The Demise of the Papal States Was a Gift to the Church

COMMENTARY: Blessed Pius IX inaugurated a new era for the Church by dissolving the Papal States.

The Quirinal Palace in central Rome, shown above, was where the central offices of the Papal States were housed and papal conclaves were once held. It is now the residence of the president of Italy.
The Quirinal Palace in central Rome, shown above, was where the central offices of the Papal States were housed and papal conclaves were once held. It is now the residence of the president of Italy. (photo: Shutterstock)

Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War “without firing a single shot.” That’s partially true, but needs to acknowledge the role of Pope St. John Paul II, who vanquished communism and did not have even a single shot to fire. Indeed, the only shot fired was the one he took during the assassination attempt of 1981.

There was a time when popes did have shots to fire. For a millennium they ruled as absolute monarchs, holders of plenary temporal power, over the central Italian territories known as the “Papal States.” Some of them fought wars, including the infamous Papa terribile, Julius II, who even led troops into battle. For the most part, though, the Papal States relied on alliances with other European powers to provide military security. 

That all ended 150 years ago, and Blessed Pius IX, reigning at the time, inaugurated a new era for the Church by firing precisely a single shot.

By 1860, the territories controlled by the papacy had shrunk to a rump around Rome. The forces of the Italian unification — il Risorgimento — claimed the Papal States for the new republic. By 1870, the French troops allied to the Papal States were needed to fight the Franco-Prussian War and so the Pope was left to his own meager forces. They were not equal to the Risorgimento; and by September 1870, Rome was ready to fall. On Sept. 20, 1870, it did, as the republican forces entered the city at the Porta Pia. In every major Italian city today there is a major avenue named “XX Settembre” in honor of the victory.

The seminarians of the Pontifical North American College had written to Pius IX, offering to go into battle in defense of the papal lands. The Holy Father was touched and sent them a handwritten reply. The battle the American seminarians would need to fight would be spiritual, not military, he reminded them. Pio Nono ordered his troops to fire one volley, “for honor’s sake” and to demonstrate that Rome was being seized from the Church by military force.

Pius IX, perhaps unwittingly, won the freedom of the Church by firing a single shot. It was a decisive moment in the modern history of the Catholic Church. Earlier that year, the First Vatican Council had promulgated Pastor Aeternus, defining the breath of papal authority in spiritual matters, even as its temporal power was ebbing away to nothing. It was a very good trade.

The “Roman Question” was now pressing. How would the Italian republic treat the Holy See, physically resident in Rome? It took some 59 years to resolve, and Pio Nono’s successors realized that getting the Papal States back would not favor the evangelical mission of the Church, but rather be a distraction, a burden, and perhaps a scandal. In 1929, Pope Pius XI concluded the Lateran Treaty, resolving the Roman Question; the Holy See would control the Vatican City State, a tiny 109 acres around St. Peter’s that would simply guarantee the independence of the universal pastor of the Church from any civil power.

For centuries the pope had two residences: the Apostolic Palace at St. Peter’s, his home as supreme pontiff, and the Quirinal Palace in central Rome, where the central offices of the Papal States were housed. The latter is now the residence of the president of Italy.

Some sense of the need for a spiritual renewal of the 19th-century papacy can be glimpsed by observing that the conclaves to elect a new pope in 1823, 1829, 1831 and 1846 were all held at the Quirinal Palace, the seat of civil power. After the 1870 “conquest” of Rome, the conclave of 1878 was held in the Sistine Chapel, where cardinal-electors cast their ballots before the gaze of Christ in the Last Judgment. It has remained there ever since, and it is inconceivable that it would be held anywhere else.

The fall of the Papal States in 1870, though bitterly resented by many Catholics at the time, was not a dark cloud with a silver lining. It was a bright dawn that obliterated the cloud of temporal power. It cleared the way for Leo XIII (1878-1903), the most consequential pope between St. Pius V (1566-1572), who implemented the Council of Trent, and St. John Paul II. It was Leo who began the long conversion of the Church toward what we now call the New Evangelization. Without Leo in the 1890s, John Paul in the 1990s could not have written of the Church’s missionary identity: “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.”

The future St. Paul VI, speaking about the loss of the Papal States in 1962, said: 

“The Papacy took up with unusual vigor its functions as teacher of life and witness of the Gospel, in such a way that it achieved greatness in the spiritual government of the Church and spread in the world, as never before.”

Indeed, as never before — or at least going back to the first Christian centuries: In 1970, for the centenary of “XX Settembre,” Paul VI sent an official papal envoy to the celebrations at Porta Pia, signaling that the loss of the Papal States was not only a gain for the Italian republic, but a more significant gain for the Church, too. By 1970, there would not even be a single volley of protest, but rather a prayer raised in gratitude.

The feast of St. Robert Bellarmine (Sept. 17) falls each year just before “XX Settembre,” and the two are linked. Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) was one of the great figures of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, formulating orthodox responses to the challenges of the Protestant reformers. To the objection that the head of the Church ought not be a civil ruler, Bellarmine responded that it was not necessary. Christ held both spiritual and temporal power, but chose not to exercise the latter, Bellarmine argued, and so, too, it was not essential for the Vicar of Christ to exercise temporal power. 

That was an awkward, if true, argument while the pope still ruled the Papal States. In 1929, the Holy See formally renounced all claims to the Papal States. That bit of business out of the way, Pius XI canonized Bellarmine in 1930 and made him a doctor of the Church in 1931.

It could be argued that XX Settembre also gave the Church another saint, John Paul II, who followed the “September Papacy” of John Paul I, the last Italian pope. The first non-Italian in nearly 500 years, the election of a “foreigner” would have remained implausible if the Holy Father also had to be the civil ruler of a second-tier Italian kingdom.

At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said that he dreamed of a “poor Church for the poor.” His dream began to come true 150 years ago, when the Church was disentangled from worldly power.