Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX; drawing by David Levine

David Kertzer has written a number of important books on modern Italy, including The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2015.* In 1997 he published The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the first modern account of the abduction of a young Jewish boy by Catholic authorities in Bologna in 1858. A Christian maid in the family had baptized the boy because, she claimed, he was ill and might die. Pope Pius IX took him into his care, and he was never returned to his parents. The case provoked an international controversy: liberals and Protestants all over Europe and the United States attacked the pope as the symbol of everything reactionary and backward in the Catholic Church. Edgardo became a priest and lived to the age of eighty-eight, a pious and devoted Catholic who was deeply grateful to Pius IX, his spiritual foster father. By the time Pius IX approved the kidnapping, the daily management of papal affairs lay with Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, a rigorous reactionary.

Kertzer’s new book, The Pope Who Would Be King, tells the remarkable story of Pius IX’s first four years as pope. With an astonishing richness of evidence he recreates the world of the Italian states and the papacy between 1846 and 1850. These were the years in which Pius IX became the reformer pope, the hope of liberals and the poverty-stricken, downtrodden subjects of the Papal States, of moderate Catholics and Italian patriots. The Papal States, which included most of present-day Lazio, Marche, Umbria, Romagna, and parts of Emilia, were the result of the spread of papal governance across a large part of the Italian peninsula during the Middle Ages. The popes ruled these territories as the inheritance of centuries of late feudal conflict, in which they waged war as worldly princes. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Papal States had become notorious for backwardness, poor government, and corruption. The unexpected election in 1846 of a young reformer as pope raised the possibility that they might become the kingdom around which the long-dreamed-of unification of Italy could be achieved.

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, the future Pius IX, was born on May 13, 1792, in Ancona, the fourth son of a count. Handsome, charming, and extremely intelligent, he rose rapidly in the church hierarchy: he was consecrated as archbishop of Spoleto in 1827 at the young age of thirty-five and saved his diocese from the use of force to subdue the revolution of 1830. He sold his own possessions to raise money for the poor and used his influence to save the life of the young prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later the emperor of France. His achievements in Spoleto led to his promotion to the bishopric of Imola and to the rank of cardinal. He read the literature of the Risorgimento (the “resurgence” of Italian greatness in the nineteenth century, which aimed at unification of the peninsula) and encouraged Italian nationalism. His election as pope on June 16, 1846, as a moderate progressive was greeted with enthusiasm.

Pius introduced overdue reforms in the government of the Papal States. On July 16, 1846, he decreed an amnesty for political prisoners, and in 1847 he set up city and state councils. Everywhere he went the Roman poor hailed him. “Pio Nono,” as Italians called him, embodied the dilemma of the moderate reformer. He wanted to allow some loosening of the pope’s authority though disapproved of rule by laymen and democratic institutions. But his incremental changes were overtaken by the radical events of 1848, which marked the turning point in his pontificate and set the agenda for church–state relations for decades afterward.

In January 1848 a revolt broke out in Sicily, which was followed on February 22 by revolution in Paris and the abdication of King Louis-Philippe, and then on March 13 by a revolt in Vienna. The Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich, the hated symbol of repression, fled to England, and the Hungarians revolted against Austrian rule. Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and the Balkans faced chaos. The people of Rome, like those of Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan, Venice, and the smaller German states, began to organize representative governments for the first time.

The instability in the Austrian Empire threatened the balance of power in Europe. The reactionary post-Napoleonic settlement of 1815 had rewarded the Austrians with control over Lombardy and Venetia, the two richest Italian provinces and the biggest source of Austrian tax revenue. The Austrian occupation was the hated symbol of Italian subordination. On March 23, 1848, King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia declared war on Austria under the slogan L’Italia farà da se (“Italy will make itself”), and the fight for Italian national unity began.

In Rome Pius IX faced a real threat to his safety. On November 15, 1848, Pelegrino Rossi, his most important official, who acted as minister of internal affairs in charge of police and minister of finance, was murdered as he entered the Palace of the Chancellery, where he was to address the Chamber of Deputies, the new and progressive representative body that Pius IX had created—and soon regretted that he had. The guards at the Quirinale Palace, the papal residence in Rome, melted into the angry crowds, and the door to the pope’s reception room lacked a proper lock.


Kertzer’s prologue begins at the moment of crisis: the pope had decided to escape from Rome and seek shelter with the reactionary king of Naples, Ferdinand II. On the night of November 24, 1848, the French ambassador arrived at the Quirinale. He and the papal steward, Count Benedetto Filippani, dressed the pope in a floppy black cleric’s hat and dark glasses, and covered his hair with white powder. His haste and disguise showed how frightening the situation had become. “I look like a country priest,” the pope said as he saw himself in the mirror.

Pius IX took refuge in Gaeta in the Kingdom of Naples, and in his absence elections were held for a constituent assembly, which on February 9, 1849, abolished the pope’s rule over the Papal States and established the Roman Republic. The pope appealed to the Great Powers—the Austrians, the French, the Neapolitans, and the Spanish—for aid. But they could not agree on what to do, and the French government decided to send troops to protect the pope. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been elected president of the new French republic, agreed with Austria to a restoration of Pius’s rule over the Papal States, and fierce fighting for control of Rome broke out between the French army and the revolutionary forces, which were eventually defeated. On April 12, 1850, Pius returned to his capital guarded by French troops. Kertzer concludes:

The story told in these pages recounts the death throes of the popes’ thousand-year kingdom…. If the pope himself could no longer claim to have been divinely ordained to rule his land, how could any other monarch claim such a right?

The pope lost political control of the Papal States but did not renounce his theological claims to them, which were based on his position as the representative of God’s power on earth, not on the papacy’s historical possession of Italian territory. His claim to divine authority had two aspects: “spiritual power,” the power to interpret the teachings of God, and “temporal power,” the power to give laws to the faithful to save them from sin. Both powers have roots in the New Testament, where they appear in all three of the so-called synoptic gospels. In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Peter recognized that Jesus was the Christ and by that insight he became the most important of the disciples. Jesus declared:

“I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.

The supreme position of Peter among the other Apostles became the basis for the claim that the church was the mystical Body of Christ on earth and that Peter and his successors enjoyed primacy over other bishops. Pope Leo I (440–461) asserted that the power vested by Saint Peter in the church had, as the Oxford Dictionary of Popes explains, “been transmitted to each subsequent bishop of Rome as the Apostle’s heir. As such, he assumed Peter’s functions, full authority, and privileges.” The popes bore the sign of the two keys to represent the Spiritual and Temporal Powers. The Temporal Power covered all aspects of Christian life on earth and, by a kind of extension, all the lands that the pope ruled with divine authority.

Kertzer’s brilliant treatment of the crisis in the papacy between 1846 and 1850 reads like a thriller. All the characters, from the poor of Rome to the king of Naples, stand out with a vividness that testifies to his mastery of prose. At the center is the tragic dilemma of the new pope who wanted to reform the government of his lands, but the revolutionaries—Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the armed citizenry—had other aims. The battle for Rome and the interventions of the Great Powers have never been handled with such dramatic intensity.

Kertzer follows Pius IX’s pontificate to 1850 and gives a short account of his later years, but they deserve a more thorough consideration. The pope continued to rule over Rome and Lazio even after much of Italy, including most of the Papal States, had been unified under Victor Emmanuel II in 1861. In that period the kind but uncertain pope seems to have been transformed. The Catholic Church renewed its spiritual vigor following its political defeat. Pius adopted the faithful Catholic people as his true church. The liberals and radicals were a small flock in contrast to the vast crowds who came to Rome to celebrate the various new holidays and ceremonies that the pope introduced. Pilgrimages and cults of saints rejuvenated the church. In the 1850s new Catholic mass organizations refreshed traditional piety, and Catholic political parties emerged in Germany, Switzerland, and France.


Pius IX renewed the cult of the Virgin Mary. In the Ineffabilis Deus of December 1854, he declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was now an article of faith and was celebrated with large devotional exercises and mass gatherings of the faithful.

Pius IX became the true “suffering servant of Christ.” He mingled with the crowds and blessed them. He became in effect the “people’s pope.” The humble, approachable priest (with a will of iron) was a beloved figure. He lived simply and dressed humbly but behind his modesty was a new vision of the Catholic Church, with a different kind of political and spiritual influence and a flexible modern amalgam of humility and doctrine.

On June 29, 1868, Pius IX called a Vatican Council, the first of its kind in the modern era. In Session IV of July 18, 1870, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ was promulgated. Chapter 4 was called “On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff.” The reaction to the new doctrine was violent both inside and outside the Roman Church. Many Catholics were simply unable to accept papal infallibility as a binding article of faith. They split from Rome and founded the “Old Catholic Church.” The Old Catholics have more or less disappeared. (The Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965 led another reactionary group, the Tridentine Catholics, to split from the church. The Tridentines, who still exist today, revere the Latin mass and practice very much in the spirit of Pius IX. They have their own seminaries and bishops who can ordain priests.)

In 1870–1871 the Franco-Prussian War transformed European politics. When on September 2, 1870, the French surrendered at Sedan and Napoleon III was taken prisoner, the new French Republic returned to its anticlerical traditions of 1789. The garrison of French troops that had remained in Rome after 1850 to guard the pope was withdrawn, and on September 20, Victor Emmanuel and the Royal Piedmontese Army defeated papal troops and breached the walls of the city of Rome at Porta Pia. The papacy’s temporal power was abolished by the Italian state, Rome was incorporated into Italy, and Pius IX went into exile within the Vatican. Its great gates were closed in mourning. Roman nobles and prelates also closed their main doors in sympathy.

The capital of Italy was moved to Rome, but the government did not interfere with the pope’s authority within the Vatican walls. On May 13, 1871, the Italian parliament passed the Law of Guarantees as a gesture of goodwill. It granted the pope rights similar to those of the king of Italy, including the right to send and receive ambassadors, though it did not restore his control over the Papal States. Pius IX’s reaction was the encyclical UBI NOS (On Pontifical States), promulgated on May 15, 1871, in which he rejected all relations with the godless Italian state. The dissidio (dispute) poisoned relations between Italy and the Vatican for fifty years. In 1874 the pope declared it non-expedit (not desirable) for devout Catholics to take any part in the government of the Kingdom of Italy. In 1877 the decree was strengthened to non-licet; it was now not “allowed” for Catholics to serve the blasphemous kingdom in any capacity or even to vote in its elections.

On February 2, 1878, Pius IX died after the longest pontificate in history. He had not left the Vatican since 1870. Neither did his successors until 1929, when the dissidio between the popes and the Italian state was resolved by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, who recreated the temporal power in miniature, as a tiny sovereign state of 107 acres. Vatican City again became an independent monarchy, outside the authority of the Republic of Italy, that the pope still rules today.