For a generation past, two figures have stood forth before the world as the representatives of great contending principles, of whose deadly struggle Italy has been the battle-field. The one was a young and rough soldier king: the other, a courtly and venerable old man and bishop of the church of Christ. The one, in spite of many and serious defects of personal character, was a true and noble leader in the race of civil and political progress: the other, while personally worthy of the highest respect, affection, and esteem, stood firm, unyielding, and defiant to the last, the rear-guard of institutions which had outlived their age, the heroic asserter of principles which would arrest, if it were possible, the upward march of human history. It was the grave error of Italian statesmen—an error even from a point of view exclusively political—that in this struggle the Pope was permitted to appear as the protector, not of those institutions alone, but also of the Christian church itself: and it was the fatal necessity of the position in which Italian churchmen had placed themselves that the cause of the king, even as against the authorities of the church, was that of every lover of his country. In the unnatural antagonism, the two leaders, wide apart as the poles in everything else, were alike in this, that each at heart sympathized with very much in the cause which was represented by the other; in both, the convictions of official duty bore down the natural feelings of the man.
Death has summoned them from their respective posts within less than a single month of each other, the younger first. Pius IX. lived only long enough to send his forgiveness and his blessing to the dying king, and to mingle his tears with those of Italy over the bier of him whose success had been his own utter discomfiture. And then, upon the 7th of February last, the foremost man of all those who still stood at bay alike against the good and against the evil of the age calmly surrendered to God the trust, to his own understanding of which he had never been unfaithful before man.
That the elevation of Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti to the papacy was wholly unexpected, and almost, as we so often say, by accident, there is, probably, little doubt. The issues upon which the election turned in the conclave of 1846 were those of purely local and secular politics; and few had taken less part in politics of any kind, secular or ecclesiastical, than the quiet and devout Archbishop of Imola. He was but fifty-four years old, and had been in priestly orders less than eight and twenty years. He had been attached to a politico-ecclesiastical mission to Chili; he had been put in charge of the great Roman hospital of San Michele; he was Bishop of Spoleto for five years, and for fourteen years had filled the See of Imola; and although he had been created a cardinal by Gregory XVI. in 1840, it was in recognition of his pastoral fidelity rather than of any political services. Indeed, how little influence he possessed with the Roman government may be inferred from the fact that his older brother was at this very time a political prisoner in the Castle Sant’ Angelo. He was chosen in the necessity of promptly concentrating all moderate votes upon some one who was personally unobjectionable, in order to prevent the election of Cardinal Lambruschini, an able and resolute absolutist.
The leading facts in the long and memorable pontificate upon which Pius IX. entered on the 16th of June, 1846, are still fresh in the memories of those who are beyond middle life. But the key to the strange seeming contrast between the earlier and the later years, and to the still stranger contrast between the man himself and his official career, must be found in the careful analysis of a character which has been rarely understood save by his countrymen.
Brought abruptly forward and clothed with theoretically absolute authority in a great impending struggle, and at a crisis and under circumstances which would have afforded an opportunity for a Hildebrand, Pius IX. was not in the least a man of the world, nor a natural leader of men. Nor was he one of those who, by the inherent power of their own ideas or energies, cleave out new channels through the barriers of the age, and then turn the tides of history into them. He was, on the contrary, rather one of those characters which, like the charged Leyden jar, effect results by the power of moral forces not primarily their own, but which are silently generated by other agencies of which they are little more than reservoirs.
He was both winning and commanding in appearance; his voice was rich and musical, his smile benignant. He was a courtly gentleman in manners, yet withal of very simple habits, of unblemished life, and of fervent piety. His bitterest political enemies never ventured to speak against his personal character, which was worthy of his exalted office in the church; and when, in 1855, the Oriental bishops wished to emphasize the climax of their indictment against the papal system, they pointed to the results it could produce even in the hands of one of the best of Popes.
He was a man of naturally amiable temper, warm affections, and deep sympathies. He was generous and magnanimous in his impulses, philanthropic and patriotic. His heart was thoroughly Italian. It was that Italian heart of his which prompted him, in the earlier years of his pontificate, to invoke for the national cause the popular enthusiasm which never afterwards failed it; and with that cause, in spite. of all other antagonisms, his heart was ever in some kind of suppressed sympathy. The Italian people never forgot this fact, and it explains much of their forbearance, as well as the universally generous tone with Which the Italian press now speak of him.
But however warm a patriot, Pius IX. was, above all things, a churchman. The intense sincerity of his nature shone out most conspicuously in his religious and ecclesiastical aims and convictions. To him the church of Christ was ever the first, the grandest, and the most real thing on earth, and the headship of that church—whether as a subordinate he reverently looked up to it, or as Pope himself he stood in awe of his own official character—something almost superhumanly exalted. That decision, that firmness which no merely secular interests could seemingly arouse in him was at once developed, when the interests of the church were at stake, into the sternness of immovable obstinacy.
He was not a man of intellectual vigor, and certainly not a scholarly or learned ecclesiastic. He was thus not only unable to give reasons in defense of any stand which he felt it right to take, but he was also unable to perceive the force of any objections which might be urged against it; and he was therefore at the mercy of his own impulses and the ready instrument of those who knew how skillfully to excite his imagination, to enkindle his enthusiasm, or to evoke, in any cause, his exalted sense of official responsibility. Thus his imagination, wrought upon by his excited feelings, formed his conceptions of the papal office, and as his imagination conceived it, that he devoutly believed it to be. In 1871, the writer was dining with a worthy parish priest of Milan, and in company with a venerable dignitary of the church, from a neighboring diocese, who had known the Pope familiarly in early life; when the former asked his guest whether he supposed that, apart from those who obediently accepted it on authority, there was any one in the church who really and thoroughly believed the new dogma of papal infallibility, “Yes,” answered the other, looking up with a shrewd smile, “yes, there is one, — the Pope himself.” “Before I was Pope,” he was accustomed to say, “I believed in papal infallibility; now I feel it.” And to him this was a ground for his perfect assurance from which there was no appeal.
This official self-consciousness, becoming in all church matters his first spring of action, — fed, too, by inexhaustible adulation, — made him at last excessively impatient of all opposition; and an eminent Italian writer spoke of him, in 1873, as one who, while not “naturally sharp or haughty,” and “conscious of the presence of no unworthy motive,” was nevertheless “persuasissimo di se medesimo,” and therefore “prompt to visit every contradiction, even the slightest, to his purposes with a rebuke so much the more severe the more undoubted his own assurance that such purposes were directly inspired by God.”
To what extravagance this exalted conception of his office was wrought up in his later years was touchingly illustrated by an incident which is repeated here on the authority of the Italian papers of the time. In one of the Pope’s last excursions outside the walls of Rome, shortly after the prorogation of the Vatican Council, he came upon a poor cripple, who cried out to him, “Holy father, have mercy upon me!” The Pope was startled by the language of the appeal, and, instantly accepting it as an intimation that he was about to be clothed with miracle-working power, he turned and with a commanding gesture solemnly replied, “Arise and walk!” The cripple, infected by the Pope’s own perfect good faith and earnestness, dropped his crutches and sprang to his feet. In another instant, however, he tottered and fell. The Pope grew pale, but repeated once more the command, “Arise and walk!” The poor man again tried to obey, but again in vain. The Pope, in the revulsion of his feelings, fainted away. In fact, there was a period when the Pope lived in the constant expectation of the miraculous intervention of divine power to save the church and to overwhelm her enemies. To him the divine promise and assurance that “the gates of hell should not prevail against” what he undoubtingly held to be “the church” were as real and practical as any of the trials and afflictions which he was called to hear in its defense. In such a state of mind, then, to whose hands would he more naturally look to see such power intrusted than to those of “the infallible vicar of Christ,” whom it had even been seriously proposed to declare “the incarnation of the Holy Ghost?”
Surely so good a man was never more terribly betrayed by the position in which he was placed; nor has a sincerer man ever played a grandly fatal part in history. Such was the man who has occupied the papal throne for the unprecedented period of nearly two and thirty years, in one of the most remarkable transition epochs of history; the man, during whose pontificate the temporal power of the papacy has been swept away forever, while its spiritual and ecclesiastical pretensions have been carried to a point beyond which even the most arrogant of his predecessors never passed. Such was the Pope whose one unchanging aim and purpose from first to last was the restoration and the exaltation of the papacy, — the power and glory of the church. The circumstances under which he was elected gave the early years of his long pontificate far more to local and political history than to that of the church, and seemed also to leave him for a time far more free than afterwards to take counsel of his Italian heart as to the means of seeking this end. A mediæval Guelph, fallen upon incongruous times, he sought the organization of a great Guelphic league of the Italian states, from the throne of which the church and papacy should re strain society and guide the governments of the whole world. Every step in the improvement of the administration of the papal states themselves was to him but a step in this direction. The many and important local reforms which were actually introduced; the concessions for lighting Rome with gas and for building railroads, which were at the time very daring steps to take; the grant of constitutional government; the appointment of a lay prime minister in the person of Count Mamiani; and above all, the permission to the Romans to take part in the war with Austria, were all attempts to reach the great ends ever in view, by means and in accordance with principles of local policy to which his heart prompted him. In all this part of his career, the liberal Pope-King of 1846-7-8 was but the churchman earnestly endeavoring to be at the same time an Italian. But where the Pope sought to reform, revolution and anarchy answered his summons; and he often compared himself at this time to a boy who had learned the spell to raise the devil, but who found, when he tried the experiment and was terrified at the result, that he knew no counter spell by which he could be laid.
The patriotic dreams and endeavors of Pius IX. fell finally with Count Rossi, beneath the dagger of the assassin, upon the 15th of November, 1848; and when, nine days afterward, he fled from Rome, it was to return in 1850, only a Pope. From that time his political policy was simply passive resistance to that of Victor Emmanuel and Cavour, while he gave himself up to an ecclesiastical policy upon the whole one of the most extraordinary in the history of the papacy.
But this implied no extraordinary change in the man himself. All else, indeed, was new; he was the same. The end above all ends, the motive force of his character, was ever the grandeur of the sacred office which had been intrusted to his charge, and its power in the world against the infidelity and socialism of the age. Italy, his beloved Italy, had refused the part in this great work which he would have assigned to her. He mourned over this disappointment to the last; but he continued in his course, — no longer, indeed, with the cooperation of Gizzi and Rosmini, of Mamiani and Rossi, but with that of Antonelli and Wiseman and Manning, of Fathers Beckx and Schrader, of Bilio and De Angelis.
Under the guidance of his later counselors, in 1860, he reëstablished the Roman hierarchy in England; in 1854, he summoned the bishops of the Roman Catholic world to Rome, and in their presence declared the dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary an article of the faith; in 1862, he invoked a similar grand concourse of bishops for the canonization of the Japanese martyrs, an occasion for secretly communicating to them sixty-one theses, as the substance of a future dogmatic bull against certain obnoxious political doctrines of the tunes. These steps were followed up by the Encyclical and Syllabus in 1864, and the grand climax was reached in the assembling and the issue of the Council of the Vatican in 1870. Seven years and more, since the Italian army entered Rome in the September following and thus put an end to the temporal power of the papacy, the aged Pope remained “a prisoner of the Vatican,” — an imprisonment quite possibly a reality to one who lived so much in an ideal world.
Of this long pontificate two supreme hours will longest be remembered, the one by the Italian patriot, the other by the last devotee of mediæval Romanism in the church. The first was in May, 1848, when the Italian tricolor was unfurled beside the papal banner in the streets of Rome, and the Pope’s own nephews were enrolled as volunteers in the army about to march to join Charles Albert upon the plains of Lombardy. “Who does not remember,” says the Gazzetta d’Italia of the 8th of February last, “the pontiff of 1848 when, from the balcony of the Quirinal, where now reside the royal Savoyards, he touched the inmost chords of a whole people’s heart, and aroused the most powerful enthusiasm. ‘Benedite, o Sommo Iddio, all’ Italia!’ What do we not owe to these words, which after-events have never canceled from many hearts? And if the necessities of the times, of his character, and of his office have forced him in another course and have rendered him the enemy of that great work which, in its early days with his own hands he had blessed, — well, for this our tears shall none the less fall upon his tomb.” The other was that fatal hour on the 18th of July, 1870, when the same pontiff sat on his throne amid the assembled and subservient episcopate of the Roman Catholic world, and, by the lurid glare of torches that struggled against the thick darkness which filled St. Peter’s, read and proclaimed the decree that declared the personal infallibility of the Popes, — a dogma of the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints.” The terrible peal of thunder which seemed instantly to answer it from heaven, and which shook St. Peter’s to its foundations, was to the Italian people an omen in awful contrast to the applause of grateful hearts which came back from a whole people in response to the words which twenty-two years before he had spoken from the balcony of the Quirinal.
Thus it was given to him who had inaugurated a revolution by which he was himself the most august sufferer, also, with ecclesiastical pomp and pageantry before unparalleled, to exalt the office which he held to a height never surpassed by a Boniface or an Innocent, at a time when persistence in such claims must inevitably result in the overthrow of the papacy. He left no temporal possessions nor political responsibilities to complicate the course of his successor. He has bequeathed to him simply a spiritual papacy, but one, in the form in which he left it, irreconcilably “at war against the intellect and the progress of the human race.”
And that successor?
There is an ancient chain of Latin mottoes, one for each Pope in order, from some centuries ago to some time yet to come, which claims to have prophetic reference to the characteristics of their respective reigns. Crux de cruce was that which came to Pius IX.; Lumen de celo is the next motto on the list. But who shall say as yet upon what cause this prophetic “light from heaven” is to shine? That the time is come for some great change no one who is at all familiar with the politico-ecclesiastical affairs of Italy can have any doubt.
“With Pius IX.,” says a Roman paper, during the papal interregnum, “has been closed, not merely an epoch, but a religious history of eighteen centuries … Proficiscere: this was the last word of Pius IX., which should sound as a warning in every cell of the conclave. The Catholic church can maintain her unity only by abandoning false traditions and her pretended donations; the church can preserve its religious office in society only by coördinating itself with the state.”
Indeed, Leo XIII. had scarcely been proclaimed, when a prominent member of the Italian cabinet raised the question of the organic character of the famous laws which guarantee the Pope’s inviolability. It is not, however, at all probable that Italy will in any way anticipate the initiative of the Pope; the Opinione, the organ of the conservative opposition, only insists that it would show the greatest fatuity should the ministry “propose to modify or repeal them … at a time when the holy see has just been filled by a new Pope who has not yet had occasion to make his intentions known, and whose first acts are yet awaited.”
Cardinal Pecci brings to the papacy a personal record if—the Romish correspondent of the English press can be relied on—which leaves the world in no uncertainty about the private worth or intellectual abilities of the man. His administration of the brigand-infested delegation of Benevento brilliantly illustrated his clearness of purpose, his decision of character, his self-reliance, his executive power, and his unconquerable firmness. His three years’ residence in Brussels, whither he was sent at the early age of thirty-three as papal nuncio near the court of Leopold, showed him an accomplished man of the world and a diplomat of great skill, tact, and policy. His subsequent lone, episcopate in Perugia proved him a laborious, conscientious, and faithful pastor. Two pastoral letters on the subject of The Church and Civilization, addressed by him to his diocese, the one last Lent and the other at the approach of the Lent of the current year, and just published in the Osservatore Romano, breathe certainly a most excellent spirit, and show no familiarity with the Syllabus of 1864. At forty-three. Archbishop Pecci was raised to the cardinalate; and now, at sixty-eight, he has been intrusted with the destinies of the papacy.
Nevertheless, however “moderate” Cardinal Pecci may have been thought, it is proverbially unsafe to draw conclusions from what the cardinal may have been to what the Pope will be; and Italian anticipations and speculations concerning the ecclesiastical policy of Leo Xlii. are far too uncertain and even contradictory to be any guide to us. Some Roman journals have indeed indulged in sanguine dreams of the great reformation which Leo XIII. was about to inaugurate; and even so able a publicist and judge of men as ex-Minister Bonghi some time since declared that Cardinal Pecci combined the qualities most desirable for a Pope in the present crisis. But Bonghi was clearly less alive to the religious condition of the church than to the political perplexities under which the Italian government is laboring.
It would almost seem as if the Pope had scarcely inherited all the decision and firmness of the cardinal, for the Italie of so late a date as March 1st refers to a struggle, of which the Vatican is still the scene, in what is plainly called “the period of transition which the holy see is now traversing,” among those who seek to influence the papal policy in this direction or in that; and, while giving the contradictory character of the statements boldly made “concerning the intentions of the holy father,” declines to pronounce a precipitate judgment of its own, and contents itself with recommending to foreign diplomats and others the old maxim, Quieta non movere.
If we look for information concerning the new Pope to the circumstances of his election, we are on the one hand met by the undoubted fact that a large majority of the cardinals, by two thirds of whom he was so promptly chosen, are unquestionably of the most ultramontane type; and it seemed certain that, if really free to act, they would have chosen no one who would not continue in principle the ecclesiastical policy of Pius IX. But, on the other hand, it was openly stated by the press that Prince Bismarck frankly warned the conclave of the results of such a choice; and they doubtless knew well enough, without formal warning, how it would probably be met by the Italian government. Cardinals Franchi and Schwartzenburg, moreover, are both said to have been active leaders in securing, the result which was so early reached. The latter, indeed, was the friend of Döllinger and Von Schulte, and in 1871 it was by many expected that he would share with them the leadership of the Old Catholic movement. But the ultramontane Cardinal Franchi—the telegrams and statements of the foreign correspondents of our press to the contrary notwithstanding is by no means the man, either intellectually or morally, whose subsequent appointment as cardinal secretary of state is a hopeful augury. So far from being the “able, honorable, progressive, and patriotic Italian” that he has been pronounced, he is an ecclesiastic of the type of Antonelli, but in every way his inferior.
But, whatever else is beyond our present forecast, Leo XIII. is certainly no fanatic, nor is be ignorant of the times in which he lives. He is far less a mere churchman than a practical statesman in the church. Whatever the ends he may propose to himself, he will not seek to meet political antagonism by organizing mediæval crusades; nor will he attempt to resist Protestantism or to put down infidelity by decreeing new honors to saints in paradise, or by accumulating new dogmas upon an already seriously overladen faith.
If the ultramontane spirit of the Roman curia is still incarnate in the Pope, instead of wasting the moral strength of the church in abusive attacks upon the Italian government, Leo XIII. is far more likely to adapt his policy to the state of things as he finds them, and fully capable, by a skillful use of the opportunities which it affords—for instance, the voting urn—of accomplishing far more than by all the indignant allocutions about “Christ and Belial” that Pius IX. ever pronounced. He has too much common sense to keep up the farce of being a “prisoner in the Vatican,” and is too practical not to realize that, by a frank renunciation of an empty claim to a temporal dominion already irrevocably lost to the papacy, he has it within his power to secure from politicians, to whom religious considerations go for nothing, an indirect influence over public affairs, far more important to the church than the issues which have occupied the Vatican for some years past. Although Leo did omit to give the king of Italy official notice of his election to the See of Rome, the omission was perhaps unavoidable, and the statement that he gave such notice to the “king of Sardinia” is apparently unwarranted. At all events he has since directed that the Italian bishops should apply for the royal exequatur, and thus place themselves in legal relations with the government of Italy, which Pius IX. distinctly prohibited.
However, the Pope is known to be laboriously engaged in the preparation of an allocution, in which, when he deems it opportune, he will no doubt speak for himself on the subject of his political policy.
If Leo XIII., on the contrary, is to be an ecclesiastical reformer, as so many hope, he is not the man to make effusive announcements of his designs to the world beforehand, nor prematurely to arouse the violent resistance of the ultra-montane party and the Jesuits by abrupt innovations or startling reversals of the measures of his predecessor.
But the evidence on which to build such hopes is scant as yet. In the Lenten pastorals, to which reference has been made, there is indeed no mention of the Virgin or of the saints; the Holy Scriptures are alone spoken of as the source of divine truth, Christ alone offered as our exemplar, and the English and Protestant Faraday is cited among distinguished scientists who were also profoundly religious men. These are facts to be noted; but they prove little by themselves. The new Pope may discourage Mariolatry, as the Protestant press have been eager to repeat on the authority of some correspondents impatient for indications of his religious policy; but if so, it is perhaps less indicative of an approaching reform in dogmatic theology than of the Pope’s knowledge that such extravagances have driven men of intellect and education from the church, and impaired its influence over educated and prosperous communities and nationalities.
In fine, with such information as may be gathered from the best informed Roman journals, including the Osservatore Romano itself, the organ of the Vatican, as well as from private correspondence, it seems wiser to doubt the hasty conclusions of foreign correspondents, and, for the present, to be sure only that Italy has no impetuous visionary or irreconcilable doctrinaire to deal with in the papacy, but rather a Fabius Cunctator, who will know how to take advantage of every error of the Italian government, and who will make few or no blunders of his own; with one who will quickly and quietly disembarrass himself of the political complications in which his predecessor entangled the papacy, and who will be a reformer just so far as his practical knowledge of men and of the world prompts him to feel it necessary, in order to secure to the church that influence in society and over governments which is still hers, or to enable her to recover the influence which she has lost.
From the old Pope to the new is indeed a great transition, but we do not know as yet what this transition is to signify in history.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.