This article traces the fascinating manner in which the Roman Church, losing its lands and temporal power fought back through 59 years to regain it, together with a great revision of its image.

Lightning intermittently illuminated the gathering gloom in the basilica of St Peter. Thunder punctuated the declaration of papal infallibility in Rome on 18 July 1870 as Vatican Council I drew to a climax. When this doctrine was put to the vote, 533 supported the proposition; only two voted against it. Over 100 absented themselves from the Council that day, many bitterly opposed to the doctrine but fearful of the consequences of being seen to refute it. Several hundred evidently fallible bishops, theologians and clerics determined that their leader was infallible!

The storm accompanying this monstrously arrogant act presented a stark and ominous contrast to the heavenly response to our Lord’s declaration of his own humility (see Matthew 3: 17.) And storm clouds were gathering elsewhere in Europe. The storm that day may have been sudden, but the declaration of papal infallibility was not a sudden development. It was the logical outworking of a process that started in the Middle Ages. More particularly, however, it was the inevitable outcome of the work of the reigning Pope Pius IX.

“Pio Nino”—Pope Pius IX and His Significance

Pius IX ascended the Papal throne (and donned the triple tiara that spoke of the Papal supplanting of three kingdoms in ancient times—see Daniel 7:20) in 1846. He reigned until his death, aged 86, in 1878. As a Cardinal he acquired a reputation as a progressive and, coming to the throne at a time when Europe was experiencing great social and political tensions, many expected him to be a ‘liberal’ Pope. Those expectations proved baseless. On 9 November in the first year of his pontificate he issued an encyclical which declared his infallibility in matters dealing with faith and morals. The same letter also spoke of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, as “immaculata”, thus heralding his proclamation eight years later in 1854 of the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary.

In 1848, as revolution threatened to engulf Europe, Pius IX granted a constitution for the Papal States. Fear of the revolutionaries prompted the Pope to flee to Naples late in 1848. He returned to Rome under French protection in 1850, but failed to restore the constitution. Throughout the 1850’s Pius IX embarked on religious and political strategies designed to prop up the Papacy. The proclamation of the immaculate conception of Mary on 6 December 1854 was complemented in the political arena by concordats with Spain in 1851 and Austria in 1855. He also re-established the Catholic hierarchy that had been swept away by the Reformation in Britain (1850) and Holland (1853).

As the tide of unification gathered strength in Italy under the revolutionary socialist Garibaldi in the early 1860s, Pius IX responded by publishing on 6 December 1864 (the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the immaculate conception) the Syllabus Errorum. That document criticised 80 errors that were prominent in the modern world. It was designed to counter the liberal political beliefs men like Garibaldi were promulgating, but it also reconfirmed the dogma of the immaculate conception and reiterated the Pope’s infallibility in matters dealing with faith and morals.

Vatican Council I

Two days before issuing the Syllabus Errorum the Pope spoke of his intention to convene a general council of the Church. This came to fruition five years later when Vatican Council I opened on 6 December 1869—the anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the immaculate conception and of the Syllabus Errorum. It was no coincidence that these three significant steps occurred on the same date; they were part of a grand plan to promote and extend Papal authority in the face of a rising tide of political and religious freedom that swept across Europe in the nineteenth century.

The Council ran from December 1869 to October 1870. It made a number of decisions known as the Vatican Decrees of 1870; the most significant of these was the assertion of Papal infallibility. What started as a policy to prop up the temporal authority of the Pope was in fact too late to prevent the demise of the Papal States as then constituted. It did, however, lay the foundation for a remarkable resuscitation some 59 years later. Papal infallibility was proclaimed on 18 July 1870. On the same day Prussia declared war on France. As a consequence the French garrison that had been propping up the Pope’s authority was withdrawn in August and on 20 September the Italian army conquered Rome. A plebiscite on 2 October resulted in the city being annexed to Italy. Pius IX and his successors until 1929 refused to acknowledge the authority of the Italian annexation and regarded themselves as prisoners in the Vatican. Despite these quite phenomenal reverses, the Papacy “repented not” (Rev 16:11) but rather blasphemed God by a declaration of infallibility.

Conflict Between the Horns and the Whore

Italy was not the only state with which the Papacy was at odds. Promulgation of the dogma of Papal infallibility aroused considerable resentment among the governments of Europe. Relations with France and Austria became strained; Austria repudiated the concordat of 1855. In Germany opposition to the Vatican Decrees, led primarily by Bismarck, became embodied in a word—Kulturkampf (“conflict of beliefs”).

Quite correctly, Bismarck feared that the decrees emanating from the Vatican Council implied the Church was asserting a prior claim to the State on the obedience of the citizen. He became even more alarmed when Catholic interests established the Centre Party in Germany in 1871 to defend Catholic rights against the predominantly Protestant Prussian leadership (the last parliamentary leader of this party was von Papen, Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and Vice-Chancellor under Hitler in 1933–4.)

Under the Kulturkampf, priests throughout the German Empire were forbidden to refer to politics from the pulpit and the Jesuits were expelled. In Prussia many priests were imprisoned when they refused to submit to state control. Bismarck’s policy was motivated by a correct assessment of the Papal intentions but it proved unsustainable. After the death of Pius IX Germany negotiated with his successor, Leo XIII, and by 1887 had restored most of the Church’s rights in Germany. Pius IX may have died, but even from the grave his juggernaut was unstoppable even by Bismarck!

Brother Roberts anticipated that the degradation and humiliation of Rome that he had witnessed in 1870 would be reversed. Ten years later in 1880, when commenting on Revelation 17:16, he wrote, “The Church has been hated of the Governments; her flesh has been nearly eaten off her bones, and they have burnt her with a fire of war. But a reaction in her favour may be looked for as the end approaches. When Christ appears on the scene the powers rally round her; for the false prophet is found in their camp, as their inspirer and ecclesiastical leader.” (Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse)

The easing of tensions between the Papacy and the governments of Europe was due to the liberal policies of Leo XIII. The Papacy had been a reactionary force opposed to national self determination. Leo XIII, however, now sought to mollify concerns about clerical interference in politics. In France, for instance, Roman Catholics had actively opposed the Republican regime, but in the 1890’s Leo XIII began to preach that they should accept and work with the regime. In 1905 the church lifted its ban against participation in Italian politics. Throughout Europe and elsewhere Roman Catholics were beginning to become more and more involved in politics not as outright opponents of the state but within the systems in place in each nation.

Rerum Novarum, on the Conditions of the Working Classes

In Britain, Germany and elsewhere during the nineteenth century many Protestants became concerned about social justice and felt that the church had an obligation to address oppression and injustice in the world. Early in the century men like Lord Shaftesbury had led the campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Later men like Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes established the Christian Socialist movement. These developments coincided with a time when humanism and so-called rationalist forces were challenging the authority of the Bible and organised religion. Movements like Christian Socialism were seen as a way of making Christianity more relevant and appealing in that more sceptical age.

Leo XIII, although head of his own oppressive system, also recognised that he might bolster support for Romanism if he spoke out in favour of the lower classes. In 1891 he issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the conditions of the working classes. He spoke of the need to respect workers and to protect their dignity and rights. But the encyclical was not just about the rights of man. It also sought to promote the authority of the Church. It included these words: “All Catholics must make themselves felt as active elements in daily political Feature – The Papacy life in countries where they live. All Catholics should exert their power to cause the Constitutions of States to be modelled on the principles of the Church.” The Catholic political parties that began to be established throughout the world from this time were able to build on the teachings of this encyclical to develop a platform that was to prove remarkably successful in the twentieth century, although, ironically, not in Italy until after World War II. Again, the Papacy can be clearly seen as adapting policy to the new democratic world.

“I Sit a Queen, and am no Widow”

The rhetoric of Rerum Novarum and Leo XIII’s political pragmatism should not be mistaken as signs of a fundamental shift in Papal aspirations. The Papacy retained its conviction that it was preeminent in the world. When Leo died in 1903, Pius X succeeded him. In 1895 that man, when Archbishop of Venice, had said, “The Pope is not only the representative of Jesus Christ, but he is Jesus Christ Himself hidden under the veil of the flesh. Does the Pope speak? It is Jesus Christ who speaks. Does the Pope accord a favour or pronounce an anathema? It is Jesus Christ who pronounces the anathema or accords the favour. So that when the Pope speaks we have no business to examine. We have only to obey. We have no right to criticise his decisions or discuss his commands. Therefore everyone who would wear the crown ought to submit himself to divine right” (quoted in The Catholic National, July 1895).

When speaking of how the temporal power of the Pope would be restored, the English Cardinal Manning (1808–1892) made an ominous prediction. “There is only one solution… and that is the terrible scourge of a continental war, a war which will exceed the horrors of any of the wars of the First Empire. And it is my firm conviction that, in spite of all obstacles, the Vicar of Jesus Christ (ie the Pope) will be put again in his own rightful place. But that day will not be until his adversaries have crushed each other with mutual destruction” (quoted in Apocalypse and History, 1969 edition, page 203.) Like Caiaphas in John 11:49–52, Manning could not have realised how prophetic were these words. A quarter of a century after his death they were fulfilled in the horror and carnage of World War I, after which, moves to restore the Pope’s temporal authority, gathered momentum.

Benedict XV became Pope in 1914 and reigned until 1922. On 3 June 1920 he issued an encyclical expressing thanks for the cessation of the war. The letter went on to signal a significant change in Papal policy. The British Daily Mail of 2 June 1920 reported: “The Pope expresses the opinion that the fraternisation of peoples can be greatly helped by the exchange of visits between heads of States and Governments, and for this reason he declares that he would not be averse from mitigating the rigour of the conditions justly established by his predecessors after the destruction of the Principate of the Holy See (ie temporal power of the Pope) with the object of preventing Catholic sovereigns visiting Rome officially. But he affirms that this relaxation must not be interpreted as a tacit renunciation of sacrosanct rights.”

Benedict’s encyclical opened the door to reconciliation between the Holy See and the Italian state. Since 1870 Popes had regarded themselves as prisoners in the Vatican, surrounded by a hostile power they refused to accept. The change announced in Benedict’s letter was pursued by his successor, Pius XI. He became Pope in 1922, the same year in which Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister of Italy, and reigned until 1939. Early in his pontificate he reorganised the bureaucracy of the church and these reforms prepared it for its new role in the modern world.

Like the Nazis in Germany in the 1930’s, Mussolini acquired power through wholly legitimate constitutional means and then proceeded to destroy the democratic process and structures. He abolished parliament and persecuted his opponents. Soon after assuming power Mussolini began to court the Church. No doubt feeling quite at home with the Fascist party, the Pope seized his opportunity. Abandoning support for the Populari, or Christian Democrats, the nominally Catholic political party, Pius XI switched to Mussolini, describing him as “the man sent by Providence”. Their union was consummated by the signing in 1929 of the Lateran Treaties. These documents established the Vatican City as an independent sovereign state and also bestowed a massive cash settlement on the church in compensation for Catholic property seized since 1870. The Pope was no longer a prisoner, but an active player once more on the world stage—a Queen and no widow!