Pius IX Revisited: 1878-1978

Author: Rev. Regis Barwig


Cardinal Pietro Palazzini

In the evening of 16 June 1846, after a conclave that was too short for the temporal powers to be able to have time to interfere—as was then, unfortunately, the custom—Cardinal Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti, born at Senigallia on 13 May 1792, was elected Pope. He took the name of Pius IX.

He had acquired pastoral experience at Spoleto (1827) and at Imola (1832) and had accompanied Mons. Muzi in the capacity of auditor for Chile in a long and difficult journey (3 July 1823-6 July 1825). As Pope with his very long pontificate, the longest in history (16 June 1846-7 February 1878), he found himself at the summit of the politico-religious life of the nineteenth century.

"With his beginning, Pius IX belongs still to the period of the Holy Alliance; with his end he arrives almost at the Triple Alliance. When Pius IX came to the pontifical throne, Metternich was still one of the organizers of European politics; when he died, it was on the eve of the Berlin Congress, in the full development of Bismarck's hegemony". (L. Salvatorelli, Chiesa e Stato dalla Rivoluzione francese ad oggi, p. 50).

Pius IX's Pontificate takes its place in the great transition, in the passing from a Church consolidated in traditionally Catholic countries to the modern Church, more and more clearly separated from the State, even accorded recognition; sometimes just tolerated, not infrequently also opposed: a transition prepared in its adaptations by Vatican I and outlined by Vatican II.

Straddling two eras

Pius IX was the man, brought forth by Providence, to close an age, now about to end, and to open the way for new times; to curb the excessive demolitions of the past, channel the tumultuous course of the present, and hand over the Church to subsequent ages. His cross and his greatness were constructed in this immense task. The length of this pontificate, straddling two eras, already gives us an idea of the difficulties that this Pontiff had to cope with in the course of governing the Church.

Every pontificate is already difficult in itself, because every pontiff has to tackle that dialogue or dispute, which recapitulates the whole of history, in the relations of the Church with the secular rulers (L. Ranke). And this dialogue had become particularly difficult with the royal absolutism of the period of Enlightenment, with the French Revolution, which had tried to deny to the Church any space whatever, with the imperial and imperialistic arrogance of Napoleon I who had claimed to tie the Church to his chariot. And if the climate had improved considerably with the period of the restoration, Gregory XVI himself, predecessor of Pius IX, had to remind the suffocating and suspicious absolutism of Tsar Nicolas of Russia that the attitude of a Pope in the mutual relations between Church and State was summed up in the evangelical saying: "Give to God what is God's", without taking away anything of what was to be given to Caesar.

Just in relation to the political aspect and with reference in particular to Italy, two periods can be noted in the pontificate of Pius IX. The first is very short, from the election to the address on 29 April 1848; the remaining period is very much longer. He had been elected at a moment of great expectation, especially in the Pontifical State.

Distinct periods

In this connection, a political prisoner who was subsequently pardoned by Pius IX, Giuseppe Galletti (La mia prigione, Bologna 1870, p. 246) reports the sentiments of his colleagues at the news of the illness of the aged Gregory XVI: "The Pontiff's death was a supreme hope for us; it was impossible that some great change would not take place, and we could not but desire it from the bottom of our hearts".

The Bishop who at Imola had denounced defects in pontifical administration and had taken an interest in current ideas, had become Pope. In the first eighteen months, he appeared as the Pope desired by Gioberti. This was not only because of the Edict of pardon (with which on the thirtieth day of his elevation to the tiara, political prisoners and exiles were pardoned on a mere promise of faithful submission to the authority). It was not only because of other not insignificant reforms (mitigation of censorship for the press, institution of a municipal police and of the elective Council of State, open to laymen). It was not only because of the successful protest against the .Austrians who, as a warning to the "Liberal" Pope, had occupied Ferrara. Above all, it was because of the attempt carried out through the intelligent work of Mons. Corboli-Bussi for a customs union between Rome, Turin, Florence and Modena, a vehicle for a real and proper national confederation, having in Piedmont the military force and in the Pope the "doge and standard-bearer".

A Utopian vision in the opinion of the historicist school, according to which everything that has happened was bound to happen. But Napoleon III, victorious in 1859 at Villafranca, proposed again the federalist solution when, for more than a decade, the best opportunity for carrying it out had been lost.

Sincere efforts

If it is necessary to speak of Utopia, this term would be better applied, perhaps, to Mazzini's programme, which was the other way then being debated, to carry out the Italian Risorgimento. It was mainly this movement which, for its own purposes, deliberately created ambiguity around Pius IX. Manoeuvring a host of intriguers, it gave to the Pope a Liberal programme which he did not have and did not want, and saddled him with a leading role in the "national crusade"—a role which was not and could not be his. In the early days of the pontificate, this movement almost laid siege to Pius IX, upsetting him in his sensitive cordiality, now with unjustified and endless applause, now with hostile silence. In this way it succeeded in bringing about talk of betrayal, contrasting Pius IX's invocation from God of a blessing on Italy (10 February 1848) and his rejection, subsequently, of any armed intervention (29 April 1848), reaffirming, as Pope, in the course of the first war of independence, "the embrace of all peoples and nations with equal concern of fatherly love".

This will be the interested, if not even pre-constituted, thesis which, after the short-lived ministries of T. Mamiani and O. Fabbri, will legitimize the turbulences of the mob; the assassination of Pellegrino Rossi, opposed to the war against Austria as being useful only for Piedmont (15 November); the attack on the Quirinale in which the secretary of Latin letters, Mons. Palma, met his death, and the flight of Pius IX from Rome to Gaeta, where he will be the recipient of the not entirely disinterested hospitality of King Ferdinando II (24 November 1848).

The question still raised by some historians today is whether the policy of the great incendiary of 1848 was only naive. Perhaps those who judge policy with the sole yardstick of success, those who pass judgment with the vision of subsequent times and of the way in which the Roman question has been solved, far more, those who spiritualize the Church to such an extent as to deny it as a visible society, may well conclude that Pius IX's policy in opposition to the events of 1848 was nothing but naïvety. For Pius IX, on the contrary, those first reforms of his were a sincere effort to understand the requirements of the times and of Italy. But for him that Papal State of his was part of the Patrimony of the Church, with which God had invested her to make her capable of carrying out her spiritual mission. Therefore it was not goods for bartering. To touch its properties or to sell it off was a sacrilege, like profaning a church or any sacred place.

Trust in God

For this reason, at the climax of the 1848 crisis, and at the attempt to politicize everything, he assumed a completely religious attitude, not expecting anything any more from men who had surprised and deceived him; hoping for everything from God, who assists and protects his Church. Hence his inclination to press the thesis of inseparability between the Pontifical State and papal independence. Also Pius IX had, at the beginning of his pontificate, the temptation of great universal popularity. But after barely two years, in the light of turbid rioting, writings, gestures and actions of ambiguous character, he rejected it with indomitable energy. In this conflict, lived day by day, moment by moment, lies the key, the guiding thread to Pius IX's pontificate; in this counteraction to fashions and to the seductions of the time, lies the key to his asceticism in the practice of Christian virtues even to the peaks of heroism. The bitterness of his diplomatic failures stimulated him more and more to confidence in God; to withdraw to the tabernacle, up to the last Mass, celebrated as "Pope and King", in the presence of foreign ambassadors, in his private chapel after the occupation of Rome.

Today this title returns to the limelight in cinemas with a desecrating and mocking intention. But Pius IX in the alternatives of negotiations and annexations, more or less forced, of his State, wrote to Vittorio Emanuele II: "I ask nothing for myself, but only that justice should be done; that there should be returned to the Holy See that which has been taken away from it unjustly, and which my high duty of conscience strongly stimulates me to claim..." (P. Pirri, La questione romana, 1856-1864, II, Roma 191, p. 136.).

Duty of conscience

Also that Address made by him on 29 April 1848 was a duty of conscience. In it he separated the cause which was not his own but that of the Church from the Italian Risorgimento which was carried out in underhand ways by persons who did not love the Church. Conscience obliged him to subordinate his patriotic feelings to those of his superior mandate as Pontiff. Before these alternatives Pius IX had no doubts about the choices to be made.

With this choice and with a bleeding heart there begins the second period of the pontificate of Pius IX, the longer and more fascinating part, even if the more tormented. The primacy of the Roman Pontiff, the safeguarding of the orthodoxy of Christian doctrine and of the rights of the Church, were all requirements of whose sacred nature and transcendence Pius IX was keenly aware and pastorally alert to counter any kind of contamination from profane elements.

His action will be accompanied by a piety, nourished by living faith, and boundless hope in God's Providence, which gave him admirable serenity in the stormiest events.

The silence in which he was able to place himself and to set those who were listening to him at the announcement of great decisions, was almost an exterior irradiation of this. In his exile at Gaeta, he will meditate on and start the process of preparing for the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

In stormy '48 and subsequently in the gradual stripping of his State, and in the threats incumbent on all sides, he will meditate the first Vatican Ecumenical Council.

Benedetto Croce wrote (Teoria della storiografia, Bari 1941, p. 188): "With Christianity history becomes the history of truth, it emerges at the same time from the fortuitous and from chance, to which the ancients had quite often abandoned it, and recognizes its own law, which is no longer a natural law, a blind fate or even the influence of the stars (St Augustine refutes these doctrines of pagans): but rationality, intelligence, providence.

Providence guidesand arranges the course of events, directing them to a purpose; it permits evils as punishments and educational instruments, and determines the greatness and the catastrophes of empires in order to prepare the kingdom of God". What Benedetto Croce noted as a critic, synthesizing the Augustinian idea of the philosophy of history (Croce noted, but did not believe), Pius IX thought and believed, and the whole action of his Pontificate was inspired by this idea.

His religious vision

In the second period the Pontificate of Pius IX, in its essentially religious vision, takes on significance, direction and value from three great papal acts: the Definition of the Immaculate Conception, the First Vatican Council, and the Syllabus,a much-debated subject even today. Before the spirit of the century, the three acts, which have a common frame of reference, bear witness to the consistent presence, the unbelied continuity of Pius IX's attitude in the whole span of his difficult pontificate.

But there is also a particular meaning inherent in each of these acts, as if guaranteeing their providential timeliness. As for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, CiviltàCattolica (a. 3, vol. 8, p. 377) in an article of 1852, invited readers to reflect that precisely from his exile in Gaeta, the Pope had turned "to question the universal Church, and, through her the whole Catholic Episcopate, about a purely dogmatic question, very far from having any connection with the storm that was shaking the world in those days". And precisely from the war waged against the Church "many bishops and we could say the majority, very many of the faithful, among the better educated and the most pious, had concluded that the desired definition was opportune", a sign of that "supernatural logical sense with which the Church is endowed". As for the Syllabus, it is still being discussed today and historians announce from time to time new approaches and interpretations. The idea-plan matured through a slow work of commissions, The publication in the form of propositions took place together with the encyclical Quanta cura on December 1864.

The document (considered today as an act of his ordinary magisterium, that is, not having the character of infallibility) was in clear contrast with public opinion, and caused a great sensation. The Liberals saw in it the complete condemnation of modern civilization, while extremists consideredPius IX's act as a condemnation of the whole of Liberal Catholicism.

Sign of contradiction

The Syllabus has remained a sign of contradiction up to our own times, considered, as it was, by the Liberals as a typical example of Catholic obscurantism and of the incapacity of the Church toadapt itself to the various situations. Actually, the document, owing to conciseness of its formulas and to the fact that the concatenation is not always clear, could give the impression of condemning freedom in general—instead of just its abuses—and of rejecting the basic principles of the modern world.

The condemnation of the Liberal conception of the State, freed of all moral norms, the source of all law, still remains valid, however; the rejection of the claim of modern man to construct society independently of God and of religion, in fact on the basis of principles contrary to it. remains valid. Pius IX did not fail to see, Spadolini notes (IlPapato socialista, Milan 1950, p. 99), "that the problem of the State was the greatest political difficulty with which the modern world was struggling in its historical evolution from the French Revolution until today".

And he took up position. Contesting the fundamental thesis, the ethicality of the State, the pontifical document condemned decidedly the claim to construct society without taking into consideration the rights of God, that universally valid moral law, which merely sanctions, prior to prohibition, what is already a good or an evil for man and for society (Prop. 29, 39, 58, 64).

On these terms of alignment with the times, also the Catholics then divided, unfortunately, not without painful repercussions in Pius IX's fatherly heart. One side invoked the urgency of a timely action of the Church for the understanding of the signs of the times; the other side, principles and their inviolability. And there were exaggerations on both sides, with excessive vehemence on the part of the intransigent and with the defect on the other side (that of Liberal Catholics) of taking part in social questions, dragging the eternal principles into the polemics of the time. The Church, on the contrary, at these moments and in these historical movements, sought and always seeks that people should behave on every occasion as true Christians.

Working-class question

During the pontificate of Pius IX, already so full and complex with questions and political revolutions, there matured another question of great social significance, the working-class question, as people liked to say then; the social question, as people like to say today. It has been said and written that Pius IX took little interest in social problems, as compared with his successor, Leo XIII.

This is a historical thesis which is at least superficial, as Prof. Tramontin has shown with his new researches (PioIX e la questione sociale in Pio IX, 5, [1976] 291-311).

Pius IX was perfectly aware that the whole social question could not be reduced at all to a duel between Socialism which excited man to revolt, and Catholicism which appeased by instilling resignation in him. This is proved by the constructive action carried out in the Papal State between 1850-60, illustrated in its precedents and ideological motives by even just a summary glance at Pius IX's personal library. The latter, which reached the Lateran University with the fusion of the Pius Seminary with the Roman Seminary in the time of St Pius X, has been carefully examined by L. Sandri (La biblioteca privata di Pio IX, in Rassegna storicadel Risorgimento, 25,[1938], 1426-1435).

The mass of books, which from the point of view of the subject shows sensitive attention to the most important cases that occurred during his long pontificate, includes many books and writings of an economico-social character.

As for the magisterium of Pius IX in social matters, the following are indicated by sociologists themselves: the encyclical Nostris etNobiscum (8 December 1848), the address Maxima Quidem (9 June 1862) and the aforesaid Syllabus. The condemnations formulated in it not only prepared the times and cleared the ground for Rerum Novarum, but also show how unjust is a certain accusation of continuous delay, levelled against Catholicism in the past century and at the beginning of the present century. As a result of this delay, it is alleged, the Church failed to act in good time, or, worse still, almost allied itself with its enemy of yesterday in order to oppose the more overbearing and impetuous one of today.

Strong denunciations

In the documents of his magisterium, Pius IX denounces, alongside Liberalism (cf. enc. Quanta Cura) Socialism and Communism and other similar deformations. The ecclesiastical magisterium of Pope Mastai ranged, therefore, in nearly every field, even though, with regard to Pius IX's magisterium, attention of necessity is focused on the First Vatican Council which defined the infallibility of this same magisterium.

The definition of the doctrine of the primacy of infallibility was the natural conclusion of a centuries-old doctrinal evolution and opened new horizons to ecclesiology. The conciliar documents of Vatican II on the Church (Lumen Gentium, ChristusDominus) andon ecumenical action, programmed in the same Council with the decrees UnitatisRedintegratio, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, wouldnot have been possible without the definitions of Vatican I. The latter are, certainly, an obstacle to ecumenical confusionism, but they are the term ofcomparison on which it is necessary for the Christian Churches to measure themselves and, with the grace of God, to meet one day, in order to make them all one fold and one shepherd.

It is not possible to exclude this truth, a truth of faith, from the dialogue with Non-Catholic Christians without falling, and causing others to fall, into a great deception. All this is clear today thanks to Vatican I, taken up again by Vatican II, the Council of Collegiality (one cumPetro et sub Petro); sothat what seemed to be closings on the part of Pope Pius IX are still pillars today, on which it is necessary to seek support in order not to go astray in the faith.

Guaranteeing survival

Pius IX, it is true, with the Syllabus rejecting many ideas and theses of the modern age, defining with the First Vatican Council the universal episcopate of the Pope over the whole Church and his doctrinal infallibility, seemed to have chosen the way of defiance, instead of that of understanding and reconciliation with the modern world. But was it really defiance or merely a reservation and defence against the beliefs and false confidence then prevalent in the progress of the world, of science and of politics, without obstacles or controls or any kind?

The Papacy of the sixteenth century, too, had taken up position against the world of that time and the earthly powers of the moment, powers which were making tools both of the faith and of heresy in order to strengthen their political power. The Papacy took up position with the Council of Trent, defining a good many truths of the Catholic Creed, even if, as a result, a good many people who also called Christ the Lord their Master found themselves sorrowfully outside the Church. But with this delimitation it guaranteed the survival of the Catholic Church.

The Papacy of the nineteenth century, with Pius IX, did not in its opposition lay down any challenge, either religious or political, but determined the Church's lines which cannot be passed, and delineated with the clarity of dogma its hierarchical structure in the face of uncertainty and incomprehension, curbing the confusing and disintegrating forces inside and outside the Church. To a good many people who remain on the surface of things, Pius IX today seems to be the personification of an outworn system; in fact he prepared many signal markers, following which his successors were able to set the papacy moving towards a new age. Certainly, with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and with the First Vatican Council, he did not take just a step, but a real leap forward.

Seventh successor, Paul VI

Under his seventh successor, Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council with the Constitution on the Church completed the definition of the primacy of Vatican I and established a new relationship between the Centre of the Church of Rome and the Churches of the West and of the East. In the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes it strengthened the commitment of the Church—and with it of the papacy—for the problems of' the world of today. A correction of the route, or continuity in ascesis? That there are also erroneous decisions in the history of the pontificate of Pius IX, no historian can deny. But Peter's ministry was unfolded in Pius IX according to a line of development in which there are, it is true, ups and downs; on the whole, however, there is something magnificent about it. Even those who do not believe in the divine foundation of the papacy, cannot refuse him their admiration for his complete dedication to his mission, carried out for over thirty years with indomitable courage, equal to the faith that sustained him and guided him.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 March 1978, page 6

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