The Pope, the War, and the Roman Question

By Gino C. Sperenza

[The Outlook; August 29, 1917]

Of course the following correspondence was written some time before the peace proposals of Pope Benedict XV made him for the time being the central figure in world diplomacy. As if, however, in anticipation of this very proposal, Mr. Speranza, our special correspondent in Italy, has here answered the inquiry which must have arisen at once in many minds when the Pope's proposal was first announced: How is it that the Pope, an Italian, can act as a neutral in a war in which Italy is engaged, and how will any action of his in relation to that war affect the great body of Roman Catholics in all countries who acknowledge the spiritual authority of their Church and its pontiff?...—THE EDITORS.

There is an unwritten law in most editorial sanctums in America that questions relating to the Roman Catholic Church shall be treated with great circumspection, if at all. The rule is based on that very commendable instinct in the average American for avoiding wounding the susceptibilities of the individual in religious convictions, and is also probably the result of an unexpressed recognition of a clear fact in public opinion: that just as the Christian world has not always been fair to Judaism, so Protestant America, has not always been just towards Roman Catholicism.

Yet if one goes down deeper into the reasons or causes of such a rule, it will be found that its origin is also partly due to an insufficient grasp of the essential facts of the Roman question, a full, clear, and plain knowledge of which would take its discussion outside of the editorial inhibition.

This preamble is necessary in order that from the very start of this inquiry the distinction be drawn between Catholic faith, dogma, and practice, and the institutional organization and being of the Church temporal. With the divine origin and mission of Roman Catholicism this inquiry has nothing to do—indeed, it readily admits both. With regard to the institutional life of the Church temporal, however, it would lay stress on one particular point: that this stupendous organization which has stood the test of time and of worldly changes more than any other institution is preponderating a creation, of the Italian mind. Most of its Sovereign Pontiffs, and all of the greatest among them, have been men of Italian birth, culture, and training; the-Sacred College of Cardinals has been from its inception preponderating Italian, actually actually so in numbers, largely so in influence and in the shaping of policies. The official residence of the Head of the Church and the earthly center of Catholicism has been almost uninterruptedly on Italian soil, and all great questions of fundamental and universal application have been discussed and decided at such temporal center in an Italian atmosphere and amid Italian surroundings.

By laying stress on these facts it is not meant to detract from the glory of the Church temporal, but rather to make non-Catholics realize its essential greatness as the product of the same genius which gave to the world Roman law and the humanism of the Renaissance.

There is also one reasonable corollary to these facts: that Italian Catholics are very fortunately situated for observing and studying at close range, and with perhaps a better understanding, the mechanism, organization, and tendencies of the Church temporal, to meet and come into contact with its leaders and influential personages; in short, to have all those advantages which come from being near the seat of government and the court of last appeal. And because of the Italian "coloring" of the Church temporal it may be reasonably maintained that the Italians must possess a peculiar capacity for interpreting Papal programmes in matters temporal and in gauging the strength, and character of the support or opposition to the political policies of the Vatican.

I realize that the objection will be raised that the Papacy has no political life, programmes, or aspirations; but my answer to this must be bluntly and positively one of fact—-that European Catholicism, and in a very practical way Italian Catholicism knows better. Indeed, when I state the well-known fact that Italian Roman Catholics are divided into two parties—the Clericals and the merely Catholics—I do not set forth, a disagreement in faith, dogma, or Church practice, but a difference in political outlook.

The Clericals in Italy are those who actively or tacitly support the Papal aspirations to temporal dominion, physical or political; they comprise a large part, but by no means all, of the Italian priesthood, a number of whom are actively opposed to the political programme of the Church. The Italian non-Clerical Catholics are those faithful children of Mother Church who accept the "historic reality" of the loss of temporal power of the Papacy, and are either indifferent to its political aspirations or opposed to them as possibly militating against or contrasting with the best interests of the Church spiritual.

Among the many examples that might be cited of political activities of the Church temporal let me give one whose political character no reasonable person could honestly deny. Suppose the Holy Pontiff should advise American Catholics to abstain from voting at National elections; could any one seriously maintain that this was the exercise of the religious prerogatives of the Head of the Church? Yet something essentially of this character has happened in Italy in the political history of the Church temporal, not centuries ago, but within the memory of living men. From Pius IX to Benedict XV there has been a constantly shifting political programme traced out by the Papacy for Italian Catholics. Pius IX, who at first seemed to support the political aspirations of the Italians towards Italian unification, later took the stand of "no compromise with liberalism;" the next striking change was the order of "Ne eletti ne elettori" ("Neither voters nor office-holders");—that is an order to abstain from the political life of the nation; and this was followed by the urgent injunction of Pius X that Italian Catholics should support the Liberal candidates to Parliament.

I do not cite these facts in disparagement or criticism, but in order to make clear the fact that the American assumption that it is advisable to avoid discussion on all questions of Papal policies because such discussion necessarily involves matters of faith is untenable and contrary to facts. That there is a large number of such questions that are debatable and dissentable by and among Catholics is shown not merely by the fact that millions of devout European Catholics and hundreds of priests, bishops, and prelates in Italy and France disagree upon such debatable questions; but that the Pontiffs themselves have held varying and even contrary or opposite views about them.

These differences in the political field have been most vividly and intensely made apparent by the war in Europe, and especially in Italy. There has been a great flowering of faith among indifferentist Catholics in France and Italy, and tens of thousands in these countries have thronged to the churches who heretofore simply believed but seldom practiced. Yet at the same time French and Italian non-clerical Catholic opinion has been outspoken against Benedict XV, not as Head of the Church, but as the leader of a political programme in temporal situations arising out of the war. This does not mean, even remotely, a tendency toward a new Reformation or a strengthening of Protestantism in Italy, but only marked divergences as regards non-religious attributes and functions of the Papacy.

I have said that the bulk of Italian Catholics accept the "historic reality" of the loss of temporal power by the Popes. Now what is really meant by this?

In the history of European civilization the Papacy appears not only, as a tremendous religious influence, but as a sovereign state. As such it made treaties and entered into alliances, it imposed and collected taxes, it made temporal laws and administered human justice. It had its courts and its prisons, its magistrates and its executioners. It punished violators of its temporal laws by physical punishment and beheaded malefactors as any 'other sovereign state; near Rome to-day Austrian military prisoners are detained in a castle which no further back than the time of Pius IX was used as a jail for political prisoners of the Papal State.

It had an army and a navy, and used both for the purposes of its sovereign political needs. It fought other temporal sovereignties or defended itself by force of arms against them, and its decisions thereon were matters of state and not of religion in most instances. Guelphs and Ghibellines were alike its spiritual children, but Popes aided the political aspirations of one faction and fought the political undertakings of the other. The citizens of the Venetian Republic were fervent Catholics, but as Venetians they disagreed with the political views of some of the Popes, and the Papacy made war upon them; so were the Florentines devout Catholics, but the Pope joined the Emperor in besieging the city of Florence and exacting tribute.

In the course of centuries, through such historical changes and vicissitudes, the Papacy gained or lost in territory and in political prestige and power; during the present century it has steadily lost. This is not to say that such loss has been deserved or that it was just and righteous, but merely to summarize a "historical reality." Sovereignty in the modern conception of the state rests on the will of the people; it may be a right or a wrong will, but if it succeeds in forcibly overcoming another sovereign will it legalizes its rebelliousness and becomes a sovereign state as soon as it organizes itself in an orderly manner and assumes responsibility for its acts.

Looking at the map of Europe in its historical reality, we see that even in modern times the Italian peninsula was parceled off into various sovereign states: the Savoyard Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont), the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Duchy of Tuscany, the Venetian and Lombard provinces of Austria, and the States of the Church. But later the Italian people, under the leadership of Piedmont, have ousted every one of these sovereignties, mostly by force of arms. In 1870 they took from the Papal State its last temporal citadel— the walled city of Rome. The Italian army entered it forcibly through a breach made in the walls by the Italian artillery, while the Pontifical troops offered physical resistance, killing and wounding many of the attackers. A devout Catholic, the father of the present Generalissimo of the fighting armies of Italy, was in command of the attacking troops.

Other armies or sovereignties had theretofore, conquered or forcibly, occupied Rome; the Directoire during the French Revolution imprisoned Pius VI and led him captive to Valencia, where he died; Napoleon dragged Pius VII from the Eternal City to Fontainebleau; and the revolutionists who attempted to set up a Roman Republic compelled Pius IX to flee to Gaeta. But when the troops of Victor Emmanuel II entered Rome on September 20, 1870, they did not ask the Pope to surrender nor did they attempt to oust him or remove him from the Vatican.

This was nearly fifty years ago, and during such, time Rome has been the recognized capital of United Italy, and at the same time the official and princely residence of the Head of the Roman Catholic Church.

How has this been possible? Not because of any surrender on the part of the Pontiffs, who have officially protested against their deprivation of temporal power, but because the Italian people have solemnly pledged themselves as a nation to honor, respect, and defend the Sovereign Pontiffs as long as they shall choose to make Rome their temporal residence.

That solemn national pledge is known as the Legge delle Guarantigie, and is a part of the body of laws of the Kingdom of Italy. The Papacy has not recognized such Law of Guarantees, but it has nevertheless lived under it since 1871; it has protested against it as a limitation upon, the activities of the Church, but the Church has nevertheless prospered despite the alleged limitations set upon it; it has refused to look upon Rome as the capital of Italy, but Popes have died and Popes have been elected at solemn conclaves held freely within its limits, despite the lack of freedom which the Papacy claimed such Law of Guarantees imposed upon its functions.

Out of this conflict or divergence on a non-religious matter between the Church temporal and the State in Italy has arisen the Roman question. This, in brief, can be stated as follows: "Can the Head of Roman Catholicism exercise his functions as such in territory under the political control of another sovereignty?"

The Italian people, including a majority of Italian Catholics, have said, Yes; and in order to make their views declaratory of the nation's will and officially binding the State in certain duties towards the Church they enacted in 1871 the Law of Guarantees.

This is a body of legislative provisions passed by both Chambers of the Italian Parliament after dull and open discussion, and signed by the King wherein and whereby the Italian people formally recognize on their part certain limitations to their own sovereignty and legally bind themselves to respect certain prerogatives and special privileges enjoyed by the Pope-Sovereign. The said law provides, briefly, as follows: that the Roman Pontiff shall be in no way subject to the Italian State, which, on its part, binds itself to place no limitations on the personal liberty of the Pope; that his person shall be as inviolate as that of the King, and any violation, injury, or offense, or attempt threat of the person of the Holy Father shall be subject, to the same punishments, as any similar violation or attempt against the person of the head of the Italian State; that the Pope shall receive all the honors and rights of preeminence within the Kingdom, which are granted to him by Catholic-sovereigns; and that he shall have the right of maintaining a guard for his person and for the custody of his palaces. The law specifically provides that the administrative legislation of Italy shall have no effect within the threshold of the Papal See or wheresoever the Pontiff may be housed; that any and all Italian officials shall be prohibited from entering or exercising any authority or function within the limits of the Vatican, or from availing themselves of the right of search or sequestration in the offices of the Papacy or of its congregations, or from in any way interfering with the spiritual functions of the Holy See, whether these are exercised by ecclesiastics, who are Italian citizens or by ecclesiastics owing-foreign allegiance and resident in Rome.

The State, by the same law, grants to the Sovereign Pontiffs the private and free use of the postal and telegraphic services of the Kingdom, extends to Pontifical couriers the same privileges as are granted to diplomatic, couriers of lay states, and places Papal telegrams on the same footing as state telegrams. Diplomatic officials accredited to the Vatican enjoy, by the same law, all the prerogatives of diplomatic officials such as are recognized by the law of nations and international practice, and Papal legate accredited by the Church to foreign capitals are assured the same privileges while in transit going to or coming from their posts that are enjoyed by other ambassadors.

Lastly, the Law of Guarantees sets aside definite sources of income and temporal enjoyment for the Sovereign Pontiffs, to wit: "the free use of the palaces of the Vatican, of the Lateran Palace, and of a villa at Castel Gandolfo for the summer, besides an annual, income out of the funds of the State of 3,225,000 Italian Lire.

The annual sum thus provided has never been drawn by the Papacy, and remains as an enormous accumulation of funds in the Treasury of Italy subject to Papal order; the Vatican, or the Leonine City, with its twenty thousand rooms, its magnificent galleries and gardens, the Lateran Palace, and the villa at Castel Gandolfo have nevertheless been constantly occupied and enjoyed by the Popes or their Cardinals since the Law of Guarantees went into effect. The opportunities to extend sovereign honors have never presented themselves, as the Popes since 1870 have never come outside of the Leonine City; but that such "imprisonment" is self-imposed would seem, reasonably to appear from the fact that all Church dignitaries, both Italian and alien, except the Head of the Church, have freely lived in Rome and have come and gone unmolested and respected,, and that solemn consistories and three Papal elections have been held in the Eternal City since the Popes became "prisoners in the Vatican." It is a well-known fact that on great ceremonial occasions of the Church, when immense crowds gather at St. Peter's, officers of the Vatican unofficially ask for the police aid' of the State, which the Vatican does not recognize de jure, and that Italian carbineers and policemen on such occasions fraternize with the Pontifical guards on duty at the famous bronze doors. But the highest proof that the spiritual functions of the Church are absolutely free in Rome is evidenced by the successive Papal elections held therein since the Italians occupied the city, for clearly, if they had not been free, how could the Cardinals' in solemn conclaves have held valid elections? Any other claim would obviously invalidate the choice of the Sovereign Pontiff.

I do not think that any well-informed and fair-minded man could have reasonably and convincingly insisted that up to May 24, 1915, the freedom of the Church spiritual has been destroyed or hampered by the Law of Guarantees. Another aspect, however, presented itself after that date when Italy declared war on Austria and entered into the European conflict.

Since that date the Pope has officially complained that, "despite the good intentions" of the Italians, "it has been found impossible not to avoid various inconveniences of evident gravity."

In support of the Papal complaint many claims and stances are alleged, ventilated most actively, strangely by the press of Protestant Germany and of Austria-Hungary, the allies of Mohammedan Turkey.

These allegations can be summarized as follows: First, that diplomatic officials accredited to the Holy See from enemy states were obliged to leave Home. This is a question of fact which the future alone can judicially and fairly pass upon, for in reply to the Pope's complaint we have the official and specific denial of the Italian Government, which states, positively that such officials were assured every protection by the Government, but that they left of their own volition. This is certain, however—that when they left they received, both from Government officials and from the people, every courtesy and mark of polite deference as became their exalted office. The second allegation of complaint has been the difficulties experienced by the Papacy in communicating with the Catholic world and in the curtailment of means of rapid conveyance and transmission of dispensations for marriages and other acts and orders of the Apostolic See throughout the world. But the answer of the Italians to this complaint is that such delays and difficulties are incidental and due to war and not to the Law of Guarantees, and that Papal couriers are subject to the same slowness of travel as any other diplomatic couriers to-day on account of the political and military situation of Europe and not on account of anything that the Italian Government does or omits doing. And as for the difficulties in sending dispensations to Catholics in enemy countries, the Italians ask why the Vatican does not create a larger number of German and Austrian Cardinals, who could grant such dispensations in their respective countries without the delays incidental to dealing through Rome.

Before the European war it might have been reasonably argued that, the Law of Guarantees had not had a full and complete test. But the force of that argument fell with the election of Benedict XV in the midst of one of the greatest struggles in history. The Conclave which elected him was attended from states at war with one another. The first Consistory of the new Pope was held when Italy had become an actual participant in the great struggle. It was held with unaccustomed pomp and impressiveness, and I can personally testify, not only to the utmost freedom during the functions, but to an utter lack of hostility or of disrespect towards the high and solemn proceedings in or out of the Vatican. Imposing, interested crowds attended; German was as freely spoken as French, English, and Italian; there were no demonstrations either for the Cardinals from "allied countries" nor against Cardinal Hartmann. But if proof were needed of the freedom of the Papacy it seems to me it would be found in the fact that Benedict XV, in the midst of a tremendous world conflict, and while Italy was under the fearful strain and tension of its greatest war, was able and did solemnly and officially speak against the very State which he alleges has deprived him of his freedom as Head of Catholicism.

So that, on the whole, the words of the Minister of Justice in Salandra's Cabinet regarding the Law of Guarantees after a long and varied test have the force of facts rather than the superficiality of a political assertion. "While in other gigantic struggles," said Minister Orlando, "the sacred character of the Head of the Church had not saved him, as a temporal sovereign from suffering persecution and violence, imprisonment and exile—from Gregory VII to Boniface VIII and Pius VII—nevertheless in the present awful conflict, the Supreme Pontiff, under the safeguard of the Italian law, maintained unaltered and applied in a spirit of broad interpretation of its fundamental principle, has been able to govern his Church and to exercise his great ministry with a fullness of rights, with a freedom, safety, and prestige, such as befit the truly sovereign authority which is his, and incontestable in the spiritual world."

There is only one other notable criticism which has been raised against the Law of Guarantees; What is there to prevent that law from being changed, or the men at the head of the Italian government from applying it illiberally? Nothing, absolutely nothing. But this is true of every law in any state. In liberal, constitutional governments the people who make the laws can change them at will by following the constitutional machinery provided therefore, or extra-legally by a revolution. Likewise in every constitutional government the parliament which supports one cabinet may at any time change it or force it out of office by refusing it its parliamentary confidence. Every law and institution in Italy, from the Constitution and the crown down, is subject to the will of the people; hence the Law of Guarantees, like the law regarding the prerogatives of the crown, is subject for its continuance to the will of the nation.

What can the Papacy propose to modern constitutional states of more binding force and of more enduring guarantee? The alternatives which might be proposed are only two; temporal sovereignty or an international agreement.

Suppose the former had been in force in this war, suppose, in other words, that the territory of the city of Rome had been a Papal State, as it was before 1870, and that when Italy entered into the conflict the Pope-King had announced his political neutrality; what then? If the Papacy fears that the solemn pledge of the Italian nation, made after long discussion in times of peace, might be violated, how can it feel any surer that the Italian nation at war, unhampered by any legal restraint on its sovereignty, might not invade the Papal State? Does not an unbroken fine of precedents demonstrate clearly that when the Papacy held temporal power it was constantly subjected to the violation, and the invasion of its temporal territory? What would be the difference in permanency or safety for the Papacy between an Act of Parliament of the Italian people, such as the Law of Guarantees, and a treaty or convention between the King of Italy and the Pope-Sovereign of Rome?

There is the other alternative of placing the Holy See under international protection. To do this would require two important preliminary steps: first, that Italy should divest itself of part of its territory, giving up the city which, by the will of the people, has been its political capital for nearly half a century; and secondly, to induce all Catholic and Protestant Powers to pledge themselves to hold inviolate the Pontiff and the earthly holdings, of his Church. Passing over the inherent difficulties of inducing even a majority of states to give such pledge, what better quality or character of absolute assurance would the promise of the many have over the pledge of one state? It would have numbers and mutuality; that is, a dozen nations instead of one would promise, and each would promise to the other. But would this be any gain towards that absolute certainty and permanence which the Papacy strives to extract from earthly institutions and groups of men? Does not the present war in Europe dispose of the alleged value, both of numbers and of mutuality in international agreements?

At all events, the Catholic world, in so far as it believes in the advisability of restoring temporal power to the Papacy, must accept one fact as absolute and beyond the reach of international jurisdiction; that fact is that the realization of the political, aspirations of the Papacy to temporal power, in so far as they regard the-city of Rome or any part of Italian territory and will be absolutely impossible as long as United Italy endures. The Italian, people—the vast and overwhelming majority of Italians, Catholics or indifferentists—will never surrender one foot of that soil which they have won through able statecraft, through age-old patience, through the pain, suffering, and blood of generations of brave, resolute, and freedom-loving men of their great race.

Rome, Italy.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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