The Pope Who Would Be King

by David Kertzer, Random House, 512pp, £25

For a 21st-century English Catholic, stepping into the world described in David Kertzer’s new book is to enter a landscape as unfamiliar as it is shocking. Though this work describes events in the mid-19th century, the character of the papacy, which is its subject, seems utterly remote.

Towards the end of the story of Pius IX’s struggle to maintain a theocracy, Kertzer reminds us that in 1864 Pius issued the encyclical Quanta cura. Among other things this stipulated that no Catholic could believe in freedom of speech, of the press or of religion. Catholics were told they must believe that the pope should be the absolute ruler of a state of his own. Just as well, perhaps, that it wasn’t until six years later, in 1870, that Pius cajoled a Vatican Council, the first for 350 years, into endorsing his view that the Church’s very survival depended on a proclamation of papal infallibility. Pius’s reign seems to mark a decisive battle between the Ancien Régime and the modern world.

Kertzer is a fine historian who understands the importance of narrative drive and in Pius IX he has a wonderfully dramatic story to tell. It begins in 1846 when the unassuming Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was unexpectedly elected to the papacy. A seemingly benign figure, politically guileless, he was a compromise candidate. The Italy of the day was a patchwork of states but, underneath the surface, a nascent Italian nationalism was emerging.

At first Pius seemed at ease with the aspirations of the nationalists. By all accounts, the Pope was a mild-mannered and kindly man, but Kertzer says that his undoing was his need to be loved. At first he seemed to encourage the idea that he was in favour of a united Italy. This made him popular in the streets and he basked in the adulation of the Roman crowds. But as 1848 – the Year of Revolutions – dawned, the clamour for constitutional reform grew. Within the papal territories, the pope had always ruled as an absolute monarch; all government positions were filled by churchmen. Italian democrats wanted change and Pius succumbed to their demands, granting a new constitution which brought laymen into government and marked an important step towards the separation of Church and state.

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