Pope Pius XII and the Theological Treatise on the Church

Author: Joseph Fenton


by Joseph Clifford Fenton

In the brilliant prolixity of his writings and his allocutions, the late and beloved Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, made important contributions to many areas within the field of Catholic doctrine. Yet one theological treatise seems to have been affected and improved more effectively than any other by what he wrote and said in his capacity as the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. That treatise is the .

During the early years of the twentieth century there was more confusion and misunderstanding about the Church than about any other reality studied in the science of sacred theology. Three factors were responsible for the comparatively imperfect status of popular writing about the kingdom of God on earth. First, there was the fact that the treatise on the true Church of Jesus Christ had a history quite different from that of most of the other individual treatises within the confines of dogmatic theology.[1] Second among these factors was the unfortunate misinterpretation of terminology employed in St. Robert Bellarmine's classical over the period from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth.[2] The last and the most important factor was the influence of popular and superficial religious writing strongly influenced by liberal Catholicism.[3]

These three factors, acting together, produced a condition in which religious books by some rather influential Catholic authors tended, during the first half of the twentieth century, to speak of a kind of super-Church, a Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, in some way distinct from and superior to the visible Catholic Church over which the Bishop of Rome presides as visible head and as the Vicar on earth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Basically, it was that condition which the late and great Sovereign Pontiff was called upon to remedy. And, by the force of his most important writings and allocutions, he fulfilled this task most admirably.

Amidst the literally thousands of entries in the official of Pope Pius XII there are hundreds of documents in which he set forth teaching about the nature and the dignity of the Catholic Church as the true Church of Jesus Christ. As a result any full- scale study of the effects of Pius XII in the field of ecclesiology would have to be expressed in a rather formidable volume. Yet, among the very numerous documents which would certainly have to be scrutinized in such a work, there are a very few statements of his which had particular moment for all theologians interested in the treatise on the Church. He seemed to have a special affection for these declarations. I can think of no more effective way of honoring his beloved memory in this issue of than that of bringing together his most striking teachings about the Church he loved so much and guided so well.


The and the subsequent encyclical, the , may well go down in history as the two most important doctrinal statements issued by Pope Pius XII during the course of his long and glorious reign as Christ's Vicar on earth. Both exercised an extraordinarily powerful regulatory influence within the .

Pope Pius XII issued the on June 29, 1943. The first and the most fundamental contribution it made to Catholic thought on the Church is contained in the following sentence:

If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ- which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church-we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression "the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ"-an expression which springs from and is, as it were, the fair flowering of the repeated teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and the holy Fathers.[4]

After this strong and eminently clear declaration, there could be no shadow of excuse for any tactic tending to depict the Mystical Body of Our Lord as in any way distinct from or superior to the visible Catholic Church, the religious society over which the Vicar of Christ rules as the visible head. The expression "Mystical Body of Jesus Christ" appears in this ringing pronouncement of Pius XII as the description and even as the definition of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church. The then gives the to the teachings that the true Church of Jesus Christ is something other than a visible or truly organized society in this world by the following pronouncement:

Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely "pneumatological" as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.[5]

In the same way this great encyclical letter reproves the error and confusion inherent in the writings of those Catholics who taught the existence of a twofold Church of God in this world:

For this reason We deplore and condemn the pernicious error of those who dream of an imaginary Church, a kind of society that finds its origin and growth in charity, to which, somewhat contemptuously, they oppose another, which they call juridical. But this distinction which they introduce is false: for they fail to understand that the reason which led our Divine Redeemer to give to the community of men He founded the constitution of a Society, perfect in its kind and containing all the juridical and social elements-namely, that He might perpetuate on earth the saving work of Redemption- was also the reason why He willed it to be enriched with the heavenly gifts of the Paraclete.[6]

Finally, Pope Pius XII, writing in the set forth the truth that the visible Catholic Church is actually the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the true Church of God spoken of in the Scriptures, when he brought out the fact that the members of the Catholic Church recognizable as such, or, in other words, the members of the visible Catholic Church, are the true and only members of the true Church. He wrote:

Actually only those are to be included () as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body (), or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.[7]

There was another point magnificently clarified by the late Sovereign Pontiff in the text of the . That was the teaching on the necessity of the Catholic Church for the attainment of eternal salvation. The following passage gives precious instruction on the status of those who are linked to the true Church by an unconscious or merely implicit desire or intention to enter this society.

As you know, Venerable Brethren, from the very beginning of Our Pontificate, We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church (), solemnly declaring that after the example of the Good Shepherd We desire nothing more ardently than that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Imploring the prayers of the whole Church We wish to repeat this solemn declaration in this Encyclical Letter in which We have proclaimed the praises of the "great and glorious Body of Christ," and from a heart overflowing with love We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation (). For even though by an unconscious desire and longing () they have a certain relationship () with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with Us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ (), may they together with us run on to the one Head in the Society of glorious love. Persevering in prayer to the Spirit of love and truth, We wait for them with open and outstretched arms to come not to a stranger's house, but to their own, their father's home.[8]

There is another important item on which the issues a doctrinal decision. Prior to the issuance of this encyclical Catholic theologians had debated as to whether the residential bishops of the Catholic Church derived their power of jurisdiction immediately from Our Lord or from Him through the Roman Pontiff. In this document, Pope Pius XII took occasion to speak of the Bishops' power of jurisdiction and he described it as something "which they receive directly (immediate) from the same Supreme Pontiff."[9] In the edition of his which came out after the issuance of the , Cardinal Ottaviani took occasion to state that this teaching, which had hitherto been considered up until this time as more probable, and even as common doctrine, must now be accepted as entirely certain by reason of the words of the Sovereign Pontiff Pius XII.[10]


Doctrinal errors which were taught or at least favored in some Catholic circles after the close of the second world war were indicated and reproved in the encyclical letter , which was dated Aug. 12, 1950. Like the Oath against the Errors of Modernism, contained in St. Pius X's , the dealt mostly with errors opposed to the teaching found in the Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution . Thus much of the material set forth in the deals with the introduction to sacred theology and with other than the Church. Some of the most valuable teachings of this encyclical, however, deal directly with the .

The most important individual contribution made to ecclesiology in the has to do with the Church's .

In this encyclical Pope Pius XII reminded Catholic scholars that "in matters of faith and morals this sacred must be the proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians, since to it has been entrusted by Christ Our Lord the whole deposit of faith-Sacred Scripture and divine Tradition-to be preserved, guarded, and interpreted."[11] He reminded Catholic students also of their duty "to flee also those errors which more or less approach heresy," and accordingly [of their duty] "to keep also the constitutions and decrees by which such evil opinions are proscribed and forbidden by the Holy See."[12]

Specifically he taught about the authority of the encyclical letters and the other acts of the Sovereign Pontiff's ordinary magisterium.

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not in itself demand consent, since in writing such letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their teaching authority (). For these things are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is also true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents () purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.[13]

In the the late Holy Father was forced to complain against the rejection of the central thesis of the by some writers within the Catholic fold. He also noted the existence of objectionable teaching on another point of Catholic doctrine about the true Church.

Some say that they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the sources of revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.[14]


A year before the appearance of the , the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office sent to the Most Reverend Archbishop of Boston a letter containing explanations on the subject of the dogma that no one can be saved outside of the Catholic Church. This highly important document was approved by Pope Pius XII. Despite the fact that it was sent prior to the issuance of the , it was not published until two years after the publication of the encyclical. This Holy Office letter is the , one of the most important doctrinal statements which appeared during the reign of the late and beloved Sovereign Pontiff.[15]

This document set forth clearly and in detail, and as the authentic teaching of the Holy See, the explanation of the dogma on the necessity of the Catholic Church for the attainment of eternal salvation which had long been presented as common teaching in the theological teaching on the Church itself. The elements of the exposition contained in the had, of course, long since been presented to the faithful in previous authoritative statements of the Church's magisterium. The entire doctrine, however, had never before been synthesized and set forth as clearly and in such scientifically complete detail in any previous document.

The insisted again upon the fact that the declaration: "there is no salvation outside the Church" is an infallible statement which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach, and it qualified this statement as a dogma. It explained that the Church understood this dogma to mean that the Church is necessary for the attainment of eternal salvation with both the necessity of precept and the necessity of means. Furthermore, it taught that the Church was a means of salvation to be classified among those , and that thus, under certain circumstances, salvation can be attained when the Church itself is used or entered . Again it brought out the Catholic teaching that, in cases where men are invincibly ignorant of the true Church, "God accepts also an implicit desire (), so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God."[16]

The strictly doctrinal portion of the ends with this essential teaching:

But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: "For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews, 11: 6). The Council of Trent declares (Session VI, chap. 8): "Faith is the beginning of man's salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and attain to the fellowship of His children" (Denzinger, n. 801).[17]


The is an allocution delivered by Pope Pius XII on Dec. 6, 1953, to the national convention of the Unione dei Giuristi Cattolici Italiani, at an audience with the Holy Father. The first section of this document deals with the nature and the properties of an international and juridical community of sovereign states. It has no immediate relevance to the theological . The second section discusses and gives the solution of a with which Catholic statesmen and Catholic states may be faced by reason of possible future action by an international community. This part of the authoritatively settled several questions which had been disputed during the course of a discussion on Church and state carried on by Catholic theologians prior to the delivery of the allocution.

An article in the February, 1954, issue of thus sums up the effect of the on certain points which had previously been debated among theologians in this country:

(1) The allocution employs the term "Stato cattolico." Indeed, the concept of the Catholic state is one of the key notions used in this document. The term is applied to modern states, to civil societies which will have relations with a still uncompleted juridical international community of sovereign states. Hence, it would seem idle to maintain in the future that this term is inept, or that it can legitimately refer only to civil societies or kingdoms of times past.

(2) The allocution asserts that "what does not correspond to the truth and to the moral standards has, objectively, no right to exist, to be taught, or to be done." As a result we can expect that, in the future, there will be no objections raised against the teaching or the terminology of writers who hold that, in itself, error has no rights. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Cardinal Ottaviani, in his article in the May, 1953, issue of , commented adversely on the practice of objecting to the kind of statement which now appears in this pontifical allocution.

(3) It is certainly no longer feasible to reprove the teaching that objectively, a complete separation of Church and state is an evil. Likewise it would appear that henceforth the legitimacy of the explanations between Church and state in terms of thesis and hypothesis will be acknowledged.[18]

The is the allocution delivered by Pope Pius XII on May 31, 1954, to the Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops who were present in Rome for the canonization of St. Pius X. It contains a magnificent explanation about the relation of the Sovereign Pontiff and the other members of the apostolic college to the men they employ to aid them in their work of teaching the faithful. As such it brought needed clarification to one part of the theological treatise on the Church of Christ.

Christ Our Lord entrusted the truth which He had brought from heaven to the Apostles, and through them to their successors. He sent His Apostles, as He had been sent by the Father (John, 20:21), to teach all nations everything they had heard from Him (cf. Matt., 28:19 f.). The Apostles are, therefore, by divine right the true doctors and teachers in the Church. Besides the lawful successors of the Apostles, namely the Roman Pontiff for the universal Church and Bishops for the faithful entrusted to their care (cf. can. 1326), there are no other teachers divinely constituted in the Church of Christ. But both the Bishops and, first of all, the Supreme Teacher and Vicar of Christ on earth, may associate others with themselves in their work of teacher, and use their advice; they delegate to them the faculty to teach, either by special grant, or by conferring an office to which the faculty is attached (cf. can. 1328). Those who are so called teach not in their own name, nor by reason of their theological knowledge, but by reason of the mandate which they have received from the lawful Teaching Authority. Their faculty always remains subject to that Authority, nor is it ever exercised in its own right or independently. Bishops, for their part, by conferring this faculty, are not deprived of the right to teach; they retain the very grave obligation of supervising the doctrine which others propose, in order to help them, and of seeing to its integrity and security. Therefore the legitimate Teaching Authority of the Church is guilty of no injury or no offense to any of those to whom it has given a canonical mission, if it desires to ascertain what they, to whom it has entrusted the mission of teaching, are proposing and defending in their lectures, in books, notes, and reviews intended for the use of their students, as well as in books and other publications intended for the general public.[19]

Prior to the issuance of the , there was a tendency on the part of some popular writers in the field of religion to imagine that any one at any time might set himself up as a teacher of Christian doctrine within the Catholic Church. The masterful allocution delivered by Pope Pius XII effectively disposed of this pernicious mistake.


The contributions to the made by Pope Pius XII in his letters and in his allocutions were many and outstanding. What, to this writer, seems the greatest of them all came in the form of a letter, written at the Sovereign Pontiff's direction, by Monsignor Dell'Acqua to Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, the Archbishop of Florence. This letter was intended for the direction of the . It was dated July 3, 1957, and it was published in in its Aug. 4 issue last year.

The central theme of the meeting to which the letter was sent was "Charity in the Christian Community." Pope Pius XII called it "a theme which is at once the most exalted and the most effective for the Christian renewal of society."[20] In his comments on that theme he forcefully reminded his readers of the essential function of charity within the Church.

First of all, he insisted that the only genuine charity within the Christian community "is the theological virtue of charity, which has as its object God Himself, who is 'Charity' and 'Love,' infinite and worthy to be loved for His own sake and above all things."[21] He showed that basically and essentially the love of charity that should exist and operate within the Christian community is this supernatural love of friendship for the Triune God, who has first loved us so tenderly. Then he pointed out the fact that this charity for God must carry with it a love for one another in the society of Our Lord's disciples.

The infinite love with which God loves Himself in the ineffable mystery of the Trinity is manifested to us through the Incarnate Word who has given us the new commandment, to love one another as God has loved us.

Even before the Last Supper and the Passion, Jesus had recalled that the precept of the love of God ought to be integrated with that of the love of the neighbor. After having asserted the primacy of the love of God, He said: "The second [commandment] is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." But, in the discourse after the Last Supper, speaking of the "new commandment," He gave a more precise and profound explanation of the terms. "As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you"; "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another."[22]

When we read the New Testament carefully, we soon become aware of the fact that the command most frequently and forcefully imposed upon the members of the Church by Our Lord Himself and by the inspired writers was the precept to love one another.

Actually, as the Holy Father pointed out, this mutual love of charity within the Church was proposed by Our Lord Himself as evidence of discipleship. The disciples were instructed and ordered to forgive one another, to bear with one another, and to seek forgiveness from one another. They were to put aside anything that stood in the way of mutual love of charity among themselves.

Yet, when the contemporary student reads the treatise on the Church (or for that matter, the treatise in moral theology), he finds little or nothing about this most intimate connection of supernatural charity with the life of the Church. The speaks of the necessity of a love of charity for one's neighbor, but it does not indicate the fact that Our Lord's "new" commandment of mutual love among His disciples was a more precise and profound explanation of the second law of charity. The mentions charity as pertaining to the internal bond of union within the Church, but ordinarily it fails to insist that the Church itself is a society of men and women who are meant by God Himself to have special and fraternal love for one another by the very force of their affection for Him.

The letter to Cardinal Dalla Costa reminded the men of our time of the preeminent place of mutual charity among the members of the Catholic Church. Ultimately that letter showed the obligation and the necessity of fraternal charity among the priests of the Catholic Church. The fraternal charity which God commands and which He expects within the Catholic priesthood is only the flowering and the center of the mutual fraternal love which should exist among all the members of the true Church.

During our own times there has been a manifest and widespread tendency to ignore the central truth brought out in this letter It was perhaps the crowning achievement of Pope Pius XII to insist strongly upon the fact that the Savior's "new" command that His disciples love one another is, essentially, only the more profound and precise application, within the Mystical Body, of the second precept of divine charity.

* * * *

In 1956, Fr. Domenico Bertetto edited a volume entitled II .[23] It is a work of 1015 pages, and it cites, in extenso, those sections of Pius XII's which have to do with doctrine about or devotion to Our Lady. Up until the first months of 1956, there were 910 such pronouncements to be listed. Anyone who is familiar with the late Sovereign Pontiff's contributions to the theological , even in a superficial way, knows very well that a work of this type (although not necessarily a work fully as bulky as Father Bertetto's volume), would be required to do full justice to what Pius XII taught about the kingdom of God on earth.

Helpful and enlightening statements about the nature and the properties of Our Lord's Church abound in many of the documents issued by Pope Pius XII. Yet it would seem that the most important and the most urgently needed clarifications he made can be found in the documents mentioned in the course of this brief tribute. It is chiefly by reason of the statements contained in these documents that the task of teaching the theological treatise on the Church has been aided during the course of his long and glorious reign as Christ's Vicar on earth.

Those of us who have been privileged to teach the throughout the entire pontificate of Pope Pius XII know from experience how brilliantly and effectively he contributed to the advance of clerical studies in this line. In his clear statement of Catholic doctrine, and in his forceful repudiation of extravagant teachings on this subject, he advanced the cause of God's revealed truth as few men have done before him.

JOSEPH CLIFFORD FENTON The Catholic University of America Washington, D. C.


1 Cf. Fenton, (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1958), pp. 165-70.

2 Cf. ibid., pp. 171-88.

3 The tendency called "liberal Catholicism" is founded on religious indifferentism, involving opposition to the dogmas of the necessity of the true faith and of the true Church for the attainment of eternal salvation Cf. "The Components of Liberal Catholicism," in , CXXXIX, 1 (July 1958). 36-53

4 NCWC translation, n. 13.

5. , n. 14.

6 , n. 65.

7 , n. 22.

8 , n. 103.

9 , n. 42.

10 Cf. Ottaviani, , 3rd ed. (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1947), I, 413; and Fenton, "The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals," in CXXI, 2, 3 (Aug., Sept., 1949), 136-50;

11 Cf. NCWC translation, n. 18.

12 Cf. . In this passage Pope Pius XII used the words which the Vatican Council appended to its canons for the Constitution Cf. , 1820.

13 NCWC translation, n. 20.

14 , n. 27.

15 The original Latin text and the official English translation of this document are to be found in , CXXVII, 4 (Oct., 1952), 307-15.

16 , 313.

17 Ibid., 314.

18 "The Teachings of the " in , CXXX, 2 (Feb., 1954) 114-23. The passage cited is found on pp. 122 f.

19 The text and the English translation of are carried in , CXXXI, 2 (August, 1954), 127-37. The passage cited is on pp. 133 f.

20 The English translation of this letter is carried in , CXXXVII, 4 (Oct., 1957), 274-80. The citation is from p. 275.


22 , 275 f

23 This book was published by the Edizioni Paoline of Turin.

This article was taken from "The American Ecclesiastical Review" December, 1958.


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