Pio Nono and the Jews: From "Reform" to "Reaction," 1846-1878

By Coppa, Frank J. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Pio Nono and the Jews: From "Reform" to "Reaction," 1846-1878


Coppa, Frank J., The Catholic Historical Review


Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, elected pope on June 16, 1846, assumed the name Pius IX, in honor of Pius VII, who had issued the dispensation which allowed the epileptic Giovanni to enter the priesthood. Ordained in 1819, he received holy orders not to make a career but to serve as a pastor of souls. Following his first assignment at a Roman orphanage from 1823 to 1825, he accompanied the apostolic delegate to Chile and Peru, in a venture he thought would be more missionary than diplomatic.1 Upon returning from South America, Giovanni was appointed director of the Hospice of San Michele in Rome. Named archbishop of Spoleto in 1827, he served there until 1832, when he was appointed bishop of Imola, where he remained until 1846, even though Gregory XVI had brought him into the college of cardinals six years earlier. In his various posts, he had little interaction with Jews, as is attested by the biographers of his prepapal career.2 The fact that he had friends in the liberal camp led some to judge him more progressive than retrograde. Rumors circulated that he was not opposed to "progress," and in 1845 he had outlined a reformist course for the Papal State.3 Although Mastai's fifty-eight-point program did not include the civil emancipation of the Jews, his call for a cautious modernization of the Papal State earned him a liberal reputation.

His pontificate (1846-1878), the longest in history, opened with an air of expectation, which was reinforced by his amnesty of July, 1846.4 Liberals, Nationalists, and Jews hoped that the new pope would reconcile liberty and religion, unite Italy, and ameliorate the position of the Jews in the Papal State. Initially, Pio Nono seemed to fulfill expectations, emerging in the eyes of many as the pope-liberator prophesied by the Piedmontese priest Vincenzo Gioberti in his work On the Civil and Moral Primacy of the Italians (1843). Following the revolutionary upheaval of 1848-49, however, the pope who had been hailed as a liberal was denounced as the high priest of reaction and chief protagonist of the Counter-Risorgimento. Thus, while Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour were respectively dubbed the "heart," "sword," and "brains" of unification, Pio Nono emerged as the "cross" of liberals, nationalists, and Jews.

In 2000, when John Paul II proceeded with the beatification of Pius IX, the pope who convoked Vatican Council I (1869-70) and waged war against the modern world, alongside John XXIII, who convoked Vatican Council II (1961-1965) and sought an accommodation with it, there was a trinity of opposition from Liberals, Italian Nationalists, and Jews. Many knew of his opposition to Italian unification, which aroused nationalists, as well as his war against modern civilization, concretized in the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which angered Liberals. Although some mentioned his role in the Mortara affair,5 others wondered why Jews opposed his canonization. Not all aspects of Pius IX's reversal of course have been fully explored, including his relationship to the Jews-the focus of this essay. Pio Nono's Jewish policies are here examined in light of the traditional anti-Judaism within the Church, his early reformist program, and finally his conflicts with Italian nationalism and European liberalism and his unsuccessful attempt to preserve the temporal power. Some contend that had Pius continued on his reformist course, Catholic-Jewish relations might have been improved a century earlier and would not have had to wait for John XXIII (1958-1963) and Vatican Council II. Among other things, this essay explores the reasons why this did not occur.

From the first, Pio Nono did not envision a Christian-Jewish reconciliation. His reforms were designed to correct abuses and offer assistance rather than to change prevailing structures in either the Church or the Papal State. Assuming the Christian nature of Italy in general and of his state in particular, this pope believed that the clerical nature of his government should continue and saw no reason why Catholicism should not retain its privileged position in the social and political spheres as well as the religious one. …

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