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from issue no. 09 - 2006

Faithful interpreterof the Pope’s will

Such was the desire of Pietro Gasparri, the distinguished Canon lawyer who headed the Secretariat of State under Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI. From the tragedy of the Great War to the solution of the long-lasting Roman Question

by Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, Auditor of the Rota

A few days before his death, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri gave a speech to the International Juridical Congress held in Rome in November 1934, a true and proper swansong, on the genesis and on the role he had played in the codification of Canon Law. It was an admirable speech, doubly eloquent, revealing. Those who, «even without having ever heard of him, had gone to listen to him» – wrote Filippo Crispolti in the effective portrait of Gasparri included in his fortunate Corone e porpore [Crowns and cardinals] of 1937 – «would have been able not only to gain full light on the topic discussed, but also get an idea of the man discussing it. Even in the strictly historico-legal field the cardinal had left the mark of his own distinctive temperament, in which abhorrence of all conventionality had such a great part. When he said that despite the large merits of Leo XIII, under the latter the great enterprise could not have been conducted, it was clear that he didn’t want either the purple or the brief time since the death of that Pope to act as the usual restraints on his frank judgment. When he mentioned that a distinguished Canon lawyer, the renowned Gennari, in suggesting to Pius X that he entrust the very serious task of supervision to Gasparri himself, had added that in that way the great work would be in excellent hands, it was clear that modesty, in its stereotyped and discredited forms, was not made for him».
In the background, Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican 
in a photo from the ’twenties; below left, a portrait of Cardinal Pietro Gasparri and an image of the First World War

In the background, Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican in a photo from the ’twenties; below left, a portrait of Cardinal Pietro Gasparri and an image of the First World War

But there is another comment from Crispolti, a celebrated writer and journalist who had known the cardinal personally, which deserves to be quoted, almost as introduction and epigraph to the brief outline of the cardinal I am about to delineate: «That his much applauded speech in articulo mortis should concern him as codifier of Canon Law and not as Secretary of State of two pontiffs, was arcanely logical. In future ages», he concluded, «his most assured and clearest glory will be that».
It was an acute insight that the coming years, with all that would be written most significantly about the figure of Gasparri, would fully confirme.


Pietro Gasparri came from a patriarchal, rather wealthy, family of sheep farmers from Ussita in the Marche: «I was born on 5 May 1852, in Capovallazza, one of the villages that form the commune of Ussita, in the province of Macerata, diocese of Norcia, among the Sibillini mountains, at about 750 meters above sea level. Healthy air, charming mountainous views, healthy, industrious, honest people; large family and particularly large the Gasparri families», he writes in his Memoirs, not concealing a proud attachment to his native soil and to his origins.
He was trained in the Roman Seminary of the Apollinare, where his teachers of Canon Law were Filippo De Angelis and Francesco Santi, later Auditor of the Rota, two of the best Italian Canon lawyers of the time.
He entered in September 1870 – presented by the bursar, a beneficiary of Saint Peter’s, Monsignor Giovanni Moroni, who holidayed in Ussita – after having studied, but only for a few years, in the Seminary of Nepi, «a place that remained most dear to him», as testified by Giuseppe De Luca, who heard it from the cardinal and collected confidences and memories for a biography that, despite authoritative solicitation and insistence, he was not to write. (But he did devote two articles on him in the Nuova Antologia: Memoria di Pietro Gasparri and Discorrendo col cardinale Gasparri (1930), [Memoir of Pietro Gasparri and Talking with Cardinal Gasparri] in 1934 and 1936 respectively).
«Gasparri arrived in Rome», writes Vittorio De Marco in his interesting Contribution to the biography of Cardinal P. Gasparri «hardly two months after the breach of the wall at Porta Pia, so in an overcharged atmosphere […] The offence to Pius IX was very recent […] Rome no longer belonged to the Pope[…] The “Roman Question”, that had arisen as a big problem immediately after the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy, took on an entirely new and more serious dimension in that the “liberal revolution” had overwhelmed the very heart of Catholicity and broken the temporal sceptre of the successor of Peter. The young Gasparri certainly could not have imagined that, with another Pius as “consul”, it would be precisely him, almost sixty years later, who closed definitely and formally the Roman Question».
«Having personally heard its birthcry», De Marco continues, «Gasparri was to carry on his back and inside him consciously or not the problem of the Roman Question for more than fifty years. And his intransigence was never gratuitous, only because all churchmen and Catholics had to be such; it was mediated by his juridical intelligence and by that sense, so to speak, of Realpolitik that was probably already part of his character and that his later diplomatic responsibilities would better bring to light».
What and how much respect Gasparri enjoyed in the Roman Seminary, where he had among his companions the future cardinals Domenico Svampa, Gaetano De Lai, G. B. Callegari and Benedetto Lorenzelli, is shown by the post of substitute professor of Sacramental Theology – the same chair held, some decades later, by Domenico Tardini, also a future Secretary of State – and of Church History, conferred on him even before completing his studies. But when he gained a degree in utroque iure, with top marks on 11 August 1879, he was already a priest, having been ordained on 31 March 1877 in the Lateran Basilica by Cardinal Vicar Raffaele Monaco La Valletta.
Some few years later Gasparri was to begin his almost twenty years’ teaching of Canon Law in the faculty of Theology of the Institut Catholique in Paris, but here one should remember the preceding period spent close to Cardinal Teodulfo Mertel, the last cardinal not to receive priestly ordination, the son of a German baker who had come into the Papal States, to Allumiere, where he had married a young woman of the place. Mertel was at first auditor of the Rota, then minister of the Papal States and finally cardinal prefect of the Apostolic Signet, and the young Gasparri became his secretary and chaplain immediately after his priestly ordination: the which certainly constituted an important experience in his legal and political ripening.
«I was thinking of quite other things», wrote Gasparri in his Memoirs, «than the Catholic Institute of Paris, when in the early summer months of 1879 Cardinal Langelieux, archbishop of Reims, one of the main founders of the Institute arrived in Rome. He let me know that he wanted to talk with me; I went to him and he offered me the chair of Canon Law…».
Gasparri had to get over more than a few doubts, and he didn’t like leaving Rome, and besides «the memory of the Paris Commune was fresh, I didn’t know a word of French and I had never left my small circle».
He remained in Paris till 1897, but his teaching, on which, by the unanimous recognition of contemporaries and biographers, he lavished an extraordinary commitment, and that won him wide celebrity as canonist open to the new, did not absorb him completely: he was collaborator, though not an assiduous one, of the magazine Le Canoniste contemporaine; whereas he took constant interest in Works of Assistance for the Italian emigrants, becoming its director and assuring diligent pastoral service, that enabled him to show genuine priestly zeal. He took an active part in the circles of the Academy of San Raimondo de Peñafort, a mark of how much he had at heart the promotion of knowledge of and the study of Canon Law; and finally he found himself involved in the well-known, lively theologico-canonical controversy that had arisen on the status of holy ordinations bestowed according to the Anglican Ordinal, on which he wrote and published a pamphlet, among his least known, De la valeur des ordinations anglicanes (Paris 1895). «In line with his Tractatus canonicus de sacra ordinatione of 1893, Gasparri claimed that Jesus Christ had founded the Sacrament of Holy Orders not only in general but also in specie, by determining both their sacramental matter and form; given conformity of the rites quoad substantiam, they all, in principle, turn out to be sufficient for ordination; however, after factual examination of the Anglican Ordinal, Gasparri found it defective in intention and insufficient in terms of rites». So says Carlo Fantappié in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, ad vocem.
On the question of Anglican ordinations, Gasparri seemed in truth, at an early moment to lean towards their validity. He changed direction after more historical research. Leo XIII put an end to the question with his encyclical Ad Anglos of 1895, declaring their invalidity.
Monsignor Gasparri in Ussita with his siblings, among whom is Luigi, standing first on the right, the father of Cardinal Enrico Gasparri

Monsignor Gasparri in Ussita with his siblings, among whom is Luigi, standing first on the right, the father of Cardinal Enrico Gasparri

But Gasparri was above all concerned with the publication of fundamental tractates on Canon Law. In 1891 he published the De matrimonio – honored by a congratulatory Latin letter from Pope Pecci – «the most important and most fortunate because it achieved four later editions and provided, in substance, the structural draft of the subject for the future Codex iuris canonici; continued by De sacra ordinatione and concluded with the De Sanctissima Eucharistia in 1897. In all of these works Gasparri offers the most complete and accurate exposition possible, especially concerning the up-dating of the decisions and sentences of the Curia Congregations and Courts, making use of materials collected by him during summer stays in Rome. While having their basis in the text of the courses, these works amplified, restructured and, above all, brought in a new and different conception of the treatment of the subject. Leaving aside the traditional order of the Decretali, up till then followed by him in the handouts, Gasparri went on to a logical ordering that, on the model of scholastic theology, enabled him both to present the complex and variegated juridical material in a unitary and sufficiently organic fashion within the monographic scheme, and to attempt the resolution of the various still controversial points through their constant framing within their systematic arrangement. It was a methodological choice that, in the preference for “system” and “juridical technique” as its binding principle, rested on a rigorous ideological conception of a strongly Tridentine sort and excluded all historical adulteration» (Paolo Grossi).


The De Sanctissima Eucharistia was barely in print when Cardinal Rampolla told him that Leo XIII had promoted him from teaching to the titular archiepiscopal Church of Caesarea of Palestine, nominating him apostolic delegate and envoy extraordinary to the three South American Republics of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. On 6 March 1897, in Paris, he was ordained bishop by Cardinal Richard, his admirer and friend.
It was no easy mission that Gasparri was called on to perform, given the peculiar political and religious situations in which he found himself working.
It was a brief experience, hardly three years, but intense, one that enabled him to reveal remarkable, and innate, diplomatic abilities – the expression of his legal mind and of his inborn good sense – so much so as to win him, on his return, appointment as secretary of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, delegated to take care of the relations of the Church with States (April 1901).
The Secretariat of State was headed by Cardinal Rampolla, and Giacomo della Chiesa was at that time substitute for General Affairs; Gasparri was to call Eugenio Pacelli to join his collaborators.
The two basic directions that were to inspire the actions of the future Secretary of State already emerged in Gasparri’s modus operandi: adherence to the line of political neutrality, that is the desire and effort to appear to rulers as «independent of the political parties and hostile to civil war in the name of religion» on the one hand; on the other, a decided partiality for concordat policy as the best means of assuring the spiritual action of the Church and limiting the pretensions of States.
The ascent of Pius X to the papal throne (1903) did not fail to bring about a physiological change in orientation – that indeed sharpened the modernist crisis and in some moments even made it dramatic – and the consequent change in the upper echelons of the Secretariat of State, headed up to that moment, as we have mentioned, by Cardinal Rampolla.
Fantappiè in fact says that «the distance between positions, sometimes even opposition, between the lines of Gasparri, heir to the Leonine and Rampollian political vision of openness of the Church to international and social questions, and the strongly intransigent line and of withdrawal soon taken by Pius X and his Secretary of State Merry del Val» could not perhaps have had any other consequence.
Did he have, furthermore, modernist sympathies? Some people thought so and later in the conclave that was to follow on the death of Benedict XV, that which was to elect Pius XI, the suspicions of Cardinals De Lai and Merry del Val probably weighed against Gasparri, contributing to preclude any possibility of his election. His friendship with Ernesto Buonaiuti, never disavowed, was known and for some people it was evidence that the suspicion was not all that baseless. It is in any event certain that Gasparri did not share the ideas of the modernists, as he did not share all the methods adopted to draw the teeth of modernism. He said so openly, even while knowing that it would inevitably lead to his being looked at with suspicion, as Silvio Tramontin claims, in his study The repression of modernism.
If, therefore, the decade between 1904 and 1914 was a period of relative isolation, it nevertheless turned out to be extremely fertile, entirely devoted as it was to the work of drafting the Code of Canon Law that remains the greatest merit of his vast and complex achievement, rich in merit.
Already during Vatican Council I, thirty-three bishops had formulated a request to Pius IX to proceed with the codification. In the appeal submitted to him they wrote: «Opus sane arduum; sed quo plus difficultatis habet, eo magis est tanto Pontifice dignum». But it was Pius X – who as episcopal chancellor of Treviso had already demonstrated lively interest in Canon Law and also as Patriarch of Venice – who breathed life into an enterprise that some judged unfeasible or untimely. In fact we know of the existence of two schools of canonists of opposing opinions on the possibility of codification: on the one hand, in fact – meaning to exemplify the positions and name only a few, and those among the most emblematic – we find the Jesuits of the Gregorian (Wernz, Ojetti) who advocated the maintaining of the order of the Decretali, and on the other the school of Apollinare (Sebastianelli, later Dean of the Rota, Lombardi, Latini) who, in the wake of the lay juridical school, backed the need for a modern codification, that would deal with the fragmentary nature of the legislation, with all the hermeneutical problems involved. The Corpus iuris canonici, in fact, consisted of the set of official collections (Decretum Gratiani, Liber Extra, Liber VI, Clementinae, Extravagantes Ioannis XXII, Extravagantes communes) and had gradually become enriched with ulterior normative interventions of pontifical and council source, as well as the decrees of the Roman Congregations and Rota jurisprudence. Indeed «immensum aliarum super alias coacervatarum legum cumulum», Gasparri was to write in the preface to the Code repeating Livy, Obruimur legibus. This could be done away with by a code modelled on the Napoleonic, authentic because promulgated by the Supreme Lawgiver, single, systematic, universal, abstracted.
With the motu proprio Arduum sane munus a committee of cardinals was appointed “De Ecclesiae legibus in unum redigendis”, of which Gasparri was nominated secretary. This was flanked by a group of consultants, headed by Monsignor Gasparri. To streamline the work Gasparri himself set up two committees for distinct matters, each of which numbered a dozen members: one met on Thursday mornings, the other on Sunday mornings. Eugenio Pacelli worked with Gasparri, and when in 1907 the latter was created cardinal by Pius X, first Monsignor Scapinelli and then Monsignor Pacelli himself succeeded as secretary of the committee of cardinals. The consultants were given the task of examining the text of the canons proposed from the two particular committees. Everything, having been checked by Gasparri, was finally examined by the committee of cardinals. And it was on Gasparri’s suggestion that, in 1912, Pope Sarti established that all the work already approved by the committee of cardinals should be sent to all those who were usually summoned to an Ecumenic Council for them to express their judgment and their observations.
On the death of Pius X Giacomo della Chiesa ascended the papal throne, taking the name of Benedict XV, an old friend and colleague of Gasparri’s, belonging to the same Leonine generation, who appointed him Secretary of State on the death of Cardinal Domenico Ferrata, after hardly a month in office. It was 13 October 1914: having completed the editing of the last book of the Codex iuris canonici – Gasparri had prepared the draft of its promulgation (intended for l January 1915, but for various reasons, including the war, delayed, as we know, to 27 May 1917, with the apostolic constitution Providentissima Mater Ecclesia) –, the opus sane arduum was finally accomplished.
Monsignor Gasparri, titular archbishop of Caesarea of Palestine and apostolic delegate to the Republics of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador

Monsignor Gasparri, titular archbishop of Caesarea of Palestine and apostolic delegate to the Republics of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador

From 1923 to 1932 he was to oversee the publication of the Fontes in six tomes, later completed by Cardinal Giustiniano Seredi, Primate of Hungary. From that time on, the administration of the Secretariat of State was to keep him busy for more than fifteen years, because the successor to Benedict XV was to confirm him in the post on 6 February 1922. It has been said that during the years of the war, but it could be said likewise for the years that followed and for the whole pontificate, «Gasparri basically appears a faithful executor of the line of Benedict XV, both that humanitarian in character, and the more specifically political» (Romeo Astorri). And on other hand, Pius XI, fully satisfied with the work of his Secretary of State, didn’t hesitate in calling him «most faithful interpreter and executor of his will». Already Joseph De Luca, anticipating a judgment that was to be expressed several times, also by the most recent historians, wrote in his Memoir of Pietro Gasparri: «Initiatives are wrongly attributed to him that appear very personal to Pius X and Pius XI: two popes who wanted to see with their own eyes, and operate. And Benedict XV himself, in the tragic situation of father whose sons, taking up arms, not only don’t listen to, but accuse of connivance, Benedict XV stamped on his pontificate a character decidedly his own and personal. It would be an exaggeration, therefore, to attribute […] to Cardinal Gasparri merits and glories that he himself disavowed with a humility that was not playacting, but clear and lofty conscience. He was minister», he adds, «truly and in every sense prime minister of those pontiffs: nor did he want to be nor ever was anything else. But he was such as few are, and for that reason his reputation will increase, I believe, with time; it won’t decrease».


As Pio Ciprotti acutely remarks, the jurist’s mentality accompanied Gasparri even in the activities not directly juridical. One can see that most obviously from the Concordats, in the compilation of which – while proceeding with some dispositions with derogations of the general Canon Law so as fit the needs of States, or to ensure that eventual divergences caused the least possible damage for souls – Gasparri always formulated statements of principle, even on points on which, in practice, the State would hardly consent.
Statements of principle that, while they set out fundamental points of theological doctrine, also recall truths that spring from the natural law. «Nor does the statement… of principle have only a doctrinal importance, that of a philosophical and theological proposition; it has instead a remarkable juridical import, in that it is like the premise to practical norms, it is hence necessarily the starting point for their interpretation, they constituting, as has been said, no other than derogations to the stated principle» (Ciprotti). He was, in short, a jurist inclined to concreteness, but never yielding to a mere pragmatism that prevailed over principles.
The role that Gasparri played in the complex events that preceded and prepared for the definitive solution of the long-lasting Roman Question is well known. Leaving aside a detailed reconstruction of those events, done several times already and, one could say – given the abundant literature on the matter – in almost definitive fashion, I don’t believe I’m far from the truth when I say that Gasparri’s role was certainly decisive. If history has insisted on the particular political circumstances that, finally led to the Lateran Pact, one can also affirm that the work of patient, concrete weaving done by the cardinal was determinant for the achieving of the Conciliation, and that the organic character of the Concordat and the concern for the notion of sovereignty bear the imprint of that mens iuridica that availed itself of the collaboration of Francesco Pacelli, of Domenico Barone, of the Jesuit Pietro Tacchi Venturi.


Cardinal Gasparri left the Secretariat of State on 11 February 1930. There are those who – like Pietro Palazzini, later cardinal, in the entry devoted to Pietro Gasparri in the Catholic encyclopaedia– have not hesitated to speak of personal differences with Pius XI. He was succeeded by Eugenio Pacelli, his old and highly appreciated collaborator from the time of the drafting in the summer of 1905, in Ussita, of the “White Paper” on the situation of the French Church.
Retiring into private life, he spent his last years between Rome and his native Ussita, busy with the revision and redoing of some of his legal works and completing the draft of a text of a catechism, a work to which he had been devoting part of his free time since 1924. «He was always complaining, in those last years, that his memory no longer served him. He complained of it as the worst harm that old age had done him. It afflicted him, then, to have almost lost it, to the extent to which when young and till a few years earlier, he had rejoiced in having it, meticulous, tenacious, extremely wide» (De Luca). The man that had worked «without haste but without rest, and with a rhythm so overwhelming, in his exterior good humouredness, as to tire and sometimes wear out his collaborators» (again De Luca), died at the age of eighty-two in Rome on 18 November 1934.
The frontispieces of some juridical works by Monsignor Gasparri

The frontispieces of some juridical works by Monsignor Gasparri

On the 25th anniversary of his death, in a solemn academic tournée held at the Lateran University, chaired by Monsignor Antonio Piolanti the rector of the time, Raffaele Jervolino, a lawyer, a former boardmember of Catholic Action, described Pietro Gasparri as «a man of various lives».
But what held together the jurist, the diplomat, the servant of the Apostolic See is to be sought entirely in his being, wholly, always and in any case, a priest.
From the years in which he celebrated mass for the Cardinal deacon Mertel to those in Paris when, as a valued teacher, he turned himself into “parish priest” for the Italian emigrants, he was a priest, and so in all the posts which from time to time he filled.
«He put the cassock on when he was eight», De Marco remarks, «he never took it off again and above all he never put aside that sober and serene look of the church student that then became that of the priest and of the cardinal».
«He was a good priest and good-humored» Don Giuseppe De Luca writes, «a joker, worried about even an innocent lie; and at the same time he was such a highly placed ecclesiastical dignitary as to inspire invincible awe. Nobody, even at table with him, even when mocked by him in familiar fashion and in a certain way provoked, nobody would have dared the least intimacy. He obeyed without feeling demeaned, and precisely therefore he commanded without demeaning. A command is never better obeyed than when the inferior feels, in the very act of the command, he is considered and respected».
A touching flicker of his genuinely priestly mind, and expressive also of that concreteness particular to him, is given us in the closure of his will, dated 4 October 1934: «I remind everyone to be good, remembering that the present life passes like lightning and that eternity awaits us».
Presenting his Catholic Catechism for children in 1932, he wrote as follows, not concealing the easy but not trivial emotion learned from his mother: «My darling child, you are preparing for your First Communion… I am old, my darling child, and many happenings and important events have passed over my head and in my heart: yet I still remember with emotion and inexpressible sweetness the day of my First Communion… and I ask you to recommend to Jesus, when He is set in your heart, the old friend who blesses you with fatherly affection».

Essential bibliography

R. Astorri, Le leggi della Chiesa tra codificazione latina e diritti particolari, Padua 1992.
P. Ciprotti, Il diplomatico giurista, in Il cardinale P. Gasparri, by various hands, Pontifical Lateran University, Rome 1960.
F. Crispolti, Corone e porpore, Milan 1937.
G. De Luca, Memoria di P. Gasparri, in La Nuova Antologia, 1 Dec. 1934; Id., Discorrendo col card. Gasparri (1930), in ibid., 16 Nov. 1936, then in Il cardinale P. Gasparri, by various hands, quoted.
V. De Marco, Contributo alla biografia del cardinale P. Gasparri, in Amicitiae causa. Scritti in onore del vescovo A. M. Garsia, by various hands, edited by M. Naro, Caltanissetta 1999.
C. Fantappié, Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, ad vocem; Id., Introduzione storica al Diritto canonico, Bologna 1999.
P. Grossi, Storia della canonistica moderna e storia della codificazione canonica, in Quaderni fiorentini XIV (1985).
G. Spadolini, Il cardinale Gasparri e la Questione Romana (with excerpts from the unpublished memoirs), Florence 1972.
S. Tramontin, La repressione del modernismo, in E. Guerriero and A. Zambarbieri, La Chiesa e la società industriale, Milan 1990.

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