Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Pope Who Would Be King: 
The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe
by david i. kertzer 
random house, 512 pages, $20

Books like this are rare. The Pope Who Would Be King is one of the few publications that has made me commit a mortal sin—that of envy. I wish I could tell a story in such a colorful and lively way. Unlike David Kertzer’s tendentious works on Pius XI and Mussolini, I found myself enjoying this one, at least until I read the epilogue.

Pope Pius IX, or Pio Nono, ­usually gets bad press. My own professor of church history claimed that Pius’s epileptic seizures had made him “insane.” Systematic theologians vilify him as the incarnation of evil because he stuck that eternal thorn into the Catholic mind, the dogma of papal infallibility. Such depictions are hardly fair and hardly ever take into account recent research. Giacomo Martina has done especially important work in refuting fairy tales about the late pontiff. It is to Martina’s untranslated biography of Pius that Kertzer owes most of his narrative.

When Gregory XVI died in 1846, many cardinals sighed with relief. The late pontiff was considered a relic of ancient times, incapable of bringing the Church into the age of streetlights and railroads. Despite Gregory’s ­reactionary reputation, it was he who declared the international slave trade immoral and ended slavery in the Papal States. Perhaps his ugly, disfigured face haunted the electors in the conclave, because the newly elected Pius was “a good-looking man of medium height, with a broad chest and blond hair.” Pio Nono was considered a friend of modernity and of liberalism. By ­granting amnesty to political prisoners in the Papal States who had agitated for the unification of Italy and against the rule of the clergy, he won the hearts of countless Catholics. One of his first actions was permitting the ­construction of railways in the Vatican’s domains.

At that time, the pope ruled over about a quarter of what is now ­Italy. Most of the administration was done by priests, who were often either ­unqualified or morally corrupt. Pius’s talk about reform was therefore welcome. Margaret Fuller, an American journalist of liberal sympathies, described Pius as “a man of noble and good aspect, who . . . has set his heart upon doing something solid for the benefit of man.” The pontiff was seen as the new “messiah,” while the curia was vilified as a group of intransigent “conservatives.” Even as the young pope enjoyed public support, he faced a dilemma: Would he be able to sustain his popularity once he took the advice of a conservative cardinal? Would he be attacked if he did not embrace every new reform?

Pio Nono relied heavily on Cardinal Antonelli, a brilliant power broker without a fiber of spiritual life. Antonelli argued against political reforms and in favor of foreign military intervention against the citizens. He adamantly resisted the spirit of Italian reunification. He was also a deacon and thus one of the last cardinals without priestly ordination. Here Kertzer betrays a lack of understanding: He describes Antonelli as “never” having been ordained, wrongly thinking that a deacon is not ordained and thus not a member of the clergy. Kertzer continues, “And so [he] could neither say mass nor take confession”—but a priest “hears” confession, never “takes” it. A historian writing best sellers on Catholicism should know such things.

There is a lack of precision and Catholic literacy throughout the book. Kertzer wants to show that the pope delegated policymaking mainly to the curia and priests, so he claims that the drafting of the constitution of the Papal States of 1848 was “­entrusted . . . entirely to clergymen.” But he fails to mention that it was hailed throughout Europe as a piece as “liberal” and “modern” legislation—probably because it would not fit his narrative. And his claim regarding its authorship is false, since the main drafter, Monsignore ­Theodulf Mertel (1806–1899), was, despite his title, not even an ordained deacon at the time but a layman who later became the last lay cardinal in modern history. The gifted lawyer exercised great influence in Pius’s cabinet and yet is—surprisingly—not mentioned even once in the book. So much for the pope who trusted only clergy.

Early in Pius’s papacy, the Italian nationalists went so far as to look to the pope as a potential future head of state for a unified Italy. They expected him to condemn the Austrian invasion of Lombardy. Instead Pio Nono supported the Catholic Habsburgs and denounced the war against them. Things soured quickly. In November 1848, the Papal States’ secretary for the interior, the layman Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated outside his office in Rome. The city had ceased to be a safe place for the pontiff. Disguised as a simple country priest, Pius escaped to Sicily in a carriage provided by the Bavarian ambassador.

This flight transformed the liberal pope. The bloodshed of the revolution showed him where “modernity” could lead. Antonelli, who was now back in charge, fed Pio Nono’s fears whenever he could. Rome became a republic, and Pius implored not only Austria but also France to use their military power to reestablish his monarchical rule. It was France that finally came through.

An American diplomat observed the French Catholic soldiers bombarding the Eternal City and wrote:

The contest is no longer between one army and another . . . but it is a struggle that embraces a whole moral world of ideas, hopes and faith, that may have an echo in the most distant generations. The actual object of the intervention is shaking the edifice of the Catholic religion to its very foundations, crushing that faith in thousands of hearts.

After all, why would the pope allow a foreign army to bomb the sheep of his diocese? How could a Roman look to him any longer as his pastor? Of course, the pope faced a dilemma. As Christ’s vicar on earth, he could not be seen as subject to a republic or even as a constitutional monarch hemmed in by strong democratic ­institutions.

Yet was it necessary that the pope also be a temporal sovereign? Nobody in the papal court seriously considered a negative response to this question, although one could have argued with St. ­Robert Bellarmine that the “spiritual authority” over the “empire of souls” was more important than temporal rule over Italian or Roman soil.

Two thousand Romans and French died so that Pius might be restored to rule. When Pius congratulated the French general, he made clear that he did not do so “for the blood that has been shed, which is abhorrent to me, but for the triumph of order over anarchy, and for the restoration of freedom to the honest, Christian people.” This statement, however, shows how poorly informed the pope was. The Roman Republic had not been anti-Catholic or anti-pope. Caught up in the fake news the curia pushed on him, the pope had become a prisoner of his own fear and wrath.

When Pius IX returned after seventeen months in exile, he refused amnesty for those who had ­cooperated with the Roman Republic. Alexis de Tocqueville, France’s minister of foreign affairs, was furious. After all, the Republic of France had brutally suppressed the young democracy of Rome in order to restore the pope, and they expected him to take liberal measures:

We have sacrificed money and soldiers for him. We have placed our worldwide reputation for liberalism in jeopardy. . . . It would have been a thousand times better never to have undertaken this enterprise than to abandon it ­without having obtained the necessary result.

Kertzer opines in the epilogue that Pius, from the point of his restoration to temporal power on, hid behind the protective shield of faith, seeking approval no longer from the people but only from God. For most of the book, as Kertzer treats the ­early years of Pius IX’s pontificate, he is balanced. But in the epilogue, he becomes tendentious. Pius’s life after his restoration is summarized in a few pages, which depict him as a religious fanatic, rejecting freedom of speech and of religion.

It is unfortunate that a gifted writer and historian like Kertzer succumbs to such cheap shots instead of offering a condensed, contextualized explanation of the pope’s struggle with democracy and freedom. The op-ed style epilogue likens Pius IX to the threat of theocrats around the world today (such as in Iran) and praises the values of secular ­Enlightenment—seemingly ­unaware that the secular Enlightenment spawned ­totalitarianism, and that religious enlightenments offered alternatives. My advice: Read the book, skip the epilogue.

Ulrich L. Lehner is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.