Governments around the world are comparing the fight against the pandemic to war, and whether or not you agree with the metaphor, Pope Francis and the Vatican do face a “warlike” situation. Italy is in lockdown, the rites of Holy Week and the Easter liturgy will be celebrated without people present, and a papal trip to Malta planned for May has been postponed indefinitely. Indeed, for the first time since 1979, there may be no papal trips for an entire year. Francis himself now even uses the word “caged” to describe the effect of the limitations imposed on him. And yet, over the last two centuries, several of Francis’s predecessors have faced similar conditions.
During the pontificate of Pius IX (1846–1878), for example, the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a short-lived republican government in Rome, following the flight of the pope to the southern city of Gaeta, in the territory of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1848 to 1850. This coincided with the end of the short liberal phase of the then-new pope, who in a reactionary turn adopted anti-modern social and political teachings. It arguably led, at least indirectly, to the formation of modern Italy and, as one of the unintended consequences of the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, to an ideologically anti-modern but bureaucratically modernized papacy. The council was interrupted by the invasion of Rome by the Italian army and the collapse of the Papal States in September 1870, and that was the beginning of a long reclusion of the pope, who now saw himself as a “prisoner in the Vatican.”
The pontificate of Benedict XV (1914–1922) was tested by World War I, which began right before his election in September 1914. His interpretation of the role of the papacy and of the Holy See in that unprecedented conflict served as the origin of the modern teaching of the church as engaged in working for peace, as well as on the neutrality and diplomacy of the Holy See, and on multilateralism, international institutions, and nationalism. The collapse of the empires following the end of the war led to a rethinking of the relationship between colonialism and the missionary activity of the church (in the encyclical Maximum illud of 1919).
The pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958), of course, is still largely to be explored by historians (his archives, opened on March 2, are now closed again because of the pandemic). But it’s well known that World War II threatened the papacy and the Vatican in a very particular way. Mussolini, who received the political backing of the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church during his rise to power in the 1920s, incurred the wrath of the ecclesial establishment after allying with Hitler, which put the pope in danger. The war and the Holocaust tested Pius XII as a diplomat and as a pastor, but also as a theologian. His silence on the Holocaust, both during and after the war, of course remains the most politically and theologically controversial aspect of his papacy.
War also shaped the pontificate of John XXIII (1958–1963). In serving as a military chaplain during World War I, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was able to encounter people of other faiths—non-Catholic Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He wasn’t a pacifist, but he clearly rejected the rhetoric of war and did not (as other priests did) become absorbed by nationalist-religious propaganda. Then, as a papal diplomat in Turkey during World War II, he was instrumental in aiding the flight of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe toward the future state of Israel. He became pope at the height of the Cold War, and in its most dangerous moment—the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962—he intervened directly with both President John F. Kennedy and Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev. Months later, in April 1963, he published his last encyclical on peace and human rights, Pacem in terris, one of the most consequential papal teachings ever.
The papacy, institutionally situated within the headquarters of the Vatican, is afforded a kind of physical immunity from what happens beyond its walls. Yet sovereignty isn’t a shield against pandemic. Crises like these tend to have an effect on popes as human beings, and on the papacy as institution. We can already see it beginning to happen.