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The Settlement of the Roman Question

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

I may be mistaken. My perspective may be all wrong and my focus may be out of line. It may be that I am reading through Catholic spectacles the newspapers which lie before me. But, as I seek to understand them, the impression is gradually becoming a conviction that they contain the most far-reaching news item of this generation. As I write these lines I am not overlooking the sombre days of July, 1914, or the happy hour when the Armistice was signed. From my point of view these events, as momentous as they were, will not carry the same resounding message across the pages of history as will the settlement of the Roman Question.

The Great War was the logical consequence of the mania for armaments which two decades ago overran Europe. The Serajevo murder did nought but put a match to kindling. The holocaust which followed was nothing but a repetition, on a larger scale, of continually recurring conditions. The fighting which began in July, 1914, was so fast and so furious that it could not go on indefinitely. It was an acute trouble which was bound to end sooner or later. And, besides, while it lasted several neutral nations amassed great wealth. In a word, the late war was inevitable, reached its preordained climax, had its unavoidable final solution, and was circumscribed in its field of action.

The Roman Question, on the other hand, appeared as a spot on the horizon as soon as Italian patriots sought to evolve a nation out of a geographical expression. The problem grew as, little by little, the genius of Cavour seemed destined to turn a dream into a reality. Arid then, on September 20, 1870, the troops of Victor Emmanuel II entered Rome. The master mind had, however, passed away before this decisive step was taken. This is but another way of saying that there was no overshadowing intellect capable of reconciling the conflicting contentions of the Papacy and of the Italian Monarchy. His Holiness became the self-imprisoned prisoner of the Vatican. The open wound began to suppurate. The unhealthy condition was not acute. It was far more dangerous. It was chronic. It was a menace not only to the two patients immediately affected but to the entire Catholic world. The trouble was thought to be insoluble largely because it became a lingering malady.

As competent a critic as Henry Wickham Steed considered that neither the Vatican nor the Quirinal desired to effect a cure. He infers that they had agreed to disagree. In his interesting book entitled “Through Thirty Years,” published in 1924, he writes that “the value of the ‘Roman Question’ as a means of upholding the predominantly Italian character of the Hierarchy—which is a condition of the Holy See in Rome—and as an instrument of discipline within the church was too great to allow the Pope” to direct his best efforts towards a solution. And he suggests that the House of Savoy was perfectly willing to let well enough alone and that it really, did not care whether the Holy Father did or did not leave his self-imposed prison.

I do not agree with the former editor of The London Times. I think that he unwittingly did the Sacred College grave injustice. I am inclined to believe that he underestimated the political acumen of the statesmanship of the Italian Monarchy. I have, nevertheless, cited what he wrote because it shows that until a short time ago every one was so certain that horns had been inextricably locked that one of the most fair-minded of Protestant observers felt called upon to evolve a theory in order to account for the apparent insolubility of the problem. It is the far-reaching effect of the controversy and the untangling of what seemed to be an endless maze which give such news value to the agreement signed on February 11, 1929.


Many theories will probably be advanced as to the dissolving elements which ate away so much prejudice and which were sufficiently persistent to be able to overcome the corrosive effect of inertia. I, like hundreds of others, have my ideas upon this subject. I am afraid that I may be mistaken. The real magnet which drew the Papacy and the Monarchy together was probably, abiding common sense. But, still, I cannot help thinking that the two factors which I am about to mention played no small part in whipping matters into shape. I refer to Fascism and to Governor Smith’s candidacy for the Presidency of the United States.

Fascism has created a new Italy. It has done more than that. It has evolved a new Italian mentality. It has dissolved the old provincial barriers. It has called into being a spirit of Italian nationality. It has made Italians proud of their citizenship. They are no longer apologetic or pay merely lip homage to their nation when they speak of their flag. I do not say that they are not suffering from megalomania. All that I bring out is that Mussolini has given them a consciousness of their dignity which is stimulating and significative.

Cardinal Gasparri and many members of the Sacred College are Italians. They understand the soul of their fellow countrymen. Fascism has made the pulse of these prelates beat faster. This statement is not an exaggeration. Americans who do not live abroad cannot grasp the extent of the rejuvenation which now holds Italy in its grasp.

This new era made these well poised cardinals view the Italian situation from an angle unknown to preceding generations. These churchmen came to recognize the fact that Italian prestige was impaired by the protest of the Holy See. They began to visualize the counter effect of having the dignity of their dynasty overshadowed by the glory of the Papacy. They felt called upon to do something to remove from the escutcheon of the Monarchy the bar sinister which Catholic public opinion had drawn across it.

And they were constrained to act quickly. The Duce is but mortal. He is the vitalizing element which, to their minds, personifies the present. His signature was known to be necessary to give efficacy to the ink which was to remove this stain. To be brief, they, saw for the first time that in Rome, Church and State are not irreconcilable enemies.

While this point of view was crystallizing, American politics entered a new phase. Governor Smith of New York became the standard bearer of the Democratic party. He is a Catholic. He was not defeated for the Presidency on November 6, 1929, because he is a Catholic. He simply had no chance of being elected because he was the Catholic candidate of a minority faction. It was not entirely a question of religious prejudice which made the defeat of this matchless executive a foregone conclusion. It was the fear felt by the rural Protestant vote of the temporal power revindicated by the Pope.

I know full well that the discussions which led up to the agreement in question were far advanced when Mr. Hoover was elected. It was, however, the growing popularity of Governor Smith which brought the Catholic question to the fore in American politics. The Houston Convention was a ratification meeting. The standard bearer of the Democratic party was chosen by the electors of New York in November, 1926, when, for the fourth time, they made their favorite son their chief executive.

The campaign which began at that early date created an issue which told Rome that her attitude in respect to temporal power was misunderstood by the average American. It thus came to pass that at the very moment when Fascism was making Italians most anxious to add to the glory of Italy, American conditions were emphasizing the necessity for letting the Anglo-Saxon world clearly understand the true significance of temporal power.


In other words, Pope Pius IX and his successors have never aspired to territorial sovereignty. They did not want to be mayors of Rome, or to be governors of the Papal States. The civil administration of large masses of inhabitants was antagonistic to their ideals and foreign to their aptitudes. The government of a municipality necessitates dealing with conditions which are repellent to churchmen. But the Supreme Pontiffs were face to face with a situation over which they had no control. They are the spiritual head of millions of Catholics scattered throughout the world. This fact begat a responsibility which they could not shirk.

The church which radiates from Rome is not a national organism. It is an institution which is universal. It is Catholic in the etymological sense of the term. I assert this as an historical fact, not as a dogma of faith. Popes, therefore, could not validly be the subjects of any territorial sovereign, even if the inviolability of their person were guaranteed. Allegiance to any earthly power would hamper that freedom of action inseparable from the exercise of a spiritual mission affecting not one nation but all peoples. The acceptance of a guarantee of the inviolability of their person would be their recognition of a dependence which is, in principle, inconsistent with the existence of complete independence.

And, in this connection, I feel justified in pointing out the radical difference between the spiritual jurisdiction claimed on the one hand by, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Head of the Russian Holy Synod, and the Exarch of the Roumanian Church, and on the other by the Bishop of Rome. The first three prelates preside over national churches. Their authority extends to restricted areas. Their flocks constitute a homogeneous block. I do not criticise their conception of their duty to their fellow men. I am, however, seeking to point out that it differs fundamentally from that of the Roman Pontiff.

It is this divergence in respect of their ecclesiastical missions which makes it just as logical for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Head of the Russian Holy Synod, and the Exarch of Bucharest to become a subject of a state as it makes it inconceivable for the Pope to do so. The Englishman, the Russian, and the Roumanian personify a national church. The Catholic symbolizes universality. Allegiance in his case would therefore imply vassalage to one of the many rulers who may be under his spiritual leadership.

I do not want to lay undue stress upon this point but I venture to recall the discussions which gave birth to the American Constitution. The Fathers of our Republic ordained that the United States should have a capital carved out of the existing states. Why, was that? It was because it was felt that if the Federal Government were located in one of them, that commonwealth would have a preponderating influence over the new nation. These statesmen saw that the individuality of the United States would be submerged if its seat were under the territorial jurisdiction of one of the constituent elements of the United States. If the philosophy of the founders of our constitution was sound the point of view of the Catholic Church merits serious consideration.

The heads of this universal church have, accordingly, insisted upon temporal power, not that they have cared one iota about sovereignty, in so far as it extends to a square inch of territory or implies the existence of a single subject. They have held out for temporal power as the concrete expression of that freedom from interference which the Holy Father must enjoy in order to fulfil his trust as the shepherd of all of the millions of Catholics inhabiting the four quarters of the earth. Temporal power is, in a word, but a corollary which flows from a primary proposition. That proposition is the universality of the Church of Rome.


One has but to read the incomplete draft of the Pact in order to see that it is the safeguarding of this aspect of temporal power which dominates the entire agreement. The Vatican remains a state with only that measure of territoriality necessary to give juridical expression to the unfettered independence of His Holiness. And to emphasize, as it were, the fact that territorial sovereignty means nothing to the Holy See, it is provided that the detail police work of this enclave shall be attended to by the Italian state for account of the Papacy. Nothing has been left undone to assure the spiritual primacy of the Pope and, at the same time, refute the fallacy that imperialism or political ambition has had anything to do with his steadfast revindication of his right. In a word, the Holy See has now become nothing more or less than what Pope Pius IX and his successors insisted that it must be: a spiritual District of Columbia wherein resides the earthly, head of an universal church.

The fact that the Sovereign Pontiff is admitted to have the right to coin money, issue postage stamps and establish a system of posts and telegraphs is more an outward expression of that temporal kingship which vitally interests all Catholics. The features of the agreement which create a concordat between Italy and the Holy See are mere details which are of but secondary importance to non-Italian Catholics. The same thing may be said of those articles which bear upon the applicability in Italy of certain aspects of Canon Law. I shall not deal with such ancillary questions. They do not belong on the front page of the American press. What concerns all Americans, and particularly American Catholics, is the unequivocal definition of temporal power established by this Pact.

I do not say that this means that I shall live to see a Catholic in the White House. Logic does not wipe out prejudices. Religious prejudices are the most persistent of all prejudices. Time is the only dissolvent to which they ever yield. I do not expect to reach double the allotted three score and ten. I, therefore, have no illusions as to what is likely to happen during the next few decades. I am inclined to think, however, that this settlement of the Roman Question will play a part in clarifying the atmosphere. It will, at all events, answer certain objections which were recently raised by many men and women who, though misinformed, sought to do their duty as American citizens.


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