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The providential demise of the Papal States

Civil governance of a considerable territory by a clerical caste had, over time, proven an obstacle to Catholicism’s evangelical, catechetical, and sanctifying missions.

Pope Pius IX in a photo taken c. 1864. (Image: Wikipedia)

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.

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About George Weigel 438 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Well, I agree with Evelyn Waugh that it is good that the Church is rid of the Papal States.

    But more to the Pontiff by, it seems rather odd, verging on a complete distraction, that Mr. Weigel opts to tilt at this windmill. Is there some move afoot to re-conquer the Papal States, that we must oppose?

    If Mr. Weigel is concerned that the Papal States were a temptation to serve Mammon instead of God, that seems a reasonable general concern.

    Perhaps Mr. Weigel might update his list of concerns by considering the current “near occasion of sin” involving the idolatry of Mammon in The Church, that being our contemporary Church prioritization of the Secretariat of State, and the demotion if the Congregation for the Faith, done by Pope Paul VI, himself a career-long member of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

    And Mr. Weigel might bring his concerns right up to date by contemplating the super-authority now assigned to the corrupt Secretariat of State, given to the repulsive Cardinal Parolin, by the shape-shifting Pontiff Francis.

    But why oppose big and real corruption if the Church, when you can occupy yourself with twaddle about non-existent problems?

      • Samton:

        I appreciate your apology on behalf of Mr. Weigel.

        It is, apparently, a nagging thought for at least one author and perhaps one reader that there were problems with the Papal States.

        Perhaps this article will be a one part series…

  2. The Papacy’s role in politics, in order to safeguard Catholics’ right to worship, needs to be free from all other motives and therefore, limited to religious issues. Perhaps the backlash the present Pope has witnessed due to his silence in the face of repression of the sacrifice of the mass and other sacraments during the pandemic is another redirection from God to “make straight our paths”. This would also include his silence on matters of China’s persecution of people of all faiths, human trafficking, pedophilia, marriage other than between a man and a woman and other blatant issues conflicting with the traditional teaching of the Catholic church. One can still love our brothers and sisters under all circumstances without compromising our beliefs in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  3. We read: “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.’”

    UNPACKING this line: vastly outnumbered (12,000 to 60,000), on Sept. 19 Pope Pius IX wrote to his General Kanzler:

    “As regards the duration of the defense, I feel it my duty to command that this shall only consist in such a protest as shall testify to the violence done to me, and nothing more. In other words, that negotiation for surrender shall be opened as soon as a breach shall have been made”(John Francis Maguire, Pontificate of Pius the Ninth, London: Longmans, 1870).

    And as for the continuity of Vatican I with the later Vatican II (e.g., the hierarchical communion of “papal infallibility,” with “collegiality” in Lumen Gentium), in a Bull dated Oct. 20, 1870, the Pope wrote:

    “…we […] do SUSPEND [not adjourn] the [Ecumenical Council] until some more convenient and appropriate time, to be assigned by this Apostolic See, praying God, the author and defender of His Church, when all impediments shall have been finally removed, to restore to His faithful bride, as soon as possible, liberty and peace.”

    With Vatican II, Pope John XXIII picked up where the disrupted Vatican I left off, now in a violently changed world of carnivorous ideologies. But a serpentine malignancy persists, as will always be the case, as from the ANTI-COUNCIL of FREE-THINKERS convened in Naples in 1870 on the same opening day (!) as Vatican I itself. The extravagant Anti-Council/Masonic agenda:

    “…whereas, the idea of God is the source and the support of every despotism and of every iniquity […] to ‘abolish Catholicity promptly and radically [….] Our programme has for its basis the denial of God, the suppression of all authority and over every religious idea. Religion is the chief and most ancient source of all our sufferings, and the instrument by which, in every age, sovereigns have enslaved the people. God is only a chimera, the pedestal of every despotism; and this chimera must be destroyed before we can obtain liberty” (ibid.).

  4. What world are you living in George? Power politics and international diplomacy have never stopped being the premier concern in the Vatican with or without the loss of the papal states. The Secretary of State is still the most powerful post in the Vatican, not anything doctrinal or missionary. There are numerous examples that refute your assertion that this somehow freed the Church. I will name a few;

    The failure to condemn communism during Vatican II for diplomatic reasons despite it being the most requested topics in the preparatory phase and having 500 council fathers signing a petition requesting it.

    John Paul II’s actions on the international political stage to undermine the communist block.

    Pope Francis is likely the most political Pope in recent memory, specifically working to undermine Donald Trump and addressing the UN without even mentioning Jesus.

  5. So what if instead of the Lateran Treaty for Vatican City another treaty had been struck prior for upholding the Papal States and this territory had been turned over to faithful Catholic laity to govern leaving a Vatican City for the Pope so insulated by faithful Catholics but concerning itself with only spiritual matters. Does Mr. Weigel think that such an option (say a large “Benedict Option”) would also be detrimental to the papacy and the Church. If successful and extensive evangelization (something Mr. Weigel is always for) in Italy created such a community today around the area of the Vatican – would it be a bad thing for the papacy and the Church? Just wondering…

  6. Weigel avoids the proposition condemned by the Syllabus of Errors – that losing its temporal power would be good for the Church – by a hair, since he says at least Vatican City is necessary.

    But there is no evidence that the Church has gained in spiritual influence either since or because of losing the Papal States.

    Weigel says this loss left the Church “unencumbered by the sometimes shabby compromises inherent in governing a state and playing European power politics.”

    The more specific the claim, the more obviously spurious it becomes: Who will dare argue that today’s Vatican does not make shabby compromises with various states (I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by offering the obvious example)?

  7. I recall a good Catholic friend– a NASA scientist now deceased– saying that Garibaldi should have been canonized! For doing the Church the great favor of bringing an end to the Papal States. I agree with the sentiment; though I suppose the Devil’s Advocate would have had an easy time of it if the “cause” of Guiseppe Garibaldi were ever advanced.

  8. I for one still mourn the loss of the Papal States. History shows that Bl. Pius lX was devastated from the theft. When Pope Pius Xl signed the Lateran Treaty in 1925, the Church still claimed the Papal States as the Land of the Church. We got lucky that the enemy went ahead and left Vatican City to the Church, they coveted that too. Pope Pius Xl made it clear before signing the Treaty, “It is only to stop the bloodshed that I am signing. A theft is never justified!!!” He didn’t whisper it. We may like to think how glorious it was for the Papal States to be sinfully stolen. But do we likewise wonder what things would have been like today if this sinful act of thievery, of a land Christ intended for His Church had not been annexed. I can think of three good things, those in the Papal States may not have suffered during WWl nor WWll, as the Church remained Neutral. More Jewish lives would have been saved during the latter. But the sinful theft cost the lives of many even long after the theft.

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