Cardinal Gibbons and the Stormy Conclave of 1903




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.

The front runner was Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, Leo XIII’s Secretary of State.  He would almost certainly have been chosen Pope by the Conclave but for the exercise of the Austrian veto by a Polish Cardinal at the behest of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef.  (Three Catholic powers had traditionally claimed a right of vetoes in conclaves:  the King of France, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor.  Contemporary Catholics who sigh for Catholic confessional states are often bone ignorant as to how much traditional Catholic confessional states interfered in the operation of the Church.)  Why the veto was used remains a mystery.  The Cardinals met the use of the veto with outrage, but its use stopped Rampolla as a viable candidate.  After the election of Pope Pius, he banned the use of vetoes in any future conclaves.

After five days and seven ballots, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, a man of humble birth who had risen to be Patriarch of Venice, was chosen Pope, and decided to reign as Pius.  Although the Holy Spirit chose a most convoluted path in the Conclave of 1903, the choice of Pope Pius X was a great one.  He would be a masterful Pope, immensely popular with the average Catholic.  Fond of children he had a wry sense of humor.  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!  His piety, his wisdom and his leadership assured that he would become the first pope canonized since the seventeenth century, almost by popular acclaim, modernists, of course, excepted.  Cardinal Gibbons and the other participants in the Conclave could be proud of their work.

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  1. 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.

  2. Don

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

  3. 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.

  4. “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.

  5. “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.

  6. “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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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!”

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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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