Rome – Italy celebrates the sesquicentennial of its birth as a unified nation today. On March 17, 1861, while Americans were preoccupied with some serious business of their own, the first Italian Parliament met in Turin and declared Rome the capital of unified Italy. That legislative act was given effect nine years later, when Italian troops took advantage of the Franco-Prussian War to enter the rump of the old Papal States.
As the Italians closed in on the city of Peter and Paul, the student body of the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, volunteered to a man to take up arms in defense of the pope. Pius IX gently thanked them and wrote back, in his own hand, that he hoped they would be victorious in fighting, not for his territory, but for the truth of Christian faith. Pio Nono ordered his own troops to fire one volley, “for honor’s sake” – to emphasize that Italy was acquiring Rome by force and not consent. And so, after a brief exchange of mis-aimed shots that prefigured Italy’s martial success in the decades to come, the papal forces retired and the Risorgimento, a secularist as well as nationalist affair, had what it wanted: the Eternal City, and the chance to try to reclaim the glory that was Rome in the days of empire. Fifty-nine years later, in the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the papacy regained a smidgeon of sovereign territory: today’s Vatican City and some extraterritorial properties like the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo.
For a long time, Catholics of a certain cast of mind bitterly resented all this. Their attitude was neatly captured by Guy Crouchback, the protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor. At the beginning of the third volume, Unconditional Surrender, Guy chats with his wise and aged father during the Allied campaign in Italy:
News of the King’s flight came on the day the brigade landed at Salerno. It brought Guy some momentary exhilaration.
“That looks like the end of the Piedmontese usurpation,” he said to his father. “What a mistake the Lateran Treaty was. It seemed masterly at the time – how long? Fifteen years ago? What are 15 years in the history of Rome? How much better it would have been if the Popes had sat it out and then emerged, saying, ‘What was all that? Risorgimento? Garibaldi? Cavour? The House of Savoy? Mussolini? Just some hooligans from out of town causing a disturbance. Come to think of it, wasn’t there a poor boy whom they called King of Rome?’ That’s what the Pope ought to be saying today.”
Mr. Crouchback regarded his son sadly. “My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really talking the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”
The fictional Gervase Crouchback was a man ahead of his time in 1943, when he set Guy straight about the “Piedmontese usurpation,” the Lateran Treaty, and the rest of it. But his view has been thoroughly vindicated in the decades since World War II, and on this sesquicentennial in Rome it would take a particular kind of obtuseness, combined with over-the-top romanticism, to think that the loss of the Papal States was anything other than a tremendous blessing for the Catholic Church. Garibaldi, Cavour, and the House of Savoy turned out to be unwitting midwives of a new papacy, one that deployed moral authority to great political effect in world affairs – far more effect, in fact, than either the Kingdom of Italy or the Repubblica Italiana has managed since 1861.
The key figure in this, it seems ever more clear, was the immediate successor to Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII. Rather than behaving like a petulant dispossessed minor Italian noble, Leo set about engaging modernity in his own distinctive way, thereby laying the groundwork for the exercise of new forms of papal power. He thought through the challenges of political modernity and the modern, secular state in a series of encyclicals; their literary style tends toward the higher baroque, but the trenchancy of Leo’s thought makes them worth plowing through today. Leo fostered a Catholic intellectual renaissance by encouraging study of the original texts of Thomas Aquinas, whose political theory he himself used to launch modern Catholic social doctrine, one of the three mega-proposals for ordering the human future on offer in the world today (the others being jihadist Islam and the pragmatic-utilitarian ethos embodied in American consumerism and popular culture).
None of this would have been possible if Leo had been stuck managing a minor European state in the middle of the Italian peninsula and trying to reconcile his evangelical functions as Successor of Peter with the requirements of daily statecraft. Nor would we have seen the historic accomplishments of the man who brought the Leonine papacy to its apogee, John Paul II, the pivotal figure in the collapse of European Communism. John Paul deployed the moral weapons that Leo began to develop, and showed them to be singularly effective in bringing to an end the greatest tyranny in human history. The victory of freedom over Communism had many authors, to be sure. But in the judgment of serious Cold War historians, the pivotal moment in the drama that became the Revolution of 1989 was John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in June 1979: a moment made possible, in no small part, by the victory of Italian secularists over Pius IX in 1861 and 1870.
There are many ironies in the fire, indeed.
As for 21st-century Italy, it will try its best to celebrate today, but the fact is that it is beset by the same problems that bedevil much of the rest of Western Europe: demographic meltdown, a fiscally impossible welfare state, the loss of any work ethic, inane politics, dysfunctional public services, irresponsible unions, and unresponsive bureaucratic government. Many of those problems reflect the crisis of cultural morale that hangs over contemporary Europe like a dense fog. And that crisis of cultural morale, in its Italian form, is rooted in the arid secularism that helped shape the modern Italy born 150 years ago today. Some wise Italians, like Marcello Pera – philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate – understand this and are trying to do something about it. But theirs is a difficult task.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a congratulatory letter to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano (a former luminary of the Italian Communist party) yesterday. Being a close student of modern history, Benedict might well have been tempted (though he is too much a gentleman to do any such thing) to send a brief salute to Italian unification from the Vatican to the Quirinale: “Thanks for the favor.”
– George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His new book is The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.
This article was originally published on National Review Online