The recent statement by Enda Kenny exposed an aspect of the Vatican that’s often overlooked: the fact that temporal power has always been an essential component of how the Holy See views itself. Unlike many religions, Roman Catholicism regards physical authority as integral with its spiritual role, and Popes have always been kings as well as dispensers of theological edicts. There is no such thing as a Pope concerned solely with religious matters, and there never has been such a thing.
It’s easy to forget how young the modern Italy really is. Until the end of the nineteenth century, it was no more than a European peninsula, comprising three or four major regions controlled by dukes and assorted warlords, with the only common factor being the language, and even that could hardly be described as anything but a loose association of dialects.
Up to about 1870, a Pope was just another warlord, though a substantial one. The Pope was not just a religious leader, but also king of the Papal States, and this was no small matter, since those states occupied a substantial portion of the Italian peninsula, running in a roughly east-west direction from Rome to Bologna. This was a serious chunk of land, as big as many countries, and considerably more prosperous.
It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Pope Pius IX was none too pleased in 1861 when Italy was unified politically under the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, drastically reducing the extent of the Papal States. He was even less impressed in 1870 when issued with an ultimatum to join the newly-emergent Italian nation or face siege. Pius chose to wage a token war which caused the deaths of about 100 soldiers — a trifling matter in his scheme of things — but eventually was forced to accept the new reality, and withdrew into the Vatican, declaring himself a prisoner.
In other words, the Pope went into the biggest sulk the world has ever seen, and remained thus, along with his successors, for nearly sixty years until, in 1929, when Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian Fascists, finally resolved the issue.
[As an aside, it was Pius IX who defined the dogmas of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception ( a dogma widely misunderstood by practising Catholics), but both of these theological initiatives depended on Cardinal Paul Cullen, a hugely-influential Irish cleric who went on to create the clericalism that blighted Irish life for a century and a half. Cullen, incidentally, was also responsible for raising a contribution of £80,000 — an unimaginably huge sum in post-Famine Ireland — to help the Pope defend his power and influence. Needless to say, Cullen was held in great favour by the Pope and accorded great freedom to exercise his power in Ireland.]
The 1929 Concordats consolidated the power of Pope Pius XI, as a ruler on earth.
Pius distrusted the Catholic party because he feared that they might introduce democracy into the Vatican, and it was an absolute precondition in his negotiations with Mussolini’s Fascists that the Catholic party be dismantled.
This led to the mass migration of Catholic Party members into the Fascist party and the complete collapse of Italian democratic tendencies.
Mussolini saw the Lateran Treaties as the end of church power in the political affairs of the newly-created Italy, and he cut the Pope a generous deal. The Vatican would become an independent state, Catholicism would be the official religion of Italy and the Holy See would be paid for the lands it had ceded when it relinquished control of the Papal States.
While Mussolini might have seen this deal as an act that finally buried papal influence in Italy, he was ultimately prepared to impose an official state religion on all Italians, and thus it remained until 1985. To that extent, Italy was even more church-dominated than Ireland, although Italians tended to take a more relaxed view of their obligations than the rabidly Catholic Irish, and perhaps this is because Italy failed to throw up a figure as dominant and manipulative as Paul Cullen.
The Pope’s arrangement with il Duce was so satisfactory that a few years later he conducted a similar agreement with Hitler, resulting in the dissolution of the centrist German Catholic party, which contributed directly to the Führer‘s last elected majority before he imposed dictatorship on Germany.
Successive Italian governments have continued to honour Mussolini’s agreement with the Pope and so it has remained to the present day. Diplomatic representatives of the Vatican have refused to cooperate with inquiries in this country regarding criminal behaviour by people who owe their primary allegiance to Rome, on the grounds of diplomatic immunity.
This foreign State issues instructions directly to the Bishops who control our schools while at the same time refusing to recognise legitimately-established judicial inquiries within our sovereign borders.
Such a stance goes to the very heart of our sovereignty and this is why Enda Kennny’s recent statement is so significant.