Rome — Italy celebrates the sesquicentennial of its birth as a unified nation today. On March 17, 1861, while Americans were preoccupied with some serious business of their own, the first Italian Parliament met in Turin and declared Rome the capital of unified Italy. That legislative act was given effect nine years later, when Italian troops took advantage of the Franco-Prussian War to enter the rump of the old Papal States.
As the Italians closed in on the city of Peter and Paul, the student body of the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, volunteered to a man to take up arms in defense of the pope. Pius IX gently thanked them and wrote back, in his own hand, that he hoped they would be victorious in fighting, not for his territory, but for the truth of Christian faith. Pio Nono ordered his own troops to fire one volley, “for honor’s sake” — to emphasize that Italy was acquiring Rome by force and not consent. And so, after a brief exchange of mis-aimed shots that prefigured Italy’s martial success in the decades to come, the papal forces retired and the Risorgimento, a secularist as well as nationalist affair, had what it wanted: the Eternal City, and the chance to try to reclaim the glory that was Rome in the days of empire. Fifty-nine years later, in the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the papacy regained a smidgeon of sovereign territory: today’s Vatican City and some extraterritorial properties like the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo.
For a long time, Catholics of a certain cast of mind bitterly resented all this. Their attitude was neatly captured by Guy Crouchback, the protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor. At the beginning of the third volume, Unconditional Surrender, Guy chats with his wise and aged father during the Allied campaign in Italy:
News of the King’s flight came on the day the brigade landed at Salerno. It brought Guy some momentary exhilaration.
“That looks like the end of the Piedmontese usurpation,” he said to his father. “What a mistake the Lateran Treaty was. It seemed masterly at the time — how long? Fifteen years ago? What are 15 years in the history of Rome? How much better it would have been if the Popes had sat it out and then emerged, saying, ‘What was all that? Risorgimento? Garibaldi? Cavour? The House of Savoy? Mussolini? Just some hooligans from out of town causing a disturbance. Come to think of it, wasn’t there a poor boy whom they called King of Rome?’ That’s what the Pope ought to be saying today.”
Mr. Crouchback regarded his son sadly. “My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really talking the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”
The fictional Gervase Crouchback was a man ahead of his time in 1943, when he set Guy straight about the “Piedmontese usurpation,” the Lateran Treaty, and the rest of it. But his view has been thoroughly vindicated in the decades since World War II, and on this sesquicentennial in Rome it would take a particular kind of obtuseness, combined with over-the-top romanticism, to think that the loss of the Papal States was anything other than a tremendous blessing for the Catholic Church. Garibaldi, Cavour, and the House of Savoy turned out to be unwitting midwives of a new papacy, one that deployed moral authority to great political effect in world affairs — far more effect, in fact, than either the Kingdom of Italy or the Repubblica Italiana has managed since 1861.