As an Orthodox Christian who directs a law and religion center at a Catholic University, I often feel like I am on the inside, looking in. That is certainly how I have felt over the past few weeks, as Catholic commentators have argued emotionally over a recent First Things piece defending Pope Pius IX’s actions in the nineteenth-century Edgardo Mortara case, in the which the Papal States seized and raised a Jewish boy who had been baptized without his parents’ knowledge, on the ground that baptism had rendered the child a Catholic and the Church had an obligation to give him a Catholic upbringing.
The First Things piece has sparked a debate on the proper relationship of church and state in Catholicism. To my mind, that debate is quite beside the point. The Mortara case has little to do with a proper theory of church-state relations. One could be an integralist (there’s a word I didn’t know until a few weeks ago) and argue for a close connection between church and state, even for a subordination of state to church, and still not endorse what happened in the Mortara case. Put differently, one need not be an Americanist (another word I didn’t know until fairly recently) to see the seizure of the child and Pius’s refusal to return him to his parents–“Non Possumus”–as an abuse. It’s not the relationship of church and state in nineteenth-century Bologna that offends; it’s the use of a surreptitious baptism to justify removing a child from his family. It’s bewildering that someone would revive the controversy and seek to defend that action today.
I say all this as preface to a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, by Georgetown Professor John W. O’Malley. The book addresses the context of the council, which Pius himself summoned and which made maximal claims about papal authority, precisely as the pope’s temporal authority was coming to an end. Here’s a description of the book from the publisher’s website:
The enduring influence of the Catholic Church has many sources—its spiritual and intellectual appeal, missionary achievements, wealth, diplomatic effectiveness, and stable hierarchy. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, the foundations upon which the church had rested for centuries were shaken. In the eyes of many thoughtful people, liberalism in the guise of liberty, equality, and fraternity was the quintessence of the evils that shook those foundations. At the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, the church made a dramatic effort to set things right by defining the doctrine of papal infallibility.
In Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley draws us into the bitter controversies over papal infallibility that at one point seemed destined to rend the church in two. Archbishop Henry Manning was the principal driving force for the definition, and Lord Acton was his brilliant counterpart on the other side. But they shrink in significance alongside Pope Pius IX, whose zeal for the definition was so notable that it raised questions about the very legitimacy of the council. Entering the fray were politicians such as Gladstone and Bismarck. The growing tension in the council played out within the larger drama of the seizure of the Papal States by Italian forces and its seemingly inevitable consequence, the conquest of Rome itself.
Largely as a result of the council and its aftermath, the Catholic Church became more pope-centered than ever before. In the terminology of the period, it became ultramontane.