It is interesting for historians to note that the fraternity called for by Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti was an idea abhorred by his predecessors in the 19th century. Fraternity, along with liberty and equality, had been demanded by the French revolutionaries in 1789, and had led to the slaughter of nuns and priests, an attempted genocide of the Catholic population of the Vendée, and the annihilation of the Church in France.
After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Pope Pius VII became once again the absolute ruler of Rome and the Papal States.
By no means a blind conservative by nature – as Bishop of Imola, he had said that democracy was compatible with Catholicism – he nonetheless felt that, after the horrors of the French Revolution, Rome should, for the sake of order, support the re-establishment of traditional monarchies which in turn supported the Church – the alliance between throne and altar. A privileged position was restored to the nobility, thereby thwarting the ambitions of the growing educated middle class. In Rome those Italians who had benefited from the rule of Napoleon were edged aside by returned emigrés, regardless of whether they lacked the former’s merits or talents.
Beyond the fear of further revolutions, there was the obsessive conviction of Pius VII and his successors that the independence of the Church depended upon their absolute rule of a substantial swathe of the Italian peninsula, the Papal States. This too led them to support the reactionary rulers, and condemn revolts even when these were by Catholics consigned by the Vienna settlement to the rule of non-Catholic regimes.
When Pius VII died in 1820, he was succeeded by Leo XII. “A simple, devout man,” Leo dismissed Pius’s liberal minded Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi; put a stop to the introduction of members of the laity into the administration of the Papal States; and once again confined Rome’s Jews to the ghetto. He railed against freemasonry, heresy and religious indifference, yet negotiated concordats with Protestant powers; and when, in 1830, the Catholics in the former Spanish Netherlands rose against their Protestant king, the pope did not support them. In the same year. the Catholic Poles rose against the Orthodox Tsar, Nicholas: Rome told the Polish clergy to preach to their flocks submission to the Russian overlord.
The hope that the Church might regain the position it had enjoyed under the ancien regime and Napoleon, was bound to be frustrated. Pandora’s Box had been opened – not just by the French Revolution of 1789 but the American Revolution of 1766. Both had established that men could successfully overthrow their rulers – that sovereignty lay not with hereditary rulers but with the people. The idea of the equal worth of every individual was Christian: the difference between the Catholic Church and post- enlightenment thinkers was whether those individuals could progress towards a measure of perfection, or whether they were irretrievably mired in original sin.
Another new and powerful phenomenon which the pastors of the universal Church failed to recognise was nationalism. The battle-cry of the ragged but all-conquering armies of French revolutionaries was “Liberty, equality, fraternity”, and under Napoleon “la gloire”; but it was also “la patrie” – the nation – and this was infectious, particularly among the Prussians. The popes felt no sympathy for the many Italians who resented Austrian rule over Lombardy and the Veneto: the Austrian Empire, after all, included Hungarians, Ruthenes and Serbs. It was also useful, in case of unrest, to have Austrian troops just over the northern border of the Papal States.
It suited the papacy to see the secret societies that had sprung up during the French occupation – the “charcoal burners” or Carbonari – as no better than bandits; and the zealous advocates of an Italian nation such as Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of “Young Italy”, or Mazzini’s disciple, Giuseppe Garibaldi, as no better than Danton or Robespierre.
The failure of the Church to adapt her policies to the new spirit of liberalism, culminating with Pope Pius IX’s condemnation of “progress, liberalism and modern civilisation” in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, came to be seen by Catholics in in later centuries as paranoid, mistaken, even embarrassing; but the eradication of Christian values among Europeans was to lead in the next century to atrocities far exceeding those of Jacobin France. We should be cautious in adopting slogans. Fraternity has meant different things to different people at different times.