The Church was born into a political world and, like the individual Christian, was challenged to be “in the world” but not “of the world.” Debate concerning how much the Church should be “in the world” has been consistent throughout Church history, up to the present day. But in nineteenth-century Italy, where nationalist elements sought unification at the expense of papal territory, it was less “a debate” and more “troops marching through Rome,” culminating in the end of the Papal States.
It may surprise modern-day Catholics to hear that the pope has been a political ruler for more years than not during the 2,000-year history of the Church. As the political world in the West dramatically changed at the end of the fifth century with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church, and specifically the papacy, became more involved in secular political affairs.
Political power in Europe devolved away from a central bureaucratic imperial regime in Rome to local areas governed by various ethnically Germanic military rulers. The Church was a multi-regional institution organized by the Roman imperial diocesan structure, with bishops exercising spiritual as well as political authority. The bishop of Rome grew in secular influence and authority during this time, as exhibited by the great pontificates of Leo I (r. 440-461) and Gregory I (r. 590-604). In the seventh century, the popes found themselves frequently in difficult political positions, especially with the Eastern emperor in Constantinople. And in the mid-eighth century, the political situation changed radically, when, in 749, a delegation from the mayor of the palace from the Kingdom of Franks visited Pope Zachary (r. 741-752).
As mayor of the palace, Pepin (c. 714-768), son of the famous warrior Charles Martel, ruled in the Kingdom of Franks with power and authority—but not title, since he was not the king. The Merovingian dynasty had ruled the kingdom since the fifth century, but the vitality of the first king, Clovis, had waned in his successors. Pepin sent the delegation to Pope Zachary with a political question: who should be considered king? The man born with title but little actual authority, or the man who wielded actual power?
The pope responded by acknowledging that the king should be the one who exercised actual power and authority. Pepin used the papal answer as justification for overthrowing King Childerich III and assuming the throne as King of the Franks. A few years later, a new pope, Stephen II (r. 752-757), travelled to the land of the Franks (the first pope to do so) and anointed Pepin king and titled the Frankish kings “Patrician of the Romans”—in effect, “Protectors of the Pope.”
Pope Stephen desired Frankish miliary aid to deal with the ferocious Lombards wreaking havoc in Italy, and Pepin responded to the papal plea. The Franks conquered land from the Lombards, but Pepin did not keep the new territory for himself. Instead, he donated it to the pope, who was now a true secular ruler with specific lands (mostly area in Central Italy) to govern.
This “Patrimony (or Republic) of St. Peter” is better known in history as the Papal States. The spiritual power of the papacy was now intertwined with temporal power, which created a dichotomy in papal attention for the next thousand years, with some popes predominantly focused on spiritual matters, but others engrossed with matters of state.
The next several centuries of papal history were a mixed bag concerning the Papal States, with times of peace and prosperity intermingled with war and devastation. The disintegration of the Carolingian Empire placed the Papal States at the mercy of noble Roman families who treated the papacy as their personal plaything. The eleventh century witnessed the nasty political Investiture Controversy, which led to German armies rampaging through papal territory.
Continued conflict with German kings and their desire for the imperial title produced political tension, warfare, loss of territory, and aggravation for popes throughout the medieval period. A series of temporally minded pontiffs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, known collectively as the Renaissance popes, turned the Papal States into an area of corruption, immorality, and iniquity.
By the pontificate of Julius II (r. 1503-1513), the papacy had lost significant amounts of territory to foreign kings. Julius spent large amounts of Church revenue assembling armies, which, at times, he led in battle to reconquer lost papal territory. The “Warrior Pope” succeeded in securing the Papal States for the next several centuries, but papal control of the areas and papal exercise of temporal political power waned significantly in the eighteenth century with the rise of Napoleon and the French Empire.
A French army conquered Italy in 1798, which led to the loss of the Papal States and the arrest, imprisonment, and exile of Pope Pius VI (r. 1755-1799) to France, where he died in captivity. Peace between the Church and Napoleon was achieved with the Concordat of 1801, but when Napoleon once again annexed the Papal States to the French Empire in 1809, Pope Pius VII (r. 1800-1823) excommunicated the tyrant. Napoleon demanded that the pope hand over control of papal territory, and when Pius refused, the French emperor ordered his capture, removal to France, and imprisonment.
The Papal States were returned to the Church at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but events over the next half-century radically altered the political landscape of Europe and led to the permanent loss of papal political control over Central Italy.
In 1846, the fifty-five-year-old Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti was elected pope, taking the name Pius IX (r. 1846-1878). He was the youngest pope in centuries, had a jovial personality, and produced the longest reign (outside St. Peter) in papal history. Pius IX reigned during tumultuous times as revolutionary groups sought political change throughout Europe. In 1848, many European nations experienced political upheaval as democratic and socialist forces demanded governmental changes. Nationalist groups in Italy sought Italian unification (known as Risorgimento), which the existence of the Papal States prevented.
Pius IX allowed some political concessions within papal territory, but his openness to further change ceased in November, when the prime minister of Rome, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was murdered in the pope’s presence by a revolutionary assassin. Mobs formed outside the Quirinal Palace in Rome, demanding democratic reforms in the Papal States, the calling of a constitutional assembly, proclamation of Italian nationality, and the separation of temporal and spiritual powers. Pius IX refused these demands, which produced rioting and violence. The untenable situation caused the pope to flee Rome, disguised as an ordinary priest, for Naples, where he remained for the next two years.
Pius IX called on the Catholic powers of Europe to restore order and peace in papal territory, which led to the arrival of French troops in Rome in the summer of 1849. Pius returned to the Eternal City but took residence in the Vatican instead of the Quirinal.
Despite the papal return and presence of French troops in Rome, Italian nationalists gained strength and momentum throughout the next several decades. Areas of papal territory seceded from papal control so that by the end of the 1860s, the pope could claim only Rome and its surrounding areas. When the Franco-Prussian War erupted (during the First Vatican Council) in 1870, the French forces guarding Rome left, which paved the way for nationalist Italian forces to enter the city on September 20.
A month later, Rome was declared the capital of the new unified Italian nation, effectively ending the Papal States. Pope Pius IX refused to recognize the new Italian nation and declared himself a “prisoner in the Vatican.” He withheld the annual Urbi et Orbi (to the City and the World) blessing for the remainder of his pontificate. And the odd political situation between the papacy and the nation of Italy (known as the “Roman Question”) remained until the Lateran Treaty in 1929 established the Vatican City-State as a sovereign political entity ruled by the pope.
The loss of the Papal States is considered by some to be a positive and defining moment in Church history, as it ceased papal preoccupation with the exercise of political power and led to greater spiritual focus and authority. Regardless, the history of the papacy and the Papal States remain a source of attack by critics of the Faith and require careful study by modern Catholics and apologists seeking to defend the Church.