Cardinal Gibbons and the Stormy Conclave of 1903

Friday, March 8, AD 2013




James Cardinal Gibbons of the Archdiocese of Baltimore was the second American cardinal and an enormously important figure both within the history of the Church in America and the history of America in general.  His championing of the rights of labor in the nineteenth century helped direct America on a more peaceful path in the relationship between labor and capital than existed in many other nations.  Many posts could be written about this man and I intend to write them!  Today we will focus on the fact that he was the first American cardinal to participate in a papal conclave.

When Pope Leo XIII died in 1903 Cardinal Gibbons happened to be in Rome.  Without that fortuitous circumstance he would most likely have not been able to participate in the subsequent Conclave.  In 1914 with the death of Pope Pius X, Cardinal Gibbons boarded a rapid steamer to cross the Atlantic but arrived too late to participate in the Conclave.  Thus the Conclave of 1903 was the only one Cardinal Gibbons was fated to participate in, but it certainly was a dramatic one.

The first Conclave to occur within the glare of modern media, the proceedings leaked like a sieve to eager waiting journalists, so much so that after this Conclave Pope Pius decreed that participants were to take an oath of silence as to the proceedings of all future conclaves.

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26 Responses to Cardinal Gibbons and the Stormy Conclave of 1903

  • Looks like that bad ol’ Hapsburg veto turned out pretty well, after all.

    Can’t imagine why anyone would not, on the level of principle, want the Catholic faith to inform every aspect of society, including its political life. That anyway is the clear teaching of Libertas, Immortale Dei, and other pertinent encyclicals.

  • Don

    You failed to mention the all important fact that Pope St. Pius X was also an avid cigar smoker.

  • Ironically, too, it would be Pius and Leo who would in turn condemn the nascent Modernism and Americanism with which Gibbons was associated; it was to him, after all, that Testem Benevolentiae was addressed (admittedly, in his capacity as Archbishop of the Primary See in the US). It was just such a dismissiveness about the desirability of the public acknowledgement of the doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ that spurred Leo to write.

  • “Looks like that bad ol’ Hapsburg veto turned out pretty well, after all.”

    God always works to the good. Sometimes in accord with the actions of men, sometimes in spite of them.

  • “Looks like that bad ol’ Hapsburg veto turned out pretty well, after all.”

    No doubt why an appalled Saint Pius X banned its use in perpetuity Tom.

    “Can’t imagine why anyone would not, on the level of principle, want the Catholic faith to inform every aspect of society”

    Really Tom? Considering your vociferous and repeated disagreement with the use of the death penalty as articulated by Pope John Paul II I would have thought that would be self-evident to you. We of course have the practical problem of the fact that it is a big world out there and most people in it are not Catholic. We then have the added problem that Catholics tend to disagree among themselves on most things outside of the essentials of the faith. Finally we have the history of the Confessional States that was often quite unhappy for the Church with constant intervention by the State and often rabid anti-clericalism developing among the opponents of the State who viewed the Church as merely an arm of the State.

  • “Ironically, too, it would be Pius and Leo who would in turn condemn the nascent Modernism and Americanism”

    Gibbons was on good terms with both Pope Leo, who gave him his cardinal’s cap, and Pope Pius of whom he wrote a biography. Americanism was an imaginary heresy, largely the result of Pope Leo XIII being ill-informed about conditions in America and paying too much heed to idiots among American clerics who delighted in attempting to stir up trouble over nothing. Modernism was a real enough heresy, although Pope Pius tended to throw the baby out with the bath water and completely orthodox Catholic scholars suffered along with complete heretics.

  • We would do well to understand exactly what Pope Leo XIII actually meant when he condemned Americanism as this passage from the encyclical distinguishes:

    “From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.” But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name. But if this is to be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted, there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country. For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” (Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae)

    From what I understand, at the time there was a movement within the American Church to apply American style democracy to Church government.

  • No there wasn’t Greg. Cardinal Gibbons and the rest of the American heirarchy responded that no one among them taught these propositions that were condemned:

    1.undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience
    2.attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value of religious orders in the modern world
    3.minimizing Catholic doctrine
    4.minimizing the importance of spiritual direction

    They were really scratching their heads on this one and had a hard time figuring out why the Pope was concerned with a non-problem in this country.

    This tempest in a papal tea pot had more to do with the French Church. A biography of Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists and now a Servant of God, was mistranslated into French and portrayed Father Hecker as some sort of flaming radical which he was not. This book became popular among liberal Catholics in France. As usual the relationship
    between the French Church and the Vatican was turbulent at this time. Pope Leo XIII’s concern about “Americanism” could have better been labeled a concern about “Frenchism”. Purportedly Leo XIII was reluctant to attack the Church in America, which he had often praised, and made his rebuke of “Americanism” as soft as possible.

    The statements of loyalty from the American heirarchy were sufficient for the Pope and “Americanism” vanished from history as quickly as it appeared.

  • Okay, I wasn’t sure. But I do know that what Pope Leo condemned was not the American political system as many radical elements of the so-called “traditionalist” movement allege.

  • Quite right Greg. The whole incident is fairly confusing and the I-Hate-America fringe of the RadTrads help increase the confusion deliberately.

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  • Don

    If I remember correctly, a popular American priest had written a book that was very poorly translated into French which is what was read in Rome.

    Of course the Amercans were confused because they had read the book in English, and “Americanism” disapeared quickly because it only existed in a poor French translation.

  • Ironically, there is an SSPX priest (at least there was I don’t know if he is still in the Society) named Fr. Christopher Hunter who offers the most articulate Catholic defense of American principles.

  • True Hank. It was a poorly translated bio of Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, that falsely portrayed him as a flaming radical which he was not.

  • I think the anti-Americanism faction is a minority among the RadTrads Greg, but they tend to make quite a bit of noise, at least on the internet.

  • Actually, Donald, amongst the SSPX anti-Americanism seems to be the prevailing view from what I have been able to gather.

  • This old article from Fidelity indicates that you might be right Greg:

    I based my statement on Rad Trads I have encountered and who were very patriotic.

  • I’m a bit puzzled by the reference to St Pius X’s sisters being given titles of nobility; I had thought that he refused to do this but that it was Pius XII later who did it for his sisters.

  • Piux X did not grant his sisters titles of nobility as I indicated in my post:

    “When Roman aristocrats complained that he had not made his sisters Papal countesses he responded that he had made them the sisters of a pope and he didn’t see how he could improve on that!”

  • There is no “mystery” why Kaiser Franz used his veto over the election of Rampola. The emperor became aware of the fact that Cardinal Rampola was a freemason and therefore a danger to the church and the papacy. The catholic monarchies exercised the role of “protector ” of the church and it’s discipline since Charlemagne. Pius X ,after he was elected and advised ,had Rampola arrested and all his papers searched. after he was satisfied as to the truth of the allegations ,Rampola was exiled to Scicily ,where he couldn’t do anymore harm.
    Austria was not so fortunate as the Allied powers saw to it’s dimemberment and the replacement of the catholic monarchy with “masonic republics”.
    The Orthodox church fared worse,as the”impius sect” succeeded in electing Melitos as Patriarch of contantinople…he didn’t last very long but did untold harm.

  • Ah, Masons under every bed craziness. None of what you said is true. Pope Pius X appointed Rampola to head The Holy Office in 1908. He was not exiled to Sicily, living in a house near Saint Peter’s. He was considered the foremost candidate to be Pope in any future Conclave, and only his death in 1913 prevented him from being such a candidate in the Conclave of 1914.

  • Americanism was and still is a real heresy. The impetus came from the hierarchy in America’s mostly East Coast dioceses. The most serious problem came from two sources of Americanism-one, the belief that the Church in America needed to tackle her own problems without intervention from Rome; and two, the acceptance of many of the modernist heresies condemned by Pope Pius IX. That at least one bishop was sent beyond the Mississippi for his recalcitrance and the historical fact that at least two bishops were asked to come to Rome for “clarifications” indicates the seriousness of this heresy.

    There are many aspects of this real heresy and one which is the most serious was that Catholicism could be tolerant and accepting of many, if not most, aspects of American culture. This led directly to the undermining of Catholic teaching in colleges and universities set up for the purpose of teaching Catholic doctrine and passing on a Catholic identity, which now, has been almost lost in America.

    The Americanist heresy encourages assimilation to the point of disobedience. And, it is still around today.

  • Nope, the Americanist heresy is as I described it, a phantom heresy that had virtually nothing to do with the Church in America and quite a bit to do with the Church in France. The American Church had a well deserved reputation in the 19th century for loyalty to the Pope and supplying most of the funds needed for the operation of the Vatican after the fall of the Papal States.

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  • Although Rampolla would have been Leo XIII’s preferred successor, Merry del Val, who was secretary to the conclave, later claimed that he was never in the running as the cardinals wanted the Church to take a more conservative direction after Leo’s long pontificate. After the veto was announced by Cardinal Puzyna, Archbishop of Cracow, Merry recalled that the cardinals were so outraged that support for Rampolla actually increased.

    The most likely reason for the veto was pressure on the Emperor by the Ultramontane faction in Vienna. As Leo’s Secretary of State Rampolla had attempted rapprochement with the Third French Republic.

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Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor

Monday, September 3, AD 2012



This Labor Day I recall an episode in both the history of labor in the United States and in the history of the Catholic Church in America.  The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of labor strife, as businesses grew larger, the fruit of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, and workers fought for improvement of working conditions that by any standard were frequently abysmal.  Prior to the Civil War apologists for slavery often argued that the average slave in the South was better fed, better housed and better clothed than the average industrial worker in the North.  This of course overlooked the entire question of liberty, but there were enough terrible examples of wretched working conditions in the North to give the argument facile support.

Unions sprang up to represent workers.  One of the largest in its day was the Knights of Labor founded in 1868.  Successful in several large strikes, by 1886 the membership totaled 700,000, perhaps a majority of whom were Catholic.  In 1886 the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in Canada based upon the secrecy that attended the meetings of the organization and forbade Catholics to join it.

The American hierarchy voted 10 to 2 against condemning the Knights.  Archbishop James Gibbons was going to Rome in 1887 to receive his red hat as Pope Leo XIII had made him a Cardinal.  While there he took the opportunity to submit a lengthy letter in support of the Knights.  Although the letter bears the name of Gibbons, it was probably written by his friend Bishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, who had long been active in support of the rights of workers.  The letter did the trick and the Vatican announced that the Knights were not to be condemned.  The arguments made in the letter had an impact on Pope Leo XIII and helped lay the groundwork for his historic encyclical  Rerum Novarum (1891) in which he defended the rights of workers to organize to seek better working conditions.  Ironically the subject matter of the letter, the Knights of Labor, was in decline, too many of its strikes having involved violence which the leadership of the Knights condemned, but which tarnished the Knights in the eyes of the public.  The Knights would cease to operate as a labor union in 1900, newer unions taking the place of this pioneering organization.

The letter of Cardinal Gibbons stressed that Catholic workers in America who belonged to labor organizations were not hostile to the Church as often occurred in Europe where Unions were organized by Leftist and Anarchist groups.  In America most Americans supported the workers in their struggle to improve their lot, with both major political parties vying to pass legislation aiding workers.  In short, the letter explained American labor and political conditions to the Vatican and how these differed substantially from those existing in Europe.  The letter and the decision of the Vatican were good examples of effective communication between American ecclesiastics and Rome.  Here is the text of the letter:

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12 Responses to Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor

  • History lessons such as these illustrate how Catholic Social Teaching by the Bishop of Rome and European bishops needed to be interpreted for and by US pastors. Same went for “separation of Church-State,” democracy, conscience freedom and such. Ironically, they are all back on the front burner with the new atheism and hostility to Natural Law

  • By one of those ironies of history, in the mid-19th century, one finds deeply conservative Monarchist bishops and clergy in France supporting workers’ rights, inspired by their inveterate hatred of the French Revolution and all its works, including, of course, the Allarde Decree of 17 March 1791 and the Le Chapelier Law of 14 June 1791.

    It was not until the law of 25 May 1864, under Napoléon III that workers regained the right to associate and to strike.

    Père Henri-Dominique Lacordaire OP, who restored the Dominican order in France in 1850 and who was the most celebrated preacher of his day was an early champion of the rights of labour. An admirer of Lord Shaftsbury’s Factories Acts in the UK, he famously remarked, “Between the weak and the strong, between the rich and the poor, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.”

  • Donald,

    Thanks for posting this article and letter. The late 19th Century (bleeding into the early 20th Century) was one of the most outstanding times in human history for technological growth, and the improvement of the lives of all people. But, it was not without some pain, especially felt among the workers who became little more than “wage slaves”.

    Ultimately, work places were made safe and salaries rose. While there certainly was violence and blood, what is amazing is that the antagonism, and anarchy, that marked European labor movements did not take hold as deeply nor as long here in the US. This was due (IMHO) to the influence and true interest of Catholic Church leadership here, as compared to the European model.

  • JP 11 championed the sacred dignity of the worker, who made labour sacred, and thus stole the Commie thunder. Leo X111 started with the FACTORY OWNER etc and asked for trickle down as it were, whereas JP11 reversed that and showed where the HUMAN’s SACRED VALUE entered in. That kind of moral evolution is crucial and is the kind of revolution that the late Cdl MARTINI called for in updating the Church being 200 years out of date. Clericalism, bishops addressed and some/many living as lords and Kings with almost untrammeled power. Clericalism needs to be stripped so Servant Leaders take over after 2i00 years as JESUS demanded

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  • Rerum Novarum is actually quite positive about Trade Unions, and was influenced by the ideas of Henry, Cardinal Manning (Archbishop of Westminster) whose intervention in the London dock strike of 1889 made him a hero in the eyes of working men. Unions were given full legal recognition in the 1870s, and Margaret Thatcher actually removed some of the rights which had been granted by her Conservative predecessor Benjamin Disraeli over a century before.

    The anarcho-syndicalism prevalent on the Continent was indeed largely absent in Britain and America. This is due less to the influence of the Church than to a tradition of effective representative government which militated against revolution.

  • John, Cardinal Gibbons considered his victory re: the Knights of Labor to be greatly helped by Manning. Gibbons wrote to him: “I cannot sufficiently express to you how much I have felt strengthened in my position by being able to refer in the document to your utterances on the claims of the working man to our sympathy and support.” Gibbons in later years recalled with amusement a cartoon which had Manning on one side of Pope Leo, and Gibbons on the other, with Pope Leo exclaiming that he must watch himself between two such foxes!

  • John,

    Thanks very much for the information. This is one of the reasons I love TAC so much; unlike many other blogs, the correspondents here (excepting myself) have so much knowledge that the comboxes are actually a great continuation of the excellent posts.

  • John Nolan

    Anarcho-syndicalism, in the tradition of Sorel and Proudhon, has deep roots in the Latin distrust of government, as such. Its main appeal was always in Italy, Spain and France south of the Loire, places in which the political class is held in deep and, often, well-merited contempt.

    In Britain, trade unionism and the Labour party had strong roots in the Nonconformist tradition, especially Methodism in England & Wales and the Covenanter legacy in Scotland.

  • Cardinal Manning was a very great man, but his indignation at wrongdoing sometimes betrayed him into remarks more acerbic than was becoming in a clergyman, as when he said of Lord Palmerston (the Prime Minister) that his character was below his talents.

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