In Search of Power and Privilege

Papal struggles to retain power require far more accommodations with modernity than many are willing to admit

By W. David Myers
Spring 2005

Americans who watched the president’s trip to Europe last June may recall dimly the highly publicized meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. For a campaign battling to win the Catholic vote, it was a photo-op made in heaven. The Bush political team had labored long to put it together: president and pontiff side by side, like-minded men of deep conviction discussing matters of great pitch and moment. The two appeared as something more, though—heads of state on an equal footing. John Paul II was not just a figurehead but the absolute monarch of a kingdom, capable of commanding institutions and personnel around the world. His principality may be the size of a postage stamp, but the Vatican has many of the trappings of a sovereign nation, including its own foreign ministry and diplomatic corps. For good or ill, the church’s role in the world and the way it exercises influence are a product of a mesmerizing saga, now 1,700 years old. Creating, maintaining and then regaining this independence is the central story of Roman Catholicism in Europe.

No short account can do justice to such a labyrinthine tale, from the privileges granted by the victorious Roman Emperor Constantine (fourth century) to the collaboration forged with the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (eighth century), to the titanic struggle between Pope Gregory VII with the Ottonian Emperor Henry IV (11th century), to the tense alliance with the Hispano-German Emperor Charles V (16th century), to the self-coronation of the French Emperor Napoleon, to the loss of the Papal States (19th century), to the restoration of the Vatican and subsequent uneasy accommodation to fascist emperors, and finally, to a seat next to the leader of the world’s only hyperpower (21st century). If we must choose one thread that runs through and binds all these elements together, proving decisive century after century, it would be this: in the violent and bloody world that was and is Europe, the church has always needed protection, from marauding Huns, kings, fascists and communists. For Rome, the central aim has always been somehow to carve out an independent realm so that its mission, however construed, could advance without interference. Popes and bishops have occasionally sought power for themselves, claiming even the right to rule the entire continent as heirs to the Roman Empire and forging the documents to prove it. More often, though, the popes have bargained for support by lending to secular champions the prestige of the one institution that combined the tradition of universal Roman rule and the universal spiritual domain of Christianity. Warriors, invaders and conquerors looked to Rome for legitimacy, and in return, the church gained freedom of action.

The tradeoff for secular rulers was not just that the Roman church was a universally recognized “brand name.” For long periods the church filled the vacuum of institutions once occupied by the Roman Empire and left in ruins by its collapse. Until the 15th century in Europe, only the Roman church had the organizational infrastructure to run large-scale universities, diplomatic missions and a legal system and courts extending across the continent. In 15th century Italy, popes proved fully able to raise and lead their own armies in defense of Rome and the church’s lands, the Papal States which stretched across the peninsula like Orion’s belt and (fatefully) divided north from south. Throughout Latin Europe a competent international ecclesiastical government overlay the hodge-podge of primitive feudal lands struggling to emerge from decay, violence and invasion. The moment those territories became independent principalities, their institutions ran up against this highly developed quasi-state. For secular states to grow, the church had to diminish. The conflict, in some ways, was simple: who chose the bishops and to whom did they owe allegiance—king or pontiff? To whom did the lower clergy owe their obedience—city council or cathedral chapter? Above all, what was to be the role of the international church in this Europe of nation states and kingdoms emerging in the 15th and 16th centuries? Was Catholicism a secular power wielding the sword of war or a purely spiritual force brandishing the blade of truth?

As a general rule, the church has thrived in places where it has maintained official or quasi-official status with the firm backing of powerful, even authoritarian, governments. Elsewhere, the forces of nationalism and revolution threatened decline or even collapse. Two separate episodes in the 19th and 20th centuries reveal the forces driving the church as an institution and its relationship to Europe.

The Trauma of the 1800s

The French Revolution in 1789—with its avowed anticlericalism and determination to break the power of the church, seize its property and supplant its moral teaching—shocked conservative Catholics throughout Europe. The cataclysm released waves of nationalism and liberalism across the continent that shook the old order of deference to authority and aristocracy. The revolutionary assault on the church was terrifying enough, but Napoleon followed with a campaign of European conquest that briefly brought the Papal States themselves under his control. In response, the papacy worked closely with Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria to regain rule over the Papal States and re-establish a conservative order following Napoleon’s downfall. Throughout Europe in 1815, Catholic hopes for full restoration of ecclesiastical privilege made the popes the allies of reaction. The scene was set for a century and a half of constant struggle and reluctant retreat.

For conservative states in the 19th century, liberal and nationalistic hopes were tainted by fear of reproducing the chaos that emerged in France, but these patriotic movements were hard to resist. After European-wide revolutions in 1848 undid Metternich’s efforts to shore up the restored French monarchy and threatened even Habsburg Austria, European Catholicism was forced to retreat yet again before territories coalescing into powerful modern nations. To unify Germany under a Prussian emperor, the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck employed a deliberate policy of anti-Catholic activity—the Kulturkampf—to create a national spirit centered on Prussian Protestantism. It was in the Italian peninsula, though—a miscellany of independent territories turned tributaries of far vaster empires like Austria and France (now led by Bonaparte’s nephew Napoleon III)—that nationalism and unification marched ever closer to the Papal States and raised the greatest alarms. Astonishingly (in retrospect), when Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti began his 32-year reign as Pope Pius IX in 1846, some Italian nationalists viewed the new pontiff as a potential ally in liberating and unifying Italy because of his modest reforms—releasing political prisoners, allowing Jews to build homes outside the Ghetto walls in his territories and even introducing gas streetlights. The revolutionary tides of 1848 raised a cry in Italy for expelling foreign troops. Pius, however, dependent on those very troops for the church’s protection, condemned this demand and Italian nationalism as well, dooming forever his reputation for reform. Fleeing just before Garibaldi marched into Rome in December 1849, Pius called on French and Austrian forces to restore papal rule. In July of the next year, French troops overthrew the fledgling Roman Republic, and the pope returned to the city to face a sullen and resentful populace.

Italian nationalists now viewed the papal territories not as the traditional home of a glorious church but as an oppressive bulwark of French and Austrian conquest thwarting Italian unity. As it had done often in the past, the papacy looked to royal guardians—particularly now the French—but the strategy would not work again. France and Germany went to war in 1870, and the French were routed in six weeks. Their troops abandoned Rome, Napoleon III was deposed, and the papacy stood defenseless. In the midst of a Vatican Council that had defiantly proclaimed the infallibility of the pope in matters of faith, Italian troops breached the walls of the city on September 28, 1870, and brought papal rule to an end, though they left the Vatican itself untouched. Pius’ encyclical excommunicating the usurpers was ignored. For the next 60 years pope after pope—Leo XIII, Pius X and Pius XI—would remain holed up in the Vatican, prisoners of a united Italy they refused to recognize.

The Struggle with Modernity

The zenith of papal claims came at the nadir of papal power. This was surely no accident, and Catholics today live with the consequences, intended or not.

Why emphasize this one development out of all the momentous and colorful events in the church’s modern history, from the Enlightenment through Vatican II? In part, it is because this struggle to retain and then to regain some trace of temporal rule and independence was the overriding concern of papal policy for nearly a century, from 1848 until 1930. Hatred for the secular and liberal Italian state made the Vatican receptive to Mussolini’s overtures, setting the stage for the pope’s passivity in the face of fascism. This accommodation extended even to the American church, where a fully vested bishop could be glimpsed giving the fascist salute at a seminary dedication in 1936 (as documented in an excellent new book by Peter D’Agostino, Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimiento to Fascism, University of North Carolina Press, 2004). If we are to understand dispassionately the controversial role of the church during this monstrous epoch, we must recognize the critical role played by a Holy See haunted by the specter of its own recent impotence, its independence once again hanging on the whims of secular authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps as important, this mid-19th century struggle deeply affected—determined even—Catholicism’s troubled relationship to modernity. Each unprecedented dogmatic decision of Pius IX’s long reign took place against the backdrop of foreign occupation and Italian unification. The proclamation of the Immaculate Conception as divinely revealed dogma (1854) took place in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848. The Syllabus of Errors that declared in no uncertain terms that the Roman church need not reconcile itself to heretical modern fads like democracy and freedom of religion occurred just as Italian nationalist troops were expropriating the Papal States (1864). The conciliar declaration of papal infallibility(Pastor Aeternus) itself took place as the French withdrew military support and the armies of the Risorgimiento pierced the Roman walls and forced the suspension of Vatican Council I. (The first act of Vatican II was to bring a formal end to Vatican I.) In other words, the zenith of papal claims came at the nadir of papal power. This was surely no accident, and Catholics today live with the consequences, intended or not.

Finally, the church’s unwillingness to give up temporal rule and independence signaled profound discomfort with the modern ideals of religious pluralism and voluntarism. The state-like institutions so successfully developed in the Middle Ages still exist today. The church, though, can no longer coerce Europeans to comply with its rules and laws. Instead it must cajole and persuade, competing with all the other possible choices of modern life. This is another reason why the church succumbed to the temptation to condone or at least tolerate authoritarian rule in the first half of the 20th century—not only in fascist Italy, but in Spain and Portugal, where Falangist dictators helped preserve some traditional prerogatives, and in Ireland, where independence attained in 1922 did not necessarily mean a pluralistic, democratic society. The Vatican’s inability to comprehend the messy pluralistic wonder that is America is legendary, symbolized by the continuing tensions between American Catholic universities and the Roman curia’s determined insistence to strengthen “Catholic identity.” This is not to say that the European church rejects pluralism and tolerance. Far from it. The Roman Catholic church, though, is not yet accustomed to working on a level religious playing field.

There is another side to this story, though. Having lost its temporal power rather decisively, the papacy and the church had to find alternate ways to exercise influence. They did so by emphasizing its spiritual and doctrinal authority, enforcing a rigid uniformity and swiftly disciplining all internal threats (and most dissent as well). Leo XIII sought to negate the appeal of socialism to the working class by focusing on the rights of labor (Rerum Novarum, 1891). Institutionally, the Vatican enforced its will by tightening as much as possible the pope’s direct control over bishops and their dioceses. The most complete centralization of the Roman Catholic governing apparatus took place without the resources of a state. In other words, the loss of the Papal States forced the European church to modernize more than it would like to admit.

The Triumph of the 1980s

During the last quarter of the 19th century the papacy learned to exercise power without having it—a crucial preparation for its late 20th century role. During the Cold War, the courage of Eastern European Catholic prelates who refused to yield to secularizing pressures made the church a symbol of vibrant national and cultural identities in a struggle with modernity itself run amok. First in Hungary, but then especially in Poland, the church provided a counterweight to totalitarian efforts. In 1979, when the newly elected John Paul II visited his native Poland (in his words, “the Christ of Nations,” suffering for the world), patriotic piety surged throughout the country. As surely as anti-Catholicism had inspired nationalistic fervor in 19th century Western Europe, 20th century Catholicism expressed nationalistic resistance to Communism in Eastern Europe. Now, from his throne in the Vatican, the Roman pontiff was in a position to become the champion of liberation. In 1980, as the trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was born in the shipyards of Gdansk, it found support in the Catholic teachings on social justice born in the captive papacy of Leo XIII (1891) and refined later by Pius XI, tehe very pope whose relationship to Mussolini makes him suspect in the judgment of modern historians (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931). Perhaps more importantly, the Polish pope resolutely put his faith into action. Suddenly, one century after Pope Pius IX was imprisoned by the forces of Italian liberation for refusing to yield the Vatican, another Roman pontiff used the papal throne to become, albeit briefly, the champion and symbol of Christian liberty itself. Were the two events linked? Could John Paul II have acted so effectively without having the archaic institutions of the church in his hands and a base from which to direct them? Could the Roman Catholic church ever have reconciled itself to being part of modern Europe without going through the crucible of the 19th century?

Modern Contradictions

Like the Poles and the Spanish, the Irish are happy to be devout Roman Catholics so long as that does not prevent them from enjoying the benefits and liberties that come with being Europeans too.

It should also be remembered, though, that with the revolution complete and Lech Walesa the democratically elected president of a free Poland, the Catholic church had a stronger role in education and social legislation than under communist rule. In the 1990s, with new restrictions on abortion written into law, church attendance in Poland began to fall sharply. Indeed, that has proven to be the case in other traditionally Catholic countries now thriving as part of the European community. Spain and Portugal, with a long heritage of authoritarian Catholicism, have become energetic members of the European Union. Perhaps not so coincidentally, their churches are emptier now, though the ancient pilgrim paths to Compostella are more jammed than ever before. In Catholic Ireland, where the economic Celtic Tiger is now roaring, church attendance has collapsed and the bishops have been unable to prevent liberal gay rights and divorce law. In Dublin these days, the pubs are full, the restaurants swank, the men and women chic and handsome—and there is nary a priest in sight. Like the Poles and the Spanish, the Irish are happy to be devout Roman Catholics so long as that does not prevent them from enjoying the benefits and liberties that come with being Europeans too.

And that may be the way this saga concludes—European Catholics are still Catholic, but today they are more “European” than ever. The church’s base in the Vatican and the pope’s seat at the table of world leaders is secure. The struggle for institutional existence is over, for now. But the church must be content to be one part of a much more diverse society that includes growing non-Christian populations as well. Roman Catholicism is just one piece of the puzzle, and it has a great stake in maintaining a hard- won European equilibrium. It is not clear that the Vatican is entirely comfortable with that role, as it continually seeks to exert itself in European life and mores. When it pushes, though, Europe is not afraid to push back. A case in point was the pope’s desire to include a reference to God, or at the very least Europe’s Christian heritage, in the European Union-sponsored European Constitution. Despite the fact that the campaign was fronted by several country delegations (including Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Poland) it was rejected outright. At times, however, the church still represents Europe. Photo-ops aside, President Bush received blunt criticism from the pope for his misguided adventurism in Iraq. Everyone would be well advised to remember that.

The Roman Catholic church wraps around Europe like one strand of a double helix. For close to two millennia, the church has been part of the continent’s DNA. We should recognize just how long and tangled this genetic code is. The church and Europe have collided before, colluded before, clashed and conspired all along the way. Each has on occasion watched the other at the brink of extinction and cheered. Each has also reached out to rescue the other in an act of mutual redemption. Just over three quarters of a century ago, a Roman pontiff silently condoned the advance of Italian fascism in return for control over Vatican City. Less than thirty years ago, the Roman church in Poland proved to be the indispensable player in liberating Eastern Europe from the grip of communism. Both actions stemmed from the same instincts buried deep within the genetic structure woven by history. Catholicism remains embedded in Europe’s cultural memory, a piece of code always awaiting reactivation, renewal, renaissance.

W. DAVID MYERS is associate professor of history at Fordham University, New York, where his courses focus on crime, punishment and women in early modern Europe. He has written on the history of sacramental confession in the Catholic Reformation. His next book, Death and a Maiden: the Tragical History of Margarethe Schmidt, Infanticide, uncovers the obscure, fascinating and often terrifying lives of poor women in an early modern city.

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