Pope Pius IX

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Pope Pius IX (May 13, 1792 – February 7, 1878) - born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti - was the Pope and leader of the Catholic church from June 16, 1846 to February 7, 1878 the longest reign in Church history. He convened the First Vatican Council, which declared the Pope was infallible under certain conditions. He encouraged the rapid growth of religiosity among lay people, which strengthened the Church; he especially promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as symbol of love. He fought every form of modern ideas inside the Church, especially through the Syllabus of Errors of 1864. Outside the Church he fought against secularism and helped the German Catholics defeat the Kulturkampf.

Pius IX was preceded by Pope Gregory XVI and succeeded by Pope Leo XIII.


Scion of an aristocratic family, he studied theology in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1819.

After serving as archbishop of Spoleto (1827–32) and of Imola (1832-46). He was elected pope in 1846 by the liberal cardinals, who promoted moderate political reforms, against the conservative cardinals who favored a continuance of absolutism in the temporal government of the Church. As Pope he not only headed the Church, but also ruled the country in central Italy known as the Papal States, with Rome its capital.

Liberal Pope

The new pope granted amnesties to political prisoners and exiles, and introduced political reforms into the Papal States. He began building railways and lighting the streets of Rome with gas. He designed an institute to modernize agricultural methods and upgrade rural education. He allowed some freedom to the press. He visited jails and began a program of prison reform and liberalized the criminal code. He simplified customs procedures. He excused Jews from the customary required attendance at Christian sermons. He created a Consulta of laymen chosen by indirect vote and presided over by a Cardinal—a small step toward democracy.

Metternich, chancellor of Austria, and conservative cardinals, in particular secretary of state Cardinal Pasquale Gizzi (1787-1849), feared a popular uprising, but could not restrain the reforming pope. When the liberals asked him to send a military force to the north to fight against the Austrians who dominated northeastern Italy, Pius refused. Italian revolutionaries assassinated his premier in October 1848, and the pope fled to Naples. The revolutionaries set up the "Republic of Rome" and declared the temporal power of the Pope ended; the leading Italian revolutionaries, Mazzini and Garibaldi, rushed to Rome. Pius denounced the republic, forbade Catholics to cooperate with it, and called upon France, Austria, Spain, and Naples to restore Papal rule. France sent troops; they took possession of Rome, the republic collapsed, and Pius IX returned to the city in April 1850. Disillusioned with political liberalism, he decided to govern both the Papal States and the Church as absolute monarch


Pius now became a leader of the forces fighting liberal reform in Italy and Europe. With the collapse of the Revolution of 1848 in every major country, the conservatives were back in power and Pius agreed with them. One exception was the Kingdom of Sardinia (based in Piedmont, with its capital in Turin), where the anticlerical liberals under Count Cavour held sway. They closed most of the monasteries in Piedmont in 1854 and promoted Italian nationalism with the goal of unifying Italy—including the Papal States—under secular rule, and making Rome the capital.

Syllabus of Errors

The pope's reaction was a sweeping denunciations of liberalism in general, culminating in his famous Syllabus of Errors in 1864. It condemned 80 propositions of the sort that liberals across Europe typically proclaimed.


On December 8, 1854, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed, on his sole authority, in the bull "Ineffabilis Deus" the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary as a doctrine revealed by God and to be believed firmly and constantly by all Catholics. He proclaimed:

"The Blessed Virgin Mary to have been, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of mankind, preserved free from stain of original sin."

Not all theologians had agreed that the conception had been immaculate in the sense defined by the bull. The Dominicans especially had dissenters. But with the devotional revival underway, the doctrine was widely and increasingly cherished and across Europe devout Catholic sent pleas for the Pope to give it his official endorsement. Pius IX was eager to do so, for his devotion to her whom the faithful venerated as the mother of God was sincere and deep. The Catholic Church was moving rapidly to a series of devotions to Mary that redefined piety for the laymen.


Pius fought liberals all across Europe, and built up the Ultramontane (pro-papal) movement inside the Catholic Church. Thereby he increasingly controlled the Church and weakened the Gallican forces that wanted the Church to be subservient to a large degree to national governments. He summoned the Vatican Council to Rome in 1869-70 to examine the Church's nature, her teaching authority, and her relations with the State. It condemned pantheism, naturalism, and rationalism, and, above all defined the juridical primacy of the pope and his infallibility when pronouncing formally on matters of faith or morals.

Loss of the Papal States

The French allowed the Italians based in Turin to expand at the expense of the Papal States, which could not defend itself. Victor Emmanuel became king and his army seized Rome in 1870, making it the capital of united Italy. Pius IX refused to recognize or to have any dealings with the new kingdom. He shut himself up as "prisoner in the Vatican," and warned Italian Catholics that they should take no part in the policies of the new state.

The Kingdom of Italy, acting without the pope's consent, issued the "Law of Guarantees" that assured Pius and future popes of the rights and status of a purely spiritual sovereign, immunity from arrest, and protection against treason. The pope was allowed to have diplomatic relations with foreign governments, to have his own personal Swiss guard, his own postal and telegraphic services, and the use, although not the ownership, of the Vatican, the Lateran, and Castel Gandolfo. In compensation for his lost territories and their revenues, he was to be given a substantial annual monetary grant (which he refused). The Italian government gave up its claim to name bishops and to try spiritual cases in its courts. The unhappy compromise lasted until a satisfactory solution was reached in 1929.

Pius IX was proclaimed a saint during the papacy of Pope John Paul II.

Further reading

  • Chadwick, Owen. A History of the Popes, 1830-1914 (1998) online edition
  • Hales, E. E. Y. Pio Nono. A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1954), on Pope Pius IX online edition
  • Ott, Michael. "Pope Pius IX" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. (1911) online