The Pope was Benedict XV (1914-1922). He warned the faithful against the evils of socialism in a document issued exactly one hundred years ago this month on March 11, 1920.
The title says it all: “Epistle Soliti Nos: On the Need to Beware of Socialist Propaganda.”1 Although a century old, Pope Benedict’s warning remains perfectly up to date. It seems appropriate to present a summary here.2
However, the facts that gave rise to this pontifical warning must first be told.
Ideal Culture Medium for Socialist and Communist Propaganda
The pontificate of Benedict XV (1914-1922) took place during one of the most troubled periods in history. There was the First World War, which the Pope called “the suicide of civilized Europe,” with all its horrors of death and destruction. The conflict was followed by a sinister procession of revolutions (notably the Bolshevik Revolution). The “Spanish flu,” one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, struck at this time.
The “chaos and dramatic change that had arisen from the ashes of devastated Europe — the fall of empires, the creation of new states, the seizure of Russia by communism”3 — created an ideal culture medium for the germination of socialist and communist propaganda: political and social unrest, economic crisis, unemployment, misery and hunger.
The Crisis in the Diocese of Bergamo
After the war, the Church sought to lessen the impact of the conflict by assisting ex-prisoners of war, tending wounded soldiers and delivering food to needy populations. The Church also set up centers to welcome and guide the hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers and aid their families.
Thus, Bishop Luigi Maria Marelli of Bergamo worked together with the Diocesan Council and created a Special Labor Office to meet these needs.
However, some Office directors lost sight of the supernatural character of their mission and limited themselves to helping workers materially. Worse yet, they let themselves be influenced by socialist rhetoric and revolutionary demagogy and began to foster class struggle.
Pope Benedict XV had his own experiences with socialists when he was Archbishop of Bologna for nearly seven years. The city had been a focal point of agitation on the Peninsula. Based on his experience, he felt obliged to intervene forcefully to nip the evil in the bud and prevent it from spreading.
Letter to the Bishop of Bergamo
Thus, on March 11, 1920, the Pope wrote the Bishop of Bergamo:
“Accustomed to consider our Bergamo citizens with particular pleasure because they stand out for their Christian life in an exemplary way, it was with real alarm that we became aware of some negative rumors related to incidents of popular unrest said to have occurred there.”
This agitation, Benedict XV continues, is not spontaneous but the work of the “enemy,” who is looking for the right moment to “take advantage of the crisis of these unfortunate times to sow evil weeds in such fruitful soil.”
Given that bad seed, once taken root, can eventually stifle the good grain, “we deem it our strict duty … to commit ourselves with all our strength to prevent it from developing.”
Desiring that the measures taken by the bishop be obeyed in earnest, the Pope assures the bishop that “our authority is supporting yours.”
After warmly approving the creation of the Office to assist unemployed workers returning from the war, the Pontiff warns:
“This [Office] is an excellent and most useful institution if it functions according to the dictates of religion. If not, however, we unfortunately know the many disorders that it can bring upon society.”
“Therefore, the directors of this Office, who work so closely for the common good, need to always keep in mind and scrupulously observe the principles of social science imparted by the Holy See in the memorable Encyclical Rerum Novarum and other documents.”
Pope Benedict XV exhorts them to recall the following fundamental points:
- No one receives the gift of being truly happy in this short mortal life because true, perfect and eternal happiness awaits us only in heaven as a reward for those who lived well.
- Thus, all our actions must aim toward this goal.
- Instead of being so zealous of our rights, we must also consider fulfilling our duties.
- While we can improve our living conditions in this mortal life and obtain greater well-being, nothing is more beneficial for the common good than harmony and concord between all social classes, achieved with Christian charity.
Those Who Set the Poor Against the Rich Harm the Interests of Workers
Benedict warns the Office’s directors to avoid acrimonious language like that used by “our adversaries,” the socialists, who play the poor against the rich. In so doing, they harm, not help, the interests of workers.
“See, therefore, how harmful it is to the workers’ interests when those who strive to improve workers’ conditions are willing to help them only to obtain passing goods. Thus, they neglect not only to moderate their aspirations by appealing to Christian duties but increasingly incite them against the rich with the acrimonious language that our adversaries normally employ to incite the crowds to social revolution.”
Avoid the Intemperate Language Proper to Socialists
The Pope insists that Catholics avoid the intemperance of socialist jargon:
“To avoid such a serious danger, Venerable Brother, make sure to indicate, as you already do, that those who dedicate themselves to defending the workers’ cause should carefully avoid using the intemperate language of ‘socialists,’ and develop activities and promotions fully impregnated with the Christian spirit. If not, they can do a lot of harm, and certainly draw no benefit.”
He then orders that measures be taken against recalcitrants:
“We hope that everyone will be obedient, and if anyone refuses to obey, you will remove him from office without further ado.”
The Priests’ Duty to Combat These Enemies of the Catholic Faith and Society
Benedict XV categorically affirms that priests, and especially parish priests, cannot sit idly by in the face of socialist propaganda.
On the contrary, he says,
“It is, therefore, the duty of priests, and above all parish priests, to vigorously oppose these most dangerous enemies of the Catholic faith and society by uniting to fight them closely under your leadership, Venerable Brother.”
He then answers the objection that priests should not deal with temporal issues like socialism:
“No one should believe that this stand [against socialism] is something alien to the sacred ministry because it is an economic issue. Indeed, that is precisely why it poses an imminent risk for the eternal salvation of souls.”
Priests Must Guard the Faithful Against the Insidiousness of Socialists
Finally, Benedict XV orders priests to alert the faithful to the pitfalls of socialist propaganda:
“Thus, let them seek to accurately teach their faithful the norms of Christian life by putting them on guard against the insidiousness of ‘socialists.’ By promoting their economic improvement, they should always remind the faithful about that which the Church recommends: ‘Let us try and go through temporal goods so as not to lose the eternal ones.’”
Saint Joseph, Heavenly Protector Against Socialism
Pope Benedict XV complements these norms in a later document, in which he further condemns “socialism, the most bitter enemy of Christian principles.” He gives the faithful a Patron in the fight against socialism and communism: Saint Joseph.
On July 25, 1920, the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church, he published the Motu Proprio Bonum Sane.
In this new document, the Pope refers to his letter to the Bishop of Bergamo. After describing the advances of immorality and socialist propaganda, he proposes Saint Joseph as the heavenly Protector against the contagion of socialism:
“Thus, We see with real pain that public customs are now much more depraved and corrupt than before, and that, therefore, the so-called ‘social question’ has been exacerbated to the point of engendering a threat of irreparable ruins. Indeed, in the wishes and expectations of the most seditious, there has matured the advent of a certain universal republic … which is founded on the absolute equality of men and on the communion of goods, and in which there is no longer any distinction of nationality, does not recognize the authority of the father on the children, neither of the public power on the citizens, nor of God on the men gathered in civil consortium….
“We, therefore, most worried by the course of these events, when the occasion presented itself, did not fail to remind the children of the Church of their duty, as we did in a recent letter to the Bishop of Bergamo and the Bishops of the Veneto Region. And now for the same reason, that is to say, to remind the men … who earn their bread through work, to keep them immune from the contagion of socialism, the most bitter enemy of Christian principles, We with great solicitude propose to them in a special way Saint Joseph, that they may follow him as their special guide and honor him as their heavenly Patron.”4
Invoking Saint Joseph in the Fight Against Communism and Socialism
The month of March is traditionally dedicated to Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary. He is a model father, husband, protector of the family and workers and Patron of the Church.
Socialism is one of the greatest enemies of the family, workers, and the Church: it is “the most bitter enemy of Christian principles.”
All should pray to him, especially to ask that today’s Catholics be “on guard against the insidiousness of socialists.”
- Epistola Soliti Nos del Papa Benedetto XV al R. P. Luigi Maria Marelli, Vescovo di Bergamo Sulla Necessità di Diffidare della Propaganda dei Socialisti (Epistle Soliti Nos of Pope Benedict XV to The Most Rev. Luigi Maria Marelli, Bishop of Bergamo on the Need to Beware the Socialists’ Propaganda), March 11, 1920. (Our translation.) Accessed on Feb. 20, 2020, 10:24 AM. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/letters/1920/documents/hf_ben-xv_let_19200311_soliti-nos_it.html.
- This document is hardly known, and there is no official translation of the Italian original into other languages.
- Terry Philpot, “World War I’s Pope Benedict XV and the pursuit of peace,” July 19, 2014. Accessed on Feb. 19, 2020, 10:18 AM, https://www.ncronline.org/news/justice/world-war-pope-benedict-xv-and-pursuit-peace.
- Motu Proprio di Sua Santita Benedetto XV Bonum Sane: La Devozione a San Giuseppe, da Mezzo Secolo Patrono della Chiesa Cattolica, July 25, 1920, accessed Feb. 19, 2020, 10:28 AM. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/motu_proprio/documents/hf_ben-xv_motu-proprio_19200725_bonum-sane_it.html.
- Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism), March 19, 1937, n. 81, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/04z/z_1937-03-19__SS_Pius_XI__Encyclica_%27Divini_Redemptoris%27__EN.doc.html.