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Did Pius IX Change Radically After 1848?

by Carlo Liberati


In this article Carlo Liberati offers many observations of the life of Pope Pius IX, hoping to achieve for the public a clear understanding of his pontificate and the trials he faced concerning reform and revolution.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano


9 - 10

Publisher & Date

Vatican, 19 September 2001

Beatification Of Pius IX: One Year Later

Pius IX enjoyed the fame of holiness in his lifetime, especially during the last part of his pontificate when it became clear how great an effort he had made to strengthen and reconstitute the "connective tissue" of the Church, plagued by theological rationalism and nationalism, international freemasonry, anticlericalism, from the sects produced by the modern mind to the onset of the "social question", and atheistic Marxism.

He shone with charity in every dimension of his personal and social life, charity as a genuine fruit of an indestructible faith in Christ and in his Church.

He was personally convinced that the Church had henceforth moved into another phase of history and adapted himself to it.

He was a pontiff who would have been overwhelmed had he not had great mental lucidity and a profound inner light that shone from an intense spirituality, which never failed to radiate courage, generosity and an immense capacity for love. He resisted undaunted at the helm of Peter's Barque, and steered the Church out into the deep on the rough seas of the new times, although they were so different from those in which he had been raised.

Charity prompted him to understand the need for Reforms. He undertook them with determination. With equal determination he stood up to the party of the Revolution.

Benedict XIV, the legislator "princeps" of canon law for causes of beatification and canonization declared that before the heroic virtues of servants of God were proclaimed, it must be proved that they have lived them to a heroic degree for a period of at least 10 years prior to their death. This is what Pius IX certainly did, even for many decades before his holy death, according to the unanimous opinion of his contemporaries and of the witnesses for his cause.

It can be said without the shadow of a doubt that Pius IX's profession of the Christian and priestly virtues became clearly apparent from 1823, when he travelled to Chile as a member of the Apostolic Delegation together with Mons. Muggi, Apostolic Nuncio.

The theological virtues certainly stand out in his life, and among the cardinal virtues, his strength of mind and gentleness were extraordinarily prominent.

The famous jurist, Carlo A. Iemolo says: "even those who railed against him . . . could never find him guilty as a man or as a priest. Gioberti and Farini recognized Pius IX as a devout priest, a believer without any doubt, a man above any suspicion . . . He judged everything from a religious standpoint" (AA.C. Iemolo-Convegno di Senigallia, 28-30 September 1973).

To acquire a deeper knowledge of the human and spiritual personality of Pius IX and a more comprehensive idea of his pontificate it is necessary:

A) "To free him from being locked into the Italian Risorgimento and to replace him in the history of his time, at the heart of the life of the Church which he governed as Pastor for 32 years serving with uncommon devotion and a steady hand. In the homily for his beatification on 3 September 2000, John Paul II said: "It was precisely in these conflicts that the light of his virtues shone most brightly: these prolonged sufferings tempered his trust in divine Providence, whose sovereign lordship over human events he never doubted. This was the source of Pius IX's deep serenity, even amid the misunderstandings and attacks of so many hostile people. He liked to say to those close to him: 'In human affairs we must be content to do the best we can and then abandon ourselves to Providence, which will heal our human faults and shortcomings'" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 6 September 2000, p. 1).

Then the Pope continues: "Sustained by this deep conviction, he called the First Vatican Ecumenical Council, which clarified with magisterial authority certain questions disputed at the time, and confirmed the harmony of faith and reason. During his moments of trial Pius IX found support in Mary, to whom he was very devoted. In proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he reminded everyone that in the storms of human life the light of Christ shines brightly in the Blessed Virgin and is more powerful than sin and death" (ibid.).

In Italian political history, this "substratum" of the human, priestly and pastoral personality of Pope Pius IX has never attracted much interest. But in this lies his greatness as a man and as pope, and thus also his extraordinary role in the Church's history. Had he not possessed so deep a faith and boundless trust in the Holy Spirit's assistance throughout the history and life of the Church, he would have been overpowered by the dramatic events that took place during his pontificate.

On the contrary, not only did he not allow himself to succumb to despair or depression, but he steered the Church out into the deep on the stormy ocean of the world and made her greater and better loved. He hoped "against all hope".

B) To this can be added another basic observation that is crucial to an understanding of this man of God and of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, the faithful witness of the God of biblical revelation, the saint.

An old historical cliche claims that during the pontificate of Pius IX there was opposition between the two periods: that of the "Reforms" and that of the "authoritarian Regression".

In the first period, the two years from 1846-1848, from his election as pope to his escape to Gaeta, Pope Mastai appeared to be a liberal and enlightened sovereign, a champion of the prospective Risorgimento.

In the second period, the authoritarian 30 years, he was claimed to have been guilty not only of "betraying" the cause of the Reforms and of the Risorgimento, but of having laid the foundations, with the Syllabus of Condemned Errors and the First Vatican Council, of a monolithic and centralizing concept of the Church and of society.

Instead, to the historian who wants to make a gentle and objective investigation of the pontificate the real situation appears very different.

The events of Pius IX's pontificate help us in particular to understand the difference between reform, or rather Reforms, and Revolution. Reforms in fact exist in concrete and in the plural. In the singular and with a capital "R", reform does not exist, with the exception of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which was not a true reform but a proper Religious Revolution.

On the other hand, Revolution exists in the singular and with a capital "R", and it has been well described and defined as a phenomenon of radical subversion, not of a specifically historical kind but of the kind par excellence which is encouraged and established by the Church, that is, by Christianity or Christian civilization: "the establishment, in the conditions inherent in particular times and places, of the one true order among men" (Plinio Correa de Oliveira, Rivoluzione e Contro-Rivoluzione, Cristianita, Piacenza 1978, p. 94).

At times, reforms can lead to Revolution, but they are acts of a different type and nature. Reforms are made within a system that they are intended to improve, the Revolution takes place outside a system and aims to destroy the Christian social order. The Revolution often makes use of the mask of reforms to get a firm hold. This is what happened with the Protestant revolution [the Reformation], and with the French Revolution, which can be considered the archetype of all revolutions. If it were to show its face and its nihilistic, ideological and destructive essence, Revolution would lose the consensus it needs to take place. Pius IX lived dramatically the contrasts between reforms and Revolution in the Papal States.

There is no doubt that Pius IX began his pontificate with a series of important political, social and administrative reforms. As well as the amnesty for prisoners and political exiles of 16 July 1846, the first act of his pontificate, and the concession of the Fundamental Statute for the temporal government of the Church States on 14 March 1848, he also introduced the Committee for the reform of the public administration, the creation of the Consulta di Stato, made up of two elective legislative bodies, greater freedom for the press and so forth. In themselves, none of these acts can be considered revolutionary, in the sense of radically subverting the Papal States. In the pontiff's intentions, these measures were motivated by a sincere wish to improve the material and moral conditions of his States, accepting the political and social petitions that were addressed to him from various parties. Taken all together and exploited, they ended by being integrated into a process whose outcome was a genuine revolution.

Pius IX himself outlined a detailed history of this process in his address Quibus quantisque (cf. The complete text in Italian of the address Quibus, quantisque in Ugho Bellocchi Tutte Ie encicliche e i principali documenti pontifici emanati dal 1740, vol. IV Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 1995, pp. 57-71), published in Gaeta on 20 April 1849. The great importance of this document is not doctrinal (as is the case, for example, with Qui pluribus and Quanta cura), but historical, because it constitutes a retrospective analysis and as it were an authentic interpretation of the first three years of Pope Mastai's pontificate from his election until the Roman Republic. Quibus, quantisque, truly constitutes, as Spada noted, "a compendium of all the most important events of the pontificate (in the first two years), the announcement of the first intentions that dominated it and the machinations contrived by a party that he thought he could correct and tame with forgiveness" (Giuseppe Spada, Storia della Rivoluzione di Roma dal 1 giugno 1846 al 15 Iuglio 1848, Florence 1868-69, vol. Ill, p. 3879).

The "party" that Pius IX found himself facing in the first two years of his pontificate was one, which, according to the well-known Leninist formula, could be described as made up of "professional revolutionaries". In Rome, as in the other Italian States, they made up an organized minority which, according to Luigi Salvatorelli's descriptions, directed the popular unrest, "exploiting the opportunity of Pius IX's concessions, enlarging them, changing their meaning, exerting pressure constantly in order to obtain new ones" (Luigi Salvatorelli, Pius IX e il Risorgimento, in Spiriti e figure del Risorgimento, Le Monnier, Florence 1961, pp. 253-257). This explains how, starting from the concession of the amnesty, what Fr Martina called "the beginning of a collective delirium of public opinion" flared up around Pius IX's name (Giacomo Martina, S.J., Pio IX, vol. I, Gregoriana, Rome 1974, p. 101).

In the intentions of the "Revolutionary party", the papal reforms were the steps that would pave the way to achieving progressively but rapidly the substitution of the State of the Church with a "Roman Republic", which was supposed to constitute the driving force of the republicanization of the whole peninsula. This plan was obvious to Pius IX from the first weeks of 1848, as he himself reminds us in Quibus, quantisque, recalling the concession of the Statutes in these words:

"And here we would like to show the whole world that those men, firmly determined to overturn the Papal States and at the same time the whole of Italy, suggested that we proclaim not a Constitution but a Republic as the only way out and defence of salvation, both ours and that of the States of the Church. We still remember that night, and we still see before our eyes some who, miserably deluded and fascinated by the authors of the fraud, did not doubt that in this way they might protect their cause and even propose the proclamation of the Republic to us. This, as well as countless other very serious arguments, shows increasingly that the requests for new institutions and progress, often preached by these men, merely aim to keep the unrest ever alive, to eliminate every principle of justice, virtue, honesty, and religion; and to introduce, propagate and cause generally to dominate everywhere, with grave damage and the ruin of all human society, the horrible, most deadly system of Socialism or even Communism that is primarily opposed to law and even to natural reason" (pp. 60-61).

This step is of great significance because it helps us understand the famous address Non semel of 29 April 1848 (Pius IX, Address, Non semel, 29 April 1848, in U. Bellocchi, pp. 44-48), with which Pius IX, refusing to head the war against Austria, broke definitively with the party of the Revolution.

Many hold that the principal cause of the turning point for Pius IX was the fear of a schism of Austrian Catholics, rumoured as possible by the Nuncio in Vienna, Viale Prela, after the outbreak of war against Austria, instigated by Carlo Alberto on 23 March 1848, with the participation of volunteers and the regular papal militia. This hypothesis is not without grounds and is explicitly mentioned by Pius IX himself in his address; but it does not seem decisive (cf. Roberto de Mattei, Pius IX, Piemme 2000. Also R. de Mattei, Prolusione al Convegno della Foundazione "Cajetanus", 23 September 2000, Milan).

The reliable interpretation of Pius IX's attitude is far more profound, rational and convincing.

If no Christian can ever be a revolutionary because the destruction of the present order, however unsatisfactory it may be, demands bloodshed, wars and endless strife, priests or bishops especially must strive to oppose all forms of bloody opposition, for the fundamental law of the Christian faith is the profession and practice of love.

In this and for this policy, Pius IX appeared to be and was inflexible. A heroic and faithful disciple of his Master, he accepted loneliness, misunderstanding, the desert of the soul and martyrdom of the heart.

Even at a venerable age, as the Vicar of Christ, he continued to hold up love and the paths of peace to the world.

In this way he introduced the Roman Pontificate and the Catholic Church into the modern age, felicitously interpreting those requirements of brotherhood, solidarity and peace, which now seem the only practicable paths for the Church and for the world.

© L'Osservatore Romano

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