Monday, April 9, 2012

Defending the Papal States

The Papal States fall into that gray area that some have a hard time categorizing. Some monarchists (Catholic as well as Protestant, though I should probably say “Catholic” in such a case) do not consider the Papal States a monarchy and so feel no need to defend them. Most would not expect a Protestant to do so in any case. The Papal States, they say, were a theocracy, not a monarchy and thus are not to be categorized with other monarchies. I, obviously, would say otherwise. I would term the Papal States as a “theocratic monarchy” but a monarchy nonetheless. Popes had traditionally been regarded as monarchial figures by the other crowned heads of Europe, having all the trappings of any other monarchy but with the added role of “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, Successor of St Peter” etc. Some have also pointed to the fact that the Pope is elected as a disqualifier. However, the Holy Roman Emperors were elected (technically), the Kings of Poland were elected and so on. Additionally, unlike some other theocracies, the ruler of the Papal States -the Pope- based his authority on being the spiritual (rather than hereditary) successor of St Peter, so there was a legitimate succession that was of immense importance just as Apostolic Succession is paramount in the Catholic Church in general. So, to my mind, there has never been any doubt about the Papal States being a variety of monarchy and having nothing at all in common with, for example, the theocracy in Iran which not only calls itself a republic but goes through the regular ritual of electing a non-clerical president as the (alleged) leader of the government.

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.

We do know that the Frankish king Pepin the Short made a donation of land to Pope Stephen II, who had earlier named Pepin a Patrician of Rome, and that this was later clarified and solidified under the Emperor Charlemagne, giving the Pope temporal control over the city of Rome and much of central Italy which would be under his exclusive control but which was also at least originally intended to be a sort of protectorate of the Holy Roman Empire, first of the Franks and later of the Germans. Of course, as most know, there was ambiguity about this almost from day one and was part of the reason for the long conflict known as the “Investiture Dispute” and so on as the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor tried to work out where the powers of each began and ended. It also did not help that the Holy Roman Emperor was always a German, the Pope was usually an Italian and traditionally there was not a great deal of love lost between the Germans and the Italians. Eventually though it became clear and universally accepted that the Papal States were a fully independent and sovereign realm under the exclusive authority of the Roman Pontiff and answerable to no other. Although there was no clear start or “founding” for the Papal States, they certainly had staying power. If one takes the first Donation of Pepin as a starting point they existed from 754 to 1870 or roughly 1,116 years though by the end of that time they had been reduced to the city of Rome itself.

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.

Starting with the bad news first, it is true that the Papal States had many of the problems enemies of the Church often point to, they simply did not exist in anywhere near the proportion of the exaggerated claims made by these people. In the Papal States, yes, it goes without saying, there was no democracy, no freedom of religion, no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech and so on and so forth. For most of the history of the Papal States no one else had any of those freedoms either, the Papal States simply maintained the traditional, simpler method of government longer than pretty much anyone else in Western Europe. It is also true that, over the many centuries and the many different Pontiffs, things changed considerably from one pontificate to another. Some popes were very strict about maintaining public morality and enforcing Church law to the letter while others were content to more or less let people live as they pleased, offering advice of course, but taking the attitude that ‘it’s your soul to lose’. This also reveals the rather hypocritical double-standard of many of the critics of the Papal States.

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.

There is no doubt that people today would find the Papal States terribly oppressive. If you worked on a feast day, missed confession or spoke out in favor of an elected, secular government you would be hauled off to prison or the Roman Inquisition. Naturally, people used to the world of today would recoil at the very idea but then in the world of today something as simple as a Christmas tree in a public building elicits cries of “theocracy!” so most are probably absolutely incapable at this point of having a mature, dispassionate view of a country where religious doctrines are the law of the land. However, it must be stressed again and again that the people in the Papal States were not living in misery. By modern standards of living, unless you were a prince (secular or spiritual), you would be considered poor. That does not mean that people were starving and living in squalor. The people in the Papal States, on the whole, produced enough to satisfy their needs (they had their ‘daily bread’ if you like), were not terribly concerned with political matters and were largely sincere and devout Catholics who did not view their clerical leaders as oppressive or burdensome. Were there problems? Yes. Were there abuses? Yes. Could the same be said for any country under any sort of government anywhere in the world? Yes.

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.


  1. The complaints against the Papal States are not really about the specific episode criticised. People have decided in advance that the Papal States were Evil, and then set about looking for excuses to justify this outrage. Atheists do this a lot with the Bible or Christianity. EG, they will criticise Christians for killing pagan Cultures only to quote Gibbons and complain that Christian pacifism made the Roman Empire unable to defend itself thus causing it to fall. The complaints contradict each other but, they both take shots at the same target so are valid. The same actually exists in a Republic. Look at Bush, literally everything he ever did was criticised. The same can b said of Obama. While I am not saying that there can be no legitimate criticism o these things, it does seem apparent that the Criticism is rooted in an attempt at justifying animosity rather than being its actual source. People want to prove how oppressive and Evil theocracy is because we are conditioned to think its the worst Governmental form ever, even worse than Monarchy. We imagine Iran, or Osama Ben Laden as our picture of what Theocracy means and pretty well just try to make the reality fit the image. People want their Paradigms to be true so try to fit what they se in the real world around it, rather than question their assumptions about the world.

    I agree that, while not a traditional hereditary Monarchy, the papal States were a monarchy. I personally don’t mind an appointed figure as a head of State, in some instances. I also don’t think claims to the contrary hold up, given that the Pope was listed as a King in Europe by all other Governments.

    I also don’t think the Papal States were that bad, and in fact they were superior to the horrific Communist experiment, Revolutionary France, or I’d even say than Modern Italy. You didn’t have the Governmental breakdowns or the Papal States going completely bankrupt, did you?

  2. The Papal States is one of those reasons why I have mixed feelings about Italian unification. Of course, it was great having all of Italy united under the Savoy crown, and it was a remarkable and glorious achievement, but on the other hand, having to topple all the smaller kingdoms and duchies to bring it about made it sort of bittersweet.

    The Papal States presents a bigger issue than others - you can't be a good Catholic without thinking that it was more than a little sacrilegious to overthrow the Pope's government and take all of his land - that's one ethical conflict that didn't exist with the Two Sicilies.

    I guess it had to happen, but it would have been nice if it could have happened another way, whatever that would be.

    1. A point that makes a difference with me was those states all had the option, and the chance, to cooperate in unification and survive but chose not to. The Papal States is the most "difficult" (and why it was the last) because there is no getting around what it was -an invasion and occupation. I do think (as many did at the time throughout Italy) that if the Savoy army had not come in the eventual outcome would have been a republic -which was the last thing most sane people wanted.

      There was nothing "wrong" with the Papal States, as I said above, but when you look at history the Papal States were rather 'out of time' and though (I stress) there was nothing wrong with the Papal States, having them was not always good for "the Church" as a whole. The Papal domain was never large enough to be truly independent, it always required another foreign power or powers to defend them and this meant that her larger neighbors (usually Austria and France) had to be constantly played off against each other so that neither could threaten Rome. This went on to the very end and was partly to blame for the Renaissance Popes not taking more decisive action against the birth of Lutheranism. Because the Popes had to play the game of political chess they sometimes had to take actions with were to the detriment of the Church as a whole or in certain countries in order to safeguard their own independence in Rome -something which was vital and still is today.

      It doesn't bother me though. Since 1929 both sides made peace and if the Papacy is content I see no reason to make a fuss. However, I do wish the Pope would have been a little more realistic and accepted the King's first offer for control of all of Rome on the right bank of the Tiber or within the Leonine Walls. Had that been done so many Vatican offices and embassies would not have to reside on what is technically foreign soil.


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