Faith & Life, World

September 20: Saint Pius X, Ernesto Nathan and Ernesto Buonaiuti

September 24, 2021

Aurelio Porfiri

For most devout Catholics, the date of 20th September, especially at the beginning of the last century, was not a day to celebrate. It was a day that commemorated the end of the temporal power of the Popes, a historical event that took place, which was too overwhelming and heartbreaking at least for most Catholics. In fact, recent historiography has also highlighted the purely anti-Catholic aspect of the Risorgimento, the role of Freemasonry which was certainly not secondary. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi had well observed this: “But above all it was a spiritual and moral drama which motivated and led the unitary process that had a deliberately anti-ecclesial ideology” (Pinocchio, Peppone e l’anticristo). Now, we understand that at times anti-clericalism also flourishes in many Catholic hearts that see the unjust abuse of certain clergy, perceived as totally unworthy priests, thanks to the network of the unspoken and clerical cover-ups, that continue to thrive and simply will be moved a few kilometers to continue to attack the faith of men and women of goodwill. Yet, Catholic hearts know how to distinguish between the clergy who are loyal and others who are not, which is a reality.

At the beginning of the last century, Ernesto Nathan (1845-1921) was mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913. Note the dates, he was elected mayor precisely in 1907 when the fight against modernism in the Catholic Church intensified, with two capital documents such as Lamentabili sane exitu and Pascendi Dominici gregis. It was during the pontificate of Pius X who was at the heart of the anti-modernist battle and who would not have been happy with the mayor who was put in charge of the administration of Rome.  He was a mayor who had the following characteristics: he was a Jew, formerly a grand master of Freemasonry, anticlerical and Mazzinian. He wasn’t even born in Italy, as he came from London. In short, it would not have been strange if Saint Pius X had seen Nathan’s election to the post of a mayor as an affront to Catholic Rome and Nathan certainly did not help disprove this impression.

On September 20, 1910, on the anniversary of the breach of Porta Pia, he gave a fiery speech with an anticlerical tone: “Half a century ago the subalpine Parliament, in a sure vision of national destinies, Rome claimed the capital of the new Italy. Before the will of the people, at the work of the great advocates, the Apostle, the Warrior, the King, the Statesman, before the brave army, the valiant volunteers, the citizens, those who labored, suffered, died, for the knowledge that sometimes illuminates the men and the assemblies, so then that illustrious patriotic assembly was established, and so, in the maturity of the events it was… Measure the path traveled in 40 years…the walls of Belisario pierced on every side… Castel Sant ‘Angelo, the tomb of the dead Roman Emperor, later reduced to the tombs of living papal subjects, is a museum of medieval memories, for the teaching and refinement of citizens; the distinguished and colossal monument of Roman grandeur, the Diocletian Baths reduced to barns, warehouses and shabby houses, now surrounds itself with gardens and comes back to life, worthy life, large, incomparable national museum of ancient art” (from Fabio Martini, Nathan e l’invenzione di Roma). And this is only part of the speech, in which he also recalled how in Rome once the churches were never enough to pray while there was a need for more schools.

You will understand that Pius X was not happy with this speech, in fact he made sure that the newspapers received a rescript sent to the Cardinal Vicar Pietro Respighi in which he stated: “A public official in the exercise of his mandate is not content with solemnly remembering the anniversary of the day on which the sacred rights of the Pontifical Authority were trampled on, he raised his voice to launch the mockery and outrage against the doctrine of the Catholic Faith, against the Vicar of Christ on earth and against the Church itself… arriving with impunity to denounce to the public despisement the acts of Our Apostolic Ministry” (from Fabio Martini, op. cit.). As mentioned, the good Pius X had every reason to be restless, also because the modernists gave him a lot to do within the Church. Among these, the most representative of Italian modernism was Ernesto Buonaiuti (1881-1946), a priest and professor of ecclesiastical history. He was the link between Roman modernism and modernist ferments in other countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, England and especially France, where the biblical scholar and modernist Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), disciple of Ernest Renan, reigned and also Albert Houtin (1867-1926), priest and theologian who left the priesthood in 1912. He was excommunicated in 1909.

In a letter dated October 11, 1910, that is, a few days after Nathan’s aforementioned speech, Buonaiuti communicated the following to him: “The letter to Nathan is from the good Pioli: As we all agree, unfortunately, the Italian press does not know or does not want to understand certain viewpoints. The hindrance  imposed by the Vatican on the more liberal press is beginning to be intolerable. We would need our own and complete information body. A Corrispondenza Romana in antithesis to that of Benigni “(1972, from Fonti e Documenti, Study Center for the History of Modernism, edited by Lorenzo Bedeschi). It referred to a letter that various Roman priests had sent to Ernesto Nathan in support of his speech at Porta Pia and in an anti-papal function. I want to mention that Buonaiuti was then  excommunicated three times and that he was later considered as one of the most interesting and tragic figures of Italian modernism.  He never wanted to leave the Catholic Church in order to join the Protestant community, who also courted him and which would have been convenient to him. The reference in the letter is to Giovanni Pioli (1877-1969), a priest who abandoned the Church driven by his modernist ideas to get in touch with the reformed communities and for a religiosity marked by a vague universalism, of a clearly progressive type.