Raising the ghosts of the Papal States


For an institution as deeply anchored in tradition as the Catholic church, debates over the past inevitably shape the present – because how history is remembered often drives how today’s challenges are perceived.

That point was illustrated afresh on Saturday, Sept. 20, which marked the 138th anniversary of the papacy’s loss of temporal power. On that day, Republican forces under King Emmanuel II of Italy breached Porta Pia, one of the gates of Rome, and quickly overwhelmed what was left of the papal armies. That moment in 1870 marked the collapse of the Papal States and the unification of Italy under a civil power.

Aside from a few Catholic ultra-traditionalists, nobody today yearns for the return of the papacy’s temporal power. On Sept. 20, 1970, on the 100th anniversary of the breach of Porta Pia, Pope Paul VI actually called the loss of that power “providential,” because it freed the papacy to play a more universal and humanitarian role in world affairs.

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If no one really wants the Papal States back, however, there remains a lively debate over how they should be remembered. The contrast boils down to this: Were the Papal States an abomination from the beginning, and thus a perennial caution against confusion between sacred and secular power? Or were they a largely benevolent means of consolidating the religious and cultural identity of a Catholic people – one which, even if time has passed it by, is more to be mourned than reviled?

Depending upon how one answers those questions, two quite different conceptions of church/state relations in the here and now may emerge.

Precisely this clash played out on Saturday in Rome, during an annual commemoration of the breach of Porta Pia organized by the city, not by the Vatican. The vice-mayor of Rome, as well as a general from the Sardinian Grenadiers, appeared at the ceremony, in which the names of all 19 papal troops killed during the skirmish over the Porta Pia were solemnly read aloud, but no mention was made of the 49 Republican soldiers who also died that day.

Rome is currently governed by a center-right administration widely perceived as friendly to the church.

That omission of the names of the Republican troops from the Porta Pia commemoration generated swift protest from leftist Italians, especially those most supportive of a strong separation between church and state.

“Maybe in Italy we don’t teach enough history,” said Emma Bonino, a longtime leader of the Italian Radical Party. “There are too few of us who remember the sacrifice of those who put an end to the temporal power, not to mention the triumph of the principle of a free church in a free state.”

Historian Giovanni Sabbatucci was sarcastic. “The only valid reason for listing the names of the papal troops and not those from the other side,” he said, “is because it’s quicker to read 19 names than 49.”

Later on the afternoon of Sept. 20, several leftist groups held a “counter-commemoration” at Porta Pia, reading aloud the names of the 49 Republican infantrymen who died on Sept. 20, 1870.

To those who known how to read the tea leaves of Italian politics, it’s clear that the row over Porta Pia is in many ways a proxy fight over the present. The left tends to read contemporary Italian history as a story of progressive emancipation from the church, beginning in 1870, through the legalization of divorce in 1970 and abortion in 1981 in hard-fought national referenda, and extending to contemporary debates over matters such as civil unions for gay couples and euthanasia. The right, on the other hand, tends to welcome the active political involvement of the church on most matters, since it generally profits when the “Catholic vote” is most active.

That, to be sure, is hardly a dynamic confined to Italy.

Notably, this is one of those fracases over the church’s past in which the church itself, at least in the form of its hierarchy, is largely absent. Neither Pope Benedict XVI nor his lieutenants issued any public comment on the anniversary of the fall of the Papal States, and no church leader had any official role in the commemoration.

Instead, the pope used his Angelus address the next day to offer a classic illustration of the post-1870 political role of the papacy: speaking at the level of general principles about universal human concerns.

“Next Thursday, Sept. 25, in the context of the 63rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, a high-level meeting will take place in New York to review what’s been achieved with regard to the objectives set out in the Millennium Goals established on Sept. 8, 2000,” Benedict said.

“On the occasion of this important meeting, which will bring together the leaders of all the nations of the world, I’d like to renew my invitation to apply courageously all the measures necessary to eradicate extreme poverty, hunger, ignorance and the scourge of pandemics, which strike the most vulnerable above all,” Benedict said. “Such a commitment, though it will require special sacrifices in this moment of global economic difficulty, will certainly produce important benefits – both in terms of the development of nations that need foreign assistance, and also for the peace and well-being of the entire planet.”

Rather than rehashing history, Benedict appeared to want to offer the world a constructive model of political engagement on the part of the church. Whether that will be enough to lay the ghosts of Porta Pia to rest, however, remains to be seen.

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