The modern pope who reversed course

An 1848 engraving showing Pius giving concessions to the people of Italy (Getty)

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.

But Pius could not satisfy the demands of the democrats who wanted the papacy to become a constitutional monarchy. His understanding was always that the rule of the papacy was ordained by God and therefore inviolable. Though he made a series of concessions, a final compromise proved impossible.

In November 1848, the man Pius had appointed as head of the government was assassinated. This marked a turning point. From then onwards Pius came to regret his liberal reforms while all around him political agitation and civic chaos grew in volume, culminating in the declaration of a Roman Republic.

When that happened Pius fled Rome, spirited out of the city disguised as a humble country priest. He ended up in Gaeta, where he reversed his position, condemning all his previous reforms.

Meanwhile, the political situation in Europe was increasingly uncertain and complex. An unseemly tug-of-war developed between the main Catholic nations – France, Austria, Spain and Portugal – all of whom, for reasons of prestige, wanted Pius under their protection.

The restoration was a brutal affair. The authorities imprisoned anyone associated with the republic, and the bishop of Marseilles sent Pius two new guillotines which were eagerly put to use. Through these means, Pius regained his throne but it was a short-lived triumph. In 1861 the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed under Victor Emmanuel II and, though the pope still reigned in Rome itself, his realm was much reduced.

One of Kertzer’s subsidiary themes is the condition of Rome’s Jews. When we first meet them the Jews are confined to an overcrowded ghetto. In his early reformist phase, Pius abolished many of the restrictions placed on them. But, by the end, we find the Jews once more crammed back into the ghetto, their brief period of liberty at an end.

Given Kertzer’s previous writings, I think it’s probably fair to infer that he’s no fan of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and his sympathies lie with the nationalist reformers. As most Catholics nowadays see nothing controversial about the separation of Church and state, many readers will be on their side too. This reader certainly found himself so.

But I predict The Pope Who Would Be King is likely to prove controversial with academics who have argued that the hostility of the Roman populace to Pius was due more to intimidation by violent republican radicals than genuine popular feeling.

As a non-specialist, I am unqualified to judge, but I unhesitatingly recommend this fine book. It prompts many reflections on theocratic rule and the painful journey the Church has had to make in its accommodation with modernity.