Volume III - Church History

Twentieth Century

The Roman Catholic Church

The dynamic leadership of Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903; r. 1878–1903) brought the Roman Catholic Church into the 20th century with a new and strong commitment to work in the midst of contemporary issues and struggles, rather than tending to romantize the past (especially the 18th century, up until the French Revolution) as the bygone days of glory for the Church. Pope Leo and his successors (Pope Pius X; r. 1903–1914; Pope Benedict XV; r. 1914–1922; and Pope Pius XI; r. 1922–1939) urged Catholics to get involved in social action and political affairs. Some Catholic political parties and labor unions were formed, as well as religious orders dedicated to social work.

In response to intellectualist criticisms of the Church, Pope Leo and his successors affirmed Thomism as the official Roman Catholic doctrinal standard, with its assertion that there is no opposition between religious faith and empirical science.

During WW II the Papacy, under Pope Pius XII (1876–1958; r. 1939–1958), maintained relations with all the warring nations. Pope Pius was later criticized for not speaking out against the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. It was also Pope Pius XII who proclaimed the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary as dogma, in 1950.

Vatican II Council

In 1959, Pope John XXIII (r. 1958–1963) announced the convocation of an “ecumenical council” of the Roman Catholic Church. This council, called Vatican II, was opened in 1962 by Pope John. Upon his death in 1963, Pope Paul VI (r. 1963–1978) followed him. The Council continued under Pope Paul’s leadership until it finished its work in 1965. Attended by nearly all the Roman Catholic bishops worldwide, and with many non-Catholic observers also in attendance, the Vatican II Council published many official documents concerning all aspects of Roman Catholic life.

Vatican II precipitated great changes in the Roman Church, and the post-conciliar period has been one of much confusion and conflict. All Roman Catholic Churches everywhere were strongly urged to begin celebrating the mass and the other services in the local ­vernacular languages rather than always in Latin. From the Orthodox point of view, this was a very long overdue change. But this development also precipitated new, modern translations of the services which, in the opinion of many, often tended to diminish the grandeur and doctrinal integrity of the original Latin services.

While Vatican II fostered a greater emphasis on the conciliar nature of the Church yet still being under Papal authority, in some quarters there was radical questioning of the Papal system of ecclesiastical authority. The Vatican II Council also prompted the enthusiastic entrance of many Roman Catholics into ecumenical activity.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II (1920–2005; r. 1978–2005) was the first Polish pope, and the first non-Italian pope since the 1520s. He was the most well-traveled pope ever, visiting 129 nations during his long tenure. This, along with his prolific writings and compelling presence, raised the prestige of the Papacy worldwide. He maintained a generally conservative stance in the face of Liberation Theology, which emphasized social work to and political—even revolutionary—involvement with the poor and oppressed, and he opposed the priesthood being open to married men (in most cases), or to women, or to active homosexuals. He also is credited with helping to bring down the Communist government in his native Poland in 1989.

Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (b. 1927), former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (from 1981 to 2005; this is the ­Papacy’s office charged with protecting and defending Christian dogma), was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005. He took the name Benedict XVI. By 2013 Pope Benedict had established himself as a worthy successor to John Paul II, having continued his ­predecessor’s basic approach to the Christian life, and to the responsibilities of the Papal office.

In at least one way, however, he showed himself to be more conservative than John Paul II. Whereas under John Paul II, the old Latin (Tridentine) Mass was only allowed upon petitioning the local bishop, Pope Benedict in 2007 declared that any local priest has the authority to hold a Tridentine Mass. He also declared that generally speaking, the Latin Mass should be made available whenever it is requested.

Like John Paul II, Pope Benedict made significant overtures to the Orthodox Church. But also like his predecessor, he did not suggest that there might be a substantial reconsideration of the nature of Papal authority, including the Papacy’s claims to worldwide jurisdiction over all Christians. This issue remains the most fundamental obstacle to any possible reconciliation between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the future.

Pope Francis

In February of 2013, Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly stepped down from the Papacy, citing his declining health. He was succeeded in the next month by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (b. 1936), an Argentine, who was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013. He becomes the 266th Pope in the history of the Roman episcopacy, and the first ever from the Western Hemisphere. Even though a Jesuit, the new pope took the name Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), the founder of the Franciscan Order.

Pope Francis was welcomed with great optimism and excitement. He is known for his simple way of life and his concern for the poor, while also remaining firm in his support of traditional Roman Catholic theological and moral teachings.