Understanding the Theology of History in the Teaching of Leo XIII and the Thought of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

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Understanding the Theology of History in the Teaching of Leo XIII and the Thought of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
This statue of Pope Leo XIII is located above his tomb in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

March 19 marks the 120th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Apostolic Letter Annum ingressi, which masterfully analyzes the deep roots of the contemporary crisis. This extraordinary document, unfortunately now forgotten, profoundly influenced the thought of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

As a tireless student of the documents of the Church’s Magisterium, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira found the arguments needed for his ideological struggle in Brazil’s Catholic Movement.1 He particularly appreciated Leo XIII’s apostolic letter Annum ingressi or Parvenu à la vingt-cinquième année, its original French title.2

The apostolic letter was published on March 19, 1902, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pontificate. Prof. Plinio devoted several articles about the document in Legionário, the Catholic weekly he directed,3 and later in the Catolicismo monthly.4

This document represented one of Leo XIII’s most essential teachings on the historical events of modern times. While the Bark of Peter was sailing into a terrible storm, the pontiff taught valid principles of the theology of history, which should cause every Catholic zealous for the Church’s fate to rejoice. Unfortunately, his apostolic letter, which Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira called “as monumental as it is ignored,” was the target of a campaign of silence.

Penetration of the Revolutionary Maxims of 1789

The pope begins by appealing to the historical sense of Catholics. The social and political events of the time, he writes, can only be understood by having a clear vision of the history of peoples. Militant Catholics need this indispensable perspective to shape society according to Church doctrine.

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The ideas of the French Revolution gradually penetrated ecclesiastical circles during the nineteenth century. Once the revolutionary storm had passed, liberals reached out to Catholics and offered to come to an agreement. They would allow the faithful to pray in peace, attend their churches, and practice devotions. In exchange, the faithful would refrain from intervening in political and ideological affairs. People would thus forget the hundreds of thousands of martyrs killed by the guillotine and during the Vendée wars, and everyone could live in peace.

Many Catholics found this invitation appealing even though it clearly favored the revolutionary current that took over France in 1789. It promised peace and quiet, protected churches and kept seminaries open. However, the idea also contained a “practical heresy” because it allowed the free circulation of revolutionary maxims in schools, youth training institutes, universities, factories, commercial and banking associations, and so on. Unfortunately, this unacceptable idea found sympathizers in Church ranks.

The Need for Solid Doctrine

Thus, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira welcomed Leo XIII’s appeal to Catholics to have a theology of history and, consequently, to take a militant attitude concerning the problems of their time. He saw how this informed position could have an immediate impact on the concrete apostolate.

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Indeed, the attractive liberal proposal contained a poison pill. By excluding the faithful from political affairs, the agreement would replace the grand Catholic vision of history with a parochial one. The liberals hoped to instill in them a mentality that limited the horizons of a young man or woman in the Catholic Movement to the domestic (and proper) role of courtship and marriage. By excluding them from the political sphere, Catholics would be limited to practicing religion only in the tranquility of their home, focused on the upbringing of their children. This invitation implicitly asked Catholics to give up any militant attitude or activism against the evils of the time. Let future generations take care of it.

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira also warned of another lurking danger for young Catholics in his time. By adopting a soft, pushover attitude toward liberal dominance, they risked becoming “milk toast” Catholics, timid and apathetic devotees with mental horizons wholly within sacristy walls. They might be called “idiots” with no clear notions of current events. They risked becoming “weaklings” by failing to intervene in ongoing social controversies. In short, Catholics would become feel-good persons ready to make all sorts of concessions that invariably lead them to the left.

Understanding the Theology of History in the Teaching of Leo XIII and the Thought of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira saw Leo XIII’s apostolic letter as a powerful call to study history and be aware of ideological, social and political issues.

Prof. Plinio saw Leo XIII’s apostolic letter as a powerful call to study history and be aware of ideological, social and political issues. It also contains powerful aids to fight against the mentality of the world. The document urges Catholics to base themselves on solid doctrinal principles and adopt a conception of society in sync with the Magisterium of the Church. Legionário responded to the papal appeal to action with a powerful “I am ready!”

“The Cross Stands While the World Turns”

No authority can evoke the meaning of history more than a Roman Pontiff. No institution plays such a central role in human affairs as the Rome of the Popes.

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Indeed, the Carthusian motto Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis (the Cross remains steady while the world spins) claims history unfolds at the foot of the Cross. Thus, the key to a proper interpretation of events is found by studying the history of the Church and Christian civilization. For Christians, the history of the Church is also a treatise on the spiritual life because it reveals traces of heroism, intelligence and creativity found nowhere else. From all these perspectives, the apostolic letter Annum ingress provides a clear and concise analysis of the profound roots of the contemporary crisis.

In the pages of  Legionário, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira often expressed his immense concern about the rapid and sometimes outrageous changes in society, especially after World War II. In 1902, Leo XIII’s apostolic letter appeared as a ray of light and truth. Half a century later, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira showed the world that the Church’s light was perennial and that its truth could, by contrast, allow the faithful to discern the errors found in those changes.

Three Stages of a Process Destroying Christian Civilization

The papal document helps explain this process by looking at two historical scenes placed side by side. The first was the Middle Ages, when “the philosophy of the Gospel governed the states.” The second is the present age, where chaos reigns. Prof. Plinio asks how such a transformation was possible; why the Gospel principles have been so radically denied.

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Leo XIII’s document presents a general outline to explain this denial. It is actually a single denial in three successive stages. The first stage was Luther’s triple denial of the Papacy, Our Lady’s central role in the history of salvation and the Holy Eucharist. The second stage was the French Revolution which applied the egalitarian principles of the Lutheran revolt to the social sphere. The 1789 French revolutionaries rose against the king just as Luther had rebelled against the pope. They proclaimed popular sovereignty against the king just as some Protestant sects destroyed their religious hierarchies. Then came the third stage, communism, which applied the same principles of revolt to the economic and political fields.

Leo XIII points out that, deep down, this denial is an implacable war waged against Holy Mother Church and Christian civilization. He asks why these revolutionaries destroy medieval Christendom, which has borne “fruits important beyond all expectations?”5

Establishing a parallel between the history of the Church and the life of Her Divine Founder, the pope asks,

What offense was ever committed, what hostility deserved by the Divine Redeemer? Having come down amongst men through an impulse of Divine charity, He had taught a doctrine that was blameless, consoling, most efficacious to unite mankind in a brotherhood of peace and love; He had coveted neither earthly greatness nor honor; He had usurped no one’s right; on the contrary, He was full of pity for the weak, the sick, the poor, the sinner and the oppressed: hence His life was but a passage to distribute with munificent hand His benefits amongst men.

Yet Our Lord was crucified, and thus it is not surprising that the Catholic Church, which continues His divine mission and is the incorruptible custodian of the Truth, has met the same fate as Her Master.

Egalitarianism, the Common Denominator of the Three Revolutions

In his masterpiece, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira develops the concept of Revolution proposed by Pope Leo XIII. His apostolic letter defines it as “a pernicious and disloyal work. . . . whose whole purpose is to make war against God and against His Church.” The Brazilian thinker shows how egalitarianism is the common denominator of the Revolution in all its stages and manifestations. Protestantism established ecclesiastical equality. The French Revolution implemented social equality, and communism imposed economic equality.

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Egalitarianism, when established as a principle, tends to dissolve Christian civilization. Leo XIII speaks of a “backward society” that proclaims absolute equality among people, the sexes and their attire, and even between the Catholic religion and pagan sects. According to Saint Thomas, since God created men unequal in their accidents, imposing equality on society shows real hatred for Him. When people deny natural differences, chaos spreads to all parts of society. Nature, thus violated, prepares for a vengeful explosion.

An Inexplicable Curtain of Silence

The Church at large ignored the pope’s apostolic letter and its vital principles. Hardly anyone talked about it, nor was it the subject of study or debate in the numerous Catholic associations of the early twentieth century. Comments went no further than pro forma acknowledgments. A mysterious curtain of silence surrounded the apostolic letter, which contained the only real solution to the evils afflicting the Church and Christian civilization. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was convinced that it contained a viable program of Catholic recovery.

Without judging intentions, one can legitimately ask why people showed so much apathy for so vital a pontifical document. The most plausible answer is that the apostolic letter’s interpretation of history clashed head-on with modernist trends, unfortunately already at work at the time. Modernism (both its theological and social versions) gave rise to the Nouvelle Théologie and, finally, liberation theology. These heretical tendencies, dominant in the Church today, propose a historical interpretation opposed to the one of Pope Leo XIII.

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira believed that had Catholics mobilized around Pope Leo XIII’s teaching, the revolutionary chaos that later ensued could have been avoided.

Note: The Apostolic Letter, ‘Annum ingressi,’ is hard to find in English. For this reason, the American TFP published the text on its web site. You can access the text here.

Photo Credit: © Antoine Taveneaux – WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


  1. In Brazil, the “Catholic Movement” referred to all Catholic lay movements. The young Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was the leader of the Marian Congregation, the Movement’s cutting edge in the forties and fifties.
  2. The letter was originally written in French and Italian and then translated into German. The Latin text was published only afterward.
  3. Nova et Vetera. “Parvenu à la vingt-cinquième année”, Legionário, March 18, 1945; “As encíclicas de Leão XIII”, Legionário, July 20, 1941; “Um recuo estratégico,” Legionário, October 15, 1944; “Partidos, Candidatos, Eleições,” Legionário, November 25, 1945.
  4. “O século da guerra, da morte e do pecado”, Catolicismo, February 1951; “Heresiarcas de hoje e de outrora”, Catolicismo, April 1952.
  5. Leo XIII, Encyclical Immortale Dei, November 1, 1885.

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