No! No! Pio Nono

Is Pope Pius IX, who occupied the throne of Peter from 1846 to 1878, with God? We certainly hope so. But is this author of the notorious "Syllabus of Errors" (1864), diehard defender of the papacy’s temporal rule, unyielding foe of freedom of conscience, speech, thought, and religion, of Protestantism, ecumenism, and the separation of church and state, a figure to be singled out for public veneration by the Catholic church? Is this a man whose life and character should be celebrated and held up for imitation? And should he be yoked, in memory and honor, with Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, in part, to heal the wounds that Pius spent much of his pontificate inflicting on the church and European society?

The beatification of Pius IX, scheduled for September 3, would be problematic in itself. To join it with that of John XXIII only engenders cynicism. The Vatican clearly wants to make a point, linking one pope to the other, tying the teachings of the first Vatican council in 1870 to the second one in 1962. But like too many of its actions, this one will backfire. It is destructive of the very idea of sainthood. It further erodes the credibility of the papacy. It is another shadow on the legacy of John Paul II.

Thus far, the most vocal opposition to Pius IX’s beatification and potential canonization comes from the Jewish community, especially in Italy. These objections focus on the seizure in 1858 of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child said to have been secretly baptized by a servant girl. Bologna, where the Mortara family lived, was part of the Papal States and governed by church law, which required that a baptized Jewish child be raised under Christian auspices. In this case, Pius took young Edgardo under his wing, paying for his education. International protests followed. Perhaps more than any other, this event, in which theological claims trumped parental rights, rallied the world against the continued temporal power of the pope. (David I. Kertzer tells the full story in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Knopf, 1997.)

The Mortara scandal should not be misunderstood as a kind of preview of the debate about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Instead, it casts doubt on the integrity of the process by which Pius IX’s cause for beatification has been handled, since Vatican sources have apparently indicated that the whole incident was never really addressed in their inquiry. It also reminds us that the Mortara case was not an anomaly. It was consistent with the whole tenor of Pius IX’s papacy: doctrinaire positions, fearfully and stubbornly hewed to, trumped even common-sense intuitions and family feeling.

Defenders of Pio Nono (the Italian by which he was known and which gave birth to obvious puns) insist that he was a kindly and charming man, which is perfectly true, as long as one adds he could also be a brutal and irascible leader. They argue that his fierce condemnations of virtually every idea then under discussion in European political and intellectual life and his commitment to preserving the temporal power of the papacy in the face of Italian national aspirations were courageous and appropriate responses to the anticlerical, antireligious liberalism of the time-and that, in any case, these policies do not detract from his personal holiness.

That defense is historically and morally flawed. Historically, it is untrue that Pius IX had no alternative but all-out warfare with the rising forces of religious tolerance, liberal constitutionalism, and national unification. Even his defenders admit that this warfare was costly. Today the pope’s temporal power is seen for what it was, an unwieldy burden, hampering the autonomy and spiritual power of the papacy. Who better demonstrates this reality than John Paul II, the pope about to beatify Pius? But these perceptions did not await the twentieth century. Loyal Catholics repeatedly proposed thoughtful and realistic alternatives to the war of church and modernity in Pius’s day, and for their pains they lived under a shadow of suspicion. The "Syllabus of Errors," it is worth remembering, was aimed at least as much at liberal-minded Catholics as secularizing liberals. Furthermore, it is also worth remembering that the harshest outbreaks of anticlericalism came after, not before, Pius’s denunciations.

Morally, Pius’s defenders separate the public from the private person in a way that the thrust of recent Catholic teaching has tried to counter. It is as though the pope’s personal good deeds counted, but his institutional stewardship was not germane. The truth is that harsh consequences followed for individuals, for the church itself, and for humanity, especially in continental Europe. Many faithful Catholics were condemned. Clergy and laity alike were disheartened by the papacy’s refusal to respond for decades to industrialism and the needs of a new working class, to democracy and a better-educated citizenry, and to the marginalization of the church. The alliances the papacy maintained with conservative and reactionary forces hindered the emergence of liberal democratic governments in much of Europe. Much has been made of Pius XI’s and Pius XII’s cooperation with fascism during the 1920s and ’30s. Too little has been made of the responsibility of leaders like Pius IX and their reactionary allies for the incubation of antiliberal and antidemocratic attitudes that made it impossible for European Catholics to forge alliances with secular moderates, liberals, and democratic socialists that might have stemmed the tide of fascism and totalitarianism that eventually drowned the twentieth century in bloodshed.

Pio Nono’s cause for beatification has been lingering for decades, held back by reasonable doubts and objections (Kenneth Woodward devotes a chapter in Making Saints, Simon and Schuster, 1996, to these failed efforts). So why a Blessed Pio Nono now? The Vatican doesn’t say, pretending that the procedure for designating saints takes place free of external pressures and orders. Still, there is an obvious explanation. The pope of Vatican II cannot be promoted without matching him with the pope of Vatican I. The idea that Vatican II and all it represents is not just a development of Vatican I and all it represents, but, in important respects, a corrective is unpalatable in present-day Rome.

The easy symmetry of beatifying these two popes on the same day may appeal to a mentality habitually working to tidy up and correct history, but there are limits to what the Vatican can do with this kind of manipulation. The splendid absurdity of the coming event can be grasped when we recognize that John XXIII and John Paul II would both have been condemned for their ideas and their words had they expressed them when Pius IX was in power.

History, it is said, plays out first as tragedy and then as farce. Pius IX’s failure to understand the democratic movement of his time was certainly a tragedy. The effort to exalt that error can only be regarded as farce.

Published in the 2000-08-11 issue: 
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