In Ages Past
"The Prisoner of the Vatican": Pope Pius IX and the 19th Century
For all that he championed the Church’s rights, Pius ignored those of other religions. A famous example is the Mortara affair, where a Jewish child in the Papal States was forcibly taken from his family and raised Catholic. After the Catholic housemaid had baptized the child during an illness, papal police removed him from the home, citing a law that forbade non-Catholic parents raising Catholic children. Even after the case became an international human rights issue, Pius refused to budge.
His pontificate climaxed with the convening of the First Vatican Council in December 1869. Nine months later it produced a formal declaration that the pontiff is infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morals. Like the Immaculate Conception, this idea was long held but never formally articulated. Some bishops, however, felt the timing was “inopportune” and would widen the gap with the modern world. Nonetheless, it passed with only two dissenting votes (one from a bishop in Arkansas).
The council was suspended when Italian troops entered Rome in September 1870. The government affirmed papal sovereignty within Vatican boundaries, but Pius refused any interaction with the regime. He labeled himself the “Prisoner of the Vatican,” living out his days in seclusion. At his death in February 1878, he was the second longest reigning pope (tradition holds that St. Peter was first).
By then he had become an object of affection, if not devotion, among Catholics worldwide. John Gilmary Shea wrote in 1876: “There is not a Catholic family in which the little ones do not recognize the portrait of our Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, and look upon it with affection and reverence.”
To the end, Pius kept his human touch. He could be warm-hearted, generous, compassionate, even humorous. During a visit from John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John, he mentioned meeting other English priests. When St. John asked who they were Pius smiled, patted his arm, and said, “Do you think I can pronounce your English names?” At the same time he was highly emotional. When one prelate suggested that an infallibility declaration didn’t square with Church tradition, Pius bellowed: “Tradition? I am tradition!”
Even today his name alone generates debate. And his journey toward sainthood has elicited protest as tyrannical reactionary and theological dinosaur. But the story of the man himself is much more complex and interesting than gross oversimplifications. And there’s no denying his continued impact on Catholic life in the devotions he promoted and the feasts he instituted, in the dioceses he created (over two hundred), and the religious orders he approved.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.