A Reappreciation of Pope Pius IX

What can we learn from Blessed Pope Pius IX? Two things: wisdom and mercy.

George Peter Alexander Healy, “Pope Pius IX,” 1871
George Peter Alexander Healy, “Pope Pius IX,” 1871 (photo: Public Domain)

On Feb. 7, we celebrate the feast day of Blessed Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, more popularly known of Blessed Pope Pius IX (who reigned as pope 1846-1878.) His cause for canonization, compared to many modern popes, especially those who have reigned since the Second Vatican Council, has been rather long. Pope St. Pius X introduced Pius IX’s cause for canonization in 1907 and Pius X’s successors, Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI, had closed the cause. Ven. Pope Pius XII reintroduced it and it lay fallow until the recognition of a miracle of Pius IX by Pope St. John Paul II in 1985. And, in fact, it is Pope St. John Paul II who beatified Pius IX in 2000.

This delay in canonization should not cause concern. To be honest, it is the normal path for most saints. And the attacks on Blessed Pius IX from many sides, both from within and from without the Church, should cause us little concern as well.

As you might recall, there was great controversy last year surrounding Vittorio Messori’s book, Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara. I was asked by Homiletics and Pastoral Review to read and review this text. Mortara was allegedly “kidnapped by the Vatican,” a young Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, then part of the Papal States, who was baptized a Catholic by his nanny and later taken away, as was the law in the Papal States, to be raised in the faith. This young man was later ordained a priest. There are some questions concerning the veracity of the text used by Messori. In my own book review, I stated as a final assessment the following about the text:

 If a person wants to form an opinion on this difficult case of Father Mortara or an opinion of this value of this text by Messori, then he or she should read this book. The veracity of the translation will work itself out eventually. The more important questions (for example, should a baptized Catholic child whose parents refuse to raise him or her in the Catholic faith be forced to do so? What does this historical event mean for us today? What does it say about Catholic-Jewish relations? What does it say about the Church and civil power? How should we read past events in history in light of contemporary developments?) are ones that intelligent, prayerful, faithful people need to ponder. Messori’s book, in spite of and perhaps because of the controversy (and with the theological questions of grace and the sacraments that arise from it) is worth the read for the intelligent Catholic interested in history and sacraments.

For all the controversy in this event, and yes, there are compelling arguments on either side from Rod Dreher to R.R. Reno, from Father Romanus Cessario, to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, all of whom are thoughtful and insightful men, we can see the real reason why Blessed Pius IX is as important as he is for Church history. Roy Schoeman, the author of Salvation Is from the Jews (2003), in his forward to Messori’s book, lays out the thesis statement of the entire work:

Why was the Mortara case such a cause célèbre in the second half of the 19th century, and why did it remain so controversial that it was the primary objection to the recent beatification of Pope Pius IX, almost a century and a half later? The case sits at the crossroads of the greatest social transformation of modern times: from a fundamentally religious view of the world to a fundamentally materialistic one. Those two views can lead to diametrically opposed conclusions about the Mortara case. (Emphasis mine)

Some Church historians like the late Peter Hebblethwaite describe Saint Paul VI as the “first modern pope.” Respectfully, I disagree and instead, I give that title to Blessed Pope Pius IX. This pope is the first supreme pontiff who had to deal with things not even Leo the Great had to in turning back the Huns. At least the Hunnic Empire shared with Leo a belief in the supernatural, where, in the case of Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, for which Pius IX, is so roundly mocked in some circles, all the “-isms” he describes: materialism, relativism, secularism and, yes, modernism, all posit, ultimately, the triumph of the material, the present, the natural, over the supernatural and the eternal. And this, in our age which has gone far past post-modernity, is still the problem. Like the Twelve going out in the Gospel with nothing for the journey, so too is this the case with us, in this New Evangelization. In our dialogue with the present age, our partners in conversation don’t even have the same assumptions in God’s existence and the relevance and value of the things eternal with our dialogue partners. We live in an age which has the late Cardinal George mentioned, “the world permits everything and forgives nothing” (The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, 2011).

With this in mind, what then can we learn from Blessed Pope Pius IX? I posit two things: first, wisdom and insight and second, the quality of mercy, which, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was not strained in his life.

First, the wisdom and insight of Pius IX. Examine for a moment just some of the world-altering decisions of this pontiff, who served the Church for 31 years, in an age in which the concept of the human being, the world and the Church was rapidly changing. In 1849, Blessed Pius IX issed an encyclical, Ubi Primum, in which the Pope, recognizing the devotion to our Blessed Mother under her age-old title of the Immaculate Conception, consulted the bishops of the world to ascertain their opinion. Pius IX wrote:

 We eagerly desire, furthermore, that, as soon as possible, you apprise Us concerning the devotion which animates your clergy and your people regarding the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin and how ardently glows the desire that this doctrine be defined by the Apostolic See. And especially, Venerable Brethren, We wish to know what you yourselves, in your wise judgment, think and desire on this matter.

After the consultation, Blessed Pope Pius IX, in 1854, issued the papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus, which dogmatically defined the Immaculate Conception, making it one of the two ex cathedra infallible statements of the Catholic Church. Pius wrote:

 We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful

We see a consultative pope in Pius IX, a model of governing still used today by St. Peter, who now is known as Pope Francis. We see the beautiful Marian devotion, so much on display in the lives of Pius’ successors, especially Saint John Paul II.

In convoking the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Pope Pius IX showed great insight as well. Yes, there is great debate historically on the reasons the Council was convoked, and there is still theological inquiry about the effects of the Council to this day, but the two constitutions released from the sessions are key for an understanding of Catholic theology. The First Vatican Council, under Pope Pius IX, defined papal infallibility with his encyclical, Pastor Aeternus and stated that the Pope...

 ...speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

In Dei Filius, we have a tremendously importance document on Divine Revelation, and we read in this document that “God, the principle and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from created things.”

For those of us who are Americans, we can note that Pope Pius IX had a special love for the United States of America. He created many dioceses in our young nation (including my own diocese of Brooklyn), as well as establishing both the American College in Louvain, Belgium, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome. It should also be noted that Pope Pius IX elevated the very first American, Archbishop John McCloskey of the Archdiocese of New York, to the College of Cardinals.

And as for the Pope’s mercy, just a small vignette concerning Pio Nono. His longtime adversary was King Vittorio Emanuele, whom he issued edicts of interdict and excommunication. Upon learning of the king’s illness and immanent death, and learning that the king wanted to “die a good Catholic,” the Pope immediately rescinded the excommunication, so that the king could receive the Last Rites. The king is buried in Santa Maria della Rotonda, better known as the Pantheon, today. The Pope himself died one month later.

The last word is left to Father Mortara, the Jewish boy at the center of the controversy surrounding Pio Nono himself:

There will come a day, yes, and it is not far away, in which, once they have stopped listening to the calumnies and the ‘Crucifige’ of the dregs of humanity, posterity will accept the poor arguments of the Mortara child so as to tie them into scented garlands of immortal flowers that will adorn and decorate the altar on which the Catholic world will greet, with enthusiastic acclamation, PIUS IX, THE SAINT.