Early in the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, which began shortly before the start of the Second World War, the Pontiff issued his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. The doctrine of the encyclical has lost none of its significance today, when the Church and the world confront another crisis, different from World War II, but requiring the same principles to confront it.
Repeating the teaching of his predecessor Pius XI, who had established the Feast of Christ the King to emphasize mankind’s dependence on Our Lord Jesus Christ, Pius XII affirmed the need for the Church’s role in guiding the nations, while at the same time insisting that the Church does not interfere with the rightful authority of civil governments. But while clarifying this relationship between Church and State, Pius XII warned against the attempt of governments to assume total control over society.
The recent Appeal of three cardinals and nine bishops, against an excessive reaction of government officials to confronting the coronavirus, finds its foundation and support in these words of Pius XII:
To consider the State as something ultimate to which everything else should be subordinated and directed, cannot fail to harm the true and lasting prosperity of nations. This can happen either when unrestricted dominion comes to be conferred on the State as having a mandate from the nation, people, or even a social order, or when the State arrogates such dominion to itself as absolute master, despotically, without any mandate whatsoever. If, in fact, the State lays claim to and directs private enterprises, these, ruled as they are by delicate and complicated internal principles which guarantee and assure the realization of their special aims, may be damaged to the detriment of the public good, by being wrenched from their natural surroundings, that is, from responsible private action [§60].
Pope Pius XII was giving a general principle, but one which applies to the specific circumstances of today, when excessive measures have been taken to close businesses in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. No one can deny that civil government has a role in protecting public health, but not in such a way – in the words of Pius XII – that it can claim absolute authority over private businesses: “…ruled as they are by delicate and complicated internal principles which guarantee and assure the realization of their special aims….” A Catholic moral and social principle that governs societies, taught by Pius XII’s predecessor Pius XI, is that of subsidiarity. This principle affirms that institutions within society can make prudent judgments on their own, which must not be replaced by centralized control when they can more competently and effectively apply the general principles themselves.
Of unique importance in this regard is the role of the Church. If governments claim exclusive competence over public health, they are ignoring centuries of history, which demonstrate the leading role which the Church played in building the first hospitals. More then a century ago Dr. James J. Walsh, M.D., in The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries, demonstrated how Pope Innocent III had a hospital built in Rome, which in turn inspired bishops throughout Europe to do the same in their own dioceses. It was the Church that led in the development of health care as it is known today, but it is now governments that claim authority over the Church, not only in matters of health, but also in the celebration of Mass and in administering the Sacraments.
This crisis arose, however, not merely out of a conflict between Church and State, but from a controversy that took place within the Church herself. The debate about Church-State relations at the Second Vatican Council centered around a proposition relating to religious liberty that had been condemned by Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura – a proposition concerning not the Catholic Church specifically, but all religions in general. Wanting to make every religion equal, proponents of the proposition condemned by Pius IX sought to grant all religions equal rights. Vatican II’s decree Dignitatis Humanae affirmed a principle that opponents considered to be the same as the previously condemned proposition. But with the publication later of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, an explanation was given, indicating that the condemned proposition implied the rejection of the supernatural order (§2109), whereas the Conciliar decree affirmed a natural right in relation to the supernatural.
After the Council, nevertheless, an ambiguity persisted. While civil government is limited by the Conciliar decree in its authority over religious matters, what are the duties of civil governments toward the Catholic Church? The new formulation of Catholic teaching limited the traditional doctrine to a general statement, while at the same time opening a door to increased powers of government in every other domain beyond the strictly religious. As Brazilian Fatima scholar Antonio Borelli Machado explains, in the appendix to our booklet Fatima and the Third Secret, the Vatican chose to postpone the publication of the Third Secret in 1960 because of the preparations at the time for the Council – as Cardinal Ratzinger explained when the Secret was published in June 2000 – and in particular because of the desire for better relations with the Communist governments. However, Juan Donoso Cortés argued in 1851, in Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism, that Catholicism and socialism, and therefore Communism, are diametrically opposed. The translator of the English edition of his book received a special blessing in 1862 from Pope Pius IX.