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GAETA, Italy – Although Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade rightly has been styled as a monumental victory for the pro-life movement, observers warn it’s likely to trigger a series of acrimonious political fights, with some states clamping down on abortion access and others expanding it.
The resulting chaos may be enough to make some Catholics nostalgic for what can seem, through the haze of distant memories, a simpler time – one in which the church didn’t have to argue for its positions, but could simply decree them because it wielded both spiritual and temporal power.
By sheer coincidence, as news broke Friday afternoon of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, my wife and I were in a car heading for a weekend getaway in the seaside town of Gaeta, about 100 miles south of Rome. It was here almost 175 years ago, while the papacy still ruled over a swath of central Italy known as the Papal States, that a pope most recently was forced to flee Rome ahead of some uprising or tumult, usually related to the papacy’s use of precisely that kind of power.
Blessed Pope Pius IX was forced into exile in Gaeta in November 1848, just days after his lay prime minister, Pellegrino Rossi, had been assassinated by an angry Roman mob. In the pope’s absence, a brief-lived revolutionary Republic of Rome was erected, largely administered by the ardent Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini.
The people of Rome at the time, as happened with some regularity during the era of papal government, were angry with what they perceived as overweening clerical arrogance and stifling theocratic rule, though the spark that lit the fuse was Pius IX’s refusal to go to war against Austria to expel its forces from the Lombardy region.
To reach Gaeta, Pius IX was forced to engage in an elaborate subterfuge, disguising himself as a simple country pastor and passing himself off as the tutor of the children of Bavaria’s ambassador to the Holy See. Pius IX and the family rode all night to Gaeta in a horse-drawn carriage, passing checkpoints under false passports.
The fear was that if revolutionaries in Rome were to sense the pope was about to flee, they might take him prisoner. It was no idle prospect given that two of his namesake predecessors, Popes Pius VI and Pius VII, had been arrested and hauled away to France by Napoleon’s forces just a few decades earlier.
What’s known as the “Flight to Gaeta” was merely the last in a series of occasions when popes felt compelled to abandon the Eternal City. Aside from the well-known Avignon papacy in the 14th century, at various points pontiffs were forced to relocate to several other Italian destinations, including Viterbo, Orvieto, Naples, and Florence. After Gaeta Pius IX relocated to Portici, south of Naples, then Gaeta again, in all spending 18 months in exile.
In Gaeta, Pius IX spent his first couple of evenings in a simple rustic lodging, which quickly became a pilgrimage site as Catholics from around the world flocked to see the simple iron bed upon which Pius had slept. Eventually the Bourbon king of southern Italy, Ferdinand II, invited Pius IX to occupy the “royal palace” in Gaeta, but it too marked decidedly reduced circumstances.
The building was a modest structure with five small windows facing a narrow street, including a ground floor, a mezzanine, and a second floor. The mezzanine was taken by the captain of the papal guard, while the pope himself occupied a spartan bedroom on the second floor. Pius would receive visitors sitting on his simple twin bed, while a couple of smaller rooms served as waiting areas for diplomats and other callers.
While Pius IX’s stay in Gaeta was in some ways a dark time, in which he issued a series of increasingly reactionary decrees that characterized the rest of his reign, it wasn’t without its graces. He spent long hours in prayer in the nearby 14th century “Golden Chapel,” where he would later say he had the inspiration that led him to declare the dogma of Immaculate Conception in 1854.
Eventually, French forces under new president Louis Napoleon, who had been elected with the overwhelming support of conservative Catholics, dispatched troops to drive out the revolutionaries and restore Pius IX to power. Pius continued to rule as a secular monarch until the next fall of Rome in 1870, which proved to be the end of the Papal States and the beginning of a newly unified Italian government.
Pius IX afterwards declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican,” refusing to recognize the new government, and it would be almost another 60 years before church and state were finally reconciled with the 1929 Lateran Pacts.
The lesson to be learned, perhaps, is that while wielding secular power may be tempting, especially for a church with a clear and cogent body of social teaching, it also exposes popes to tremendous risks – and, by extension, the church they lead is also held hostage to fortune.
Of course, no one today is talking about a return to the Papal States. Some critics, however, detect echoes of that old temptation to rule by decree rather than persuasion in today’s debates, perhaps especially on the vexed matter of whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied communion.
Whether that’s a legitimate comparison is a discussion for another time. For now, however, watching the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision unfold from Gaeta, the moral of the story seems simpler.
Yes, the cacophony of democratic politics is frustrating, time-consuming, and a mixed bag in terms of results, and no doubt the American church is in for some rough waters ahead, marked by a maddening blend of both successes and failures.
However, when one considers where the alternative has led Catholicism so often during its history, it’s still probably the better of admittedly flawed options.