Certain Accusations Against the Church: Part 7

Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903


This discussion concerning the power exercised in the Middle Ages by the Popes over temporal princes leads us to say a few words upon a very different question, but one of great importance at the present time, the temporal power of the Pope. [1]

"It was by a special providence of God that this authority (the Church) was furnished with a civil principality as the best safeguard of her independence" (Leo XIII, Encycl. on Christian States).

 "God," says St. Anselm, "loves nothing so much as the freedom of His Church."

History witnesses to the perfect lawfulness of the temporal sovereignty of the Popes. It was brought about so naturally by circumstances that, as J. De Maistre says, "the Popes became sovereigns without knowing it, and even in spite of themselves." In the fourth and particularly in the sixth century the Church of Rome possessed vast territories in several countries of Europe and in Africa. By law the imperial sovereignty still existed, but in fact it had long been supplanted by the paternal dominion of the Roman pontiffs. We know how the invasion of the barbarians, and the abandonment in which unhappy Italy was left by the emperors of Byzantium, forced the populations to seek the efficacious protection of the papacy, which several times had saved them from the most imminent peril and caused order and justice to reign among them. The temporal supremacy of the Popes, tacitly acknowledged by the emperors of Constantinople, was singularly affirmed by the solemn act of Pepin le Bref, in which he pledged himself to have restored to the Holy See all the cities and territories occupied by the Lombards. This promise was not only executed, but new lands were added by him to the restored provinces; and this liberality was sanctioned in 754 by an act of perpetual cession and abandonment to the Holy See, signed by the King of the Lombards. Then followed the rich donations of Charlemagne, and later those of Countess Mathilda. The great emperor, as well as the French lords, solemnly promised to preserve to the Holy See the States which had been solemnly restored to it.
We see that de Maistre had reason to say, " There is nothing so evidently just in its origin as this Pontifical Sovereignty. Hence it has been fearlessly said: If the possessions of the head of the Church are questioned, let the reigning families of the present day prepare to descend from the throne." "The temporal kingdom," says the Protestant Gibbon, "is founded upon a thousand years of respect, and the Popes' noblest claim to temporal sovereignty is the free choice of a people delivered by them from servitude."

We do not need to refute here the futile objections of those who seek to prove that the spiritual power of the Pope is incompatible with temporal power. We have the history of the Papacy itself to prove that temporal independence is, in the designs of Providence, a guarantee of the spiritual independence necessary to the head of the universal Church. [2] "For the Pope," said Thiers in a celebrated discourse, "there is no spiritual independence without temporal independence, without sovereignty." The truth of this is sufficiently demonstrated by what takes place in Russia and Constantinople. Napoleon himself recognized how important it is for the sovereign Pontiff to be, as Bossuet says, "in a state to exercise more freely for the general good and under the protection of Christian rulers the heavenly power of governing souls." Here are his words as reported by the historian of Du Consulat et de l'Empire: "The Pope is far from Paris, and it is well he is; he is neither at Madrid nor at Vienna, and for this reason we accept his spiritual authority. At Vienna and at Madrid the same must be said. Do you think that if he were at Paris the Austrians and Spaniards would receive his decisions? It is most fortunate, therefore, that he does not live among us, and that living removed from us he does not live among our rivals, but dwells in that old Rome far from the influence of the German emperors, far from the rulers of France and the kings of Spain, holding the balance between the Catholic sovereigns, inclined always a little toward the stronger, but protesting promptly if the stronger becomes the oppressor. Centuries have brought this about, and they have done well. For the government of souls it is the best, the most beneficent institution that can be imagined. I am not led to say this through any spirit of devotion, but by reason."

We might add other proofs in favor of pontifical royalty, notably its happy effect upon the interior administration of the Church; but contemporary events set forth with still greater prominence the advantages of this providential institution. Moreover, the unanimity with which the enemies of the Church have applauded the sacrilegious outrages which we have had the misfortune to witness, their eagerness to prevent the restoration of the temporal power, make evident to all faithful children of the Church the lawfulness and the opportuneness of the claims of the Holy See and of the Catholic world. We unceasingly demand the restoration of the temporal power of the Holy See in order that the spiritual supremacy of the Popes may be exercised freely and efficaciously. [3]


1. Dupanloup; Manning; Ming; Maglione; Schroeder; Chatard, Essays 5, 15,17; Gibbons, Faith of O. F., ch. 12; Parsons, Studies, I., p. 501; Abp. Hughes' Works, vol. ii.; Murphy, ch. 9; A. C. Q. xvii. 72, xxv. 776; C. W. x.'Cv. 609, xxxv. 1, Iii. 340, Iv. 425, Dec. 1900, Feb. 1902; M.S.H., June 1901, June 1902; M. lxvii. 305; I. E. R., May 1893, Sept. 1896; Best, Victories of Rome; Lacordaire, conf. 4 on the Church. On Rome under the Popes see Miley; Maguire; C. W. xxviii. 101.

The reader ought to remember that the term "the temporal power of the Pope" is variously used by Catholic writers. Some, like our author, use it to indicate the princely or sovereign power which the Pope formerly exercised as civil ruler over the so-called papal states. With others it means the power wielded by the Popes of the Middle Ages over Christian nations and rulers in civil and temporal affairs, as explained in the preceding article.---EDITOR.
2. "The Bishop of Rome was not made Pope by acquiring the temporal principality; but that principality was acquired by him, or conferred on him, because he was already Pope, that he might be independent in his spiritual government of the universal Church." Br. W., xii., p. 456 f.
3. "I will not, of course, condone the spoliation of the Papacy. That spoliation remains a crime against international law, and a blot on the history of Italy. I will not desist from proclaiming that the fitting position of the Papacy amid the nations of Christendom is one of plenary independence." Archbp. Ireland, Church and Modern Society.