaching of Rerum novarum, than the land, the holding in which the family lives, and from the products of which it draws all or part of its subsistence. And it is in the spirit of Rerum novarum to state that as a rule only that stability which is rooted in one’s own holding makes of the family the most vital and most perfect and fecund cell of society, joining up in a brilliant manner in its progressive cohesion the present and future generations.

If today the concept of the creation of vital spaces is at the center of social and political aims should not one, before all else, think of the vital space of the family and free it of the fetters of conditions which do not permit even to formulate the idea of a homestead of one’s own?

Our planet, with all its extent of oceans and seas and lakes, with mountains and plains covered with eternal snows and ice, with great deserts and tractless lands is not all the same, without habitable regions and vital spaces now abandoned to wild natural vegetation and well suited to be cultivated by man to satisfy his needs and civil activities; and more than once it is inevitable that some families, migrating from one spot to another, should go elsewhere in search of a new homeland. Then, according to the teaching of Rerum novarum, the right of the family to a vital space is recognized. When this happens, emigration attains its natural scope as experience often shows; we mean the more favorable distribution of men on the earth’s surface suitable to colonies of agricultural workers; that surface which God created and prepared for the use of all. If the two parties, those who agree to leave their native land and those who agree to admit the newcomers, remain anxious to eliminate as far as possible all obstacles to the birth and growth of real confidence between the country of emigration and that of immigration all those affected by such a transference of people and places will profit by the transaction. The families will receive a plot of ground which will be native land for them in the true sense of the word. The quickly inhabitatied countries will be relieved and their people will acquire new friends in foreign countries; and the States which receive the emigrants will acquire industrious citizens. In this way the nations which give and those which receive will both contribute to the increased welfare of man and the progress of human culture.

These are the principal concepts of man, beloved children, with which we should wish even now to share in the future organization of that new order which the world expects and hopes will arise from the seething ferment of the present struggle to set the peoples at rest in peace and justice. What remains for us but in the spirit of Leo XIII and in accordance with his advice and purpose to exhort you to continue to promote the work which the last generation of your brothers and sisters had begun with such stanch courage? Do not let die in your midst and fade away the insistent call of the social encyclical, that voice which indicates to the faithful in the super-natural regeneration on mankind the moral obligation to cooperate in the arrangement of society and especially of economic life, exhorting those who share in this life to action no less than the estate itself. Is not this a sacred duty for every Christian? Do not let the external difficulties put you off, dear children; do not be upset by the obstacle of the growing paganism of public life.

Do not let yourselves be misled by the manufacturers of errors and unhealthy theories, those deplorable trends not of increase but of decomposition and of corruption of the religious life; currents of thought which hold that since redemption belongs to the sphere of supernatural grace and is, therefore, exclusively the work of God, there is no need for us to cooperate on earth. Oh, lamentable ignorance of the work of God! “Professing themselves to be wise they became fools.” (Romans, 1:22).

As if the first efficacy of grace were not to cooperate with our sincere efforts to fulfill every day the commandments of God as individuals and as members of society; as if for the last 2,000 years there had not lived nor persevered in the soul of the Church the sense of the collective responsibility of all for all; so that souls were moved and are moved even to heroic charity, the souls of the monks who cultivated the land, those who freed slaves, those who healed the sick, those who spread the faith, civilization and science to all ages and all peoples, to create social conditions which alone are capable of making possible and feasible for all a life worthy of a man and of a Christian. But you who are conscious and convinced of this sacred responsibility must not ever be satisfied with this widespread public mediocrity in which the majority of men cannot, except by heroic acts of virtue, observe the divine precepts which are always and in all cases inviolable.

If between the ideal and this realization there appears even now an evident lack of proportion; if there have been failures, common indeed to all human activity, if divergencies of view arose on the way followed or to be followed, all this should not make you depressed or slow up your step or give rise to lamentations or recriminations nor should it make you forget the consoling fact that the inspired message of the Pope of Rerum novarum sent forth a living and clear stream of strong social sense, sincere and disinterested; a stream which, if it be now partly perhaps covered by a landslide of divergent and overpowering events, tomorrow when the ruin of this world hurricane is cleared at the outset of that reconstruction of a new social order which is a desire worthy of God and of man, will infuse new courage and a new wave of profusion and growth in the garden of human culture. Keep burning the noble flame of a brotherly social spirit which fifty years ago was rekindled in the hearts of your fathers by the luminous torch of the words of Leo XIII; do not permit it to lack for nourishment; let it flare up through your homage; and not die quenched by an unworthy, timid cautious inaction in face of the needs of the poor among our brethren or be overcome by the dust and dirt carried by whirlwind of the anti-Christian or non-Christian spirit. Nourish it; keep it alive; increase it; make this flame burn more brightly; carry it wherever a groan of suffering, a lament of misery, a cry of pain, reaches you; feed it evermore with the heat of a love drawn from the heart of your Redeemer, to which the month that now begins is consecrated. Go to that Divine Heart meek and humble, refuge of all comfort in the fatigue and responsibility of the active life; it is the heart of Him Who, to every act genuine and pure, given in his name and in His spirit in favor of the suffering, the hard-pressed, of those abandoned by the world or deprived of all goods and fortune, has promised the eternal reward of the blessed; you blessed of My Father! What you have done to the least of my brethren you have done it to Me!

Header Image: C. Schmitt, Descent of the Holy Spirit (detail).