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Pope Pius IX

by Robert P. Lockwood


An informative study of Blessed Pope Pius IX.

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Catholic League's Research Paper on Pope Pius IX, September 2000

Shortly before the joint beatification of Pope John XXIII and Pope Pius IX on September 3, 2000, Catholic News Service published a story contrasting popular reaction to the two men.1 The report noted Italian television specials planned on Pope John XXIII, gift shops crowded with holy cards, books and videos on his life, and pilgrims still flocking to his tomb. This was contrasted with virtual silence over Pope Pius IX, whose tomb at the Basilica of St. Lawrence was closed to the public as workers wrestled with a drainage problem.

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) remains Papa Giovanni in the public imagination. Though pope for only five years (he was elected as an “interim” pontiff at the age of 77), he is recalled as the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council. His encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris were considered landmarks in the development of modern Catholic social doctrine. On the popular level, he is remembered as much for his approachable demeanor and down-to-earth spirituality after the seemingly esthetic, mystical later years of his predecessor, Pius XII. The pope of ecumenism, John XXIII’s popularity extended well into the non-Catholic world and Time magazine named him its “Man of the Year” in 1962.

Pope Pius IX is a man of another century. He served as pope from 1846 to 1878, the longest and one of the most difficult pontificates in history. (St. Peter’s pontificate was traditionally listed as 25 years and, until Pius IX, it was assumed that no pope would ever reign longer than the first pontiff.) He was immensely popular in his own times throughout much of the Catholic world, though certainly not in the leadership of the burgeoning 19th century republics or in radical circles. He was the first public pope of the modern era.

Pope Pius IX, or Pio Nono, as he was both affectionately and not so affectionately called in Italian, has been treated less kindly by the world. Though Pope John XXIII himself spoke well of Pius IX and reinvigorated the investigation of his possible canonization,2 the popular portrait of his papacy has him as a diehard reactionary adverse to the modern world. He is pictured as interested only in amassing papal power, and through the First Vatican Council he substituted a definition of papal infallibility for the loss of the papacy’s temporal kingdom in the nineteenth-century creation of the Italian State. He is seen as an anti-Semite who collaborated in the kidnapping and forced conversion of a Jewish child, with the dark hint of a papacy that helped generate the mindset in Catholic Europe that would lead to the Holocaust. Finally, he was the enemy of the freedoms of the modern world through his infamous Syllabus of Errors that condemned all that was right in modern thinking. This image of Pius IX persists. It is certainly encouraged within certain Catholic circles that have never forgiven the First Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility. They create an image of Pius IX forcing such a definition on an unwilling hierarchy.3

Beatification and canonization in the Church involve judgments of sanctity on the merits and holiness of an individual’s life. The reasons for the beatification of Pope Pius IX certainly center on those aspects of his life, not necessarily on the impact or results of the policies of his papacy. Yet, various pundits have put forward their own explanations of his beatification by Pope John Paul II. These range from an attempt to balance an allegedly “liberal” Pope John XXIII with the caricature of a “conservative” Pius IX, as well as the more realistic view of connecting the popes of the First and Second Vatican Councils. In any case, the alleged purpose of his beatification beyond recognition of his own personal sanctity is simply conjecture. What is of concern, however, are the historical caricatures created of Pope Pius IX. Painting Pius as the anti-Semitic enemy of freedom interested only in exercising power over lives fits a portrait of Catholicism common in the bitterly anti-Catholic world of 19th century Europe and America. The caricature also fits comfortably with contemporary anti-Catholic sentiment. Yet, Pius IX and his world -- as well as his reaction to it --are far more complicated than the secularized propaganda that greeted his beatification.

Though Pope Pius IX would serve for 32 years, the modern caricature of his papacy surrounds four events: his resistance to Italian unification and political trends in 19th century Europe; the Syllabus of Errors that appeared to set the Church squarely against democratic ideals; the “kidnapping” of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child taken from his family by authorities after his Christian baptism was discovered; and the definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council of 1870. It is these events that bear closer inspection, while keeping in mind the larger agenda of a pontificate that would see the Church reborn and revitalized after it appeared to be virtually destroyed at the beginning of the century.


The future Pope Pius IX was born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti in Senagallia in the Papal States, the ninth child of a minor count in 1792. He was born into a troubled world. Before he had reached the age of 21, French authorities imprisoned two popes and, without the bravery of those popes, the Church would have become an effective puppet of France. The Church in revolutionary France had been virtually destroyed and the old Catholic dynasties of Europe seemed destined to collapse.

In 1797, Pope Pius VI was forced by the French to accept the virtual destruction of the Papal States, the “patrimony of St. Peter” that the popes had ruled for over a thousand years. After a riot broke out over the planting of “Liberty Trees” around Rome, French troops entered the city and Pius VI, terminally ill, was carted off as a prisoner. He died under French imprisonment in August 1799. His successor faired no better. Pope Pius VII had returned to Rome when Napoleon had assumed complete power and appeared to moderate his position against the Church. He concluded an agreement with Pius over the reconstruction of the French hierarchy. Pius VII was forced to take part in Napoleon’s self-coronation as emperor in 1804.

Within a short time, however, Napoleon’s desire to become “King of All Italy” and to secure the Pope’s alliance in his war against the allies led to French occupation of Rome and cannons aimed at the papal residence. In July 1808, like his predecessor, Pope Pius VII was arrested by French troops when he refused to abdicate as sovereign of the Papal States. He would live as a monk (he had been a Benedictine monk prior to his election) in the episcopal residence at Savona for four years before being forced to France in 1812. He was unable to exercise any authority and on more than one occasion, came close to virtually surrendering his authority over the Church to the whim of the Emperor. But with Napoleon’s defeat, Pius returned to Rome on March 24, 1814, welcomed as a living martyr.4

Before Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti had been ordained a priest in 1819, two popes had been imprisoned and the Church in Europe nearly destroyed by the revolutionary movements and nationalist fervor that swept out of France and across the continent. At age 15, the young man had begun to suffer from epileptic seizures and he needed a special episcopal dispensation before ordination. It required that he not celebrate Mass without the assistance of another priest. However, his career soon progressed rapidly. He was assigned to the papal diplomatic corps (he would serve for a time in Chile) and in 1827 became archbishop of Spoleto and, in 1832, bishop of Imola near Bologna.

The Church had been dramatically affected by the chaos of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. The seizure and restoration of the Papal States had a strong impact on how the Church viewed itself and what was necessary for it to continue its mission in the 19th century. The Papal States were lands in Italy directly ruled by the Holy See, stretching back over the centuries. Though tradition held that they came by donation of the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century, they can directly be traced to the Donation of Pepin in 756. Varying in size, but always centered in Rome, the Papal States were ruled directly by the Pope as a temporal sovereign. Napoleon had annexed the Papal States to the French Empire in 1809. The reconstruction of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 restored the Papal States.

The surrender of the Papal States by Pius VII and his virtual incarceration by Napoleon reinforced in the Church the vital need for the pope to maintain his position as a temporal ruler. Without the Papal States, the Emperor dominated Pius and his spiritual authority compromised. It became clear to the Church at the time what history appeared to teach: without the Papal States, the pope could become merely a pawn of whatever European ruler dominated at any given point. The pope should be a citizen of no country and not subject to the laws of individual rulers. Free exercise of the papal ministry was equated with the freedom guaranteed by being a temporal ruler subject to no other ruler or nation. “On the lips of Napoleon the call for the Pope to lay down his temporal sovereignty and to rely on spiritual authority had been blatant code for the enslavement of the papacy to French imperial ambitions. Without his temporal power, Pius VII…had come within a whisker of signing away his spiritual authority. If the Pope did not remain a temporal king, then it seemed he could no longer be the Church’s chief bishop.”5 That firm belief was central to Church’s understanding from 1814 on. But it would directly clash with the movement for Italian unification as a nation-state. The Papal States cut Italy in half and was centered in Rome, Italy’s most important and historic city.

While the Church struggled to rebuild after the devastation of the Napoleonic wars, the restoration of the monarchies established by the Congress of Vienna would prove a chimera. A new world was emerging where national identity -- rather than identity with ancient royal houses -- would become a driving forced in both politics and how people thought of themselves. It was an era when racial identity, and racism, became a growing and dangerous part of “modern” thinking. This new “racialism” would underlie many of the tragedies that would be faced by Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti when elected pope in 1846.

The two major predecessors of Pio Nono, Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) and Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846)6 faced this new world sternly. Pope Leo worked diligently -- some would say harshly -- to reestablish firm control over the Papal States. Pope Leo re-instituted difficult rules against Jews living in the Papal States and followed a diplomatic policy that supported the royal houses of Europe. It was this seeming alliance between “throne and altar” in an age where there were growing movements toward more representative forms of government that was be a difficult inheritance for Pius IX. Pope Gregory would carry this policy so far that he condemned a Polish Catholic uprising against the Russian Czar who viciously persecuted the Polish Church. Facing rebellions in his own Papal States, Gregory would not consider compromising to the principle of revolution.

At the same time, however, the severity of what the Church faced must be understood. The new, “liberal” regimes that would arise in Europe were not as we might picture them. The separation of Church and State, for example, was not a constitutional prescription for both to operate independently of each other. It meant, instead, that the Church would be dominated by the new regimes. Church property was confiscated, religious orders suppressed, the Church banned from education. The government would determine Church appointments and anti-clerical legislation would be widespread. Papal authority to work with the bishops within the nation states would be severely limited, and government permission was needed -- and routinely denied -- for the publication of papal edicts and encyclicals. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Pope Gregory confronted over and over again governmental attempts to limit and suppress Church life. As will be seen in the section on papal infallibility, pressure for a clearer definition came from many bishops who had seen the papacy as their means of protection against state persecution and control.

At the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Gregory had made what would be seen as a disastrous decision. Gregory had needed to call on the assistance of Austrian troops in the summer of 1831. The 1830 revolution in France overthrew the Bourbon monarchy reestablished at the Congress of Vienna and replaced it with the so-called “Citizen King,” Louis Phillippe, who would rule until overthrown in the revolution of 1848 that would return a Bonaparte to power. This sparked uprisings in Italy where there was growing popular movement for a unified Italian state. It was the birth of the risorgimento, the Italian reunification movement. Within weeks of Gregory’s election, rebels controlled many cities throughout the Papal States. He called on the Austrian government to help suppress the rebellion. “It was a fateful moment for the papacy, in which it threw its lot in with the big battalions, against a growing Italian desire for liberty and self-determination. The aftermath in the Papal States was disastrous. The papal prisons filled up, and exiles schooled Europe in anti-papalism.”7 Gregory’s rule of the Papal States, protected and propped up by foreign troops, was hated in Italy and became a symbol in Europe -- unfairly when compared to most contemporary governments -- of the worst in reactionary authority.

This was the legacy that would be inherited by Pope Pius IX: a commitment of the Church to the Papal States as the only means to assure the freedom of the popes to spiritually rule the Church; a rise in nationalism and racialism as the dominant aspects of European life; a growing reliance on papal authority as the only means to protect the Church from the anti-Catholic repression of the new “liberal” states; and an unfortunate reliance on foreign troops to maintain papal authority within the Papal States, forcing the pope to be seen as a hindrance to Italian dreams of unification.

Pope Pius IX, Nationalism and the Italian Risorgimento

When Pope Pius IX was elected at the surprisingly young age of 54 the more conservative forces in Europe shuddered. At first glance, he appeared to be sympathetic to the new liberal nationalism. He was elected in only two days, one of the shortest conclaves in history. He was elected primarily by Italians, who made up 54 of the 62 cardinals.8 The new pope immediately ordered amnesty for prisoners and exiles, most of whom had been had been revolutionaries. The new pope was hailed a “liberal,” and Europe proclaimed him a hero. In Italy and in certain Church intellectual circles, it had often been expressed that the pope could provide the monarchial leadership of a united Italy under a constitutional government. In Pius IX, many Italians felt they had found such a man.

It was a misreading of Pius that would help create an image of an early, “liberal” pope that would be replaced by a reactionary once he faced revolution in Rome. This is a common understanding in historical interpretation of his reign, but needs to be modified. In fact, Pius from his first days could not be defined politically. He was moderate, deeply spiritual, yet also a simple man. He would be known for a playful sense of humor (as well as a sharp temper), and had an almost naïve, caring soul. Even when his temper gained the best of him, he did not bear grudges and was almost always self-effacing and apologetic at the next meeting with those who had generated his anger. Even his most strident enemies, once having met him, uniformly praised his charm, spirituality and simplicity. Most important, he was completely and totally a man of the Church who saw God’s providence in all the events of his reign. Even in the loss of the Rome and the Papal States he would see the mysterious action of God. Though certainly sympathetic early to Italian patriotic movements, his concern was with the Church and, through the Church, for the salvation of souls. Ascribing to Pius a consistent and driving political philosophy or a political agenda separate from the Church is to misunderstand the man. Even his loyalty to the Papal States was not a temporal matter. He saw his rule as part of the Patrimony of Peter and as an absolute necessity for the spiritual independence of the Church.

Pius IX began rudimentary representative political reforms in the Papal States. He removed many of the restrictions on Jews and tore open the gates of the Jewish ghetto in Rome. In 1847, he demanded that the Austrians withdraw from a border city within the Papal States. When the Austrians withdrew, he was seen as a hero to Italian patriots. (It is said that the revolutionary Garibaldi, living in Brazil, offered his service to the papal representative upon hearing the news.) More and more, Italian patriots came to believe that unification could be had by throwing the Austrians out of Italy, overthrowing the “foreign rulers,” and establishing Pope Pius IX as a constitutional monarch.

In the year 1848, revolutions swept Europe. Louis Phillippe lost his throne in France and rulers throughout the states of Germany faced uprisings. In Austria, the architect of the Europe that arose from the Congress of Vienna, Chancellor Metternich, was overthrown. In a short time, Italy was in flames. Pius IX had instituted reforms in the government of the Papal States that were promising, and in 1848 he established elected municipal government in Rome. But the fear remained that whatever happened, revolutions in Italy would be squelched by Austrian or French troops. When war broke out in northern Italy against the Austrians, it was hoped that the Pope would order papal troops to join the battle. He did not. Instead, on April 29, 1848, he announced that he could not send men to war on a Catholic nation. He renounced any tactic to name him king of a unified Italy, and called for an end to violent revolution. Throughout Italy, it was believed that the Pope had abandoned the cause of liberty.

Pius struggled over the next few months to maintain the integrity -- and neutrality -- of the Papal States against the Austrian army, while keeping civil peace within the Papal States. Rome itself was seething with violence and potential revolution. Pius appointed Pelligrino Rossi to be his prime minister in September. Rossi “cleansed the police force of unreliable men, ordered an army battalion out of Rome, protected the Jews in the old ghetto who were at risk from the mob, brought in a strong force of police from outside Rome, and ejected to Naples a couple of well-known revolutionaries…”9 He hoped to counter the king of Piedmont in northern Italy who was making strong moves to head up a federated Italian state. He cleaned up the streets of Rome and made them safe. He gave all the appearances of a man putting down a rebellion. He was. And on November 15th he was stabbed to death.

Mob violence exploded in Rome. Outside the papal residence, the Quirinal palace, a mob demanded a new government, and a monsignor standing next to the Pope was killed by gunfire. When a revolutionary government was forced on the Pope, he decided to flee Rome and went to Gaeta under the protection of King Ferdinand of Naples. In Rome, the revolutionary government attempted to secure the Pope’s return but could not guarantee his freedom to reign over the Church, let alone the Papal States. The Roman rebellion turned ugly and though the new government attempted to restrain the mobs, priests were killed and churches desecrated. Five bishops were arrested and the government took over Church property. However, the revolts throughout Italy began to collapse under the crush of Austrian troops. At that point, the French, now under the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon, deemed it wise to invade Rome and restore order, rather than see the Austrians occupy the city. Nine months later, on April 12, 1850, the Pope returned. He abandoned the Quirinal for the Vatican, a symbolic move from the palace of his temporal authority to the home of his spiritual authority. For 20 years, Pope Pius IX would retain temporal power but solely through the occupation of Austrian and French troops in Rome.

It was certainly true that Pope Pius became far less sympathetic to the cause of Italian unification after 1848. Wherever revolutions occurred, widespread violence and attacks on the Church took place. He had been shown clearly what revolution meant in this period of European history, with a priest shot dead next to him. The revolutionary Roman government was decidedly opposed to the Church and vowed to eliminate the Catholic impact on civil society. Pius had seen revolution and found it dangerous.

In the three decades of his papacy, Pius IX would develop an enormous personal following among Catholics worldwide. The Church was growing rapidly, particularly outside the chaos of continental Europe. The internationalization of the Church expanded as it never had before. And Pius was its leading public figure, not because of his political savvy but rather the strength of his faith and how well it resonated with the world’s Catholics. “The strength of the authority of Pope Pius IX in the Catholic Church lay not in the crowned heads, nor in the need of clergy under pressure from governments to appeal to Rome for help, nor in better communications, nor even, in the world-wide sense in Catholicism, that the Pope was in danger of persecution in the modern world…Pius IX shared the people’s affection for a warmth of devotion, for the cults of the Blessed Virgin and the Sacred Heart, and the coming forms of eucharistic devotion. He was a religious man and a pastor by instinct, not at all a politician. The development of the Churches in Europe during the next three decades elicited all the priestly side of him, so that his personal influence upon the Catholic Church became greater than any of his predecessors…”10

After the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 and their suppression, Piedmont -- with a constitutional government under the monarchy -- became the hope for Italian unification by driving out the Austrians and taking over the Papal States. It became the darling of liberal and Protestant Europe, while the Papal States were tarred as a medieval throwback destined for the dustbin of history. Piedmont would launch a series of anti-Catholic legislative acts to prove its stripes in Europe and to maintain support toward its goal of assuming the leadership of the entire peninsula. Under the brilliant leadership of Count Camillo di Cavour, a consistent publicity campaign to undermine the credibility of papal rule was undertaken worldwide. The spreading impact of newspapers on the rising middle classes would be a tremendous source in undermining his reputation in Europe and America in particular. Newspapers of this era were little more than hysterical propaganda sheets, as this was long before there existed even the slightest commitment to objectivity and balance. (It would be an important concept to remember when the Syllabus of Errors would condemn the concept of freedom of the press. This was a reaction not to objective and responsible journalism, but rather to the concept of hate literature and irresponsible political propaganda of which most newspapers thrived in that period.)

Pope Pius IX inadvertently fueled this hate campaign when he reestablished the British hierarchy in 1850. The Catholic population in England had been growing through Irish immigration and had accelerated during the disastrous famine of the 1840s. The Catholic Church in England was ruled previously by vicars reporting directly to Rome. The reestablishment of the hierarchy allowed for direct and quicker action. It made sense. Also, the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism -- an attempt to recapture the apostolic and Catholic nature of the Church -- had recently led to a number of prominent conversions to Catholicism, including that of John Henry Newman. Combined with the reestablishment of the hierarchy, England saw all this and went through one of its periodic bouts of “no-popery.” A practical result of this was England’s formal declaration in 1856 that the Papal State was a European scandal and demanded that Austrian and French troops should be withdrawn.11

In the United States, the 1850s saw the rise of anti-Catholicism in the powerful Know Nothing movement. A political movement prior to the Civil War, the popular appeal of the Know Nothing Party was based on a growing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment. Catholics were considered illiterate and ignorant Irish immigrants. They were viewed as bible-burners eager to rob the public till to pass on their superstitious beliefs to a new generation in their own schools where dangerous doctrines were taught. The Know Nothing Party combined nativism, anti-Catholicism, temperance and anti-slavery into a potent political force that would dominate in Northern state houses in the late 1850s.12

The combination of many of these forces not only dramatically impacted on the history of that era, but upon that history’s portrayal. The propaganda spread by supporters of Italian unification, England’s consistent anti-Catholicism, and a receptive audience in the United States, helped to create fertile ground for the image of an intractable medieval Pope dominating an impoverished Papal States yearning for freedom from theocracy. These sentiments in combination would support what was essentially a land grab against a virtually defenseless Papal States by the government of Piedmont.

Cavour secured the support of France to oust the Austrians from their strongholds in Northern Italy and war broke out in the Spring of 1859. Cities within the Papal States erupted in support of the popular war to oust the Austrians. (When a revolt in Perugia was ruthlessly suppressed by Swiss mercenaries, the papacy took another propaganda defeat in the eyes of Europe.) Under the pretext of war, Piedmont annexed a large section of the Papal States. This was simple aggrandizement and Pius IX could do nothing but thunder in protest. With Garibaldi’s victories in Sicily and southern Italy, Victor Emmanuel, king of Piedmont, was declared king of a not-quite-united Italy in 1861. The Papal States by now virtually ceased to exist, leaving only Rome and a small strip of western Italy under papal control. Throughout Italy, the new Italian state would wage war on the Church with the Church fighting back by refusing the sacraments and not taking part in state celebrations. Bishops were jailed, monasteries and Catholic schools suppressed, convents disbanded. All that was left was the final taking of Rome. Prussia had overthrown Austrian power in 1866, leaving only the French troops in Rome to defend the Pope. In 1870, at the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, the French troops were withdrawn and Victor Emmanuel sent his soldiers to secure the city. On papal orders, only token resistance was offered. Italy was now unified, and the Pope declared himself a “prisoner” and retreated to the Vatican.13

While in the Catholic world Pope Pius was viewed as a martyr, his defense of the Papal States reinforced an image of him as a stern opponent of freedom. It is true that, in the end, the loss of the Papal States would actually serve to elevate the papal reputation worldwide. At the time, however, it was viewed as a stunning defeat by both the Church itself, and a secular world that assumed the Church had received a mortal blow. The Church would quickly understand, however, that loss of temporal authority for the Pope did not destroy his spiritual authority. In fact, it enhanced it in the eyes of the world.

Pope Pius IX would live for another eight years after the final loss of the Papal States. The absorption of the Papal States was an act of raw piracy no matter how positively the outcome was viewed by the world and history. The Pope would speak out -- excommunicating those involved in the seizure -- but never truly adopted a policy to either regain the Papal States or directly undermine the new Italian government. If anything, he hoped for a miracle and if no miracle was forthcoming, it must be God’s will.

The final political challenge that engaged Pius IX was the Prussian kulturkampf under Otto von Bismarck. When the Prussian armies defeated Louis Napoleon in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Prussian state would turn on the Church as its paramount danger.

The remainder of the paper can be found at:


1 Vatican Letter, by John Thavis, August 25, 2000, “Balancing Act: Popes to be beatified were very different” (Catholic News Service).

2 Ibid.

3 For the case against Pius IX within Catholic circles, see Commonweal, August 11, 2000, “No! No! Pio Nono!”

4 For an outline of the troubled pontificates of Pius VI and Pius VII, see Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, by Eamon Duffy (Yale University Press, 1997) pp. 195-214

5 Duffy, p. 214

6 Pope Pius VIII ruled for 17 months from 1829-1830. He had been imprisoned for six years under Napoleon for refusing to swear allegiance to the French government. As pope, he would relax Leo XII’s restrictive measures in the Papal States and would recognize the regime of Louis Phillippe in France after the Revolution of 1830.

7 Duffy, p. 219.

8 A History of the Popes, 1830-1914, by Owen Chadwick (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998) p. 63.

9 Chadwick, p. 81.

10 Ibid., p. 112.

11 Ibid., pp. 114-115, 124-125.

12 See Nativism and Slavery, by Tyler Abner (Oxford University Press, 1992) pp. 127-161.

13 Chadwick, pp. 141-160, pp. 215-218.

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