Italy and the Catholic Church

In my post last week, The Catholic Church and Italian Americans, I had noted how Italians of the Mezzogiorno saw the Catholic Church as yet another institution living off the sweat of the working class. I had also referred to the fact that after Italians unified the country making for the first time in history an actual Italy, that the Vatican reached out to Catholics around the world as well as foreign governments to work towards destabilizing the newly formed Italian Government. In response to that article, I was asked why would the ROMAN Catholic Church do that? Weren’t they Italian? Wouldn’t they want what was best for the Italian people, which in our day and age would be self-determination?

Well, what I said last week of Italian Americans’ relationship to the Catholic Church, I say of the Italian government and the church. The relationship between the two is – as they say about so many relationships – complicated.

We need to remember that the church opposed the Risorgimento, unification. Something that is not at all surprising. Not only did unification take away papal lands, but it was also a direct assault on the authority of the church. The empowerment the spirit of the Risorgimento gave to the common Italian placed the priests, bishops, cardinals, and pope at the same level as the contadini, the common Italian. These common people whose daily mass was cow manure and fish offal have the same access to God as the church aristocracy that drank wine from golden challises. In any culture, this break of intellectual yokes would be a challenge, but with strong-willed Italians it was revolutionary.

This awakening led to the realization that the Papal States “were a medieval anachronism legitimated through outdated absolutist conceptions of sovereignty.”[i] We should note that the confiscation of the Papal Lands was not some mere grab for power. The Papal States were in economically backward and poorly administered. Examination of these regions revealed how the church had mismanaged the governance of these areas. The restrictive control of the church inhibited many innovations that science was bringing to the rest of Europe.

Admittedly there was no love of the Catholic Church on the part of the Italian patriots such as Verdi and Garibaldi. Verdi in his Opera Nabucco, which used the enslaved Jews of the old testament as a metaphor for the Italian people, represented the Catholic Church as the high priest who was depicted as inflexible and complicit with despotic rulers. Neither was Garibaldi a lover of the church. He said, “Death to priests! Who deserves to die more than this wicked sect which has turned Italy into un paese di morti (a country of the dead) into a cemetary?”[ii] Yeah, you could say they were not fans.

After unification, the church found itself stripped of its lands and any real earthly power. Describing the church at the end of the 19th century as having a bunker mentality is no mere metaphor. After the 1860s popes described themselves as prisoners of the Vatican. The Catholic Church saw the liberal world view as an attack on their authority, which it was. The liberals saw the church not as an organization working for the betterment of humanity and the salvation of souls, but an organization that was concerned with gaining and holding on to power, which it was, as well.

It was for this reason that the Catholic Church reached out to Catholics around the world as well as foreign governments to work towards destabilizing the newly formed Italian Government. They wanted their land and power back. It was also in this period that Pope Pius the IX condemned democratic principles such as the will of the people being supreme. It was also in this period when they published the Syllabus Errorum that condemned such things as rationalism, socialism, and liberalism while affirming the rights of the church, Christian marriage, and civil power of the Pope in the Papal States. Another product of this time was the First Vatican Council that issued the teaching of Papal Infallibility.

Eventually, the Italian government and the Catholic Church were able to resolve their differences. That, however, is the subject of my next post.

For more on Italian culture and history, read Italianità, The Essence of Being Italian available on Aamazon.


[i] Connell, William J., &Garaphe’, Fred, (Eds), Anti-Italianism, Essays on a Prejudice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pg. 33

[ii] Garibaldi, Giuseppe, Clelia, Il Governo dei Preti, Fratelli Rechiedei, Milan, 1970, Pg. 229

One thought on “Italy and the Catholic Church

  1. Pingback: Mussolini and the Catholic Church | Italianità

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