Catholic urban legends are usually based on historical realities—the Crusades, the inquisition, the wartime papacy of Pope Pius XII—but realities that are twisted and falsified. The truth becomes lost in the propaganda, and our collective cultural understanding of the past involving the Catholic Church becomes nothing more than conventional wisdom formed by centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda.
But there is another form of Catholic urban legend as well: what might be called Catholic cultural amnesia. It is the collective historical amnesia about travesties committed against Catholics and the Catholic Church. A handful of examples serve: 300 years of an institutionalized police state in England aimed solely at Catholics; the murder of untold numbers of innocent priests and nuns in Spain in the 1930s by leftist forces; the Blaine Amendments that remain in 37 state constitutions in the United States legislated solely—albeit unsuccessfully—to destroy Catholic schools. The list goes on and on.
The final years of the Papal States offer a good example of this Catholic cultural amnesia. Mentioning the Papal States in polite company—Catholic or not—will likely elicit a puzzled look or at best a Catholic urban legend. The Papal States, according to the legend, were parts of Italy run by the pope as a medieval fiefdom until they disappeared when Italian patriots unified Italy in the 19th century. What the legend doesn’t say is that the Papal States were the oldest unified governed states in European history. What is also forgotten or ignored—the cultural amnesia—is that the Papal States were wiped out in an aggressive land grab while 19th-century Europe—and America—shrugged indifferently.
The Papal States were lands in the Italian peninsula that had been ruled by the Holy See for centuries. They can be directly traced to the eighth-century “Donation of Pepin,” a document promising the lands of central Italy, after their conquest, to the pope. But the States’ roots in the central Italian peninsula go back to the vacuum of leadership from the fourth to the eighth centuries as the Roman Empire’s authority collapsed in the West. The Church supplied what government existed as the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople found it harder and harder to exercise any real authority in the region.
It was this de facto papal rule that Pepin, the son of Charles Martel and the father of Charlemagne, recognized in 756. Varying in size, but always centered in Rome, the Papal States were ruled by succeeding popes as temporal sovereigns for the next 11 centuries.
But in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Papal States faced the beginning of the end.
Spiritual Authority, Temporal Rule
In 1796, the Papal States made up most of what we would call today central Italy, including Rome. A year later, Pope Pius VI was forced by invading French to accept the virtual destruction of the Papal States. French troops entered the city and Pius, terminally ill, was carted off as a prisoner. He died under French imprisonment in August 1799.
His successor, Pius VII, returned to Rome when Napoleon assumed complete power and appeared to moderate his position against the Church. Within a short time, however, Napoleon’s desire to become “King of All Italy” led to renewed French occupation of Rome and cannons aimed at the papal residence.
In July 1809, like his predecessor, Pius VII was arrested by French troops when he refused to abdicate as sovereign of the Papal States. Four years later, he was exiled to France. But with Napoleon’s defeat, Pius returned to Rome on May 24, 1814, welcomed as a living martyr. At the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic Wars, the Papal States were restored.
With the Papal States in disarray, Napoleon had dominated Pius; the holy father’s spiritual authority had been compromised. After the restoration of the States, free exercise of the papal ministry became equated in the Church with the freedom guaranteed by being a temporal ruler subject to no other ruler or nation.
Pius’ successors Leo XII (1823-1829) and Gregory XVI (1831-1846) faced this new world sternly. Pope Leo worked diligently—some would say harshly—to reestablish firm control over the Papal States and followed a diplomatic policy that supported the royal houses of Europe unquestioningly. Pope Gregory would carry this policy so far that he condemned a Polish Catholic uprising against the Russian czar who viciously persecuted the Polish church.
Nevertheless, in the changing European political climate, the Church faced severe challenges. The new, “liberal” regimes arising in Europe persecuted the Church: Church property was confiscated, religious orders suppressed, the Church banned from education. The government determined Church appointments; anti-clerical legislation was widespread. Papal authority to work with the bishops within the nation-states was also severely limited. Publication of papal edicts and encyclicals required government permission, which was routinely denied.
The Spirit of Revolt
In 1830, a revolution in France overthrew the Bourbon monarchy that had been reestablished at the Congress of Vienna. It was replaced by the so-called “Citizen King,” Louis Philippe, who ruled until overthrown in the revolution of 1848 that returned a Bonaparte to power.
This French revolution sparked uprisings in the Italian peninsula. Sentiment for a unified Italian state was growing amid the intellectual and anti-clerical classes. This was the birth of the risorgimento, the Italian reunification movement. The Papal States were considered the single critical obstacle to such unification.
The Italian peninsula at that time was hardly a single culture or a single people. The people of Italy had not been part of a single entity since the collapse of the Roman Empire. A conglomerate of independent and often warring states and cities, few people spoke Italian and the majority was fragmented into an incomprehensible Babel of tongues. The only thing they really shared was their Catholic faith.
But within weeks of Gregory’s election, the spirit of the new French revolution had ignited a fire across Europe. The Italian peninsula was infected as well, and rebels controlled many cities throughout the Papal States. Pope Gregory called on the Austrian government to help preserve the Papal States. Though successful in suppressing the rebellion, his action fed an anti-Catholic sentiment burgeoning throughout Europe and America. The Papal States became a symbol in Europe—unfairly when compared to most contemporary governments—of the worst in reactionary authority.
Meanwhile, revolutions were sweeping the continent. In 1848 Louis Philippe lost his throne in France, and rulers throughout the states of Germany faced uprisings. In a short time, the Italian peninsula was in flames once again.
The World vs. the Vatican
When war broke out in the north against the Austrians, Europeans hoped that Pope Pius IX would order papal troops to join the battle. He refused. Pius struggled over the next few months to maintain the integrity—and neutrality—of the Papal States against the Austrian army, while keeping civil peace within the Papal States. But mob violence soon exploded in Rome and a revolutionary government was imposed on the pope, who fled the Vatican for the protection of King Ferdinand of Naples.
Austrian troops now began to quell the rebellion. At that point, the French, now under the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon, invaded Rome and restored order to prevent Austrian occupation. Nine months later the pope returned.
After the revolutions were suppressed, Italians pinned their hopes for reunification on the northern kingdom of Piedmont. Only the Austrians—and the Papal States—stood in the way.
Anti-Catholic sentiment even reached America. Groups of exiles from the failed revolution raised a constant drumbeat against the allegedly repressive Papal States. When the papal nuncio Gaetano Bedini visited the United States, he was portrayed as the “Butcher of Bologna” for his actions against the revolutionaries in that part of the Papal States. Angry crowds greeted the nuncio in many places, and a full-scale riot occurred in Cincinnati. By the time Bedini quietly departed in 1854, most Americans were certain that he had arrived with a secret plot to relocate the papacy to America.
To prove itself a capable world leader to Europe, Piedmont now began to intensify its anti-Catholic legislative measures. It launched a widespread smear campaign to damage the credibility of papal rule. The pope’s reputation in Europe and America in particular was hurt by the rising influence of newspapers.
Pope Pius inadvertently fueled this hate campaign when he reestablished the British hierarchy in 1850. England viewed this as an act of subversion, triggering another round of “no-popery.” In 1856 England formally declared that the Papal States were a European scandal and demanded that Austrian and French troops be withdrawn.
The Vatican’s Prisoner
The propaganda spread by supporters of Italian unification, English anti-Catholicism, and a receptive audience in the United States helped to reinforce the image of an ancient, repressive regime crushing free-thinking revolutionaries to maintain its theocratic domination. This widespread perception helped ensure support for the Piedmont government’s naked land grab against an essentially defenseless Papal States.
France intervened to help drive the Austrians from their strongholds in northern Italy, and war broke out in 1859. Cities within the Papal States erupted in support of the popular war to oust the Austrians. Using the war as justification, Piedmont annexed much of the Papal States. In 1861, the king of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel, was declared king of an almost united Italy.
Thus ended, for all intents, the Papal States. Only Rome and a small strip of western Italy remained under papal control. Throughout Italy, the new Italian state poured salt on the wounds of the defeated papacy by continuing its war against the Church: Bishops were jailed, monasteries and Catholic schools suppressed, convents disbanded.
And Italy was now unified. The pope declared himself a “prisoner” and retreated to the Vatican.
We can certainly argue that the end of the Papal States, paradoxically, liberated the papacy, as the popes of the 20th century were recognized as leaders on an international scale. But the fact remains that after 11 centuries of rule, land rightfully belonging to the Catholic Church was confiscated in a raw exercise of power and propaganda. It was justified by anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism. And nobody ever seems to mention that today.