Benedict XV: Celeberrima evenisse

Introductory Note

Pope Benedict XV’s letter Celeberrima evenisse resulted from one of the diplomatic triumphs of his brief pontificate: the reëstablishment of diplomatic relations with Portugal. The anti-clerical revolutionaries, who in 1910 had overturned the Portuguese monarchy and established a republic, had soon passed laws on the “separation” of Church and state that in reality amounted to a programme of persecution of the Church. Monasteries and seminaries were closed, Catholic teaching in the schools was abolished, bishops were expelled from their dioceses, even the wearing of the cassock was forbidden. Pope St. Pius X vehemently protested these outrages in the encyclical Iamdudum in Lusitania. Such extreme anti-Catholic measures contributed to deep divisions in Portuguese society, and the country was torn by unrest in the years following the Revolution of 1910. By 1918 the government was ready to compromise with the Holy See, and it reëstablished diplomatic relations, asking that in return the Holy See “insist on the faithful’s fuller acceptance of the Republic.”[1]

And in Celeberrima evenisse Pope Benedict XV did so insist with remarkable vehemence. He states that it is “a Christian’s duty faithfully to submit to the authority which is actually in power,” because, “on this depends the common good.” This follows from the traditional teaching that political powers ordered to the common good are established by God. So that, as Henri Grenier put it, “after a usurper has established himself in power citizens are bound to submit to his decrees if they are in the interest of the common good, for otherwise there would be no legislator, and the State would perish.” Intransigent Portuguese Catholics might have countered that given the persistent civil unrest, not to mention the outrageous attacks on the common good through the law of separation, it was not at all clear whether the usurping republicans had “established” themselves.

In any event, the Benedict XV’s letter can be seen as part of a wider policy of returning to Pope Leo XIII’s controversial policy of ralliement, and extending it to countries other than France. He explicitly cites Leo XIII’s Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, the encyclical inaugurating the ralliement in France. The ralliement was a clever but risky strategy for re-Catholicising post-revolutionnary nations. Pope Leo had wanted French Catholics to use republican political processes to change the republic from within, transforming it into a Catholic republic. Many Catholics, however, balked at a policy which implied recognizing the legitimacy of a republic founded in the unspeakable crimes of the Revolution. Pius X had grave doubts about the prudence of the ralliement. And he essentially reversed the policy when he became pope. His fear was that instead of leading to a reëstablishment of Christendom through a transformation of republics, it would instead lead to a transformation of Catholics into liberal republicans. He saw his fears realized in the Sillon movement, which he condemned in the apostolic letter Notre Charge Apostolique.

Benedict XV was in turn was deeply disturbed by St. Pius X’s reversal of the Leonine policy, and immediately sought to undo it when he ascended the chair of St. Peter— much to the dismay “integralists” in the Roman curia, such as Pius X’s Secretary of State, Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val. Writing of Benedict XV’s much heralded reëstablishment of diplomatic relations with Portugal, Spain, and France, Merry del Val wrote:

…too much politics, worldly diplomacy and intrigue that are hardly in keeping with the lofty ideals of our mission, nor profitable to the best interests of God and his Church. Here, alas, we come up against it at every step, all day and every day… We are drifting . . . Surely at a time when the world has lost its bearings and is anxiously seeking that which we alone are able to provide, we should not drift ourselves, or appear to juggle with principles, but hold up the lesson of light as God gave it to us and refrain from the tactics of human politics.[2]

Both Cardinal Merry del Val and Pope Benedict XV were orthodox and God-fearing Churchmen who had the good of the Church and the salvation of souls at heart. And Cardinal Merry del Val, as a strong ultramontane, was entirely loyal to the Benedict XV as ruler and teacher of the universal Church. Their sharp disagreements about the proper approach of the Church in relating to modernity can be a consolation to us today facing similar disagreements. The programme of engagement with the world laid out in Gaudium et Spes can be seen as a kind of extended ralliement— a hope that the modern ideal of progress could be “subverted” by the Church. And it carried similar risks. Far too many Catholics in the post-conciliar period have instead themselves been transformed into secular liberals, while those who have their doubts about the wisdom of the programme are too often accused of being disloyal to the living magisterium of the Church. But they are no-more disloyal than was Merry del Val.

Letter To António Cardinal Mendes Bello, Patriarch of Lisbon, and to the other archbishops and bishops of Portugal: Counseling submission and obedience to the constituted civil power.

Pope Benedict XV

December 18, 1919

AAS 12 (1920) 32-33, as translated in Principles For Peace: Selections From Papal Documents Leo XIII to Pius XII, ed. Harry C. Koenig (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1943), pp. 280-282, lightly edited for The Josias.

We were indeed very glad to hear that the solemnities were very well attended which took place recently in honor of Blessed Nonius Alvares at Lisbon, and that very many of you took part in them. For thus taking advantage of the excellent opportunity you not only took counsel over the state of affairs with one another, in order to set forth a joint program for your flocks in matters which pertain to Religion and State, but you also learned from the Apostolic Nuncio Our opinion in this most serious matter. Nevertheless, Venerable Brethren, on account of Our special love for the most noble Portuguese nation We wish to speak to you paternally. First of all We cherish a well-founded hope that all whether clergy or laity, whose sincere love of country is certainly most clearly established will be second to none in re-establishing peace and good-will among their fellow citizens. For since the Church, as is evident, must neither be responsible to political parties, nor serve political interests, it is, therefore, her duty to urge the faithful to obey those who are in authority, whatever be the constitution of the State. For on this depends the common good, which is certainly, according to God’s plan, the first law of the State, as Our Predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, clearly set forth in his Encyclical, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, of February 16, 1892. Moreover, writing to the Cardinals of France on the 3rd of May of the same year, he stated that it was a Christian’s duty faithfully to submit to the authority which is actually in power. Following, therefore, the teaching and practice of the Church, which has always been accustomed to be on friendly terms with States of whatever constitution, and which has recently restored relations with the Republic of Portugal, let Catholics, with a clear conscience, submit also to this civil authority as it is now constituted, and for the common good of Religion and State let them willingly accept public offices if they are conferred. We make these exhortations all the more willingly because, from what has been reported to Us, We are confident that the Portuguese authorities will uphold the complete freedom of the Church and the exercise of her sacred rights that she may there most profitably carry out her divine commission. It will be your task, Venerable Brethren, together with the clergy to urge the faithful from time to time that, considering Mother Church more important than worldly interests and political parties, they strive by all means to protect her rights with united strength. For thus they will greatly contribute to the increase and prosperity of their native Portugal, that she may successfully continue to carry out the most glorious task she has received from Divine Providence especially in spreading the Faith and civilization throughout the vast extent of her colonies.  As an earnest of divine gifts and a pledge of Our benevolence, We impart from Our heart to you, beloved Son, and to your Venerable Brethren, and to all your clergy and people the Apostolic Benediction.

Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s on the 18th of December, 1919, the sixth year of Our Pontificate


[1] R. A. H. Robinson, “The Religious Question and the Catholic Revival in Portugal, 1900-30,” in: Journal of Contemporary History 12 (1977), pp. 345-362, at pp. 355-356.

[2] Letter to Cardinal O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, November, 192, cited in: John F. Pollard, The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV (1914-1922) and the Pursuit of Peace (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999), p. 158. Merry del Val had long mistrusted Giacomo della Chiesa/Benedict XV. He had arranged for della Chiesa to be moved from the powerful post of Sostituto of the Secretary of State, and made Archbishop of Bologna (promoveatur ut amoveatur). When the ballot that elected della Chiesa pope was counted in the Sistine chapel, Cardinal Merry del Val was heard to murmur ‘Oh, this is a calamity!’ (Ibid. p. 67).

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