The popular demand for the Encyclicals and Apostolical Letters of a Roman Pontiff is something go novel as to constitute of itself a proof of the esteem in which he is held. It would seem that whatever is written of Leo XIII. in books or newspapers, instead of satisfying the universal desire for a knowledge of him, only inspires the wish to know more, and the conviction that the writings of a man of such powers and world-wide sympathies must contain messages of interest and benefit to all humanity.
It is precisely the merit of the Letters of the late Pope that no matter when they were written, or to whom they were addressed, they are of actual and universal interest, as intelligible to the layman and illiterate as to the theologian and scholar, as urgent in their appeals to those who are not within the fold of which he was chief pastor as to the children of the household. His arguments could not but command attention, drawn as they were from history, experience, and reason, as well as from Scripture and tradition; and his sincere interest in the civil and social improvements of every nation, whether Catholic or not, made all hearken to his plea for religion as the chief factor of true progress.
The Letters which we have selected are all characteristic of Leo. Taken together they express his sentiments on the chief questions of a time which, owing to his great influence in civil as well as in ecclesiastical matters, is really an epoch in the history of men. His influence on scientific studies alone is sufficient proof of this. Never was science so arrogant as when Leo XIII. began to recommend to Catholics the study of sound philosophy. Twenty-five years ago, scientists everywhere were proclaiming oracularly, like Tyndall and Huxley among the English-speaking nations, the victory of science over religion, when Leo declared that there could be no question of victory where there was no conflict, and that only men who were ignorant of the true nature of religion and science could consider them mutually antagonistic. If to-day a Brunetière without fear of contradiction can proclaim science bankrupt, it is in a great measure because Leo's Encyclical on the Study of St. Thomas and Scholastic Philosophy inspired Catholic scientists, and through their influence non-Catholic scientists as well, to study both theology and science more ardently, systematically, and conservatively, and with such success in reconciling their apparent disagreements that the best scientists of our day recognize how each is but a study from a different aspect of the same great First Cause and its effects, and that each must necessarily, therefore, be in accord with the other. Lord Kelvin's words, "Science positively affirms Creative Power . . . we are absolutely forced by science to believe with perfect confidence in a Directive Power," and his further assertion, "If you think strong enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion; you will find science not antagonistic but helpful to religion," are but a re-echo of Leo's utterances a quarter of a century ago. A perusal of the Letters contained in this volume will satisfy the reader that in other spheres as well as in that of science, in education, sociology, and statesmanship, the late Pontiff, by adapting himself to his age and studying carefully its needs and possibilities, has so far influenced its thought and tendencies, and so plainly altered its current of events, as to have opened a new era in its history.
It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that never before had a Supreme Pontificate been exercised with more distinction than by Leo XIII., but surely in no Pontiff has the world at large appreciated so well as in him the nature, duties, and prerogatives of the papal office; and this appreciation is due chiefly, if not entirely, to his Pontifical acts as a teacher, ruler, and high priest, whose teachings, authority and spiritual ministration have exercised an influence on all humanity, as well as on his own subjects.
As teacher, Leo XIII. was not content with recommending true doctrine, or urging reforms and improvements in Catholic universities and seminaries; but, setting an example, he issued, in season and out of season, his own instructions based on the soundest principles of reason and revelation about the family, liberty, socialism, the relations of the working man with his employers, the right use of political powers, the menace of secret societies to the governments that harbor them, the duties of Christian citizens and the constitution of Christian States. As ruler, he exercised a singular power over his cardinals and bishops, many of whom he was magnanimous enough to appoint when their views and policy did not coincide entirely with his own. By counsel, direction, and command, he was ever aiding them to govern their dioceses, and to impart to the faithful proper guidance in every matter affecting faith and morals. As priest and Pontiff, he was solicitous for the unity, integrity, and splendor of Christian worship, instituting many reforms in the observance of the liturgy and in ecclesiastical music, but he was more solicitous still for the interior holiness of the faithful, as appears by his Letters on Human Liberty, The Right Ordering of Christian Life, Marriage, The Holy Spirit, Christ the Redeemer, and by his zeal in raising to the altars the approved models of Christian perfection in every walk of life.
An ardent love of truth, an unwavering determination to preserve peace and concord not only among Catholics but between them and their fellow-citizens, whether believers in Christianity or not, and an unfailing spirit of hope, are the chief characteristics of Leo in these Encyclicals. The great Pontiff was no pessimist. If he never lost sight of the evils afflicting humanity, neither did he ever fail to provide a remedy, nor on occasion to take comfort in what was good, and to praise most generously all who had labored to accomplish it; in this he was really the Vicar of Christ, from his tribulations learning patience, from patience trial, and from trial hope—the hope that confoundeth not, because it shared in the supreme confidence of Christ in humanity, who, as Leo loved to remind men, was willing "when we were yet weak, according to the time, to die even for the ungodly."
For translations of Encyclicals not specially made for this book we are indebted to The Tablet, The American Catholic Quarterly Review, The Catholic World, The Messenger, The Catholic Mind, "The Pope and the People," and various pamphlets published by Benziger Brothers.