12-Pope Leo XIII



The crisis of conscience that Séverine faced in 1892 over the rising tide of “terrorist” attacks, both by the militant revolutionaries and by the authorities, was coupled with another more personal crisis, a mystical crisis that would haunt her for years to come. We can sometimes feel mystical accents peeking through her writings, but they never strained her morality, which always came from her conscience and not from any ideas handed down by acceptable society. How could they when she was openly having an affair with Labruyère while still married to Adrien Guebhard? For Séverine everyone had the right to live according to their own beliefs and so she always fought fiercely against fanaticism, both religious and political, sometimes even more fiercely when it came from within her own camp. But her fight was never against any one dogma or party—it was against all intolerance and injustice, regardless of social standing, religion, nationality or gender.

At the end of the 19th century, anti-Semitism was a growing problem that was about to explode in the famous Dreyfus Affair[1] and that would mutate, as we all know, into the hideous monster of Nazism in the 20th century. The campaign that was spreading in France in the 1890s was already a deep concern. Pope Leo XIII had apparently condemned this developing anti-Semitism in his Encyclical of May 15 1891, ch. III, which stipulates: All the goods of nature, all the treasures of grace belong in common and indistinctly to the entire human race. Although his predecessor, Puis IX, in his Syllabus errorum, the Syllabus of Errors, in 1864 condemned the “errors” of secular society, notably democracy, socialism, modernism, the right to vote, freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State, Leo XIII came into office with more liberal social views. But while trying to reconcile the Church with the modern world and for the first time addressing issues of social inequality and labor, he still denounced socialism, anarchism, nihilism, communism and capitalism alike as societal evils. Some anarchists, like Kroptkin, back in 1879, had even advocated using propaganda by deed against him. Then Séverine got the crazy idea that she would interview the Pope to find out his opinion on anti-Semitism.

Now, Séverine never believed in God or the Church or life after death. Basically she was a socialist, if not an anarchist as many would have called her because her socialism was not limited by any party or school of philosophy. She fought in the ranks of the people, the poor. She was the voice of thousands of anonymous workers sweating their lives away trying to survive. She supported them always and never apologized for it, whoever might be standing in the ring when the bell sounded. And this rebel wanted to interview the Pope? Le Figaro was astonished when she asked them to finance the trip, but more so when she was accepted by the Vatican. After being the first Parisienne to descend into the mines on the day after an explosion, she was now the first “socialist” journalist to receive a private audience with the Pope. A sign of the times, perhaps, that they would choose this anti-establishment dissenter to explain to the French the encyclical Rerum novarum and the new social doctrine of the Church.

On July 15 1892, just a few days after Ravachol was executed, she headed to Rome in company with her aged mother. The interview took place on Sunday July 31, lasting an hour and ten minutes. It was published on August 4 and was a sensation. The readers of the special edition might have been struck with awe or dismay, depending on their sensibilities, but no one could deny Séverine’s feat in bringing back these “very curious pages.” Although Pope Leo XIII did not say much specifically about the plight of the poor, he did condemn anti-Semitism implicitly and clearly, in his denunciation of the race war. Furthermore, Séverine brought back from the Vatican a message of tolerance and mutual understanding that the Catholics were free to accept. As history would tell, however, the message was lost and the messenger decried.


Next:  The Pope and Anti-Semitism

[1] See 17-19.


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