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Pope Pius IX and the Roots of Fascism
February 20, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Review of The Pope Who Would Be King by David Kertzer

When the French army undertook to capture Rome to return it to Pope Pius IX in 1850, after being initially repulsed by the population and its newly elected, democratic government, they bombarded the city. "Women and children as young as eight years old rushed with pans of wet clay to extinguish the unexploded bombs that fell to earth. On one of the defused bombs, someone placed a piece of paper written in simple block letters: The Holy Father's first little present to his beloved children in Trastevere" [a Roman neighborhood that felt the brunt of the fighting].

This incident might serve as an introduction to those who today cannot comprehend how deeply evil the rule of the Catholic Church has been over the last two millennia. Today we only worry about predator priests, raped nuns, and the prohibition of family planning when we think about Popes. But we do not need to go all the way back to the Dark Ages to see the Catholic nightmare on earth.

The incident and quote above are from David I. Kertzer's The Pope Who Would Be King, released in 2018. When Pius the Ninth became pope in 1846 the Church was not just a religion. It was the ruler of much of central and northeastern Italy, including the cities of Rome, Bologna and Ferrara. It was a theocratic tyranny. Most government workers were priests. There was no freedom of the press or speech, nor right to privacy: priests could and often did barge into homes to make sure people were not straying from Catholic law. A guillotine was at the ready for those who transgressed. Jews in Rome were locked in a ghetto.

The Church had always worked hand-in-hand with monarchies, which it said were how God wanted the earth to be ruled. In the Papal State the Pope was monarch as well as spiritual leader. But the idea of human rights, including the right of the people to select their own government, was growing. Nationalism was also becoming stronger, which was important in what we now call Italy because at the time it was divided into several states, each of them monarchies or ruled by foreign monarchs.

Pius IX initially granted some slight reforms. For the first time he said railroads could be built in his domain, telegraphs set up, and a powerless civilian council formed. This led people to believe that he might give up his role as head or government or lead the Italians in setting up a unified Italy. But the more people experienced freedom from rule by priests, the more they demanded true self government. Pius opposed further reforms, became unpopular, and had to flee from Rome.

In exile the Pope turned reactionary. He allowed the Austrian Empire to occupy the Papal territories in northern Italy. He tricked the French, who did not want to see all Italy grabbed by Austria, into attacking and taking Rome. The French thought they were simply getting the Pope back to a new republican Rome. Instead the people the Pope considered rebels were arrested, shot, or guillotined. The best the French could do was help some of the popular leaders to escape to France. The famous militant Garibaldi escaped himself to continue to fight for a united and free Italy.

Restored, Pius IX wrote an encyclical showing the depth of his religious and moral depravity. He said the Catholic Church "teaches slaves to remain true to their masters . . . and people to submit to their kings." He even called the female nurses of the Republic "prostitutes."

"Thanks to the bishop of Marseilles, who sent the Pope two new guillotines, executions in the Papal States could once again proceed in a more dignified manner."

After the people had lived in terror for some time Pius grew more confident. In 1864 he issued the encyclical Quanta Cura and a Syllabus of Errors. "No Catholic, he warned, could believe in freedom of speech, freedom or the press, or freedom of religion."

He pushed for making the idea of papal infallibility official. At the First Vatican Council he had the conclave vote that any Pope's official announcements would be considered infallible. That was on July 18, 1870.

I believe that it could be said that the roots of Fascism are in human nature and the nature of government itself. However, all the fascist leaders were Roman Catholics and all of them made deals with later Popes. I had hoped that this book, by the author of The Pope and Mussolini, would illuminate roots of fascism more. I see Fascism as a reaction to the modern, industrial and science-based economy by men who prefer monarchy or its equivalent to rule by either the industrial proletariat or by capitalists. But The Pope Who Would Be King focusses on the rebellion of 1848 and its effects on the thoughts and personality of Pius IX, a period of a few years. There is no examination of the crucial role of the Vatican in Italy, Australia, Spain and Bavaria once the industrial revolution really got going in the second half of the nineteenth century, until the actual emergence of Fascist political parties around 1920.

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