Although the Catholic Church is the only Christian body present at every stage of the history of Christianity, the 19th century gave birth to a frozen Catholicism of unschooled, overly devout laypeople led by an absurdly papist and clerical hierarchy. It was irrelevant to citizens and workers seeking just rights, rigidly Tridentine and roundly disregarded in the public square and the academy. When I was a youth it had a simple name: pre-Vatican II.
As the 19th century neared, the overwhelmingly Catholic majority in Europe and Spanish America was monarchical, absolutist in philosophy and politics and prone to popular piety; its Catholic faith and practice remained the soul and heart of society. Between 1789 and 1848, that worldview changed radically with the French Revolution and the emergence of socialism.
Two leaders of the Catholic Church, Popes Pius VI and IX, are most to blame for badly misreading the signs of their times. That failure led the Church to lose the working class, intellectuals and the new industrial era’s leaders.
The French Revolution’s anti-monarchical impulse included a kind of anti-clericalism fueled by popular criticism, even among devout Christians, of the privileges, wealth and even corruption of the clergy. To understand an ordinary French person’s perception of the clergy, consider the Estates General under the Old Regime, the king’s legislative and consultative assembly made up of various classes (or estates).
The composition and powers of the Estates-General never changed: representatives of the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (the nobility) and Third Estate (commoners, in other words, all others). Of course, the Estates General was largely symbolic. When the revolution broke out, the king discovered that the last king to call them to meet was his grandfather.
This was the social stratification of much of continental Europe. Closest to the king, due to its alleged special connection to God, was the clergy, next was the nobility, then the rest. When the rest rose up against the king and nobility, the clergy was tossed out as so much dirty bathwater.
During two years known as the Reign of Terror, revolutionary authorities in France suppressed the Church, nationalized church property, exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more. In October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one that counted the date of the Revolution as Day One, and festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled along with forms of a new moral religion that included a deist Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheist Cult of Reason—briefly mandated by the government in April 1794.
Similarly, the Revolutions of 1848, the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, aimed for democracy and an end to old feudal structures left in place by the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which with some cosmetic border touch-ups essentially restored the pre-French Revolution absolutist monarchies. It was an uprising led by new ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto was published as a battle cry in February, weeks after the first uprisings.
However, these revolts were not communist. Led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers they did not hold together. They began in January and February and the longest lasting, in Hungary, was crushed in August. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. Nonetheless, serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary, the absolute monarchy ended in Denmark and parliamentary democracy was introduced in the Netherlands. Radical ideas were aloft, and the new, post-French Revolution capitalist bourgeoisie was chastened.
The two popes who lived through the aftermath of both revolts were not pleased. Pius VI rejected the French Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791 and suspended priests who accepted it, protested the execution of Louis XVI and condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man. France retaliated by seizing the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin, and Napoleon eventually attacked the Papal States.
Public reaction to the papal defense of monarchy and the old order is evident in the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, published in 1798. During a long audience with Pius VI, one of the most extensive scenes in the novel, Juliette shows off by presenting the pope with a verbal catalogue of alleged immoralities committed by his predecessors.
The response to 1848 came from Pius IX, also known as Pio Nono, the longest-reigning elected pope (from 1846 to 1878). Pio Nono effectively led a grand demarche to close every window, lock every door and make sure that not a single modern idea seeped into the holy sanctum of the Catholic Church.
Pio Nono’s pontificate is most notable for three telling developments: in 1854 he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; in 1864 he issued his Syllabus of Errors; in 1869 he convened the momentous First Vatican Council.
Mary’s immaculate conception was an ancient teaching derived largely from the treatment of Mary as God bearer. The ancient fathers wondered how someone tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve could be the bearer of God. Of course, that raises the question of how Mary could have been born immaculate to St. Anne and St. Joachim, and on and on.
Pio Nono did not invent the immaculate conception. A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on December 8 as early as the 5th century and had been bubbling up for centuries. Indeed, in response to some of the excesses of popular piety of the time, Pio Nono made it clear that Mary still needed redemption by her son; her sinless conception was a kind of preredemption. The declaration had broader consequences.
Ten years later, Pio Nono issued the Syllabus, a broadside against every possible non-Christian idea arising from the cauldron of the French Revolution. It condemned pantheism, naturalism, absolute rationalism, moderate rationalism, indifferentism and latitudinarianism, socialism, communism, secret societies, Bible societies and liberal clerical societies.
He condemned the notion that “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil” as well as the notion that all the truths of religion proceed from reason. Condemned also was the idea that Catholicism should not be the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all others, as was proposed in many Catholic countries, and the notion of separation of church and state. He decried the idea of freedom of religion and worship. He expressly refused to accept the proposal that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
False, false, false, he said.
All this declaring got him into hot water. Some asked whether the pope had authority to define doctrine on his own, such as in the case of the Immaculate Conception. Pio Nono’s answer was to call the First Vatican Council in 1869, whose most momentous decision, under pressure from the pope himself, was to define papal infallibility.
Just to clarify, the council did not say that the pope could not make a mistake in anything; it only said that the pope is divinely protected from error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”
The council was set to discuss a document on the nature of the Church after a summer break. However, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the Germans advanced and captured Emperor Napoleon III, eliminating the pope’s principal military protector. On September 20, 1870, the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and annexed it. A month later Pius IX suspended the council, after which he fled Rome itself for a time, then returned to declare himself “imprisoned” in the Vatican.
The First Vatican Council was not formally closed until 1960, by Pope John XXIII, in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962. From 1870 until then, having already lost the allegiance of the leading intellectual lights of the day in continental Europe, the attention of secular rulers and the following of the industrial working classes, the Church went into the long slumber of the pre-Vatican II era that I described at the beginning.