Not So Saintly?

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Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti was born at a disadvantage. The ninth child of a minor count in the town of Senigallia, he applied early to join the Pope's Noble Guards. They rejected him: guards did not have epilepsy. A biographer quoted him complaining that because of his condition, he "could not concentrate on a subject for any length of time without having to worry about his ideas getting terribly confused." He was ordained in 1819 on condition that another priest always be present when he celebrated Mass. By 1827 he was Archbishop of Spoleto.

The position plunged him into a supremely complicated religious and political game. Throughout Europe the old order of divinely sanctioned kingdoms was battling models of popular sovereignty and citizenship inspired by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the adolescent U.S. The Italian peninsula was a crux of this struggle. The Pope himself was a monarch, ruler of the states girdling the boot approximately from Naples to Venice, playing survival politics amid what historian Kertzer describes as "a patchwork of duchies, grand duchy, Bourbon and Savoyard kingdoms [and] Austrian outposts." Would-be nation builders plotted Italy's unification from the south and the north. Revolutionaries, writes Kertzer, goggled across papal borders at those who regarded "the notions that people should be free to think what it pleased them to think [as] heretical."

For a few brief years, it seemed as though Mastai might bridge the gap. In Spoleto he had brokered a peaceful surrender of 4,000 Italian revolutionaries to the archconservative Austrian forces. This led to his 1846 election to the papacy as a moderate. Once installed, he gave amnesty to political prisoners in the Papal States, bestowed on Rome a constitution and a Prime Minister and talked about creating an Italian federation. He unlocked the Jewish ghetto and allowed its wealthier inhabitants to live among the Christian population. Austria's Prince Metternich, the genius of the ancien regime, quipped that he "had allowed for everything in Italy except a liberal Pope."

The detente didn't last long. In 1848, as revolutions blazed throughout Europe, Italian nationalists tried to enlist Pius in their plan to expel the Austrian forces and attain unification. He refused. Achieving an Italian Republic anyway, they slit his Prime Minister's throat. Pius fled Rome disguised as a priest and wearing tinted spectacles. When he returned three years later, supported by French troops, he was a different Pope.

"The knock came at nightfall." So begins The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Kertzer's echo of Holocaust literature is daring but eerily appropriate. The unwanted visitors to the Jewish Mortara family in June 1858 were papal police; they left with Edgardo. A family servant, thinking he was mortally ill, had secretly baptized him, and law required that he be removed from Jewish influence and brought up by the church. Pius may not have initiated the action, but he soon embraced it, and Edgardo, wholeheartedly. In a memoir, Edgardo later recalled that "like a good father, [Pius] had fun with me hiding under his great red cloak and said, jokingly, 'Where is the boy?' and opening up the cloak, he showed all those standing around, 'Here he is!'" Edgardo eventually became a priest, lecturing on the miracle of conversion to Catholicism.

To Pius' astonishment, the child's abduction became an international scandal, a focus for global ambivalence regarding the church. The New York Times ran 20 articles on it in a month; the New York Herald cited "colossal" interest in the matter. Pius' response set the tone for his next 20 years. "The newspapers can write all they want. I couldn't care less about what the world thinks," he told a Jewish delegation. And he added a threat: "Take care. I could have made you go back into your hole." In fact he had already confined the Jews to the ghetto again and rescinded their civil rights. In 1870 he declared them "dogs...there are too many of them in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets."

Pius was a divided personality. A biographer wrote that "looking into [his] sparkling eyes and hearing the warm measure of his sentences, you felt how beautiful the world could be." He was famously accessible. He played billiards with the Swiss Guard and was the first modern Pontiff to grant audiences to commoners. He personally tended cholera victims, Gentile and Jewish, during an epidemic. He was truly pious. However, he was also excitable, oversensitive and bullying. Sometimes this expressed itself in wit. The benediction he bestowed upon a group of Protestant clergy was borrowed from the prayer over incense: "May you be blessed by Him in whose honor you shall be burnt." But often he employed the bludgeon: bishops who displeased him were ordered to kiss his foot. Later, members of the Vatican's saintmaking congregation seriously questioned whether he had lacked the essential Christian virtue of charity. (A related objection involved his sustaining of the death sentences of two anarchists. His successor reportedly remarked, "This fact alone would impede [his] canonization.") Biographer Martina describes a "siege complex": unable to understand liberals on political or psychological terms, he saw them as "unbelievers...[operating] a war machine against the church."

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