Books in Review

A History of the Popes, 1830–1914

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 67-73.

The Dawn of the Modern Papacy

A History of the Popes, 1830–1914. By Owen Chadwick. Clarendon/Oxford University Press. 614 pp. $135.

Reviewed by Russell Hittinger

A century ago Leo XIII welcomed pilgrims to Rome for the Holy Year of 1900. While expressing gladness at the piety of the pilgrims, Leo admitted that his pontificate had been "difficult and full of anxiety." Born in 1810, one year after Pius VII was kidnapped by Napoleon, Leo had witnessed the most turbulent century of the papal office since the Avignon captivity of the fourteenth century. During his lifetime, a Pope was kidnapped, three archbishops of Paris were murdered, and half of the Prussian hierarchy was imprisoned by Bismarck for refusing to accept state control over the Church. The Jubilee Years of 1800 and 1850 were canceled altogether because of civil unrest and revolution, and the Jubilee of 1875 was reduced in scope after Pius IX declared himself a "prisoner in the Vatican." After his own election, Leo would never set foot outside the Vatican.

Above all, Leo was painfully aware that he was the first Pope since the eighth century to inherit no papal lands. The last papal warship, the Immaculate Conception, anchored at Toulon in the south of France, was sold for lack of a papal harbor. The Pope not only lacked firepower, he had no effective political constituency in Italy. The 1868 papal decree Non Expedit forbade Italian Catholics from participating in parliamentary elections. In Rome, the new Italian government confiscated monastic and religious properties, deconsecrated the Colosseum, and made clergy subject to military conscription. At Leo’s election in 1878, the civil authorities would not provide security, so he was unable to give the traditional urbi et orbi address from the balcony of St. Peter. He contemplated fleeing Rome after the funeral cortege of Pius IX was attacked by a mob wishing to throw the corpse into the Tiber.

Professor Owen Chadwick’s A History of the Popes, 1830–1914, is a superb account of the papacy between the French Revolution and the Great War. His study is comprehensive, lucid, and fair. This was a period marked by the notorious Syllabus of Errors (1864) and its condemnation of the proposition that "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." Chadwick, however, does not treat these decades as a papal "dark age." Instead, he tells the history on its own terms. In so doing, he shows how the papacy emerged from these times spiritually and institutionally stronger than it had been in centuries, as well as how the papacy as we know it today began to be formed.

Chadwick’s history covers four pontificates. Gregory XVI (1831–46) was by all accounts an ugly but jolly Camaldolese theologian–monk who brought to the job excellent intellectual and spiritual credentials. He took the name Gregory in honor of Gregory VII, the great monastic Pope of the eleventh century. Unfortunately for Gregory, he was not a Hildebrand, and the ruling powers beyond the Alps had no intention of replaying Canossa. He would be the last Pope to die a temporal monarch.

His successor, Pius IX (1846–1878), the liberal reformer turned intransigent, enjoyed the longest pontificate in the history of the Church. Chadwick’s portrait of "Pio Nono," warts and all, is quite good, especially his account of the Syllabus of Errors, which makes the controversy intelligible to a contemporary reader. Pius shot from the lip, and his quondam table talk quickly circulated around the world by virtue of a new international press. Interestingly, the most memorable sentence of the Syllabus—the condemnation of the proposition that the Pope ought to reconcile himself to modern civilization—was written by Cardinal Bilio (Pius never bothered to check the final draft). Chadwick contends that this approachable and all–too–human pontiff abandoned the role of the austere prince of Rome for a new kind of papacy: personal, charismatic, and close to the people.

Leo XIII (1878–1903), elected at age sixty–eight, was supposed to be a transitional Pope, but he would enjoy a twenty–five year pontificate and write some eighty–five encyclicals. His model was Innocent III (1198–1216), who had made perhaps the most expansive claims for the papacy as a sacerdotal–royal office. (Leo had Innocent’s remains moved from Perugia to the Lateran, and was interred next to him in 1903.) Yet Leo was the first Pope to understand the international mission of the papacy in modern terms.

Leo’s successor, Pius X (1903–1914), dedicated himself to a renewal of piety and of religious life, as well as a reform of canon law. He encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist and lowered the age for the first communion of children. The laity were urged not simply to observe the Mass, but to share in the sacrament. Pius X wanted Gregorian chant made accessible to the people. Editions of Gregorian melodies were printed, as were missals with vernacular translations of the Mass. As Chadwick notes, "These acts of Pius X amounted to a revolution in worshiping practices."

The overriding issue of the period, testing the mettle of each of the Popes, was the relationship between church and state. At the time, the issue appeared insoluble. For a millennium, the Roman See had ruled lands in Italy—the patrimonium Petri. By the time of the revolutions in the early nineteenth century, these states included not only the territories adjacent to Rome, but also the so–called Legations across the north of Italy. Geography, if nothing else, guaranteed that Rome would lose its states: the northern tier of the Legations stood at the doorsteps of France and Austria, and thus were vulnerable to foreign invasion, while the traditional territories around Rome cut the peninsula in two, thwarting the popular hope for national unification. Yet ancient tradition and a need for revenues dictated maintaining sovereignty over the states—voluntarily abandoning them was, in fact, unthinkable. At the same time, the price paid for keeping them was that the prestige of the papacy was reduced to that of a third–rate temporal power, with no army to speak of and no administrative apparatus with which to create a modern state on par with those beyond the Alps.

The question, as a critic of the era put it, was how the papacy could christen and tame the "savage lady" of democracy throughout Europe while ruling its own states in the fashion of an eighth–century monarch. Gregory XVI and especially Pius IX, who at first was moderately favorable to the stirrings of Italian nationalism, tried to have it both ways. "This incompatibility," Chadwick notes, "was the chief problem of the papacy and the Church for the next hundred years." The states were lost to the papacy in the old–fashioned way: Italian nationalists took them by force of arms, including finally the city of Rome in 1870. It was a blessing in disguise, but an atmosphere of belligerence would color the Italian problem well into the next century, until Mussolini and the 1929 Lateran Pacts.

The church–state problem, of course, was much larger than the events playing out in Italy. Despite the "Restoration" after the Congress of Vienna (1815), none of the European powers—least of all the papacy—was able to dampen the passions unleashed by the French Revolution. Though varying in intensity according to time and place, the results of democratic revolutions were predictable: church property confiscated, episcopal sees vacated, monks and nuns expelled, papal letters and communications with local churches suppressed, schools and seminaries either closed or brought under state supervision. There was much talk of liberalism, and of a "free church in a free state," to quote Conte Camillo Bensodi Cavour, the Piedmontese Prime Minister. The reality, however, was subordination of the Church to the state—"a slave church in a despotism," according to Rome.

At the international level, the Popes had to find answers to two questions. The first was practical: how to preserve the liberty, and even, it seemed, the existence, of the Church in the new regimes. The second was philosophical: what were these new regimes, and were they flawed all the way down to their first axioms?

The answer to the first question had been adumbrated a generation earlier by Pius VII and his brilliant Secretary of State Ercole Conslavi: Rome would use diplomacy and concordats to cut deals favorable to the Church country by country, as crises dictated. Thus the rise to prominence in the Roman Curia of the Department of Extraordinary Affairs, which would serve as the kitchen cabinet of the Popes for more than a century.

Chadwick puts his finger on the most important legacy of this policy: from Lisbon to Krakow, Catholics became increasingly dependent upon and devoted to Roman authority. "It was a paradox," Chadwick admits. "The more authoritarian the Pope, the more he was able to help local churches and bishops against interference by their governments." In France, for example, the bishops had been arguing for two centuries that they, not Rome, were the arbiters of Catholicism in their country. When Napoleon signed the 1801 Concordat with Pius VII, he unwittingly annulled this policy of ecclesiastical Gallicanism. The pattern repeated itself in other countries where the local church also had no effective clout against the new regimes except through the leadership of Rome. Decades before Vatican I, the Church had become ultramontanist—operationally, emotionally, and increasingly in theory.

Chadwick carefully plots the course from these concordats to the First Vatican Council. He mounts no theological argument, pro or con, for the Council’s declaration of infallible papal authority. But he shows why some pronouncement on the subject was unavoidable. In the first place, a council, by gathering together bishops from the besieged nations, would prove that "the Church had its own independent life apart from modern states and what they decided in politics." It was necessary precisely in order to show that the Church was not merely a body of the ancien régime. Also, once assembled, how could the bishops avoid pronouncing on papal authority? The fortunes of the Church had come to depend upon papal leadership, and indeed upon a vision of the scope of papal jurisdiction long contested by Conciliarists and Gallicans. In this context, upholding the strongest claims of papal authority was progressive, not regressive. Not to have done so would have been to accept the argument of the modern states that the local churches were subordinate to the state, as in feudal times. By declaring first that the Pope’s authority was derived from Christ rather than from a council or ecclesiastical plebiscite, and second that the Pope possessed an episcopal authority and jurisdiction over the whole Church, the Council denied to the new states any foothold in governance of the Church.

Although it will settle no theological controversy over Roman authority, Chadwick’s account gives us good reason to eschew the work of journalist–historians such as John Cornwell. In Hitler’s Pope, Cornwell argues that Vatican I and the subsequent Code of Canon Law destroyed "subsidiarity" and "secular pluralism" in the Church. Instead of "webs of local discretion" Catholics were given a "führerprinzip." The fact of the matter is that the widely dispersed authority of feudalism was destroyed not by Rome but by the modern temporal powers, who either destroyed local authorities and traditions altogether or made them puppets of state policy.

The wisdom of the Council’s theological remedy is debatable; but it is not debatable whether Vatican I helped to win the liberty and unity of the Church in relation to the states. Contemporary Catholic liberals often view these events in a curiously atavistic way, imagining that it might have been possible to return to the status quo ante of political Christendom in which national traditions provided a buffer against Roman authority. On the eve of the twentieth century, however, those nations were already heading for their rendezvous in the trenches of World War I.

In addition to the practical question of how to respond to the new states, there were also questions of a more theoretical nature, the most overarching being, Were these modern states fundamentally flawed? To appreciate why this was more than a merely rhetorical question it is necessary to put aside any temptation to consider European church–state relations from an American perspective. For us, the church–state issue was settled at the founding of the American Republic. Such was not true for the modern European states, which came into existence long before figuring out how to solve the problem of religion. It was not just the Vatican, but the states themselves, who were confused about the issue of whether the state bore sacral or implicit ecclesiastical power.

In fact, the states born and reborn in the revolutions refused to abandon the traditional privileges of temporal rule over the Church. Napoleon, for example, is said to have asked Pius VII whether he should play the role of Henry VIII or Charlemagne. Bourgeois monarch Louis Phillipe, after having deposed the Bourbons in 1830, wished to be called "Most Christian King." With the notable exception of Belgium, the modern European powers resorted, when it suited their purposes, to ancient rights of the placet and exequator, according to which kings could accept or reject the enforcement of papal decrees and actions. As Chadwick points out, as late as the papal conclave of 1903, three states asserted the right to veto papal elections. Indeed, at that conclave, Franz Josef of Austria, via Cardinal Puzyna, Bishop of Krakow, exercised the veto to prevent the election of Cardinal Rampolla.

So, what were these states? For Pius IX and to a lesser extent for Leo XIII, they appeared to be perverse expressions of Christendom, for they claimed authority that once belonged to Christian princes even while despoiling the liberty of the Church and denying the theological grounds of such authority. Undoubtedly, none of these Popes was prepared to admit the legitimacy of a purely secular state. The key point is that, in their time, such states didn’t exist. Rather, the states were hybrids, having the virtues of neither the sacral nor the purely secular. Leo, who had a brilliant power of philosophical abstraction, found it difficult to form a crisp picture of the situation for the good reason that he was looking at a moving target. The states could not decide whether they were a divine vicariate or an administrative apparatus for public order.

In writing more than two dozen encyclicals on civil governance, Leo at least began the process of sorting out the issues, a process that would bear fruit a century later. My only criticism of Chadwick’s history is that he gives very short shrift to those Leonine encyclicals, which transcended the issues and policy disputes of the age. Instead, he prefers to observe how encyclicals were responses to particular political crises. The method works well for the encyclicals of three of the four Popes studied in this volume, but it does not befit Leo’s work.

For the most part, however, Chadwick gets the story right. The papacy entered the twentieth century bruised, somewhat confused, but remarkably strong. It had won liberties that had been in dispute for a millennium, and more importantly, it achieved ecclesial unity—as it turned out, just in the nick of time. A few days before Pius X’s death in 1914, Europe set off on a fifty–year program of spiritual and military suicide. Moreover, Chadwick is surely correct that the loss of the papal states was a blessing. The "rise in the Pope’s authority as a churchman," he concludes, "was connected with the collapse of his authority as a politician." Despite his admiration for Constantine and for Innocent III, Pope Leo intuitively understood that the mission of the modern papacy was not to rule but rather to teach the nations.

Russell Hittinger is the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.