Facing the Liberals
Pope Pius IX had the longest pontificate in the history of the papacy, from 1846 to 1878. His great charity and amiability had made him beloved by the people, while his friendliness towards some of the revolutionaries had gained for him the name of liberal. His first great political act was the granting of a general amnesty to political exiles and prisoners on July 16, 1846. It did not occur to the kindly nature of Pius IX that many of the pardoned political offenders would use their liberty to further their revolutionary ideas.
That he was not in accord with the radical ideas of the times he clearly demonstrated by his encyclical of 1846 in which he laments the oppression of Catholic interests, intrigues against the Holy See, machinations of secret societies, sectarian bitterness, the Bible associations, indifferentism, false philosophy, communism, and the licentious press.
Yet, the pope’s blindness on political issues anguished the faithful Austrian Prime Minister Metternich, who prophesied in 1847: “The Pope reveals himself every day more and more lacking in practical sense. A good priest, he has never turned his mind toward matters of government. And if matters follow their natural course now, he will be driven out of Rome.”
But the more concessions the Pope made, the greater and more insistent became the demands. Secret clubs of Rome, especially the “Circolo Romano,” under the direction of Ciceruacchio, stirred up the mob with their radicalism and were the real rulers of Rome. Riot followed riot; the Pope was denounced as a traitor to his country; his prime minister Rossi was stabbed to death while ascending the steps of the Cancelleria, whither he had gone to open the parliament; and on the following day the Pope himself was besieged in the Quirinal. Palma, a papal prelate who was standing at a window, was shot, and the Pope was forced to promise a democratic ministry.
Pius IX escaped from the Quirinal in disguise on November 24, and fled to Gaëta, where he was joined by many of the cardinals. In 1850, Pius IX returned to Rome. He took office in the Vatican Palace and no longer at the Quirinale, which twenty years later would become the Palace of the newly established republic of Italy, after the spoliation of the Pontifical Estate. Deprived of much of his stately authority over the Papal States, gradually fallen to revolutionary hands, the Pope turned more than ever to spiritual matters.
Pope Pius IX sought the re-establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy in England, with Wiseman as Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, along with other bishops. Later, the Holy Father did the same thing for Holland.
It is astounding how fearlessly he fought, in the midst of many and severe trials, against the false liberalism which threatened to destroy the very essence of faith and religion. In his Encyclical Quanta Cura of December 8, 1864, he condemned sixteen propositions touching on errors of the age, notably religious liberty. This Encyclical was accompanied by the famous Syllabus of errors, a table of eighty previously condemned propositions promoting pantheism, naturalism, rationalism, indifferentism, socialism, communism, freemasonry, and the various kinds of religious liberalism. Its most famous article, the 80th, stigmatized as an error the view that “the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
Though misunderstandings and malice combined in representing the Syllabus as a veritable embodiment of religious narrow-mindedness and cringing servility to papal authority, it performed an inestimable service to the Church and to society at large by unmasking the false liberalism which had begun to insinuate its subtle poison into the very marrow of Catholicism. Liberal Catholics detested it, and did all they could to prevent it from being known. It is no wonder that then Cardinal Ratzinger declared the Vatican II document on the “Church in the Modern World” an anti-syllabus.
Throughout his whole life Pius IX was very devoted to the Blessed Virgin. As early as 1849, when he was an exile at Gaëta, he issued letters to the bishops of the Church asking their views on the subject of the Immaculate Conception, and on December 8, 1854, in the presence of more than 200 bishops, he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin as a dogma of the Church. He also fostered the devotion to the Sacred Heart and, at his instance, the Catholic world was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 16, 1875.
On June 29, 1869, he issued the Bull Æterni Patris, convoking the First Vatican Council, which he opened in the presence of 700 bishops on December 8, 1869. During its fourth solemn session, on July 18, 1870, papal infallibility was defined as a dogma of the Church. As the Franco-Prussian war broke out, the Council was adjourned, and soon after, the Pope became virtually a prisoner of the Vatican as the Risorgimento’s troops invaded the capital. Cardinal Pie could bitterly complain of Napoleon III’s tacit agreement with the revolutionaries: “Pilate washes his hands while Christ is sentenced to death.”
Pius reigned for another eight years, which saw an increasing gulf between the Vatican and the Italian government. These years witnessed also a general outbreak of anticlericalism in western Europe, which, in Germany, culminated in Bismarck’s Kulturkampf—“Culture struggle,” which Pius condemned in the encyclical Quod Nunquam. He died three years later, having seen in his long pontificate the creation of the modern papacy, which would be resolved only in 1929 at the Lateran concordat with Mussolini. The longest pontificate in history had been rich both in political and in spiritual events and certainly emphasized the indomitable temper of a Pope in the face of the revolution.