Not So Saintly?

14 minute read
David Van Biema

Officially the rite is called Recognition. On April 4, a delegation of bishops and monsignors in full regalia arrived at Rome’s Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. They descended to the 6th century cathedral’s crypt and were led to a white stone tomb. A casket was opened for them. At this point, wrote Monsignor Carlo Liberati of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, “there was a moment of profound and intense commotion.” The body within, that of 19th century Pope Pius IX, was “almost perfectly conserved.” Pius, known universally in Rome as Pio Nono, died in 1878. Yet here he was “in the beauty of his humanity, just as he is seen in the photographic documentation” of his deathbed, back when the entire city came “and admired the beautiful face of the Pontiff smiling in the sleep of death.” Although Pius’ face is now masked, Liberati’s observations suggest that the old Pope is smiling still.

If so, he is in a minority. The April exhumation cleared the way for Pio Nono’s beatification, scheduled for this Sunday. Beatification will confirm Pius’ “heroic virtue,” affirm a miracle (a nun’s broken kneecap healed) and encourage Catholics to venerate his remains, which will be transferred to a clear crystal casket. The next step will be canonization, or sainthood.

Although the Vatican will not admit it, Pio Nono is a last-minute substitution for a controversial successor, Pius XII. The beatification of the later Pius was to have balanced that of Pope John XXIII, the liberal hero who called the Second Vatican Council. The past 40 years, however, have seen an unabating storm of complaint that Pius XII did not do enough to oppose the Holocaust. Postponing Pius XII’s “cause” and replacing it with that of Pio Nono–also a conservative favorite–must have seemed a good idea at the time.

But in actuality the Vatican has exhumed far more than just a venerable body. “I am appalled that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a Pope who perpetuated…an act of unacceptable intolerance,” declared a professor named Elena Mortara in Rome. Pio Nono, it turns out, had a Jewish problem of his own. Mortara is the great-grandniece of Edgardo Mortara, who was taken from his Jewish parents at age six in 1858 by the papal police and raised–in part by Pius himself–as a Catholic. The incident typified Pius’ ham-fisted treatment of the Jews, and many feel his beatification contradicts Pope John Paul II’s embrace of that people and his apologies for their treatment by church members. Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Aharon Lopez, while stressing that beatification is a church “internal matter,” told TIME that Pius’ might have “implications” for Israeli-Vatican cooperation in “bridging difficult periods” of history.

Pius, in fact, is one of the modern church’s problematic giants. His papacy as a whole was far more controversial than Pius XII’s. He was the longest-serving Pope since St. Peter, reigning 32 years from 1846 to his death. He lost the Papal States, the Vatican’s worldly kingdom. He promulgated two of Catholicism’s most triumphal doctrines–the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and papal infallibility. He pioneered the papal personality movement that John Paul embodies so brilliantly. Many historians believe he created the modern papacy.

Yet some also think his narrowness crippled his church. Pius reigned just as the old order in the West was giving way to new notions of God, the state and the citizen. His response–a wholesale rejection of modernity–dominated Catholicism for almost a century after his death and continues to color its present. A true reactionary who saw the secular state, and indeed civil rights, as satanic manifestations, he made it difficult for generations of believers to claim intellectual independence or integrity. Says journalist-historian Garry Wills, who savages Pius in his best seller Papal Sins: “He was a disaster, and his influence has been bad ever since. If you beatify him now, there will be a whitewashing of him, which will involve the church in more dishonesty.” Pius is the heavy in the well-reviewed The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by Brown University historian David Kertzer, which is being adapted for Broadway by playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy). Even the author of the definitive, three-volume Pius biography, Jesuit historian Giacomo Martina, does not favor his subject for sainthood.

The Vatican has long been aware of Pius’ explosiveness as a candidate for canonization. As Kenneth Woodward reports in his book Making Saints, the first time Pius’ cause was formally addressed, every firsthand witness criticized his papacy’s conduct. His beatification was repeatedly postponed, most recently in the 1980s, when churchmen apparently deemed it not to be “opportune.” That seems to have changed. It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming ceremony will end the debate or spark an even more thorough public airing of this larger-than-life Pope’s remarkable career.

Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti was born at a disadvantage. The ninth child of a minor count in the town of Senigallia, he applied early to join the Pope’s Noble Guards. They rejected him: guards did not have epilepsy. A biographer quoted him complaining that because of his condition, he “could not concentrate on a subject for any length of time without having to worry about his ideas getting terribly confused.” He was ordained in 1819 on condition that another priest always be present when he celebrated Mass. By 1827 he was Archbishop of Spoleto.

The position plunged him into a supremely complicated religious and political game. Throughout Europe the old order of divinely sanctioned kingdoms was battling models of popular sovereignty and citizenship inspired by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the adolescent U.S. The Italian peninsula was a crux of this struggle. The Pope himself was a monarch, ruler of the states girdling the boot approximately from Naples to Venice, playing survival politics amid what historian Kertzer describes as “a patchwork of duchies, grand duchy, Bourbon and Savoyard kingdoms [and] Austrian outposts.” Would-be nation builders plotted Italy’s unification from the south and the north. Revolutionaries, writes Kertzer, goggled across papal borders at those who regarded “the notions that people should be free to think what it pleased them to think [as] heretical.”

For a few brief years, it seemed as though Mastai might bridge the gap. In Spoleto he had brokered a peaceful surrender of 4,000 Italian revolutionaries to the archconservative Austrian forces. This led to his 1846 election to the papacy as a moderate. Once installed, he gave amnesty to political prisoners in the Papal States, bestowed on Rome a constitution and a Prime Minister and talked about creating an Italian federation. He unlocked the Jewish ghetto and allowed its wealthier inhabitants to live among the Christian population. Austria’s Prince Metternich, the genius of the ancien regime, quipped that he “had allowed for everything in Italy except a liberal Pope.”

The detente didn’t last long. In 1848, as revolutions blazed throughout Europe, Italian nationalists tried to enlist Pius in their plan to expel the Austrian forces and attain unification. He refused. Achieving an Italian Republic anyway, they slit his Prime Minister’s throat. Pius fled Rome disguised as a priest and wearing tinted spectacles. When he returned three years later, supported by French troops, he was a different Pope.

“The knock came at nightfall.” So begins The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Kertzer’s echo of Holocaust literature is daring but eerily appropriate. The unwanted visitors to the Jewish Mortara family in June 1858 were papal police; they left with Edgardo. A family servant, thinking he was mortally ill, had secretly baptized him, and law required that he be removed from Jewish influence and brought up by the church. Pius may not have initiated the action, but he soon embraced it, and Edgardo, wholeheartedly. In a memoir, Edgardo later recalled that “like a good father, [Pius] had fun with me hiding under his great red cloak and said, jokingly, ‘Where is the boy?’ and opening up the cloak, he showed all those standing around, ‘Here he is!'” Edgardo eventually became a priest, lecturing on the miracle of conversion to Catholicism.

To Pius’ astonishment, the child’s abduction became an international scandal, a focus for global ambivalence regarding the church. The New York Times ran 20 articles on it in a month; the New York Herald cited “colossal” interest in the matter. Pius’ response set the tone for his next 20 years. “The newspapers can write all they want. I couldn’t care less about what the world thinks,” he told a Jewish delegation. And he added a threat: “Take care. I could have made you go back into your hole.” In fact he had already confined the Jews to the ghetto again and rescinded their civil rights. In 1870 he declared them “dogs…there are too many of them in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets.”

Pius was a divided personality. A biographer wrote that “looking into [his] sparkling eyes and hearing the warm measure of his sentences, you felt how beautiful the world could be.” He was famously accessible. He played billiards with the Swiss Guard and was the first modern Pontiff to grant audiences to commoners. He personally tended cholera victims, Gentile and Jewish, during an epidemic. He was truly pious. However, he was also excitable, oversensitive and bullying. Sometimes this expressed itself in wit. The benediction he bestowed upon a group of Protestant clergy was borrowed from the prayer over incense: “May you be blessed by Him in whose honor you shall be burnt.” But often he employed the bludgeon: bishops who displeased him were ordered to kiss his foot. Later, members of the Vatican’s saintmaking congregation seriously questioned whether he had lacked the essential Christian virtue of charity. (A related objection involved his sustaining of the death sentences of two anarchists. His successor reportedly remarked, “This fact alone would impede [his] canonization.”) Biographer Martina describes a “siege complex”: unable to understand liberals on political or psychological terms, he saw them as “unbelievers…[operating] a war machine against the church.”

In 1864 this intemperance was writ very large indeed. The Vatican released the Syllabus of Errors, an index of don’ts that summed up Pius’ response to modernity–by spitting in its face. The 80 delusions in question included separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, civil rights and rationalism. Error No. 80 was that “the Roman Pontiff can…reconcile himself to any compromise with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Writes Wills: “The Syllabus dumbfounded the world.” It still has its defenders. Theologian Don Gianni Baget Bozzo says Pius “simply refused to accept the tenets of liberalism in their entirety.” It is true that the knee-jerk antireligious sentiment and materialism that irked Pius plague Western culture today. Still, the tract defined Catholicism in the negative–and placed good Catholics at odds with modern Western governance. Wills maintains that it “gave ammunition” to anti-Catholics “down to the time when John Kennedy was running for President and many felt no Catholic could be free–that the church was opposed to democracy in every way.”

Many of the Syllabus’ most egregious positions were repudiated 35 years ago at the Second Vatican Council. But Vatican II let stand what may be Pio Nono’s most lasting achievement, the doctrine of papal infallibility. By 1869 most Catholics already believed that a Pope could, alone, define the word of God through church dogma. But no Pontiff had ever said so explicitly, and some bishops thought this might drive an even greater wedge between Catholicism and the rest of the world. Pius’ war on the dissenters featured deception, obfuscation and railroading. When the Archbishop of Bologna complained that church tradition in Europe argued against infallibility, Pius roared, “I am tradition!” and reassigned the Archbishop to a monastery. (He came around.)

Said British Cardinal John Henry Newman: “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. He becomes a God [and] has no one to contradict him.” No one but history. In 1870, Piedmont’s King Victor Emmanuel arrived at Rome to complete the unification of Italy and end the church’s 1,116-year history as a worldly monarchy. The Pope, 79, long white hair flying, climbed the Scala Santa staircase on his knees and told his troops to show token resistance and then surrender honorably. Victor Emmanuel offered him some powers in return for recognition. Pius excommunicated him and vowed to become a “prisoner of the Vatican.” He never again left the grounds. Many Catholics loved him for it. The Italians did not; after his death, a Roman rabble tried to toss his coffin into the Tiber.

The judgment of the mob was too harsh,” wrote ethicist Daniel Callahan in a 1966 essay. “Pius IX was no villain. But he was…a man who used the wrong weapons at the wrong time to fight for the wrong cause.” Most historians concur. Yet someone clearly loves Pius, someone with the power to make saints. Vaticanologists have suggested that he is a “hero” of John Paul II’s. The two Pontiffs do share a special reverence for the Virgin Mary, a generally conservative world view and an impatience with church dissenters. But John Paul’s conservatism is tempered with an un-Pius-like humanism. Pius’ comfort with executions runs counter to John Paul II’s campaign against the death penalty. And then there are the Jews. Vittorio Messori, collaborator with John Paul on the best seller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, says, “I think Pius’ cause is something of a problem. When John Paul II asked for forgiveness for the church’s treatment of the Jews over the centuries, I think perhaps he was thinking of Pius IX.”

If not John Paul, then who? Each year a group of aging, high-ranking clerics convenes for a special Mass on Feb. 7, Pius’ birthday. They share a belief that a Pope’s administration of worldly states (and by extension Pius’ treatment of the Jews) has little bearing on his sanctity. Saintmaking’s fine print sets great store by a candidate’s intent. And so, says Austrian Cardinal Alfons Stickler, presenter of Pius’ case in 1985, “you can’t condemn someone for something he believed was an act of virtue.” Most important, the group feels, was that Pius successfully preserved the church’s great truths during a period of unbelief.

But if the Feb. 7 Club alone could prevail, it would have done so in the 1980s. Some see this year’s events as the work of parties less keen on Pius himself than on blunting the thrust of the Second Vatican Council. As John Paul becomes weaker, liberals hope someday to interpret Vatican II’s watchwords of openness and dialogue to revive seemingly shut issues like women priests. Guido Verucci, a Roman historian, is among those who see conservatives using Pius’ beatification to reaffirm his contrasting “vision of a strong, unerring Church.”

There is one other possibility: the Vatican simply needed a beatifiable Pope in a hurry. Even liberals admit the wisdom of balancing John XXIII with a conservative. Says Kertzer: “There are not so many recent Popes who can represent the right wing. Pio Nono’s cause went through the administrative hoops in the 1980s, so everything was ready. He was from so long ago–who knew him? They thought he’d just slide by.”

And so he has, after a fashion. Somewhere in Rome, a crystal casket is being readied. Pius will be beatified, and all will get a clear look at him. They will quite likely still be arguing about what they’ve seen years later, when his canonization rolls around.

–With reporting by Martin Penner/Rome

To find out why Pius’ case is personal for Jewish leader Abraham Foxman, go to

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