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The Pope’s Army: The Papacy in diplomacy and war, by John Carr

26 June 2020

Serenhedd James on the papacy’s history of wrangling and war

A PORTRAIT of Pius IX beams down benevolently on the patrons of a favourite restaurant in Rome, Il Papa Re. He was the Pope-King by the end of whose long reign the Papal States had been lost; Pope Leo XIII inherited little more than just over 100 acres of Roman real estate. The long process by which this denouement came about is the focus of John Carr’s latest book, The Pope’s Army.

With considerable verve, Carr takes his readers from St Peter’s use of the sword at Gethsemane to the work of today’s Swiss Guard, “still attired in Michelangelo’s pantaloons”. The inevitable moral quandary is always with us; Carr deals with it robustly at the outset: “even though Christianity is anti-violence in creed and outlook, its institutions in a fallen world often need to employ a fallen world’s instruments.”

St Augustine taught this many centuries ago, although plenty of Carr’s subjects pushed the principle. He traces the rise of the Church as a political power in pre-medieval Europe and the various wranglings of popes and anti-popes that led up to the election of Urban II; the Crusades that followed; and the 14th-century massacres nearer home. Sensibly, he dismisses the nonsense about “Pope Joan” and that ridiculous chair.

The well-documented indiscretions of Alexander IV and Julius II did not prevent their shoring up the Papal States by use of “the timeless tactics of war”; they left them strong enough to survive for centuries. Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I, and, under his banner, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Lepanto; not long afterwards, the Wars of Religion reset European identities for ever.

After nationalism displaced religion as the leading factor in policy-making, Richelieu and Mazarin were quite happy to champion Protestant interests when they aligned with those of Catholic France; but in their turn the Bourbons were also swept away. Napoleon later overran the Papal States and kidnapped Pius VI; he went on to humiliate Pius VII before meeting his Waterloo.

Things came to a climax with the struggle of Pius IX against Garibaldi and his redshirts in the decade leading up to 1870. From Europe and beyond, Catholics of all ranks of life volunteered to defend the Papal States one last time; hopelessly outnumbered by nationalist forces, the doomed Papal Zouaves fought on gamely until a white flag flew from the cupola of St Peter’s.

Pius, a king no more, countered the loss of his temporal power by formally defining papal infallibility a few months before Victor Emanuele II, the new King of All Italy, moved his capital to Rome. This sort of history does not spring from nowhere, and Carr is a nuanced and entertaining guide to the conflicted centuries when the Church taught peace while wielding a sword, much after the inscrutable exhortations of her Founder.

This is a book for a broad audience. Carr writes with vim and vigour; the result is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking work, on a fascinating and generally under-regarded subject.

Dr Serenhedd James is Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.


The Pope’s Army: The Papacy in diplomacy and war 
John Carr 
Pen and Sword £25
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