Italy’s Battle for Secularism with the Vatican

Professor of Italian Studies at Brown University, David I. Kertzer, has written a number of books on the history of the Vatican rule in Italy. The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe details the 1848 secular democratic revolution and the founding of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849.

Image for post
Image for post
Flag of the Roman Republic (1849)

Kertzer provides a compelling history of events, with plenty of citations from diplomatic correspondence and news reports, painting a vivid picture of the dysfunction of priestly rule in the Papal States (754 to 1870), and Pope Pius IX’s bumbling and ham-fisted resistance to the people’s ever-increasing demands for liberal reforms. The French minister of foreign affairs, Édouard Drouyn, noted that the pope was ‘the head of government of a third-rate country.’ And the French ambassador to the Vatican, François Harcourt, wrote that ‘the influences [cardinals] that surround him, which are all obscurantist and reactionary.’ As the revolution gained ground, the pope would sneak out of Rome in late November 1848, seeking the protection of the king of Naples.

In his 1849 New Year’s address, Pius railed against the ‘detestable’ decision of the secular revolutionaries to form ‘a so-called National General Assembly of the Roman State,’ and that supporting the secular government was tantamount to committing a grave sin — a barely veiled threat of excommunication. American Consul, Nicholas Brown, sent the full text of the address to Washington, noting that to send a synopsis ‘could hardly do justice to its imbecility.’

Modern Italian Catholics appear to have remarkably short memories and seem blissfully unaware that less than 200 years ago, Italian men and women fought and died to overthrow the incredibly hated rule of the Vatican over the Papal States, and just how much they despised the priests. The reaction of the people to the pope’s New Year’s address was telling: protestors looted the store which supplied the cardinal hats and papal skullcap, paraded them through the streets, and threw them into the Tiber. The Pope’s address was torn from the doors of the churches and thrown into latrines, and his coat of arms was ripped off government buildings and tossed into the river along with the hats. One member of the Constituent Assembly wrote, ‘The hatred that this population shows against the priests is unimaginable. They have burned the carriages of the cardinals in the public squares, and woe unto anyone who speaks out in favor of the pope. He would be the immediate victim of popular furor.’

On July 3rd, the Roman Republic announced its new republican constitution which declared that all, including the Jews who had been confined to the ghetto by the popes, were equal before the law. Unfortunately, the republic did not last long. The Catholic monarchies of Austria, Spain, and Naples had sided with the pope, but France, the fledgling secular republic, was not going to sit back and allow Austria to control Rome and reinstate the pope. French forces had taken the city of Rome and marched in immediately after the constitution was read. The French, widely seen as betraying their secular principles to prop up an archaic and hated autocracy, were caught in a political quagmire. However, they were lobbying hard behind the scenes with the pope to ensure that if he should be allowed to return to Rome, he would guarantee civil liberties; something to which the pope was obstinately opposed.

Finally, in April of 1850, with the French having failed to win any liberal concessions from the pope, Pius returned to Rome. The Roman people had viewed the French army as a puppet of the Vatican, but quickly came to understand that the French were all that stood ‘between them and the vengeance of the Cardinals.’ The pope quickly moved to restore control. The cardinals commission, established to oversee the reversion to priestly rule, annulled previous democratic measures Pius had granted before the revolution. Worse, the commission reinstated ecclesiastical tribunals, the priestly courts that intruded into people’s private lives and was detested by the Romans.

Consequently, the inhabitants of the Papal States did not enthusiastically welcome the return of the pope and his minions:

‘The discontent is painted on people’s faces…unwilling to submit themselves to a government that wants to push the Restoration back to times that are inconceivable today.’ ~ Tuscan ambassador

‘The greatest discontent prevails at Rome. Every act of theirs has shown the strongest tendency to retrograde principles and to the adoption of the abuses of the old priestly rule.’ ~ British envoy

‘The dread of the restoration of Church government…pervades all classes, except those immediately connected with the families of the Cardinals.’ ~ London Times

‘The tendency now is to return to the old system, with all its abuses….The feeling against the Vatican…is as strong as ever, and I have every reason to believe, that a great majority of the inhabitants of the Papal States are willing, in their desire for a change in the political economy, to encounter the horrors of a second revolution….Hatred to Church government and dread of despotic power appear to animate every breast.’ ~ Lewis Cass, American chargé d’affaires

In 1864, Pius issued a reactionary papal encyclical (Quanta Cura — Condemning Current Errors) with the accompanying Syllabus of Errors against the modern heresies of secular liberalism:

QC 6. ‘Amidst, therefore, such great perversity of depraved opinions, we, well remembering our Apostolic Office . . . we reprobate, proscribe, and condemn all the singular and evil opinions and doctrines severally mentioned in this letter.’

S 80. That it was an error for people to think that ‘The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.’

From 1869–70, Pius convened the First Vatican Council to combat the ‘assault from the godless forces that had emerged from the French Revolution. The principle of separation of church and state had been making its way into the European states’ new constitutions, along with guarantees of freedom of expression and the press that went directly against church doctrine. . . . Only in the 1960s, with the Second Vatican Council, that the Roman Catholic Church fully rejected this medieval vision.’ ~ Kertzer, The Pope Who Would Be King

The French had occupied Rome until 1870, when they withdrew their troops, and the unification armies under the Sardinian king, Victor Emmanuel II, moved in and made it the capital of the country of Italy. Following unification, the pope self-isolated himself within the boundaries of Vatican City, dramatically styling himself as a prisoner. No pope would thereafter leave the Vatican until Pius XI signed the Lateran Accords in 1929, granting the Holy See statehood in return for turning a blind eye to the abuses of Mussolini’s fascists.

Jason (Diogenes of Mayberry) covers the backstory of Judeo-Christian doctrines to refute evangelical literalism related to socio-political action.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store