Pius X Becomes Pope

In 1903, Pius X succeeded the world-oriented Pope Leo XIII, who was concerned with issues relating to social justice and the Roman Church’s place in international affairs. Pius X focused his pontificate on the Church’s internal workings and adopted a conservative approach to doctrine.

Summary of Event

Since the Enlightenment, the Roman Church—and organized religion in general—had been weakened by rationalism and the growth of science and democracy. Pius IX’s flirtation with liberalism in the 1840’s was transformed into staunch conservatism after he was forced to flee Rome in 1848 and was restored with the help of a French army in 1849. For the remainder of his pontificate, Pius IX worked to condemn Modernism, especially in the Syllbus Errorum (1864; Syllabus of Errors), and assert papal authority. In 1870 and 1871, Pius IX dominated the First Vatican Council, which promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility. Pius IX was succeeded by Pope Leo XIII, who was more sympathetic to the trends of his time; he launched an aggressive campaign for social reforms described in Rerum Novarum (1891; The Condition of Labor). Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
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[kw]Pius X Becomes Pope (Aug. 9, 1903)
[kw]Pope, Pius X Becomes (Aug. 9, 1903)
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[g]Italy;Aug. 9, 1903: Pius X Becomes Pope[00770]
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Pius X

Although he was named a cardinal and patriarch of Venice by the progressive Leo XIII, Pius X did not share much enthusiasm for the agenda advanced by his predecessor. Rather, he feared that the Roman Catholic Church was in jeopardy because of its internal weakness, which he believed stemmed from its increasing worldliness. He launched a program of internal reforms and enacted a general defense of Roman Catholicism designed to protect it against the multitudinous threats inherent in Modernism.

Pope Pius X.

(Library of Congress)

Pius X’s internal reforms included spiritual and structural changes, such as the new rule on access to Holy Communion by young children and the appointment of trusted allies to positions of authority in the Vatican and throughout the Catholic world. These changes did not result in much controversy, but Pius X also targeted internal sympathizers who used Modernist approaches to Catholicism. Some Catholic leaders and clerics were attracted to the new Modernist philosophy and science, and these Modernists tended to view revelation subjectively and within the context of a complex view of humanity and nature. Such an approach endangered the traditional and orthodox view of revelation, which had come to form the centerpiece of Catholic teaching after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Pius X did not hesitate to silence those who opposed his traditionalist views, and he freely used the power of excommunication. Several liberal Catholic periodicals in the United States were denounced and lost all formal Church support. Pius X also added new Modernist books to an updated version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1907; Index of Prohibited Books).

Pius X defined his concerns about Modernism Modernism;papal encyclicals in a series of papal encyclicals and pronouncements. In Pieni l’Animo (July 28, 1906), he denounced Modernism as a danger to the faith; in Lamentabili Sane Exitu (1907; On a Deplorable Outcome), Pius X listed sixty-five errors that resulted from Modernism; and in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907; Feeding the Lord’s Flocks), he stated that Modernism was heresy. On November 18, 1907, in the pronouncement Praestantia scripturae (1907; Against Modernists), Pius X directed that all Catholics who failed to comply with his statements in Lamentabili and Pascendi would be in a serious state of sin and would be subject to censure. Pius X’s anxieties about Modernism reached a climax on September 1, 1910, when he decreed that all teachers and seminarians take an oath supporting Lamentabili and Pascendi and repudiating Modernism.

In the broader context of the Catholic Church and society, Pius X opposed the Christian Democracy movement, which argued that the rich had a responsibility to look out for the interests of the poor, because of its absence of hierarchical (papal) control. Also, he was concerned about independent anti-Modernist movements, such as the Murri movement in Italy and the Sillon movement in France. Both of these espoused positions on Modernism similar to those taken by Pius X, but they acted outside the framework of the hierarchy and were thus unacceptable. Pius X focused much energy on the condition of the Church in France, where the anticlericalism of the Third Republic had been evident for years. French political leaders were determined to restrict the power of the Church in their country; they argued that the separation of church and state was needed for the state to be free from the influence—real or imagined—of Roman Catholicism. On December 9, 1905, the French government separated the church and the state in a unilateral action that dissolved the long-standing Concordat of 1801; some Church properties were taken and given to lay associations that served social and benevolent purposes.

While most French bishops and clergy accepted the new reality without much opposition, Pius X condemned the decision in the encyclicals Vehementer Nos (On the French Law of Separation) on February 11, 1906, and Gravissimo Officii Munere (On French Associations of Worship) on August 10, 1906. Pius X was opposing the historical force of Modernism and in so doing was viewed as a reactionary. Nonetheless, his eleven-year pontificate set the tone for much of the twentieth century history of the Church. Pius X believed that the laity needed to be involved in pastoral work under the direction of the clergy, and his reforms in the apostolic and spiritual life of the Church were dutifully enacted: Prayer books were improved, the Gregorian chant was reestablished within the Roman lexicon and rule, and the prayer life of priests and the religious was more carefully directed.

Pius X was canonized a saint of the Roman Church on May 29, 1954. During the turbulent 1960’s, a separatist movement—displeased with the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council—took his name when it formed the Society of St. Pius X, but by the early twenty-first century, efforts to bridge the gap between this group and the Vatican had begun.


During the nineteenth century, the papacy shifted in its support for new reforms and active involvement of the Roman Church in the world. In the 1840’s, the pontificate of Pius IX focused on liberal reforms, but after Italy’s 1848 revolution, Pius IX abandoned such a direction and became an archconservative. Pope Leo XIII (whose papacy lasted from 1878 to 1903) restored a papal worldview and advanced an agenda centered on social justice and reformist Catholic teachings. Pius X was a critic of Modernism and its many ramifications; he viewed the Church and the truth of his faith as the victims of a Modernist attack. In particular, Pius X denounced all expressions of anticlericalism, especially state seizure of Church property, restrictions on priests and religious, and restrictions on Catholic education. In response, Pius X focused on the elimination of any internal expressions of Modernism within the Church, a revival of traditional Church practices (although he introduced the practice of having young children receive Communion), the reassertion of traditional doctrines, and, reminiscent of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, the issuance of a series of encyclicals that identified and denounced the elements of Modernism. Pius X argued that it was impossible to be a socialist and a Catholic at the same time, and many of his policies were sustained until the Second Vatican Council. His more moderate successor, Pope Benedict XV, found himself leading the church during a period of world war and economic distress; the papacy during that time was characterized by attempts at neutrality and loss of prestige. Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
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Further Reading

  • Chiron, Yves. Saint Pius X: Restorer of the Church. Translated by Graham Harrison. Kansas City, Mo.: Angelus Press, 2002. Thorough and sympathetic biography focuses on Pius X’s challenges to Modernism and the range of his spiritual and doctrinal reforms within the Church.
  • Coppa, Frank J. The Modern Papacy Since 1789. New York: Longman, 1998. An excellent study of the papacy since the outbreak of the French Revolution. Presents Pius X as a traditionalist and anti-Modernist.
  • Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. One of the best single-volume histories of the papacy available. Pius X emerges as a counter-Modernist who expanded papal power and enforced doctrinal allegiance. Excellent resource for general readers as well as students of the papacy.
  • Forbes, F. A. Pope St. Pius X. Rockford, Ill.: Tan, 1987. A sympathetic yet critical life of Pius X that considers his policies and goals in light of the condition of the Roman Church at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • McBrien, Richard. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. A important and critical study of the papacy by a priest-scholar whose interpretation of Pius X is representative of academia’s general perspective.
  • Schimmelpfennig, Bernhard. The Papacy. Translated by James Sievert. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Important scholarly history of the papacy provides a critical analysis of Pius X and other modern popes. Includes useful bibliography.

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