The History of the Modern Papacy

Pablo Mijangos is associate professor of History at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. He is the author of The Lawyer of the Church: Bishop Clemente de Jesús Munguía and the Clerical Response to the Mexican Liberal Reforma (University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

We expect the papacy to prize tradition and permanence. As the longest-enduring institution in the Western world, it remains an absolute theocratic monarchy, whose main headquarters are located in an impressive medieval palace in Rome, and whose ruler is guarded by “Swiss Guards” dressed like Renaissance mercenaries. Up until the late eighteenth century the popes devoted most of their time watching over the affairs of a small kingdom in the center of the Italian peninsula, and, except for some momentous decisions, their infrequent pronouncements rarely affected the everyday lives of Catholics beyond Italy. Today the Pope is, for good and bad, the central point of reference in the Catholic Church: he is its main source of doctrinal guidance and the decisive voice in shaping the leadership of a religious organization present in the whole world. As Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley once claimed, the most salient fact of Catholic history in the last centuries is the “papalization” of Catholicism.

How did this revolution happen?

Roughly speaking, historians divide the history of the modern papacy into three major periods. The first begins with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the violent humiliation of popes Pius VI and Pius VII at the hands of Napoleon, and ends with the First Vatican Council and the proclamation of Rome as the capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. It is largely a story of conflict and negotiation with successive anticlerical revolutions in Europe, whose final act was the demise of the so-called “temporal power of the popes.”

The second period encompasses the eighty-nine years between the closure of the First Vatican Council and the announcement of the Second in 1959. It was marked by the slow adaptation of the papacy to the loss of its States–which it only accepted after the Lateran Accords of 1929–and by the parallel fostering of initiatives aimed at centralizing authority in the worldwide Catholic Church. This was a period of reluctant modernization, in which popes kept condemning most cultural innovations of the modern world and yet presided over unprecedented and dramatic changes in Catholic culture.

The third and current period would be the age of the Second Vatican Council, whose commendable aggiornamento (updating) of Catholicism led to a new wave of clashes between the Church and our contemporary cultural revolutions. We find the drawing of new sides, between those who see the Council as the end of anti-modernist Catholic authoritarianism and those who deem it a rather confusing episode in an otherwise compact history of Catholic continuity.

Full of controversial issues, the history of the modern papacy is not an easy subject. Readers can fall into partisan literature of all sorts, not always backed up by adequate sources. While I can’t fall back on any sort of papal infallibility, the following ten readable works are, to my judgment, based on reliable evidence and meet high standards of academic rigor. I hope you also find them more enthralling than the infamous Da Vinci Code!

Places to Start

To understand what’s so peculiar about the papacy over the last two centuries, it helps to begin with a broad understanding of its two-millennium history. Beautifully written by one of the best historians of Catholicism in the English language, this book provides an excellent overview of how the pontiffs, from Saint Peter to Pope Francis, managed to build, preserve, and gradually increase their spiritual power in the Church. Well-informed and richly contextualized, it also includes a very useful bibliographical essay.

This is a great textbook for beginners, accessible, concise, and up-to-date. The author focuses on the difficult relations between the papacy and the modern regimes created in the wake of the French Revolution, and therefore explores in depth the causes and effects of the Italian assault on the Papal States, the fortress mentality that shaped the popes’ relationship with the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century, and the difficult transition from an overly-defensive to a more open and truly global papacy after the Second Vatican Council.

Digging In

As its title suggests, this book offers a unique study of the inner workings of the Holy See, whose intricate bureaucratic structure is often misunderstood in the mainstream media. From the papal conclave to the congregations, consistories, and synods, the book explains how each of the Vatican institutions came to be, how they operate on a regular basis, and how they affect the Catholic Church at large. Written by a Berkeley-trained political scientist and Jesuit, the book features over a hundred interviews with Vatican officials, a precious source that allows the reader to grasp the complexity of clerical politics as only an insider would.

As global head of the Catholic Church, one of the Vatican’s main tasks consists in securing adequate conditions for religious practice in each of the states where the Catholic faith is present. In doing so, the Vatican has inevitably been wrapped up in larger domestic and geopolitical tensions, and so has had to refine an extremely sophisticated way of dealing with worldly powers. After more than half century of its publication, this classic work is still the best guide in English for understanding how the instruments, practices, and priorities of papal diplomacy have evolved over the centuries. If you want to know what a “nuncio” does, why the Secretary of State is so important, or what a “concordat” implies, this is the book to find.

Anyone who has watched The Godfather Part III, or read about recent Vatican scandals, knows that the Holy See’s financial dealings are wide, complex, and anything but transparent. Based on a wide array of sources, and especially the diary of Bernardino Nogara, Pope Pius XI’s financial advisor, this excellent monograph explains how the Vatican’s economy evolved after the loss of the Papal States, as it forced the popes to rely, first, on contributions from the faithful throughout the world, and second, on the income from all kinds of investments and bank operations. For the author, this dramatic transformation in the Vatican’s finances helps explain the successful processes of church expansion and centralization after 1870, as well as the peculiar path of reconciliation with Italy in the 1920s.

The history of the modern papacy is inextricably linked with that of the two ecumenical councils that articulated the Catholic response to the multiple revolutions of the modern world. If the First Vatican Council (1869-70) paved the way for an unprecedented assertion of papal power, the Second (1962-65) sought to reverse that trend by favoring religious freedom, greater lay participation, and true collegiality between the bishops and the pontiff. Among the best of its kind in any language, Father O’Malley’s book places the Second Vatican Council in historical perspective and provides a detailed narrative of the main debates, moments, and personalities that defined this crucial meeting. For the author, Vatican II is unique not only for its results, but also for its style, which substituted the legal formulations of previous councils for a more pastoral language based in the patristic tradition.

New Moves

Awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, this captivating book explores the love-and-hate relationship between Pope Pius XI and the “Duce” of Fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini. Kertzer rightly places the Lateran Accords of 1929 as a pivotal moment in that relationship, but then shows how the recognition of Vatican sovereignty and the restoration of Catholicism as the official religion of the state in Italy ended up lessening the Church’s freedom of action and even silencing the pope’s own voice against the growing identification of Mussolini with Hitler’s Germany. Since the book is based on both Vatican and Fascist intelligence files, it is filled with shocking details about court intrigues, hidden scandals, and off-the-record negotiations. In other words, it almost reads like a real-life spy thriller.

Ever since the publication in 1999 of John Cornwell’s highly contentious Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, the historiography of the modern papacy has been dominated by the so-called “Pius wars,” that is, by the heated discussions about the role played by Pope Pius XII–and the Catholic Church at large–during the Holocaust. Unlike most participants in that debate, Ventresca does not judge the pope according to counterfactual claims about what he should have done, but rather limits himself to assess what Pius XII did and why. The result is a sober and well-researched biography, which sheds light into a man obsessed with protecting the Church against Communism, and who nonetheless failed to grasp the true nature and scale of the Nazi war against the Jews.

Voices and Lives

This book narrates the last years of the Papal States through the story of the “Mortara scandal,” which began with the kidnapping in 1858 of a six-year old Jewish boy by the Roman Inquisition in Bologna, after claims that the boy had been secretly baptized by a Christian servant. Kertzer interweaves the judicial records of the case with private correspondence and the varied reactions of the contemporary press in Europe and America: the scandal galvanized liberal opinion against the anachronistic theocratic regime ruled by Pope Pius IX, and helped convince French Emperor Napoleon III, until then the pope’s main protector, to lend his support to the unification of Italy under Piedmontese rule.

When Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was surprisingly elected pope in March 2013, most commentators outside Argentina had no clue about who the new pope was, nor imagined how far he would go in advancing his agenda of a “church for the poor.” Written by one of the few historians of Argentinean Catholicism in the Anglophone world, this book provides the best biography in English of Pope Francis. It reads his thought and career in light of Argentina’s tumultuous twentieth-century politics, the theological renewal that preceded and followed Vatican II, and the history of the Jesuits in South America. This is a book you have to read in order to understand a pope who is heading the most dramatic developments in the Catholic Church since the last ecumenical council.