Contrary to the history books, the Middle Ages didn’t end with the Renaissance in Italy. They lasted until September 20, 1870, when “Europe’s last theocratic government was ended.”
So writes Kertzer (History/Brown Univ.; The Popes Against the Jews, 2001, etc.) in this rousing tale of clerical skullduggery and topsy-turvy politics, laced with plenty of cross-border intrigue. Pope Pius IX had made no secret of his hatred for democracy, nationalism, and other modernizing political forces sweeping Europe in the mid-19th century, and for good reason: a united secular Italy, the dream of Garibaldi and his red-shirted legions, could mean only that papal power would wane, and Pius counted as a great blasphemy the modern notion that “Church and state should be separate or that the papacy could survive and even flourish without owning its own land.” Even if the Savoyard king opposing Pius was unimpressive (“Lazy and pig-headed, he had little sense of his own limits, which were considerable”), and even if Italy, “a patchwork of states and duchies propped up by foreign forces,” was ill-equipped for unification, the leaders of the Vatican sensed that they were on the losing side of history and that the increasingly whittled-away Papal States were not long for the world. Thus a campaign of intrigues, some involving assassination attempts on revolutionary and monarchical leaders, some seeking the intervention of France and Austria, the two leading Catholic powers of the time, against the Italian government. Even as such efforts failed, the Vatican promulgated a new doctrine—that of papal infallibility. Vatican scheming against the Italian state continued even after Pius’s death, writes Kertzer, and it was not until after WWI that a successor pope lifted the ban against Catholics’ serving in parliament or even voting. Whereupon the Vatican, eager now to battle socialism, forged a pact with Mussolini, granting it sovereign-nation status and requiring that Catholicism be Italy’s sole and official religion.
An insightful airing of dirty cassocks within papal politics, from a masterful, controversial scholar.