Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pio Nono

Today in some calendars is kept as the feast of Blessed Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), popularly know as Pio Nono, who was Pope from 1846 to 1878. Pope Saint John XXIII was sufficiently devoted to his 19th-century predecessor that he wrote in his Journal in 1959: "I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." Pope John did not live to do as he had hoped. It was Pope Saint John Paul II who finally beatified Pius IX (together with John XXIII) years later on September 3, 2000.

Unfortunately for his memory Pius IX continues to be in the news nowadays, largely because of the lamentable part he played in the regrettable Edgardo Mortara affair, which still haunts the Church's relationship with Judaism and with the modern world. More than enough has been said and written about that tragic event. There is no need to say anything more here - except to recall that Christian anti-semitism has had a long and pernicious history persisting into the present and manifested not just in the 19th-century Mortara incident but in the 20th-century Holy See's resistance to recognizing the state of Israel until Pope Saint John Paul II belatedly did so in 1994. The residual power of such anti-semitism still shows itself in the strange hostility of some to Israel's efforts to survive as a state in an implacably hostile neighborhood.

Growing up, I knew nothing about the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara (1851-1940). For me and my schoolmates in the 1950s and 1960s, Pius IX was best known for his dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), for the First Vatican Council (1869-1970), and for his final years as "Prisoner of the Vatican" (1870-1878) after the Italian conquest of Rome. E.E.Y. Hales' biography, Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (P.J. Kennedy, 1954), which I read in high school, filled in some more details. But it was Vatican I and the Pope's failed fight against Italian unification (and the politics of the subsequent "Roman Question") that most interested me at that time. From Hales, I learned more of the pre-history of the "Roman Question" - e.g., the 1948 revolution which temporarily exiled Pope Pius IX from Rome. In a sermon celebrating the Pope's return to Rome under imperial French auspices, New York's mid-19th-century Archbishop John Hughes analogized the Pope's exile to Christ's passion, expressing the deep devotion to the person of the Pope which would become a hallmark of American Catholicism for the next century or so. 

Another prominent 19th-century American Catholic deeply devoted to the person of the Pope was Paulist Fathers' founder Isaac Hecker. Father Hecker had famously met twice with the Pope during his eventful 1857-1858 Roman interlude, and they seemed to have made a positive impression on each other. In April 1871, after the Italian conquest of Rome and the Holy City's absorption into the newly united, secular Kingdom of Italy, Hecker wrote to Orestes Brownson: "Every day my admiration increases at the attitude of the Holy Father in his defense of those principles which underlie the political order and natural morality." Pius IX, Hecker argued "is resisting the destruction of all human society." As "Prisoners of the Vatican," Pius IX and his successors served as strong symbols of the Church's resistance to the encroachments of secular society, for which the anti-clerical but otherwise largely conservative to moderate Italian monarchy had become an unlikely flagship.

Interestingly, the ideological devotion which the papal cause so inspired among the (non-Italian), American Catholic Establishment contrasted somewhat with the more ambivalent attitude of actual Italian-Americans. Italian immigrants were sometimes seen (by other American Catholics) almost as if they were victims of the new secular Italy, which was true to the extent that the new secular Italy had nothing much to offer them except emigration, but a dubious argument insofar as the intractable problems of southern Italy obviously predated unification (and had nothing to do with secularism). On the other hand, Italian immigrants in the U.S. themselves notoriously held public services and processions mourning King Vittorio Emmanuele II in 1878 - in spite of strong objections from the (as always non-Italian) American Catholic establishment.

An Italian himself, Pius IX proved much more sympathetic and accomodating - allowing the King to be reconciled to the Church just before his death and permitting him to be buried in a noteworthy Roman church (the Pantheon). That stands in significant contrast to the barbaric behavior of the Roman mob that subsequently tried to throw Pius IX's corpse into the Tiber, while it was being transferred to his final resting place at Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls.

The pontificate of Pius IX, no less than the man himself, exemplified the pluses and minuses, the authentic religious devotion and problematic political obstinacy, that at  various times has characterized so much of the Church's relationship with the modern society and its secularized state. It illustrates the still unresolved dimensions of some of that tension that 140 years after his death Pius IX's memory is still a matter of contention - so virulently attacked by ideologues on one side and so obstinately defended by ideologues on the other. The reality is that he was in fact one part of the uncomfortable encounter between religion and modernity, and that some aspects of that encounter remain unsatisfactorily unresolved even today.

(Photo: Tomb of Blessed Pius IX, Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls in Rome, photo taken by me in 2012.)

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