How Pius IX Outsmarted the Secular Left
Updated: Jul 9
In 1848 Italy, secularists murdered Catholic officials in broad daylight and desecrated churches. It is only because of Pius IX's leadership that the Vatican survives today.
“Religion is immutable; not an idea, but the truth. Truth knows no change.”
-Pius IX addressing Vatican I
In July 1870, as a thunderstorm rumbled above the Vatican, the First Vatican Council formalized the doctrine of papal infallibility. “Of those who had misgivings,” writes David I. Kerzter in The Pope Who Would be King, “many in the end voted in favor, fearful of incurring Pius’s wrath.” The vote was a theological coup for Pope Pius IX, who had now done more to concentrate Catholicism in the papacy than any pope since Gregory VII. Yet Pius’ triumph had not been an easy one. Just twenty years earlier, it had seemed that the papacy itself might effectively cease to exist.
In 1848, with religion in decline around Europe, the city of Rome had been seized by a regime of secular terrorists. Inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, liberals in Rome murdered Catholic officials, banned Catholic schools, and desecrated churches. Worse, the city’s Catholics hid in their homes and did nothing to stop the bloodshed, leaving Pius to fend largely for himself. Supposedly Catholic countries seemed to watch the tragedy in Rome lethargically, and it looked as if the Roman Catholic Church might soon cease to exist in all but name. Liberals planned to capture the papacy and reduce Pius to, at most, a ceremonial puppet who would rubber-stamp their agenda. It is a miracle of Pius’ unshakable faith—and the sheer force of his personality—that the Roman Catholic Church as we know it still exists today.
In The Pope Who Would be King, David I. Kertzer—a compelling narrator, though more sympathetic to the liberal than to the Catholic side—describes how Pius escaped into exile, rallied armies to his cause, wrested a favorable postwar settlement from his own duplicitous allies, and returned in triumph to his city. Pius’ story reveals principles of cultural negotiation that are relevant, not only to Catholics, but to Christians in any age and place. These principles are especially relevant today, as—in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words—“the western world… throws itself into the arms of the void.” As we look at the story of how Pius IX saved the Roman Catholic Church, let’s review some of these principles here.
Don’t embolden a predator by putting blood in the water. Weakness doesn’t pacify a predator; it excites it to violence.
In 1848, Italy was divided into multiple principalities. Central Italy belonged to the “Papal States”: a thousand-year-old nation-state ruled by the Bishop of Rome. A geographical extension of the Church, the papal states were governed according to canon law.
One Papal States policy, however, contained the seed of the country’s destruction: its immigration policy. Many European immigrants to Rome were not Catholics, or even Protestants. Instead, these middle-class anywheres, who came from countries like France as well as other Italian nations, were secular liberals who had inherited the French Revolution’s hostility to traditional religion. In some cases, the attitudes of these immigrants resembled present-day New Atheism.
The combination of canon law with militant secularism was an explosive one. Alongside nationalistic calls for Italian unification, demonstrators in Rome demanded that the Papal States get with the times and abandon its distinctly Catholic character.
For the first two years of his papacy, Pius IX—who was by nature affable and easygoing—adopted a policy of appeasement towards these demonstrators, wanting to please “my people.” When the liberals demanded that the Pope create a civic guard made up of liberal citizens, Pius complied. The Cardinal Secretary of State, angry that Pius was empowering the enemies of the Church, resigned in protest. The Pope rebuked the cardinal, telling him “Signor Cardinal, I have no fear of my people.” The cardinal retorted: “Don’t rely too much on the goodness of your heart.”
Smelling blood in the water, the mobs in the streets grew emboldened. While claiming to support the pope, often chanting “Viva Pio Nono,” the liberals also chanted increasingly violent slogans calling for the murder of Catholic clergy. When a Dutch diplomat heard a commotion in the streets, he went outside and was aghast at what he saw. “Horrendous threats” were being screamed by “people who seemed to have blood in their eyes and were carrying long knives.”
Pius’ most fatal mistake came when liberal volunteers flocked to join the papal army, demanding that the Pope send them to attack Austrian troops occupying northern Italy. The Austrians, who were far more devout than Pius’ own subjects, were perhaps the Catholic Church’s most loyal ally. Yet Pius, as an Italian, did not want to appear to betray Italy. What Pius apparently did not appreciate was that Italian liberals hated Austria precisely because it propped up the Roman Catholic Church. By empowering the liberals to fight Austria, Pius would be sawing off the very branch on which he sat.
Attempting to please both sides, Pius authorized the papal volunteers to march north, but gave them strict instructions not to engage in battle unless the Austrians crossed into the Papal States—something Pius knew the Austrians would not do. Yet the volunteers, who duplicitously chanted “Viva Pio Nono” as they marched north, had no intention of actually obeying the pope’s instructions. They promptly crossed into Lombardy and Venetia and moved against the Austrians.
Upon hearing of this betrayal, Pius was forced to publicly denounce his own papal volunteers. As if at the drop of a hat, the Roman demonstrators’ chants of “Viva Pio Nono” changed to cries of “down with the Pope.” As the papal statesman Pellegrino Rossi traveled to meet with Pius, he was intercepted by a large Antifa-like mob, shrieking with hatred. “Slit his throat! Slit his throat!” they screamed. “Kill him!” As papal soldiers looked on placidly, a diminutive young liberal with a long mustache scurried up to Rossi and slashed his throat with a dagger.
Although Rossi had been a moderate liberal reformer himself, the street demonstrators had hated him because of his association with conservative elements in the Church. A crowd of hundreds marched through the streets, holding the bloody knife that had cut Rossi’s throat, and chanting “blessed is he hand who stabbed Rossi!”. Not a single faithful Catholic in Rome attempted to stop the coup or come to Pius’ aid. Utterly alone, the Pope soon fled the city, aided by only a handful of supporters.
Upon forming a provisional government, the liberals in Rome revealed their real aim: destroying traditional religion. The new government printed warnings telling priests to dispose of their traditional garments, which were “condemned as signs of reaction and ignorance.” Church-run schools and universities were banned, and the liberals also began planning a systematic confiscation of church property. Priests and monks who refused to help inventory church property were rounded up and jailed. Mobs eventually broke into churches and ripped apart confessionals. “Nothing symbolized the instruction of the priestly gaze into their lives more than the confessionals,” Kertzer explains.
The top leader of the new “Roman Republic,” the Genoan revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, publicly tried to combat the perception that the new republic was anti-religious, saying that the Catholic Church was trying to “put our noble efforts in a bad light, and to accuse the people of irreverence and irreligion.” Privately, however, Mazzini’s pro-religious rhetoric was a matter of pragmatism. Trying to destroy Catholicism entirely, he said, was “useless. This religion lives and will yet live for years to come.”
Pius IX would spend much of the rest of his papacy correcting the mistakes he’d made before the 1848 coup. By giving the appearance of weakness, the affable pope had strengthened the confidence of his secular enemies while encouraging them to become increasingly violent. In doing so, the pope endangered not only himself, but those entrusted to his care.
If someone hates you, do not believe his description of his own motives.
Even in his early papacy, Pius was not entirely blind to the bad faith of the liberals. According to Pius’ early visitors, Pius apparently saw through the liberal chants of “Viva Pio Nono.” “Nothing pleases me more than when I hear people in Rome shouting not ‘Viva Pio Nono’ but ‘Viva il Santo Padre’ [Long live the Holy Father],” he once told a guest. The Pope wryly added: “In one Calabrian city, they broke thieves out of jail to shouts of ‘Viva Pio Nono.’ Does that not seem a little duplicitous to you?”
Kertzer, noting that the demonstrators who claimed to support “Pio Nono” were attacking conservative clergy, wrote “Pius was well aware that the movement invoking his name was far from religious in inspiration or intent.”
Yet the early Pius did not fully appreciate the depth of the liberals’ duplicity. By staking out a middle-of-the-road position on Austria, Pius was trying to avoid looking like a partisan of the Austrians and thereby further alienating the liberals. Yet Pius did not understand that the liberals detested Austria precisely because it stood between them and dismantling the institutional Catholic Church in Italy. To avoid open conflict with the liberals, Pius was allowing them to slowly suffocate the Church.
Over a century later, it’s easy to look down dismissively on Pius for not seeing through this duplicity. Yet, in our own day, Christians fall for political gaslighting that is not that dissimilar from the kind that entrapped Pius.
For example, American Christians are routinely told that, if Christians vote for Donald Trump to prevent progressives from cementing their political power, this will “hurt Christian witness” with progressives. Yet many cultural progressives oppose Trump, in substantial part, because he has obstructed their efforts to sink religious liberty. In March, Kamala Harris and other Democrats introduced a law that would—among other things—overturn a Trump Administration waiver allowing Christian foster agencies to place children with Christian families. As William Barr has said, “militant secularists today… seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience.” Yet Christians are told that they must avoid alienating cultural progressives by standing aside and allowing them to take the White House and the Supreme Court in November.
This is, of course, exactly what happened to Pius IX. Italian liberals had already determined to dismantle Catholic institutions and therefore sought to drive the Austrians from Lombardy and Venetia. Yet the liberals were able to bully Pius into thinking that he would further endanger Catholicism if he did not authorize a Roman army to march against the Austrians. If Christians today can fall for crocodile tears, can we be surprised that the same strategy worked on Pius IX?
One of the most recurring patterns in Kertzer’s narrative consists of some person or group attempting to steer Pius in a more liberal direction and then, when it looked as if Pius would not comply, acting shocked and wounded. Although the Pope got wise to this tactic shortly after fleeing Rome, his enemies—apparently interpreting his genial temperament as weakness—never tired of trying it. In our own day, opponents of Christianity often attempt to play on Christians’ heartstrings, claiming that they are offended and hurt if Christians do not bend to their will. We can all-to-easily imagine future cultural progressives successfully arguing that, because some people find references to Jesus hurtful, the Christlike thing to do would be to stop mentioning him.
Take controversial positions as soon as possible to frame the debate. Taking a stand early is hard, but taking a stand later is harder.
Pius’ early tendency to avoid conflict was radically short-sighted. By forestalling conflict for as long as possible, the Pope’s agreeableness only made the inevitable future conflict more severe. By agreeing to create the civic guard, for instance, Pius increased the chants of “Viva Pio Nono!,” but only by arming the very people who would eventually chant “Down with the Pope!”. Likewise, if Pius had firmly refused to send the papal volunteers north, he might well have risked being overthrown. By dispatching the volunteers, however, he made his overthrow a mathematical inevitability. Put differently, Christian passivity is a way of treating cultural conflict as—as the idiom goes—“a problem for future Homer.”
Pius’ agreeableness was also motivated, ironically, by overconfidence. “We know where these people want to lead us,” he had said. “We will satisfy them as far as conscience allows, but… we will go not one step further.” The Pope’s words reveal that conflict-avoidance, far from being humble, can really be a kind of arrogance: it means assuming that one will be able to deal with the neglected issue after it has finally boiled over. In fact, Pius' short-term compliance made future resistance impossible. By dispatching the papal volunteers, Pius had allowed a prison to be built over his head. From that moment on, there was no possible future that did not involve exile, total submission to the liberals, or worse.
From exile in the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Pius met and negotiated with a coalition of four allied nations. Three of these “Catholic powers” were motivated, at least in part, by a sincere desire to restore the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. The fourth, Republican France, was more cynical, involving itself largely to check Austria’s influence in the Peninsula. France continually attempted to persuade the Pope to compromise with the liberals by accepting a Papal States Constitution. Pius adamantly opposed this idea, saying “I do not want any Constitution because a Constitution would be the end of the papacy.”
While Pius was no libertarian, it would be a mistake to see his anti-constitutionalism as an aversion to freedom as such. Pius often characterized his push to retake Rome as a campaign for “freedom” against the “tyranny” of the Roman Republic, and was not opposed to all constitutions on principle. Yet he recognized that agreeing to a Roman constitution would only embolden the liberals who were determined to systematically destroy the Church. Pius had learned from his mistakes: when he returned to Rome, it would be on his own terms.
In order to frame the debate around the constitution issue, Pius began opening negotiations with bold proclamations from which he never deviated. When a moderate friend came to intercede with him, Pius had barely greeted the moderate when he declared “You now find me anti-constitutional… Even if they were to cut me into pieces, I would never again give them a constitution.” In writing to a group of exiled cardinals about his plans for his return, Pius even resorted to writing in all caps: “Constitutional government, NO.”
Despite the incessant and increasingly hysterical demands of the French, Pius’ tactics yielded fruit. The Austrian chancellor wrote admiringly that “the firmness which Pius IX has had the wisdom to deploy in the face of the French pressures already seems to have borne its fruits.” Although the French leadership was largely secular, and held far more cards than the homeless Pius, France was forced to back down.
Respond to greater social coercion with greater boldness, until the idea of strong-arming you begins to sound futile.
As the other allied powers fought the republicans across Italy, the French moved to besiege and capture Rome, edging out the Austrians and Spanish. The move was controversial in Paris, where the French Left had widely and openly supported the Roman Republic. To avoid further embarrassment, France was determined to restore Pius on terms that limited the Catholic character of the renewed Papal States.
Pius, growing increasingly astute, declared that—if the French forced him to compromise with the liberals—he was willing to blow up the entire project and relocate the papacy to an entirely difference continent. Writing to their superiors, French diplomats complained that Pius said he would go elsewhere “even to America, if we sought to do violence to his conscience.”
When one of the most determined of the French diplomats, Joseph Rayneval, persisted in attempting to pressure Pius, the pope responded: “Viola! Your threats, your intimidation. Just because you have thirty thousand men behind you, you think you can impose your will on me?” It was now Rayneval’s turn to go on the defensive: “Your Holiness is mistaken. We had begun by asking you for a constitution—” Pius interjected: “And if you had persisted, I would never return to Rome.” Frustrated, Rayneval report back to Paris with an observation that illustrated Pius’ later political genius.
The history of these past years shows us many examples of the complete uselessness of employing violent means with the pope…. One exhausts oneself in vain. He remains unmoved and, in the end, one is forced to compromise. We have no hold on him. Any other sovereign, once outside of his states, would no longer be anything. But this one loses little if he remains in exile. Our only means of action is persuasion… from the moment we seem to want to impose on him, we can regard our cause as lost.
Today, there are frequent attempts to use what Rayneval figuratively called “violent means” with Christians in the West. To take one of numerous recent examples, consider the 2018 case of Russell Berger, a CrossFit executive who was fired after tweeting that the behavior “of some in the LGBTQ movement towards dissent is an existential threat to freedom of expression.” Obliviously proving Berger right, the CEO of CrossFit then publicly declared that Berger should “take a nice big dose of shut the **** up.” As is typical in such cases, the church almost completely failed to support Berger.
When the cultural left uses tactics of this kind, can we say that it “exhausts itself in vain”? On the contrary, the secular left uses these tactics because Christians often allow them to work. Later in 2018, Christian artist Lauren Daigle publicly stated that she could not comment issues of sexuality because “I’m not God”—neglecting to explain, of course, why this argument did not apply to other ethical issues. It’s hard not to infer that Daigle may have been motivated by the Berger case, or at least by the general atmosphere of fear that numerous similar cases have created.
Consider, in contrast, the case of Pius IX. The Pope, as Rayneval noted, had no real political authority. The faithful Roman Catholics he represented already constituted a relatively small fraction of Western Europe, as evidenced by the fact that not a single lay Catholic in Rome had attempted to protect the pontiff from being violently deposed. Yet Pius, when he had learned how to negotiate, responded so boldly to any coercion that he put a large secular, powerbroker on the defensive and forced it to compromise. He made it clear that there was nothing he would not forfeit—not even Rome itself—rather than compromise the integrity of the Church. In consequence, he returned to Rome in triumph. Put differently: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
G.K. Chesterton’s commentary on Matthew 16:25 cannot be improved upon:
'He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,' is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers…
A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
The situation of Christendom in the West can seem as dire as that of Pius IX: abandoned by his supposed flock, driven from Rome, and standing on what seemed to many to be the wrong side of history. Yet what if Christian churches and other organizations across the country had responded to Berger’s firing with a chorus of bold denunciations of CrossFit, with a flood of small financial donations to Berger, and with a determination to go on the offensive on controversial cultural issues? Then it might have been said of Christians that “from the moment we seem to want to impose on them, we can regard our cause as lost.” Viewed through this lens, there are still more than enough Christians in the United States, with more than enough influence, to reorient the entire landscape of American cultural discourse.
To make a passive population bold, however, that population must first be led by example. Pius shows that such a reversal is possible. During the revolt that led to his exile, Kertzer writes, “The pope’s defenders were nowhere to be seen.” Yet during the latter days of the Papal States, volunteer Catholic militants flocked to Rome from France, Ireland, Germany, and Canada. A related lesson from Pius, then, might be something like the following: If your allies are passive, put them to shame by being bold when they will not.
It’s not my intention to hold up the later Pius IX as a complete paragon of cultural diplomacy. Through Vatican I's 1870 declaration of papal infallibility—while consolidating his theological role—the pope alienated all of this own allies outside the institutional Church and was abandoned to the Italian liberals, who dismantled the Papal States. The lesson: as Paul was willing to align himself with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, Christians, too, must be willing to form and maintain issue-specific coalitions with non-Christian groups—including other traditional religions at odds with the growing cultural totalitarianism of the contemporary secular West. Yet the key lesson from Pius' career comes not from his failures, but from his genius: Christians must act less like the agreeable man who was driven from Rome in disgrace and more like the immovable man who returned to it, indifferent to everything but the glory of God. The best time for the church to be bold may have passed; the second best time is now.