Pope Leo XIII on Self-Conquest

Pope-Leo-XIII-1900As we approach the season of Lent, we do well to think about the battle with our passions. In the quotation below from Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), notice that he presents this battle not in terms of anything inherently evil about the passions, but in terms of the freedom to do good. That should be our focus as we think of what we will “give up”: true freedom.

By calming the passions nature is largely restored to its pristine dignity. For man has been born under this law, that the mind should rule the body, that the appetites should be restrained by sound sense and reason; and hence it follows that putting a curb upon our masterful passions is the noblest and greatest freedom. Moreover, in the present state of society it is difficult to see what man could be expected to do without such a disposition. Will he be inclined to do well who has been accustomed to guide his actions by self-love alone? No man can be high-souled, kind, merciful, or restrained, who has not learnt self conquest and a contempt for this world when opposed to virtue.

And yet it must be said that it seems to have been pre-determined by the counsel of God that there should be no salvation to men without strife and pain. Truly, though God has given to man pardon for sin, He gave it under the condition that His only begotten Son should pay the due penalty; and although Jesus Christ might have satisfied divine justice in other ways, nevertheless He preferred to satisfy by the utmost suffering and the sacrifice of His life. Thus he has imposed upon His followers this law, signed in His blood, that their life should be an endless strife with the vices of the age.

What made the apostles invincible in their mission of teaching truth to the world; what strengthened the martyrs innumerable in their bloody testimony to the Christian faith, but the readiness of their soul to obey fearlessly His laws? And all who have taken heed to live a Christian life and seek virtue have trodden the same path; therefore We must walk in this way if We desire either Our own salvation or that of others.

Thus it becomes necessary for every one to guard manfully against the allurements of luxury, and since on every side there is so much ostentation in the enjoyment of wealth, the soul must be fortified against the dangerous snares of riches lest straining after what are called the good things of life, which cannot satisfy and soon fade away, the soul should lose “the treasure in heaven which faileth not.”

-Leo XIII, Exeunte Iam Anno, “On the Right Ordering of Christian Life”

Leo XIII on America’s Founding

Pope-Leo-XIII-1900And since Thanksgiving is a fine national holiday for America:

A few words from Pope Leo XIII about what is good in America’s founding. We certainly are aware, these days, of many things our forefathers did wrong. But it is good to be thankful for what is good and right.


“Very rapidly did the light of the Gospel shine upon the savage tribes discovered by the Ligurian [i.e., Christopher Columbus]. For it is sufficiently well known how many of the children of Francis, as well as of Dominic and of Loyola, were accustomed during the two following centuries to voyage thither for this purpose; how they cared for the colonies brought over from Europe; but primarily and chiefly how they converted the natives from superstition to Christianity, sealing their labors in many instances with the testimony of their blood. The names newly given to so many of your towns and rivers and mountains and lakes teach and clearly witness how deeply your beginnings were marked with the footprints of the Catholic Church.

“Nor, perchance, did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you [that is, we got our first American bishop, John Carroll]; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church.

“The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned [George Washington], with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion. Religion, by her very nature, guards and defends all the principles on which duties are founded, and setting before us the motives most powerful to influence us, commands us to live virtuously and forbids us to transgress.

“Now what is the Church other than a legitimate society, founded by the will and ordinance of Jesus Christ for the preservation of morality and the defence of religion? For this reason have We repeatedly endeavored, from the summit of the pontifical dignity, to inculcate that the Church, whilst directly and immediately aiming at the salvation of souls and the beatitude which is to be attained in heaven, is yet, even in the order of temporal things, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her institution been the pursuit of happiness during the life which is spent on earth.”

–Leo XIII, Longinqua, 1895

Leo XIII on Evangelizing the Poor

Today Pope Francis released a major new document, the biggest so far of his pontificate, on Evangelization. He has a lot to say about poverty and our response to it. Perhaps this is a good time to share an interesting passage from a papal document from 130 years ago.

Something I have noticed in my study of papal teaching is what seems like a great distance between our pastoral strategies and priorities today and more traditional ones. Today it feels like we assume the only people worth evangelizing are the rich and powerful. We are very interested, for example, in campus ministry (according to the US Census, about 16.5% of Americans over the age of 25 have attended some college; about 7.7% have graduated), but not so interested in the inner city or blue-collar people. Outreach to lawyers is alive and well; the parish Holy Name Society is completely neglected. Good priests go to rich parishes. Catholic labor unions are less than a distant memory. That, I believe, is a rejection of Catholic tradition.

I like the following paragraphs from Pope Leo XIII because of all the forms of communities he names. Concrete pastoral ideas for a Church that cares about people who aren’t rich and powerful. I only add that there are an awful lot of ideas like this, including in more recent papal documents – we just choose to ignore them:


“Awaken the sleeping, stimulate the hesitating; by your example and your authority train them all to fulfill with constancy and courage the duties which are the Christian life in action.

And in order to maintain and develop this revived courage, means must be taken to promote the growth, multiplication, harmony, and fruitfulness of Associations the principal object of which should be to preserve and excite zeal for the Christian faith and other virtues. Such are the associations of young men and of workmen; such are the committees organized by Catholics, and meeting periodically; such are the institutions destined to relieve poverty, to protect the sanctification of festival days, to instruct the children of the poor, and several others of the same kind.”

-Leo XIII, Etsi nos, 1882