Saint Ignatius High School

The Struggle and Progress

World War II began shortly before Pope Pius XII ascended to the throne of St. Peter. In his first encyclical, the new pope enabled those engaged in the struggle for progress to see their efforts through a very different, and ultimately Christ-centered, lens. The lessons from that letter still apply to our world today.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress…This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”

This quote by the 19th Century statesman, author, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass pretty well sums up the history of our race. From the moment Cain’s jealousy of Abel filled him with such anger that he committed the first murder, brother has been shedding the blood of brother.  And we are no closer to peace today than we were when the Lord said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”

For all of his good intentions and for all of the justified and righteous anger in his statement, there is in it an assumption that plagues any discussion of “progress” that does not take into account a pre-Enlightenment worldview and the social justice vision attached to that worldview as illustrated by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Summi Pontificatus.

Up to the end of the Middle Ages the predominant vision of the human person was that of a body and soul forming a unity intended by the Creator.  But at least since the time of 17th Century French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes there has been a split in that unity, and thus Douglass can divide the moral from the physical in his declaration of what forms the struggle for progress might take.  Without a unity of the moral and the physical any and all forms of violence can be justified in the name of “progress.”

Highlighting this sense of unity, the words of Pope Pius XII enable those engaged in the struggle for progress to see their efforts through a very different, and ultimately Christ-centered, lens.

On October 20, 1939, Pope Pius XII issued his first encyclical.  The goal of an initial papal letter is to set the tone for a pontificate, to give the world a sense of what will be the focus of the new pope.  Besides attempting to make a statement about the direction of his time in the Chair of Peter, Pius had the additional burden of world events with which to deal.  A few weeks prior to the publication of Summi Pontificatus, on September 1st, Germany had invaded Poland and thus set in motion World War II.

In his monumental work, subtitled “On the Unity of Human Society” Pius stressed the need to bring about social progress only through means consistent with the moral law.  The unity of the human person, assumed in the philosophy of Pius XII, demanded that there be no distinction between the moral and the physical struggle for progress, and made very clear that the Sermon on the Mount and the sacrifice of the Cross must be the standard of all moral and physical struggle.

The struggle for justice and against all forms of violence against the dignity and ultimate worth of the human person – whether by crushing a man’s windpipe or by crushing a pre-born child’s skull – is an affront to all that is true, good, and beautiful in those created in the image and likeness of God.  When the physical is separated from the moral there is only one outcome, and it is never good.  When violence becomes the means of bringing about change, then the only change will be that spoken of by Pete Townsend: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”

Sadly, the message of human and cultural diversity, of solidarity and charity, extolled in the pages of Summi Pontificatus went unheeded – and not only by the Nazis.  The world created by the so-called “Good War” has been an unending battlefield, both abroad and at home.  The struggles continue, and will do so seemingly without end as long as might makes right.  Our only hope is to follow the call of Pius XII: that the one human family, the one race of humankind, will pray without ceasing for the cause of true progress, which can only be achieved through unity with each other and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.