Today we come to the third session of our online book club, covering chapters 5 -6 of Yves Chiron’s Pius IX: The Man and the Myth. Roughly speaking, these sections cover the time from Pius IX’s office as Cardinal Bishop of Imola through the first period of his life as Sovereign Pontiff. This is a momentous section in the book, and we will try to review the major points, leaving to the individual readers all of the finer details found in this section.
Before we begin, I think it’s important to dispel a notion that has existed for a long time, and one which is now resurfacing on an almost daily level; the notion that Pope Pius IX, prior to his election, and during the period of his papacy before the revolutionaries forced him into exile, was a liberal. This claim is patently false. Anyone reading Chrion’s masterful work sees that Pius IX, even before the open work of the revolutionaries, was an anti-liberal. That doesn’t mean, however, that he didn’t attempt to work in a conciliatory manner to preserve peace, all the while refusing to compromise with error. Let’s keep this in mind in the days and weeks ahead as we see reference to this by well-meaning, but ill-informed writers.
Bishop and Cardinal of Imola
When we last left off, Bishop Mastai was bishop of Spoleto, and in the wake of a revolutionary fervor sweeping the countryside, had resolved his diocese in peace, without any bloodshed.
Now, coming off of his success as one who can reconcile various factions under the authority of the pope (Gregory XVI), we see his estimation rise in the mind of that same pope.
For this reason, the Holy Father, in November 1831, appointed him Bishop of Imola, whose cathedral is seen below. Now, it may seem, as Chiron points out, that moving from an archdiocese to a diocese was a demotion, but certainly not in this case. The See of Imola had long been a traditional cardinalatial see; as such this move should be seen as a promotion and confirmation of the trust placed in Bishop Mastai by the Sovereign Pontiff.
But what is the defining note of this event? It is that the bishop did not object or seek to avoid this office as he had years before in Spoleto. What are we to make of this? From a worldly perspective, it could be seen that the bishop from a noble family has moved to a certain ambition, seeking after and pleased to receive positions of honor. But this would only be the understanding of the world. The true answer lies much deeper.
As Bishop Mastai advanced in holiness, he began to be ever more docile to the will of God, especially in those things he didn’t seek out. So, as appointments come from the Holy Father, he accepts them without the hesitation of his earlier life, seeing in them the manifestation of Divine Providence.
Reform of the Clergy
One of the main features Chiron brings before us is the reform of the clergy initiated by the new bishop. It shows that at this stage, as all through his future life as pope, one of the central focuses of Pius IX was the reform and holiness of his priests. From these, the bishop (and later pope) knew would come a reform of morals among the faithful and a greater honor and glory to God. It is important to look briefly at these reforms. In the first place, he forbade all clerics to dress in secular clothing in public. The interesting point is to see the evolution of this problem, even in the 1800s and before; the manifest wisdom of Pius IX is borne out in our own age as we see the immense problems that arise from failing to heed this warning.
The second thing to note (though not the second on Bishop Mastai’s list) was that all parish priests must constantly reside in their presbyteries (among other things). Similar to the first point, if priests ought to dress in a clerical manner at all times publicly, both for the edification of the faithful and for their own safety and spiritual growth, so to, the parish priest must be in his “home,” living among his people, and bringing them to sanctity.
Not one to simply command, Bishop Mastai himself gave the example by his blameless life, and also by his regular retreats, which Chiron points out to us.
Before moving to the next chapter, one more point should be drawn out: the Pensieri mentioned by Chiron. These thoughts came from a work of the Cardinal Bishop of Imola submitted to the Secretariat of State, and were fully titled, “Thoughts on the Public Administration of the Papal State.” It is in these that some wish to see the great “liberal” of his early days. To counter this argument, let’s take a look at these reforms and their motivations.
The reforms were consisted of 58 chapters/thoughts. Understandably, Chiron brings out only a little more than a dozen of these; but those he gives are indicative of the whole.
For example, we see a suggestion for prohibiting townships from fixing their own tax rate. The prudence of this is to be seen considering the greed which individual men may take; rather than this, let a general tax reform exist which will better contribute funds to the Papal States, while burdening the citizens no more than necessary. It was certainly a change to custom, but one which struck at some of the discontent of much of the populace.
Or another, to grant a moderate amnesty for political prisoners. Are we to make of this a sympathy with these political prisoners? Far from it; here we see the practicality of the Cardinal. He points out (and who could deny it) that a great number of political prisoners make excellent fodder for a revolutionary spirit.
In still another section he calls for a reform of the system of censorship. Again, he does not call for a removal of that system, nor does he call into question censorship as a principle, or practice, proper to a government. But he does call for a more defined application of it.
So, in all of this are we to see the pope of the liberal dreams? Far from it. The beauty of all of these suggestions is the pragmatism with which they are approached. Never compromising on doctrine or on the obedience due to the Papal States’ government (the head of which was the Pope), he sought to ease true and seeming burdens to take the tool of the revolutionaries from their hands. To this, no one can object.
On June 1, 1846, Pope Gregory XVI died. Following his duty, Cardinal Mastai went immediately to Rome. As the votes proceeded, it became clear that Mastai was surging forward. Finally, on the 4th ballot, he won the necessary 2/3 and accepted the office, taking the name Pius IX in memory, specifically, of Pope Pius VII.
Once again we see a quick acceptance of the office, without great hesitation, though surely he must have felt overwhelmed interiorly. Why the lack of hesitation? We look back once again to the same reason as when he accepted the bishopric of Imola: The Pope had come to a point in his spiritual life in which he readily and easily accepted the designs of Providence. As it seemed clear that Providence lead him to this point, he accepted. It is truly as simple, and profound, as this.
What was the reaction of the world to this? We already know that some, even at the time, thought he might be a liberal. Certainly since then, many more have staked this claim. But how do the diplomats from the various states (almost exclusively implacable enemies of the revolutionaries) react? Almost to a man they sent dispatches relaying that the newly elected Sovereign Pontiff was wise and prudent, the right man for the burden of the Petrine office, etc. It is clear that those “in the know” at the time did not consider Pope Pius IX to be a liberal.
The Pope of the Amnesty
Still, many will point to one of the first major events of his papacy as proof of an inherent liberalism. Let’s examine the case. Soon after the Pope’s election, he ordered the creation of a commission to study the question of a general, but moderate amnesty of political prisoners in the Papal States.
What were the circumstances? First, that some were excluded, namely, clerics, government employees, and those who had exercised public office. Why? The reason should be obvious enough; these gave greater scandal and were at greater risk of seducing the populace, driving them into the arms of the revolution. Plus, those excluded, due to the importance of their respective offices, had committed a greater crime.
Second, we see the motivation of the pope. First, it is to be merciful and help quell revolution, but secondly it is to be merciful to the “young and inexperienced, and who, drawn into the arena of political unrest by foolish illusions, seemed more victims of seduction than seducers themselves.” Here we see the image of a father more readily forgiving (in the hopes of obtaining true conversion of life) his sons who acted through a certain stupidity, rather than through an educated malice.
Finally, we see the amnesty is tied to an oath of loyalty to the Sovereign Pontiff. There is no question then of a liberal attitude, but rather, as stated, a paternal response by those willing to make the necessary reparations, and who had not committed the gravest of offences by disgracing their office, or of causing greater scandal through their positions.
Here we will close our thoughts on these two chapters. While there is much more to these chapters than what has been covered, these deal with the most central events of this period of his life, and set the stage for what is to come: The rise of the revolutionaries and the exile of the Holy Father.
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With great sadness, the U.S. District of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) announces the passing of Fr. Dominique Bourmaud. He went to his eternal reward in the early hours of Saturday, September 4, 2021.
Eternal rest grant unto Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.