The providential demise of the Papal States

George Weigel

Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic traditionalism was so deep, broad, and intense that self-identified “traditional Catholics” today might seem, in comparison, like the editorial staff of the National Catholic Reporter. Yet the greatest of 20th century English prose stylists held what some Catholic traditionalists (notably the “new integralists”) would regard as unsound views on the demise of the Papal States: a lengthy historical drama on which the curtain rang down 150 years ago this month.

In the third volume of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, the novels’ protagonist, Guy Crouchback, makes Italy’s surrender in World War II and King Victor Emmanuel III’s flight from Rome the occasion to lament, to his father, the papacy’s acquiescence to its loss of the Papal States: “[This] looks like the end of the Piedmontese usurpation. What a mistake the Lateran Treaty was…How much better would it have been if the popes had sat it out and then emerged saying, ‘What was that all about? Risorgimento? Garibaldi? Cavour? The House of Savoy? Mussolini? Just some hooligans from out of town causing a disturbance…’”

To which Gervase Crouchback, a man of insight informed by deep piety, replies in a letter: “Of course in the 1870s and 1880s every decent Roman disliked the Piedmontese…. And of course most of the [Catholics] we know kept it up, sulking. But that isn’t the Church. The Mystical Body doesn’t strike attitudes and stand on its dignity…When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as a result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance?”

The “Piedmontese” – the forces of the Kingdom of Italy led by the House of Savoy – seized control of Rome on September 20, 1870, and Pope Pius IX retired behind the Leonine Wall as the “prisoner of the Vatican.” As a result, many of Europe’s great and good thought Catholicism finished as a force in human affairs. More fools they – and more foolish still those who, today, mourn the loss of papal sovereignty over a much larger territory than the micro-state of Vatican City (essential to protect the pope’s independence) created by the 1929 Lateran Treaty.

About a year ago, I was lecturing on my book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, and suggested that the loss of the Papal States had been the best thing to happen to the papacy in an often-brutal 19th century. It had liberated the pope to be a powerful voice of moral witness and persuasion in the world, unencumbered by the sometimes shabby compromises inherent in governing a state and playing European power politics. That moral power had been demonstrated in many ways, I said, not least by John Paul II’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism: a role he certainly could not have played as the autocratic ruler of a large swath of central Italy.

There were a few of the new integralists in the audience that night. I noticed them quietly nudging each other, perhaps whispering behind their hands, “There he goes again.”

Well, here I go again, again.

The loss of the Papal States was a great boon to the papacy and to the Church’s evangelical mission, and for several reasons. Civil governance of a considerable territory by a clerical caste had, over time, proven an obstacle to Catholicism’s evangelical, catechetical, and sanctifying missions. In the popular mind, an authoritarian political regime, the Papal States, was identified with “the Church.” That was not only theologically dubious; such a close identification had corrosive spiritual effects, as clerical corruption and incompetence made preaching the Gospel in an increasingly secular environment even more difficult.

Moreover, the very fact of clerical mayors and governors undercut the Church’s teaching that the priest is an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, who, in John 6:15, flatly rejected temporal kingship. To make matters worse, the pope, as absolute monarch of a Grade-D European power, too often found himself in the position of having to make an international alliance with one Catholic country against other Catholic countries – thereby compromising his primary mission as universal pastor of the Church.

Catholicism is blessedly rid of all that. The sesquicentennial of the end of the Papal States is a moment to ponder the workings of divine providence in history, including the divine capacity to write straight with what may seem, at the time, crooked lines. It certainly isn’t an occasion for grief.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.