Monday, April 9, 2012
Defending the Papal States
When it comes to the Papal States there has been a great deal of misunderstanding on the subject, partly because a great deal of misinformation has been purposely spread in order to discredit the Papal States and the Catholic Church in general. Probably the first and most prominent is the supposedly spurious “Donation of Constantine”. This refers to a document which Catholics long pointed to as the basis for the Papal States in which the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great ceded control of Rome and pretty much the entire Western Roman Empire to the Pope. For many years this was cited as the basis for all papal claims to temporal authority but, as I’m sure everyone knows, historians (including Catholic historians) now believe this to have been a forged document. Some have tried to make a scandal out of this but it really is nothing more than a nuisance and it does not finally matter what sort of arrangement there was between Emperor Constantine and the Pope or if there was no arrangement at all. When the Western Roman Empire began to collapse the Catholic Church assumed many of the temporal responsibilities of the state simply because they were the only stable, surviving institution around capable of doing so. It may for a time have been considered useful by the Church in avoiding the temporal control of the Eastern Roman Empire but, if so, that reason fell along with the Eastern Roman Empire itself in the course of history.
Today the Papal States are rarely looked at with any degree of dispassionate honesty. Personal prejudices almost invariably taint any account of what life was like in the Papal States. On one side there are those who paint the Papal States as a horribly backward place full of oppressed, downtrodden and fearful people held in the merciless grip of corrupt and uncaring clerics. On the other side there are those who paint the Papal States as a veritable paradise on earth with virtually no problems or difficulties, full of happy, devout Catholics tending their fields and saying their prayers watched over with shepherd-like kindness by thoughtful and compassionate priests. Not surprisingly the truth is neither of those, though (unpopular as it may be today to say so) the “paradise on earth” version is probably just slightly closer to reality than the “hell on earth” depiction. Obviously, secularists or anti-Catholics try to make the Papal States look as bad as possible because it fits their agenda. However, some Catholics hesitate to defend them because the idea of the Pope presiding over a temporal government (collecting taxes, putting people in jail and all that goes with it) is so alien to what they are used to today. A dispassionate look at the Papal States show a place that, for much of its history, was not terribly different from most other states in Western Europe and which certainly had plenty of problems and causes for some embarrassment but was also not a place where people were terribly miserable or living in constant fear of the Roman Inquisition.
It is hardly fair, for example, for someone to point to the licentious and libertine reign of Pope Alexander VI, who was content to let people do as they pleased and largely did as he pleased as well, only to then criticize someone like Pope Gregory XVI for putting people in prison for immoral behavior, writing blasphemous things about the Church or publicly spreading sedition. Yet, that seems to be all too common with the clerical rulers of the Papal States being condemned for hypocrisy if they are lenient or being condemned as theocratic tyrants when they enforce Church teachings. Well, I’m sorry folks but as much as some people today might like to pretend, the fact of the matter is that you cannot have a truly “Christian” government that also gives everyone the freedom to live their lives in any way they choose. And to be more specific, you probably shouldn’t expect a great deal of “liberty” when your Church/State includes a ban on “impure thoughts”. Again, once upon a time, this was nothing special but in the post-revolutionary world it quickly began to stand out as something out of the ordinary. However, it could, perhaps, be taken by the Catholic Church as some sort of compliment that the world continues to be “outraged” at anything less than perfection on the part of Catholics in authority.
The people of the Papal States were also, on the whole, fairly content. As the uprising that led to the Roman Republic of 1849 demonstrates, there was enough dissatisfaction to make a considerable number of people susceptible to the rhetoric of revolutionary firebrands. However, it is important to note as well, those firebrands were almost entirely from outside the Papal States and once the initial orgy of violence and sacrilege was over the more moderate majority was quick to reassert their continued attachment to the Catholic Church. The fact is that, while far from perfect, the Papal States were not the terrible place so many today seem to think. No state can function for over a thousand years without being well-run and competently managed. Nor could any state survive for so long if the people were being deprived of the necessities of life. At many points in history, Rome and the Papal States were chaotic (even forcing the Pope to go on an extended vacation in southern France at one point) but at other times Papal Rome was a more magnificent city than existed anywhere in the world. Great works of music, art and architecture were created in the Papal States under the patronage of the Roman Pontiffs. The world would be the worse off without these many and invaluable contributions which would not have been possible without the Papal States.