Carlo Fantappiè's Study on Pius X and the Code of Canon Law

Author: Gianpaolo Romanato

Carlo Fantappiè's Study on Pius X and the Code of Canon Law

Gianpaolo Romanato

Revolutionary, modernizing Pope

The study that Carlo Fantappiè, professor of canon law at the University of Urbino, recently published with "Giuffrè", entitled, "Chiesa romana e modernità giuridica", "The Roman Church and juridical modernity" is a scholarly achievement of interest not only to law students, but also to Church and Christian historians.

In the two volumes of this truly imposing work, (almost 1,300 pages), the Author demonstrates that the Code of Canon Law mandated by Pius X and promulgated by Benedict XV in 1917 was much more than a technical work of the reorganization and simplification of juridical norms.

It was, in reality, a profound reflection on the past, present and future of the Church of Rome, and aimed at a "reformatio Ecclesiae" or Church reform within which law was the means, not the end.

The study begins with the Council of Trent, but dwells above all on the traumatic events following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire.

It was during the 1800s, in fact, that the need for reform took shape. The birth of nation-states and the emergence of the system of liberal government radically modified the juridical and institutional relationship between Church and State.

The Holy See no longer had to measure up to the absolute sovereigns of the 1700s, who subordinated ecclesiastical organization but at the same time also promoted and recognized its public character. The Church had to deal with modern nation-states, whose representative systems aimed at reducing the religious sphere to the private sector, to confining the Church within civil law.

It was a revolution that forced ecclesiastical institutions to take cover behind the Papacy, the only point of reference that survived the collapse of the old powers. No longer opposed by alternative forces, internal or external, the Roman Pontiff regained full sovereignty in the areas of both doctrine and discipline.

This produced a monopoly of jurisdiction, Fantappiè explains, never before seen in the history of the Latin Church. At the same time Roman seminaries and universities took the place of educational institutions, especially the French and Austro-German ones, which had disappeared in the revolutionary whirlpool.

The Romanization of Catholicism could not have been more rapid and complete. In the second half of the 18th century, in the span of just a few decades, a federation of national Churches was transformed into a unified international organization, directed by the Pope and by the offices of the curia in discipline and theology.

Rome became at the same time the source of power, the centre of the elaboration of theological-canonical thought, and the place of formation for executive personnel.

Fantappiè reconstructs this historical process with extraordinary breadth of reference, but always with attention to the consequences that this had on the Church's juridical self-understanding. In 1870, this self-understanding had to come to grips with another decisive shift: the proclamation of Papal infallibility, which took place during the First Vatican Council and which brought the process of centralization previously outlined and the temporal power of the Pontifical State to a close.

Historical setting spurs new Code

The conjunction of these two events — the Pope becomes infallible at the moment in which he ceases to be the Pope-king — is much more than an accidental coincidence.

In this situation, the demand for reform of canon law became increasingly pressing. There was an urgent need to bring order back to a centuries-old codification, adapting it to the transformations that had taken place, and above all it was indispensable to rethink the nature of the Church within the international community.

But there was a problem to be addressed before this: did the endless canonical material that had accumulated since the Middle Ages need to be catalogued by topic, while simply pruning away what had fallen into disuse, or should the entire code of laws be refounded and rethought in an organic and synthetic manner, following the path traced by the Napoleonic reforms and imitated by all modern States?

Preference went to the second option, but not without strong resistance, above all in Rome, which was not in the least persuaded that it had to fall in line, at least methodologically, with liberal culture. In any case, the undertaking appeared so immense that neither Pius IX nor Leo XIII dared to begin it.

The task fell on the shoulders of Pius X, elected Pope in 1903, after the veto of the government of Vienna had removed Cardinal Rampolla from the running. Paradoxically, the responsibility fell to a Pontiff born as an Austrian, entirely foreign to the Vatican curia, who had not studied in Rome, but in a provincial seminary, and owed his appointment as Pope to the most antiquated and anachronistic institution of the old system of canon law, the "ius exclusivae", the veto right of the Catholic monarchs.

Pope Giuseppe Sarto distinguished himself by breaking through the inertia, by not allowing himself to be frightened by the infinite difficulties, by choosing the right person for the supervision of the work, which would involve the entire Catholic universe.

This was Pietro Gasparri, at the time in his early 50s and Secretary of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, previously a canon law professor in Paris and a Latin American diplomat. He was a politician and a man of government, but above all a seasoned jurist of boundless loyalty to the Apostolic See.

Fantappiè dedicates 200 pages to Gasparri, almost a book within the book, without forgetting other figures who played decisive roles, in particular Cardinal Casimiro Gènnari, a figure overlooked until now by historiography, who was the founder of the "Monitore Ecclesiastico", the journal that prior to the birth of the "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" was the semi-official organ of the Holy See.

The "magnum opus" of the codification, as it was defined, was completed in just 13 years (the bull that inaugurated the work, "Arduum sane munus", is from 1904, while the promulgation of the code took place in 1917) thanks to the constant urging of Pius X, who followed the work on a daily basis, intervening in every phase, until his death in the Summer of 1914. He was also responsible for selecting the path to follow — codification rather than compilation — with a peremptory handwritten Letter to the commission of Cardinals, which was in favour of the other solution.

Making Church law universal

What are the new features of this study? Leaving aside the strictly legal terrain, two of them stand out. Fantappiè places the renewal of canon law at the centre of the Church at the time, demonstrating that the Code was the axis of equilibrium around which Catholicism rediscovered its own identity.

The assessment of the Pontificate of Pius X — which until now had appeared as a moment of stasis or even of regression because of the condemnation of modernism — emerges overturned. It was not the desire for condemnation, but the insistence on reform and modernization that motivated his decade-long Pontificate, an insistence so energetic that the Pope preferred to advance it through his own private secretariat, the well-known "segreteriola", rather than through the offices of the curia.

The Author's dense and reflective pages have the merit of reminding us that history is always complex, that the early years of the 20th century — subdued on the theological level, but extraordinarily creative on the juridical level — lay the foundation for the modernization of the Church on the associative, social, political, and international level.

From the suppression of the veto right to the reform of the conclave, from the reorganization of seminaries to the rethinking of parish, diocesan, and missionary structures, from catechetical renewal to the renovation of the curia and of all the central government offices, Sarto's Pontificate represented a cyclone of reform such as had rarely appeared before in the entire history of the Papacy.

A cyclone that had the effect of universalizing the Church's law, of reinforcing disciplinary and administrative uniformity on all levels precisely when the season of totalitarianism was approaching, and globalization was on the horizon. Without the Code, which began the debate on the international status of the Holy See and reproposed it before the State as a counterpart on equal footing, the concordats of the 1920's and the 1930's would not have been possible.

Of course, as with all great reforms, much was gained and something was lost. Roman centralization, the verticalization of authority, the formalization of the life of faith quenched the dynamism of the charisms. But at the same time, they confirmed with the greatest possible force that the Church is a public institution, and not a private one, that it stands before the State as an autonomous and fully sovereign entity.

The low profile of Giuseppe Sarto's entire Pontificate, with the hushing of the "Roman question", of the territorial claims and of the "non expedit", that is the ban on Italian Catholics from participating in political elections, were part of this strategy, aimed at strengthening the Church "ad intra" more than "ad extra", and restoring its role and prestige not on the level of political immediacy, but on the more solid and lasting level of law, of juridical foundation.

The second new feature regards, more generally, the chronological placement of Church reform in the 20th century.

The moment of transformation and detachment from the past is generally identified in the Second Vatican Council, with greater or lesser emphasis according to the different schools of history.

Without taking anything away from the value of the Conciliar event, the argumentations of this work demonstrate that a no less important transformation took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the Pius-Benedictine codification of canon law.

This event was much more than a mere juridical fact. It cut the ties with the "ancien regime", renewed and centralized on all levels the forms of ecclesiastical government, restored the Church's self-awareness and certainty as a free institution, capable of presenting itself to the world almost in the unprecedented form of "a polity of souls".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 June 2008, page 14

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