A Conflicted History: Italy and the Church

Though Italy-Vatican relations were once stormy, Pope Benedict has sent a conciliatory message to the Italian president for the nation's 150th anniversary of reunification.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, delivers Pope Benedict XVI's well wishes to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Vatican March 16, the day before Italy marked the 150th anniversary of its unification.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, delivers Pope Benedict XVI's well wishes to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Vatican March 16, the day before Italy marked the 150th anniversary of its unification. (photo: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — While the unity of Italy meant the demise of the Papal States, Catholicism was one of the key forces forging an Italian identity, Pope Benedict XVI said in a message marking the 150th anniversary of Italian unity.

“The national identity of Italians, so rooted in Catholic traditions, provided the most solid base for attaining political unity,” the Pope said in his letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, delivered the Pope’s message to the president March 16, the day before Italy was to mark the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of a sovereign Italian state in 1861.

Pope Benedict told the president that he knows the fact that the unification of Italy’s territory meant the end of the temporal rule of the popes gives many people the idea that unification was “a movement against the Church, against Catholicism (or) sometimes even against religion in general.”

While on an institutional level, Italy and the Vatican were forced to find a way to coexist peacefully, Italian unity succeeded and the Church continued to thrive because there was never any strong opposition between pro-unity Italians and Italian Catholics; they were the same people, the Pope said.

For decades after Italian unity, the popes considered themselves prisoners in the Vatican; their situation was not clarified until 1929 when the Lateran Pacts led to the formal recognition of the Vatican’s independence and its boundaries.

Pope Benedict said relations now are based on a “healthy secularism” marked by the separation of church and state, but also by cooperation in projects that promote the common good.

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