THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Frustrated Reformer

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, when economic, political, social and even religious conditions deteriorated badly in the early nineteenth century, people turned to socialism to make things rights again.  Unfortunately, people didn’t want to hear why something they wanted was wrong, they wanted something that would help them immediately.


Pope Gregory XVI tried to explain why socialism and moral relativism are wrong, but nobody paid any attention.  That is probably why he is remembered today as a reactionary monster with  no redeeming social value.  Nor did the next pope have any better luck.

According to the usual accounts, Pope Pius IX started out as a moderate liberal reformer, but when confronted with the harsh reality of true liberalism, became an ultra-reactionary. As legend has it, he became the “Pio No-No” of modernist myth who, to every attempt to implement reforms simply responded “No, no.”  There is no evidence that he ever did so.

Pope Gregory XVI


There is just — barely — enough truth in the Leyenda Negra of Pius IX to keep it alive and nullify the accomplishments and goals of the longest pontificate in history.  Part of the problem is that few people, especially liberals, are willing to acknowledge that “liberalism” has different meanings, depending on how one views the human person.

As noted in previous postings, there is the French or European type of radical liberalism in which some form of the collective is sovereign and has rights that actual human beings do not.  This often manifests as some form of socialism as well as collectivism, and is supported theologically by modernism.  This is what usually falls under the heading of liberalism today.

Pope Pius IX


Then there is the English type of moderate liberalism in which an élite is effectively sovereign.  Often adherents of this type of liberalism will assert that everyone has rights, but that they are only effective for the élite who have some special characteristic that other people lack.  This usually manifests as some form of capitalism as well as individualism.  Perhaps confusingly, this is also supported theologically by modernism, although today it usually falls under the heading of conservatism.

What confuses matters even more today is the fact that as radical and moderate liberalism draw closer together to form what Hilaire Belloc called “the Servile State” (although not exactly as he envisioned it), it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between capitalism and socialism.  This is why, for example, George Bernard Shaw in his ongoing argument with Chesterton insisted that everything is socialism, and the Stakeholder and Inclusive Capitalism of the Great Reset appear to be indistinguishable from Democratic Socialism.

Hilaire Belloc


Belloc characterized the Servile State as a condition of society in which everyone is compelled to work at a wage system job, whether or not they want to.  As technology has advanced and displaced human labor from production, the primary task of the Servile State is not to force people to work who do not want to work, but to create enough jobs for the people who do want to work yet cannot find employment.  (Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1977, 39-40; contrast with the analysis of Goetz Briefs in The Proletariat: A Challenge to Western Civilization.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1937.)

Alexis de Tocqueville


What is almost always omitted from the discussion is the personalist type of liberalism that is consistent with natural law and thus with Catholic social teaching.  As applied in the United States and chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville, personalist or American type liberalism is the type praised by most popes since Pius VII, (Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought, op. cit., 481.) and is based on the sovereignty of every human being.  Still, while today often confused with English or “conservative” liberalism, personalist liberalism is fundamentally different from both moderate liberalism and radical liberalism, so much so that the popes have often avoided even calling it liberalism. (See Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.  New York: Basic Books, 2006, 70-75; Joseph Ratzinger, Europe: Today and Tomorrow.  San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2004, 28, 72-74.)

Reactionaries viewed Pope Pius IX’s election with alarm, and were very nearly able to prevent it.  Knowing he was a protégé of Pius VII and had first-hand experience of the new republics in South America, having traveled there as a special envoy during that pontificate, they had every reason by their lights to be suspicious of his liberalism.

Prince Metternich


Nor did the new pope do anything to quell their fears.  To forestall threatened insurrections, Pius IX immediately announced a program of political reforms intended to remove the causes of legitimate grievances.  His first act was to declare an amnesty for all political prisoners.  This worried Metternich, who believed the radicals would simply take the first opportunity to seize power.

Nor was Metternich wrong.  Pius IX instituted sweeping political reforms throughout the Papal States, including a democratically elected legislature, a lay civil administration and Prime Minister, and a constitution modeled on that of the United States.  The only power Pius IX reserved as civil ruler was the veto over any legislation that in his opinion violated the rights of the Church. (“Pius IX and the Revolutions at Rome,” The North American Review, Vol. 74, No. 154, January 1852, 52; Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought. St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Company, 1947, 481, 605.)

Revolutions of 1848


Unfortunately, the only politically experienced people in the Papal States were the radical liberals, who were able to gain many elective and appointed offices largely because others simply did not know how to go about being an empowered citizenry.  Two years after Pius IX’s election when the revolutions of 1848 swept through Europe, they made their move.

Demanding reforms the pope had already granted, armed radical bands seized strategic points throughout the country, assassinated the Prime Minister and many others, and imprisoned Pius IX in his own palace.  They demanded that he dissolve the Church, turn the country over to them, and resign as pope.  Following a daring escape arranged by some foreign ambassadors, the pope took refuge in the city of Gaeta in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Evil Pio Nono resisting socialism.


Despite the stream of envoys from the revolutionary government assuring him of his personal safety and inviolability should he return, Pius IX refused to negotiate with those who today would be regarded as terrorists.  This is the probable source of the Black Legend of “Pio No-No” — a prudential and certainly common sense response to insurgents who had called for his abdication and the destruction of the Church, and murdered the leader of the legitimate government.

After the French restored Pius IX, radicals in the French legislature — including de Lamennais — demanded that the pope implement many of the changes demanded by the revolutionaries in consideration of their help.  Fortunately, Alexis de Tocqueville was French Foreign Minister.


The unquestioned champion of democracy pointed out that Pius IX had already implemented many of the changes.  To do any more before the political situation could be stabilized would very likely cause another revolution.  In de Tocqueville’s opinion, the radicals would again take the opportunity to try and take over the government. (De Tocqueville, Recollections, op. cit., 314.)

Unfortunately, the political situation went from bad to worse as Austria, France and Sardinia continued to vie with the various factions of the Italian unification movement to establish spheres of influence and expand territory.  One interesting “might-have-been” was a proposal to form an Italian Confederation along the lines of the United States, but with the pope as symbolic president of Italy and the constituent states having local autonomy.

Pius IX was still able to implement limited administrative reforms and sponsored educational and economic development.  By 1861, however, there was nothing left to reform as Sardinia seized all the Papal States except Rome and its immediate environs, and then Rome in 1871.

Nevertheless, Pius IX accomplished much more than history credits him.  His attempt to add political reform to the Church’s social program failed, but that did not invalidate the principle of personal sovereignty in either religious or civil society.  He continued the Thomist revival, strengthened the Church doctrinally and administratively, and carefully explained the errors and dangers of modernism and socialism in a series of encyclicals and other teachings.