Francis Ambrose Ridley 1940

The Roman Catholic Church and the Modern Age

Source: Pamphlet published in 1958 by Freedom Press, 27 Red Lion Street, London WC1; previous editions published in 1940 (in War Commentary), 1946 and 1948. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Publisher’s Note

In this pamphlet, which was first published in War Commentary in 1940, FA Ridley clearly and concisely shows the development of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the ages. From this study he is able to reach conclusions as to the present and future policy of the Papacy which are of the greatest importance for socialist and revolutionary ideas, especially in this postwar period of social flux and conflict. The publishers reissue the pamphlet now, not only because of the intrinsic importance of the matters with which it deals; but still more because there is a tendency on the part of the socialist and rationalist movements to regard the Roman Catholic Church as a merely obscurantist opponent of advanced ideas. They ignore its essentially political nature, despite the evident sympathy and concrete support which it has shown for movements of political reaction during the era of developing fascism. It is of the utmost importance that persons and movements concerned with social change should evaluate the role of the Roman Catholic Church correctly. For if they fail to do so, they will be ignoring a most powerful enemy wielding international influence and equipped with age-long experience. This pamphlet, written by one who is an acknowledged authority, both on the Roman Church and on revolutionary history, is of the first importance and fills a long-felt need.

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In 1651, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the champion of the absolute monarchies then rising upon the ruins of mediŠval society, wrote in his Leviathan: ‘The Papacy is the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.’ About two centuries later, Jules Michelet, the historian of the French Revolution and the apologist of the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle with the last remnants of the bureaucratic absolutism, wrote apropos of the Jesuits, the all-powerful advisers of the Papacy since the Reformation: ‘If you stop the first man in the street and ask him, “What are the Jesuits?,” he will reply without hesitation, “The Counter-Revolution."’ Neither remark, one can add, has been in any way invalidated by the passage of time.

The historical role of the Roman Catholic Church, ‘the Black International’, is, indeed, adequately summarised in the broadest historical perspective by the two observations quoted above. As the spiritual and, in time, temporal successor of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church and See dominated mediŠval society as the last and most impressive construction of the vanished civilisation of antiquity; a civilisation that appeared to the semi-barbarians of the Dark Ages as the magical creation of a fabulous race of giants, the mighty men of old. (So far was the Roman Catholic Church from being the creation of feudalism, as is sometimes erroneously stated, that it appealed to the barbarians precisely because of its Roman character, and because above all of its unity, in a glaring contradistinction to the endemic divisions of feudal society. A modern theologian, Ernst Troeltsch, has aptly characterised the Roman Church as ‘the last creative masterpiece of classical antiquity’.) Nevertheless, as the millennial Master of MediŠval Society, the Church was constrained to offer to rising capitalism an energetic opposition; in the era between the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, the Roman Church led by the Jesuits represented perhaps the most powerful single force opposed to the rising commercial classes and to the novel social economic order. In the course of its opposition, the Papacy by no means confined itself to the use of propaganda of a purely religious or cultural character; even its persecutions had a social character. It burned Giordano Bruno, et al, and forcibly silenced Galileo on account of discoveries in astronomy and navigation which directly forwarded the march of the bourgeoisie towards world power, by the impetus which these discoveries gave to navigation, the art of capitalist world expansion and to artillery, the chief weapon of the city burgesses in their military conflict with the feudal cavalry and castles, hitherto invincible and impregnable when judged by the standards of military art, off-set by the warfare of the Middle Ages.

Concurrently with these acts of social suppression under a religious guise, the Jesuit order – founded by Ignatius Loyola (1534 – 40) and organised on Mahommedan models supplied by the Dervish orders of Moorish Spain – supplied a demagogy in which it still remains as the unrivalled specialist in counter-revolution.

With merely the most grudging concessions to the spirit of the new age, the Vatican remained as the Chinese Wall of anti-modern, anti-liberal, anti-capitalist reaction from the mid-sixteenth century, the era of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, down to the closing years of the nineteenth century.

The Roman Church and the Jesuit order have had many enemies, and have had many hard things said about them. One thing, however, is hardly open to dispute; the political flexibility, adaptability and Machiavellian political genius of both Popes, the ‘White’ and the ‘Black’, is a phenomenon without equal in recorded human annals. Whatever may be thought of their knowledge of the next world, there is very little that escapes the Papacy and its Jesuit advisers in this one! The late nineteenth century witnessed yet another example of this brilliant flair for political flexibility which has won for the Catholic Church its well-deserved soubriquet as ‘the very masterpiece of human polity’. The last years of the nineteenth century witnessed yet another chameleon-like change in that institution, whose vaunted motto yet remains ‘semper eadem’ – ‘for ever the same’. (NB: The Pope wears white ceremonial robes, hence the term ‘White Pope’. The ‘Black Pope’ is the popular designation of the general of the Jesuits, so often the real ruler of the Church.)

Up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Papacy, and wherever possible the Jesuits, presented to rising capitalism and to the political ambitions of the bourgeois liberals a face of flint. In the Jesuit-ruled dominions of ‘the very Catholic’ King of Spain, people were burned alive for heresy by the Inquisition right up to the eve of the French Revolution, and not until the nineteenth century had passed its middle years did the barest religious and cultural toleration exist in Spain. In Rome, the heliocentric theory of Copernicus remained on the Index until 1832, and the Popes of the Restoration period (1814 – 48) prohibited street-lamps, railways and gas, as savouring unduly of the accursed heresies of revolution and ‘liberalism’. In an age of such headlong change as was the nineteenth century, such cast-iron conservatism appeared even to friendly critics such as Chateaubriand and Gladstone to be the road to the abyss. The extinction of the venerable theocratic dynasty appeared to be imminent, and ‘the end of an auld song’, the definitive exit of the Papacy from the historic stage, was freely anticipated towards the middle of the nineteenth century.

In his remarkable essay on the Papacy (1840), Lord Macaulay had already drawn attention to the phenomenal power of adaptability which the Papacy has never failed to display when confronted by a world in continual change. The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed, yet again, a fresh manifestation of that genius for continuous evolution which coexists in so remarkable a manner with that theological conservatism denoted by the age-long motto of the Roman See, ‘semper eadem’. For, beginning with the decree of Papal Infallibility inaugurated by the arch-reactionary Pius the Ninth (1846 – 78) on 18 July 1870, a silent but very remarkable revolution has effectually transformed the social policy and aims of the Roman Catholic Church so as to dissociate it entirely from decrepit feudalism, yet without identifying it altogether with the now dominant capitalist system. This social counter-revolution, for such in effect it is, constitutes at one and the same time both one of the most remarkable proofs of the political genius endemic to the Church of Rome, and one of the most important social facts of the present (twentieth) century; it is, indeed, only in our time that its full fruits have become apparent; and are not, even yet, at all adequately grasped by the advanced movements of our time; an evolution that a century ago would have appeared absolutely incredible in connection with the apparently moribund Papacy of that day. On the course and effects of this new ‘counter-reformation’ which has resurrected the Papacy as a great power, and has restored the Catholic Church to a role of independent volition in political and social affairs, I now propose to glance in the remaining portion of this pamphlet.

The history of the Papacy reveals that the Vatican has learned, no doubt as a result of its experience, to keep its ear close to the ground and to discern the changes in popular interest. To learn the value of ideas, and the ideas especially of its enemies, from the reception popularly accorded to them, that technique the Papacy has made peculiarly its own. First to condemn ‘dangerous thought’, novel ideas, destructive of established tradition, and then to adopt the elements contained in such ideas, which elements have demonstrated their opportune and timely character, such is the approved Roman technique. The successors of St Peter and the self-professed disciples of Jesus have learned how to combine most aptly ‘the wisdom of the serpent’ with more worldly characteristics, and, if the See of Rome may be justly accused of neglecting much of the teaching of the New Testament, yet one Gospel aphorism, at least, it has never failed to observe: viz, that ‘the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light’. Again and again, the practice of the Vatican has demonstrated its entire familiarity with this evangelical axiom.

The new social policy of the Roman Catholic Church was first proclaimed by a daring French cleric, the AbbÚ Lamennais (1783 – 1854) who in the years immediately following the fall of Napoleon – he was ordained priest in 1816 – boldly proclaimed the alliance of the Church and the new democracies then recently unloosed by the French Revolution and its European offspring. Lamennais was, beyond a doubt, one of the most remarkable men known to the world of the early nineteenth century; he was at one and the same time the founder of Catholic democracy, and of the ultra-montane highly-centralised Papacy of the later nineteenth century. His plan, set out with striking eloquence and logic in numerous writings, may be summarised as a democratic theocracy, in which the Church led the masses against the classes. Lamennais, in short, baptised the French Revolution: he sought to universalise the democratic revolution under the leadership of the Roman Theocracy. At a time when Catholicism still linked its destiny with that of the Holy Alliance and the Legitimism of the European Reaction, such an idea was revolutionary in the extreme. (The Jesuits had, it is true, flirted with democratic ideas in the sixteenth century, striving to use the people as a counterpoise to heretical or lukewarm governments. But such a policy was limited exclusively to countries that had relapsed, or were about to relapse, from Rome. In relation to approved Catholic states, such as Austria and Spain, absolute monarchy had no more devoted henchmen than were the Jesuits, from the era of Charles V to that of the last King of Spain, Alfonso XIII – cf R Roeder, Catherine de Medici and the Lost Revolution, and the present writer’s book The Jesuits: A Study in Counter-Revolution.)

The revolutionary ideas of Lamennais proved, however, too advanced for the reactionary Pope who reigned in the generation of the Restoration. In 1832, Gregory XVI (1831 – 46) condemned L'Avenir (The Future), the organ of the new ideas, and in 1834 the appearance of Lamennais’ famous book Paroles d'un Croyant (Words of a Believer) marked the disappointed reformer’s final breach with his conservative Church. (’small in size, but immense in its perversity’ – so the Pope described the book!) Ultimately the most influential thinker of modern Catholicism took part in the social revolution of 1848, and a procession of communists and revolutionaries escorted to a nameless grave in Paris the remains of the ex-cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. Nonetheless, it has been the ideas of Lamennais to which the social evolution of modern Catholicism have been in the main due. The Church which condemned him, as it had previously condemned Galileo, was yet to learn from his ideas. Lamennais is the father of ‘Catholic Action’. From his nameless tomb in PŔre Lachaise cemetery his ideas rule the Church which rejected them in his lifetime. It is not the first time in Church history that orthodoxy has known how to learn from heretics!

Lamennais had put forward two dominant ideas: the absolute monarchy of the Papacy over the Church, and the creation of a Catholic democracy based not upon rulers, but upon the people. Gregory XVI had rejected these ideas, but the two Popes who were his immediate successors carried them into effect. Pius IX (1846 – 78) realised the first, Leo XIII (1878 – 1903) made a beginning, at least, of the second and more daring conception of Lamennais.

On 18 July 1870, the Infallibility of the Pope was solemnly proclaimed by the Vatican Council. Henceforth General Councils, the clerical equivalent of the parliamentary system in secular states, became superfluous. Henceforth, it was the Pope alone whose fiat, once delivered ‘on faith and morals’, could neither be questioned nor modified, in virtue of his ‘infallibility’. As Pius IX remarked with a perhaps unconscious profundity, ‘I am Tradition’, the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘l'Útat c'est moi’. In place of the ‘dead hand’ of the General Council, only called at intervals of centuries, it was henceforth the living Pope who ruled alone. Before the Vatican Council of 1869 – 70, there had been no General Council since the Council of Trent in 1549 – 64.

The social, as distinct from the theological, character of the Decree of Infallibility has been universally misunderstood by Protestant and rationalistic historians. Far from being a reactionary weapon, it was a revolutionary move on the part of the Papacy. The Councils of the past are dead, but the Pope lives and can move with the times! The modern social policy of the Popes, in particular, cannot rightly be understood apart from it. Lamennais, the original author of the Papal Revolution of the nineteenth century, had grasped with the glance of genius the indispensable connection between Papal supremacy and a new social policy to meet the needs of the coming age. So radical an innovation upon its reactionary past did the idea of Catholic democracy constitute in the evolution of the great conservative Church, that only an ‘infallible’ Papacy could hope to carry it through. Rightly understood, the Decree of 18 July 1870 is a revolutionary and not a reactionary measure, whatever may have been the conscious intention of its framers.

In this connection I have written elsewhere:

But in the doctrine of the infallibility of the living and changing Pope she [the Church] has an unrivalled instrument for going forward as well as back! Attention has generally been drawn to the reactionary nature of this doctrine, but unless we greatly err, Rome will know how to go forward with this unrivalled instrument for ‘liquidating the dead hand’ of the past for the development of doctrine and morals, and for adapting Romanisin to tasks and problems which lay beyond the limited horizon of the Middle Ages. The Vatican Council of apparent reactionaries who decreed this dogma in 1870 provided the Church with a superb evolutionary weapon, equally adapted to reactionary or progressive purposes. (FA Ridley, The Papacy and Fascism, p 120)

Pius IX thus realised the first part of Lamennais’ programme, the unchecked absolutism of the Pope over the Church; the establishment in perpetuity of the ‘Leader’ principle in the Church, with power to nullify the dead hand of the outmoded past. Under her Papal leader, and guided by his ‘infallible’ judgement, the Church is free to move forward. Under the successor of Pius, Leo XIII, she did actually move forward. Under the guidance of this great political strategist, the Roman Catholic Church finally quitted the Middle Ages and evolved those modern principles of social strategy to which she still adheres. If Pius IX had realised the first part of the programme of M de Lamennais, that premature ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ who was yet the effective father of Modern Catholicism, Leo XIII embarked upon the second and more revolutionary part of his policy. He began the creation of a ‘unity of theory and practice’, of ‘Catholic Action’, and Catholic social philosophy which – and herein lay its revolutionary character – took as its starting point the modern-capitalist, and not the mediŠval-feudal age. Not only did the Earth move, as Galileo had made evident despite his clerical persecutors, but the time had come for the Church which had condemned Galileo to move as well!

Leo XIII was beyond doubt one of the ablest and most far-seeing politicians who have arisen from the long line of sovereign Pontiffs. He was a political genius who vied with Disraeli as the greatest tactician of the nineteenth century; the social strategy of modern Catholicism dates from this great ecclesiastical statesman. Under his far-seeing leadership, the Church quitted its mediŠval moorings and steered into modern seas. In Leo’s numerous encyclicals on modern questions, the main principles which characterise the ‘Catholic Action’ of the twentieth century are already clearly manifest. In particular, in his masterpiece Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891), the Pope proclaimed in a clear and powerful manifesto the principles that were henceforth to govern the new, essentially modern policy of the Catholic Church in its relations with the world of secular affairs. Not for nothing has Leo’s most daring encyclical been styled ‘the Workers’ Charter’, for daring it indeed was, if one takes into account the background of reaction against which it arose: the atavistic Roman Court of the early nineteenth century. With the issue of this epoch-making encyclical, the Middle Ages at last ended in Rome. Henceforth, as far at least as its social tactics and strategy were concerned, the Roman Church was not merely in the New World, but was also of it. (NB: Leo’s encyclicals, the Rerum Novarum in particular, owed much to the remarkable school of Catholic sociologists, of whom Cardinal Manning in England, Archbishop Ketterler in Germany, and M le Play in Belgium were the leading representatives. These men, unlike their mediŠval predecessors, were keenly alive to the necessity of ‘reconciling’ Roman Catholicism with the new industrial age, as a sine qua non for its survival in the capitalist era. Leo XIII himself, when Archbishop of Perugia, prior to his election as Pope, had himself expressed his sympathy with these new social tendencies (cf FG Nitti, Catholic Socialism, and GA Aldred, Socialism and the Pope).

In what, especially, consists the epoch-making character of Leo XIII’s social encyclicals and the policy of ‘Catholic Action’ – to give it the name by which the Church today designates its social policy? Broadly, and when construed against the widest historical perspectives, one must affirm that, for the Papacy, it signified in the first place the acceptance of the capitalist world as the starting point of its public policy; it had finally definitively abandoned its former connection with the vanished world of mediŠval times, which the Popes of the Restoration era had vainly sought to restore. Secondly, by offering its services as mediator between capital and labour, it put forward its claim to survive as the third great power in modern society; as a power independent alike of the two classes whose social conflicts made up the new era.

Last, but the reverse of least, the Papacy appealed directly to the masses, advertised its own claims as a more efficacious protector of the working class than were the socialists, whose materialistic philosophy of history it denounced, and whose revolutionary plans it repudiated, as superfluous and suicidal. In fact, Leo XIII adopted officially the ideas of Lamennais of alliance between the Papacy and the masses. Not for the first time in its history, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the innovator and then, when time had proved their value, adopted his ideas. The essence of the new Catholic social policy as conceived by Leo XIII, and as practised today by his successor, was that it seeks to exercise a balance of power in European society. It defends the subject classes against destruction by exploitation and the ruling class from revolution. As the ‘rejoicing third’ in modern class society, the Papacy takes its place in European society. It no longer acts as a mere ‘bailiff’s broker’ for the ruling classes; unlike the earlier Popes, it also recognises that the masses exist and also have rights to defend. Such are the essential principles of modern Catholic social politics. The Roman Church, contrary to many people’s opinion, has no hostility to collectivism as such, provided, of course, that it respects the ‘rights’ of the Church. After all, economic individualism was a Protestant, not a Catholic doctrine.

The successors of Leo XIII, in particular the late Pope Pius XI – a very able politician whom future historians may even compare to Leo, whose ‘best disciple’ he proved himself to be – have continued this policy of holding the political and economic balance between the great conflicting classes of modern society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (15 May 1931 – that is, ‘in the fortieth year’ after the Rerum Novarum of 15 May 1891), Pius XI modernised in a lucid and comprehensive manner the social doctrines of Leo XIII. Nor did practice fail to keep step with theory during the dynamic administration of this remarkable Pope. The interest manifested by the late Head of the Church towards ‘Catholic Action’ – that is, the building up of mass following for ecclesiastical policy – is generally known. The present Pope Pius XII may be expected to carry on this policy unchanged. For as Secretary of State under Pius XI, Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII) was himself largely responsible for its operation.

A cataclysmic event, however, separates the reign and policy of the reigning Pope from that of his great predecessor, the author of Rerum Novarum. The World War of 1914 – 18 and the recent war have, as is now clear, in retrospect, an epochal significance far beyond their military character; they mark the definitive passage of capitalist civilisation from its meridian to its decay, the commencement of ‘The Decline and Fall’ of our ‘modern’ civilisation which arose in the era of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Oswald Spengler, the characteristic philosopher of ‘The Decadence of Europe’, has clearly demonstrated this basic cultural characteristic of our era in his Decline of the West. The ‘infallible’ Papacy knows its European history at least as well as its ‘faith and morals'! It has seen the West ‘decline’ before, and its present symptoms are accordingly familiar to the ancient Pontiff of the ‘Eternal City’. The present policy of the Vatican cannot be understood apart from this fundamental change in the contemporary zeitgeist.

One of the most acute critics of the Roman Court, the liberal historian Luigi Parini, has delivered this pregnant and far-seeing axiom on the permanent policy of the Popes (cf The Roman State, Volume 1, 1850, p 4):

It is the peculiar nature of the Roman Court that it can acquiesce upon occasion, but never bends in mind before either violence or adverse fortune, and never forgets her claims through length of time.

In the light of this revealing dictum, it will be found illuminating to consider the present policy pursued by the Papacy amid the contemporary crisis of our dying civilisation.

The Papacy pursues today two concurrent policies: a long far-sighted one, and a short make-shift temporary one. The former is motivated, undoubtedly, by one fundamental consideration which is never absent from the mind of the oldest European dynasty: the tenacious political memory of the Vatican has never forgotten that it has ruled Europe before. Now that capitalism is in its death rattle and mankind awaits the coup de grÔce of Western civilisation in a proximate world cataclysm, the Papacy foresees a time when a new Dark Age may supervene, as it supervened before after the Fall of Rome. In the fifth century the sceptre of Europe was vacant; Rome tamed the barbarians and plucked a millennial sceptre over Europe from its ruins. What was done once, can be done twice! Particularly by an institution which still repudiates evolution and adheres to the scholastic dogma of the ‘fixity of species’. We have not forgotten the considered judgement of Farini that the Papacy ‘never forgets her claim through length of time’, and, as time goes, the ‘totalitarian’ theocracy of the mediŠval Popes is still quite recent. The Papacy, conceiving itself as ‘the pilgrim of eternity’, ‘Sub specie aeternitatis’, [1] has always taken but little account of time! ‘What has been, will be’ the Popes echo the refrain of ‘Koheleth’ (’the Preacher’ – cf Ecclesiastes, Chapter I). What has been once, that also can come again; the days of Canossa can still recur.

Such is the long-term policy of the Papacy; Rome, which has survived ancient and mediŠval, may also survive modern Europe – ‘semper eadem’ – and rule again on the ‘ruins of empires’ as she ruled before. But the day for so grandiose an assertion of ‘The City of God’ has not yet come; the abyss before Europe is proximate, but is not yet actual. Rome today requires a short-term policy for the present era of capitalism. It is this policy that the Rome of Pius XII pursues today.

The nature of this policy can be summarised thus: it is to keep the throne of Western civilisation vacant, so that when the hour of dissolution strikes, Rome can mount to power. Two rivals today threaten this ascension. Revolutionary socialism would destroy the Church in the name of the Future. Tribal paganism, Fascist CŠsarism, would destroy it in the name of the Past. Hitler represented Nero, ‘the beast drunk with the blood of the Saints'; the pagan world and state on whose ruins Christianity arose. The Social Revolution even more dangerously represents a world in which there is ‘ni dieu ni maţtre’, and where consequently the Vatican becomes merely a museum, and the Pope only a relic of a prehistoric time.

The Papacy recognises these dangers only too well, and sets itself strenuously to combat them. At all costs the capitalist inheritance must not fall either to Communism or to Fascism; to the irreconcilable foes of the Church. Hence, it seeks to play off one against the other. When the Leninist International preached social revolution, the Pope backed Mussolini and Hitler. When, conversely, Hitler paganised Germany and the Stalinist International ‘defends religious freedom’ and, for this end, ‘holds out its hand’ to the Catholic Church, the representatives of the Vatican cautiously returned the proffered salute. At all costs, the dying liberal capitalism, the erstwhile ruler of Europe since the French Revolution, must not leave a successor strong enough to exclude the Roman Court from the succession. At all costs the road to power must be kept clear for the Triple Crown to enter upon its inheritance. Today, it is again Russia that is the danger.

The Papacy is today waiting; it is waiting for chaos, for barbarism, for a Europe from which its present-day rivals have disappeared. It waits for an age of chaos, an age of misery, knowing by long experience that ‘opposites are identical’ and that ages of misery can, yet again, become ‘ages of faith’. A new ‘Middle Age’ presents itself to the Papacy, which does not know the transforming power of the world – revolution. The revolutionary movements of our time will do well not to dismiss the Papacy as their ‘liberal’ predecessors of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ but too often did, as a senile corpse too weary even to die!

They will find it incumbent upon them to recognise Rome as still a hopeful claimant for universal power. To the success of the world revolution a renewed Dark Age now presents itself as the sole realistic alternative at the rate at which we see a moribund civilisation now heading for the abyss. Its limited historical perspectives forbade antiquity to be renewed by revolution. Today such a revolutionary renewal is possible, but is far from being automatically certain. Without its victorious consummation, history may yet again repeat itself, and a new theocracy emerge from the scattered debris of our secular world. The revolutionary thought of our epoch grounded in an accurate perception of history must never make the mistake of regarding the Church of Rome as a mere sect or doctrine like any other. Contrarily, it was never more necessary than now to regard it as what it is in its innermost essence, a crafty and dangerous claimant for universal power, as ‘the ghost of the Roman Empire’ waiting amid the ruins of the dying bourgeois world for its hour of universal dominion to return.


1. Sub specie aeternitatis – Under the sight of eternity, that is, from the point of view of eternity; from Spinoza’s Ethics – MIA.