Leo XIII. (Gioacchino Pecci) (1810–1903), pope from 1878 to 1003, reckoned the 257th successor of St Peter, was born at Carpineto on the 2nd of March 1810. His family was Sienese in origin, and his father, Colonel Domenico Pecci, had served in the army of Napoleon. His mother, Anna Prosperi, is said to have been a descendant of Rienzi, and was a member of the third order of St Francis. He and his elder brother Giuseppe (known as Cardinal Pecci) received their earliest education from the Jesuits at Viterbo, and completed their education in Rome. In the jubilee year 1825 he was selected by his fellow-students at the Collegium Romanum to head a deputation to Pope Leo XII., whose memory he subsequently cherished and whose name he assumed in 1878. Weak health, consequent on over-study, prevented him from obtaining the highest academical honours, but he graduated as doctor in theology at the age of twenty-two, and then entered the Accademia dei Nobili ecclesiastici, a college in which clergy of aristocratic birth are trained for the diplomatic service of the Roman Church. Two years later Gregory XVI. appointed him a domestic prelate, and bestowed on him, by way of apprenticeship, various minor administrative offices. He was ordained priest on the 31st of December 1837, and a few weeks later was made apostolic delegate of the small papal territory of Benevento, where he had to deal with brigands and smugglers, who enjoyed the protection of some of the noble families of the district. His success here led to his appointment in 1841 as delegate of Perugia, which was at that time a centre of anti-papal secret societies. This post he held for eighteen months only, but in that brief period he obtained a reputation as a social and municipal reformer. In 1843 he was sent as nuncio to Brussels, being first consecrated a bishop (19th February), with the title of archbishop of Damietta. During his three years’ residence at the Belgian capital he found ample scope for his gifts as a diplomatist in the education controversy then raging, and as mediator between the Jesuits and the Catholic university of Louvain. He gained the esteem of Leopold I., and was presented to Queen Victoria of England and the Prince Consort. He also made the acquaintance of many Englishmen, Archbishop Whately among them. In January 1846, at the request of the magistrates and people of Perugia, he was appointed bishop of that city with the rank of archbishop; but before returning to Italy he spent February in London, and March and April in Paris. On his arrival in Rome he would, at the request of King Leopold, have been created cardinal but for the death of Gregory XVI. Seven years later, 19th December 1853, he received the red hat from Pius IX. Meanwhile, and throughout his long episcopate of thirty-two years, he foreshadowed the zeal and the enlightened policy later to be displayed in the prolonged period of his pontificate, building and restoring many churches, striving to elevate the intellectual as well as the spiritual tone of his clergy, and showing in his pastoral letters an unusual regard for learning and for social reform. His position in Italy was similar to that of Bishop Dupanloup in France; and, as but a moderate supporter of the policy enunciated in the Syllabus, he was not altogether persona grata to Pius IX. But he protested energetically against the loss of the pope’s temporal power in 1870, against the confiscation of the property of the religious orders, and against the law of civil marriage established by the Italian government, and he refused to welcome Victor Emmanuel in his diocese. Nevertheless, he remained in the comparative obscurity of his episcopal see until the death of Cardinal Antonelli; but in 1877, when the important papal office of camerlengo became vacant, Pius IX. appointed to it Cardinal Pecci, who thus returned to reside in Rome, with the prospect of having shortly responsible functions to perform during the vacancy of the Holy See, though the camerlengo was traditionally regarded as disqualified by his office from succeeding to the papal throne.
When Pius IX. died (7th February 1878) Cardinal Pecci was elected pope at the subsequent conclave with comparative unanimity, obtaining at the third scrutiny (20th February) forty-four out of sixty-one votes, or more than the requisite two-thirds majority. The conclave was remarkably free from political influences, the attention of Europe being at the time engrossed by the presence of a Russian army at the gates of Constantinople. It was said that the long pontificate of Pius IX. led some of the cardinals to vote for Pecci, since his age (within a few days of sixty-eight) and health warranted the expectation that his reign would be comparatively brief; but he had for years been known as one of the few “papable” cardinals; and although his long seclusion at Perugia had caused his name to be little known outside Italy, there was a general belief that the conclave had selected a man who was a prudent statesman as well as a devout churchman; and Newman (whom he created a cardinal in the year following) is reported to have said, “In the successor of Pius I recognize a depth of thought, a tenderness of heart, a winning simplicity, and a power answering to the name of Leo, which prevent me from lamenting that Pius is no longer here.”
The second day after his election Pope Leo XIII. crossed the Tiber incognito to his former residence in the Falconieri Palace to collect his papers, returning at once to the Vatican, where he continued to regard himself as “imprisoned” so long as the Italian government occupied the city of Rome. He was crowned in the Sistine Chapel 3rd March 1878, and at once began a reform of the papal household on austere and economic lines which found little favour with the entourage of the former pope. To fill posts near his own person he summoned certain of the Perugian clergy who had been trained under his own eye, and from the first he was less accessible than his predecessor had been, either in public or private audience. Externally uneventful as his life henceforth necessarily was, it was marked chiefly by the reception of distinguished personages and of numerous pilgrimages, often on a large scale, from all parts of the world, and by the issue of encyclical letters. The stricter theological training of the Roman Catholic clergy throughout the world on the lines laid down by St Thomas Aquinas was his first care, and to this end he founded in Rome and endowed an academy bearing the great schoolman's name, further devoting about £12,000 to the publication of a new and splendid edition of his works, the idea being that on this basis the later teaching of Catholic theologians and many of the speculations of modern thinkers could best be harmonized and brought into line. The study of Church history was next encouraged, and in August 1883 the pope addressed a letter to Cardinals de Luca, Pitra and Hergenröther, in which he made the remarkable concession that the Vatican archives and library might be placed at the disposal of persons qualified to compile manuals of history. His belief was that the Church would not suffer by the publication of documents. A man of literary taste and culture, familiar with the classics, a facile writer of Latin verses  as well as of Ciceronian prose, he was as anxious that the Roman clergy should unite human science and literature with their theological studies as that the laity should be educated in the principles of religion; and to this end he established in Rome a kind of voluntary school board, with members both lay and clerical; and the rivalry of the schools thus founded ultimately obliged the state to include religious teaching in its curriculum. The numerous encyclicals by which the pontificate of Leo XIII. will always be distinguished were prepared and written by himself, but were submitted to the customary revision. The encyclical Aeterni Patris (4th August 1879) was written in the defence of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. In later ones, working on the principle that the Christian Church should superintend and direct every form of civil life, he dealt with the Christian constitution of states (Immortale Dei, 1st November 1885), with human liberty (Libertas, 20th June 1888), and with the condition of the working classes (Rerum novarum, 15th May 1891). This last was slightly tinged with modern socialism; it was described as “the social Magna Carta of Catholicism,” and it won for Leo the name of “the working-man’s pope.” Translated into the chief modern languages, many thousands of copies were circulated among the working classes in Catholic countries. Other encyclicals, such as those on Christian marriage (Arcanum divinae sapientiae, 10th February 1880), on the Rosary (Supremi apostolatus officii, 1st September 1883, and Superiore anno, 5th September 1898), and on Freemasonry (Humanum genus, 20th April 1884), dealt with subjects on which his predecessor had been accustomed to pronounce allocutions, and were on similar lines. It was the knowledge that in all points of religious faith and practice Leo XIII. stood precisely where Pius IX. had stood that served to render ineffectual others of his encyclicals, in which he dealt earnestly and effectively with matters in which orthodox Protestants had a sympathetic interest with him and might otherwise have lent an ear to his counsels. Such were the letters on the study of Holy Scripture (18th November 1893), and on the reunion of Christendom (20th June 1894). He showed special anxiety for the return of England to the Roman Catholic fold, and addressed a letter ad Anglos, dated 14th April 1895. This he followed up by an encyclical on the unity of the Church (Satis cognitum, 29th June 1896); and the question of the validity of Anglican ordinations from the Roman Catholic point of view having been raised in Rome by Viscount Halifax, with whom the abbé Louis Duchesne and one or two other French priests were in sympathy, a commission was appointed to consider the subject, and on the 15th of September 1896 a condemnation of the Anglican form as theologically insufficient was issued, and was directed to be taken as final.
The establishment of a diocesan hierarchy in Scotland had been decided upon before the death of Pius IX., but the actual announcement of it was made by Leo XIII. On the 25th of July 1898 he addressed to the Scottish Catholic bishops a letter, in the course of which he said that “many of the Scottish people who do not agree with us in faith sincerely love the name of Christ and strive to ascertain His doctrine and to imitate His most holy example.” The Irish and American bishops he summoned to Rome to confer with him on the subjects of Home Rule and of “Americanism” respectively. In India he established a diocesan hierarchy, with seven archbishoprics, the archbishop of Goa taking precedence with the rank of patriarch.
With the government of Italy his general policy was to be as conciliatory as was consistent with his oath as pope never to surrender the “patrimony of St Peter”; but a moderate attitude was rendered difficult by partisans on either side in the press, each of whom claimed to represent his views. In 1879, addressing a congress of Catholic journalists in Rome, he exhorted them to uphold the necessity of the temporal power, and to proclaim to the world that the affairs of Italy would never prosper until it was restored; in 1887 he found it necessary to deprecate the violence with which this doctrine was advocated in certain journals. A similar counsel of moderation was given to the Canadian press in connexion with the Manitoba school question in December 1897. The less conciliatory attitude towards the Italian government was resumed in an encyclical addressed to the Italian clergy (5th August 1898), in which he insisted on the duty of Italian Catholics to abstain from political life while the papacy remained in its “painful, precarious and intolerable position.” And in January 1902, reversing the policy which had its inception in the encyclical, Rerum novarum, of 1891, and had further been developed ten years later in a letter to the Italian bishops entitled Graves de communi, the “Sacred Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs” issued instructions concerning “Christian Democracy in Italy,” directing that the popular Christian movement, which embraced in its programme a number of social reforms, such as factory laws for children, old-age pensions, a minimum wage in agricultural industries, an eight-hours’ day, the revival of trade gilds, and the encouragement of Sunday rest, should divert its attention from all such things as savoured of novelty and devote its energies to the restoration of the temporal power. The reactionary policy thus indicated gave the impression that a similar aim underlay the appointment about the same date of a commission to inquire into Biblical studies; and in other minor matters Leo XIII. disappointed those who had looked to him for certain reforms in the devotional system of the Church. A revision of the breviary, which would have involved the omission of some of the less credible legends, came to nothing, while the recitation of the office in honour of the Santa Casa at Loreto was imposed on all the clergy. The worship of Mary, largely developed during the reign of Pius IX., received further stimulus from Leo; nor did he do anything during his pontificate to correct the superstitions connected with popular beliefs concerning relics and indulgences.
His policy towards all governments outside Italy was to support them wherever they represented social order; and it was with difficulty that he persuaded French Catholics to be united in defence of the republic. The German Kullurkampf was ended by his exertions. In 1885 he successfully arbitrated between Germany and Spain in a dispute concerning the Caroline Islands. In Ireland he condemned the “Plan of Campaign” in 1888, but he conciliated the Nationalists by appointing Dr Walsh archbishop of Dublin. His hope that his support of the British government in Ireland would be followed by the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the court of St James’s and the Vatican was disappointed. But the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 and the pope’s priestly jubilee a few months later were the occasion of friendly intercourse between Rome and Windsor, Mgr. Ruffo Scilla coming to London as special papal envoy, and the duke of Norfolk being received at the Vatican as the bearer of the congratulations of the queen of England. Similar courtesies were exchanged during the jubilee of 1897, and again in March 1902, when Edward VII. sent the earl of Denbigh to Rome to congratulate Leo XIII. on reaching his ninety-third year and the twenty-fifth year of his pontificate. The visit of Edward VII. to Leo XIII. in April 1903 was a further proof of the friendliness between the English court and the Vatican.
The elevation of Newman to the college of Cardinals in 1879 was regarded with approval throughout the English-speaking world, both on Newman’s account and also as evidence that Leo XIII. had a wider horizon than his predecessor; and his similar recognition of two of the most distinguished “inopportunist” members of the Vatican council, Haynald, archbishop of Kalocsa, and Prince Fürstenberg, archbishop of Olmütz, was even more noteworthy. Dupanloup would doubtless have received the same honour had he not died shortly after Leo’s accession. Döllinger the pope attempted to reconcile, but failed. He laboured much to bring about the reunion of the Oriental Churches with the see of Rome, establishing Catholic educational centres in Athens and in Constantinople with that end in view. He used his influence with the emperor of Russia, as also with the emperors of China and Japan and with the shah of Persia, to secure the free practice of their religion for Roman Catholics within their respective dominions. Among the canonizations and beatifications of his pontificate that of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, is memorable. His encyclical issued at Easter 1902, and described by himself as a kind of will, was mainly a reiteration of earlier condemnations of the Reformation, and of modern philosophical systems, which for their atheism and materialism he makes responsible for all existing moral and political disorders. Society, he earnestly pleaded, can only find salvation by a return to Christianity and to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
Grave and serious in manner, speaking slowly, but with energetic gestures, simple and abstemious in his life—his daily bill of fare being reckoned as hardly costing a couple of francs—Leo XIII. distributed large sums in charity, and at his own charges placed costly astronomical instruments in the Vatican observatory, providing also accommodation and endowment for a staff of officials. He always showed the greatest interest in science and in literature, and he would have taken a position as a statesman of the first rank had he held office in any secular government. He may be reckoned the most illustrious pope since Benedict XIV., and under him the papacy acquired a prestige unknown since the middle ages. On the 3rd of March 1903 he celebrated his jubilee in St Peter’s with more than usual pomp and splendour; he died on the 20th of July following. His successor was Pius X.
- Leonis XIII. Pont. Maximi carmina, ed. Brunelli (Udine, 1883); Leonis XIII. carmina, inscriptiones, numismata, ed. J. Bach (Cologne, 1903).