US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Frank Coppa looks at the role of the papacy in modern times

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The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History
By Frank J. Coppa (University of Chicago, 2014)

Once cautioned against repressing Catholics under his rule, Joseph Stalin contemptuously replied, “How many divisions has the pope?” It is thus rich in irony that it was another pope, John Paul II, who played a crucial role in the downfall of communism decades later.

The story reminds us that, in addition to being spiritual leaders, the bishops of Rome have also played an important role in political events. In The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History, Frank J. Coppa provides an able review of their role from the late 18th century to the present.

For a good portion of that time, the holders of the chair of Peter dug in their heels against the tide of revolution that swept through Europe in the 19th century. Their opposition was not entirely without cause. The 1789 French Revolution quickly turned against the church and French armies invaded Italy, forcing Pope Pius VI into exile.

Perhaps the most interesting 19th-century pope from a political perspective was Pius IX. Generally regarded in history as an archreactionary, Pius began his papal career as a political reformer. His moderation, however, was deemed insufficient by many Italian nationalists, who revolted in 1848 and drove him out of Rome.

Coppa suggests the continued struggle over the papal states in the 19th century decisively shaped the Holy See’s diplomacy in the 20th. The church retreated into a defensive posture to preserve as much freedom as possible. This may explain Pius XII’s willingness to negotiate with fascist regimes in Germany and Italy rather than forcefully confront them.

While the 19th-century popes fought hard to retain the papal states, their loss, in retrospect, paved the way for popes to act on a global stage. It is difficult to imagine a conclave of cardinals electing Pope Francis if they were still consumed with the politics of a small section of Italy.

This review appeared in the April 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 4, page 43).