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Records of the Vatican

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

The Vatican as a World Poivcr. By Joseph Bernhart. Translated by George N, Shuster. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $4.00. Italy and the Vatican at War. By S. William Halperin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $3.00.

The year 1939 may well be notable in the long history of the Vatican. It marks the passing of Pius XI, assuredly one of the great figures of the modern world as well as one of the great Popes. With immense prestige, and with the eyes of the world turned upon him, Pius XII begins his reign at a time that is clearly one of crisis. The Vatican faces and prepares for new conditions and new conflicts without exact parallel even in its experience and memory. The two books here discussed appear, therefore, at a most appropriate time. The one is an exact and exhaustive study of a particular episode in the Vatican’s history. The other is a comprehensive view of the Papacy’s life and a penetrating search into its deepest nature and meaning.

“Italy and the Vatican at War,” by S. William Halperin, describes with meticulous detail the period between the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War and the death of Pius IX in 1878. It is the second of a projected series, all of which should prove invaluable to students of the period considered both in itself and in its larger references.

Mr. Halperin’s book is characterized by objectivity of treatment and by thoroughness of documentation. He has made extensive use of new material from the state archives in Vienna and Paris. His use of material from the contemporary press is unusually apt and skillful. Skillful also is the manner in which he is able to disentangle the plots, intrigues, and maneuvers of sixty years ago. Perhaps his complete lack of partisanship is possible because the deeds and men of the 1870’s in Italy are now so distant that they can be judged with almost as much detachment as anything human can be judged. Mr. Halperin’s book presents a model of what a historical study of this sort should be.

The author of “The Vatican as a World Power” is Joseph Bernhart, a prolific writer too little known outside his native Germany. His book, an essay upon the nature and function of the Papacy in history, is brilliantly conceived and executed. He presents pictures of the establishment and growth of the Church and of its life at crucial periods, treating not only the times and places but the leading figures as well. Christ Himself, Peter and Paul, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Charlemagne, Hildebrand, Luther, Loyola, Charles Borromeo, Napoleon, Cavour, Pius IX, and Leo XIII are only a few of the countless varied figures that move in the colorful pageant. Particularly in the case of those most directly opposed as defenders and attackers in the long-continued struggle that has been the Vatican’s history, has the author sought for the essential thing at issue in that struggle.

It would, of course, be impossible for any author to put two thousand years of history between the covers of a single volume. What Mr. Bernhart has done with great insight is to present and analyze a series of the most significant episodes in the history of the Catholic Church. In these episodes is revealed the Church’s essential unity of nature together with its unrivaled richness of aspect and operation. In them is revealed also an essential condition of the Church’s existence in the world, one of struggle and conflict. For the Church even more than for the individual may it be said that life is a war. The constancy and the character of this struggle in the historical past display not only the nature of the Church: they throw no little light upon present events, revealing their meaning and enabling us to form judgments as to their probable future development.

In a chapter headed “Quo Vadis?” Mr. Bernhart gives some of the conclusions that he draws from his long survey.

He writes: “The Papacy is therefore a sovereignty of a unique kind which by its very nature is something different from the secular leadership and administration of human associations. It rests on an historical event without a parallel in history; and from this event, which human reason finds the most inexplicable moment in all history, it derives its reason for being—a reason not implicit in itself.”

That the essence and existence of the Papacy can be explained upon purely naturalistic grounds Mr. Bernhart ex-pectedly will not admit. Neither its success nor its survival after countless defeats can be explained in terms of human skill and wisdom. Not even its constant struggle can be explained in that way, for the most violent attacks upon the Papacy have had their origin in religion, or in philosophies that are themselves religions. Hence the author rightly says: “There is no philosophy of the history of the Papacy, and there can be none, any more than there can be a logic of the Christian story of salvation. Nevertheless every student of the Papacy must carefully consider its own inner definition of itself and its consciousness of its divine origin. If he fails to do so, his story and verdict will not do justice to the theme and will apply the norms of secular statesmanship to what is the government of a superstate.”


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