By Timothy S. Flanders
Chapter 2: The Bloodshed Grows Still More and Pio Nonno Takes a Stand
In opposition to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions against Europe, a coalition had arisen to defeat him. This coalition was made up of Britain, Prussia (Germany), Russia, and Austria. At the Congress of Vienna of 1815 they drew up new boundaries after the defeat of Napoleon. These growing powers were a prelude of what was to come within 100 years.
But what the revolutions of America and France had done was shown the watching world that one group of elites (the republican revolutionaries) could successfully use rhetoric such as “liberty” to provoke the common man to anger against the real injustice inflicted upon him by the established elite (the monarchists). They could then convince masses of common men to die for this cause and overthrow the monarchy, so that the republican elites could then seize power. Thus republicanism became a mass movement throughout Europe (and the Americas) with huge swathes of the population seized with revolutionary fervor. The first revolution which imitated the French and American happened in Ireland in 1798.
But this republicanism was not just zeal for a new form of government. The revolutionary leaders sought to unite the masses into one nation (before this, modern nations barely existed). To do this, the revolutionaries not only relied on “liberty” rhetoric, but something much more violently potent: extreme nationalism. This nationalistic fervor would have devastating effects just a few generations later. (We will use the term “nationalism” in this essay to contrast it with the virtue of patriotism. Nationalism as a term can also be used for the virtue of patriotism.)
At the same time, all of rural culture of Euro-America was being destroyed by the industrialists, who forced the population out of the country villages and into the factory and cities. This further contributed to a cultural breakdown with the displacement of families. For the first time in history most men worked far away from their wives and children, weakening the marriage bond and thus the family.
To make matters still worse, the republican political philosophies which desired to dethrone Christ the King from politics, also promoted secularizing forces among Christians. This was the age of “higher criticism” and Darwin’s Evolutionary theories which cast doubt on the whole Christian faith and the reliability of the Holy Scriptures. This began among the Protestants, but later gained strength within the Catholic Church as well, as we shall see.
The Iconoclasts supported any and all republican, secular and urbanization efforts. The Moderates were nuanced in their mixed feelings toward the social change. The Strict were adamantly opposed to these changes, and heavily supported the established elites.
Servant of God Pius VII had been a Moderate, but was willing to also excommunicate Napoleon and resist him to his face, manifesting the best of the Strict. Still, unlike Pius VII’s coronation of Napoleon, the Strict party would not compromise with the revolutionaries. After the death of Pius VII, the Strict were able to get their candidate elected as Leo XII. He was truly a Strict Iconodule, and showed no conciliatory actions toward the burgeoning secular republican order. In both France and Spain, he supported the reactionary movements which were intentionally using religion to gain power. Because the republican fervor was so deep and widespread, he began the general alienation of the mass of Europeans from the Church. His reign was unpopular in the Papal States, where republican fervor was strong, despite the memories of Napoleon’s forced republics. One of his successors, Gregory XVI, also followed him in a Strict opposition to the republican revolutions. Italy was growing in extreme national fervor as the Italian republicans sought to suppress all local allegiances and unite all Italians into one secular republic.
Into this chaotic imbroglio appeared one pope whose reign would shape the century and set the whole course of our current crisis into motion. That man was Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti: Blessed Pius IX.
The Influence of Pio Nonno
At the time of his ascension to the papacy in 1846, revolutionary forces were sweeping the Italian Penninsula, attempting to unite the many divided states into one secular republic like France and America. The revolutionaries had resorted to violence and many of their leaders had been exiled from the Papal States, provoking his predecessor, Gregory XVI against them.
But when he became pope, Pius IX was a Moderate. He thought at first that a policy of appeasement would mitigate the revolutionaries’ extreme tendencies and bode well for a peaceful compromise. His first act as pope was to pardon numerous leaders from the political revolutionaries. He then set up an advisory group to study the implementation of moderate republican reform of the Papal States for the sake of the common good.
However, shortly after this in 1848, those same pardoned leaders and their forces mounted violent assaults on Pius IX, murdering some of his associates and attempting to force him to democratize not only the Papal States but also the Church. They wanted to force him into supporting their political aims of uniting Italy especially against their national rival: Catholic Austria.
They forced Pius IX to flee Rome and seized control. The pope called upon the non-Italian, Catholic allies of France to help him return to his See backed by troops. Upon his return to the eternal city, the Holy Father had become convinced that the revolutionaries could not be trusted. He had given them an inch, and they quickly took a mile. He was no longer a Moderate, but a Strict Iconodule.
Until his death in 1878 (still the longest pontificate in history), Pius IX waged all out war on every evil aspect of Iconoclasm, secularism and liberalism. He waged spiritual war by condemning their errors. Catholics from around the world came to Rome to take up arms to defend the Papal States from the violent overthrow by the secular Italians. Thus his pontificate became a unifying force of Catholics against all the secularizing forces of Europe.
The long and protracted struggle included the infallible definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 (which he targeted against the republicans’ main error: the denial of Original Sin), the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, and the First Vatican Council in 1870. All the while, the forces of secular Italy attempted to squeeze Rome and overthrow her.
Vatican I must be seen therefore as the most definitive act against the secularizing republicanism that had swept Europe. Bishops from around the world united in the Eternal City against the forces of anti-Catholicism waging around them. During the council itself, the fighting came to Rome’s door step, and the Italian republican army were attacking Rome even as the bishops hurriedly attempted to finish their proceedings.
Vatican I succeeded in passing just two documents. The first was Dei Filius, which condemned Iconoclasm in explicit terms and was passed unanimously at the council. It included this anathema which restates the Seventh Council’s anathema in a different way:
If anyone shall assert it to be possible that sometimes, according to the progress of knowledge, a sense is to be given to doctrines propounded by the Church different from that which the Church has understood and understands; let him be anathema.
This anathema directly contradicted all the Iconoclasts’ dreams of updating the Church to compromise with the secular world. The second document on the Church, stated that the head of the Church—the Roman Pontiff—expressed the infallibility of the Church when he was exercising his office. In particular this decree condemned forever the idea that the bishops were basically government officials–even as many of the fathers of Vatican I had been in some way appointed by their respective governments. Thus by these two decrees the Church at once condemned all Iconoclasm, and all challenge to the authority of the Church to teach the truth.
With that, the Italian armies broke through and stopped the council indefinitely (it was not officially closed until 1962). This bloodshed and overthrow of the Papal States was only a portend of the horror which was to come in a few short generations. But the papacy would fight with all its might against this evil…until it could not (or would not?) fight anymore.
Timothy S. Flanders