Pope Pius IX Protests Emancipation for Jews in Italy

February 21, 1852

Pope Pius IX (shown in photo) writes to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, to protest the Grand Duke’s decision to give levels of emancipation to the Jews in the Grand Duchy.  Leopold II had succeeded his father as Grand Duke in June 1824 and continued many of the liberal policies that his father had implemented.  These included education, judicial and administrative reforms.

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti would become Pope Pius IX in 1846 and was regarded by many at the outset of his papacy as being someone who would bring progress and reform to the Papal States and the papacy.  The first few years of his papacy provided promise to the Jews of Italy as he introduced a series of reforms which included measures aimed at ameliorating Jewish life in Rome, such as ordering an end to mandatory attendance at conversionary sermons, allowing a number of Jewish families to reside outside the ghetto and even providing public subsidies as charity to large Jewish families.

While the Pope was willing to introduce limited reforms in the political arena, his belief about full Jewish emancipation was that it was contrary to Christian dogma. Jews’ rights constantly tilted between acceptance and rejection; it depended upon who was making the decision and where. In early 1848, in the Piedmont area, full civil rights to the Jews were granted, while others such as the Rome area stipulated that profession of Catholicism was needed for full political rights.  In April 1948, Pius IX sanctioned the tearing down of Rome’s ghetto walls in April 1848.  A year later, after a confrontation with Austria, the Pope placed some blame on the Jews for the unrest for agitating against the Church and its rule, and he reversed many of his earlier reforms.

On February 21, 1852, the Pope wrote to King Leopold II: “Your Highness is not unaware of the fact that the spirit of the Church, expressed in many dispositions and decrees … has always been to keep Catholics as much as possible from having any contact with the infidels … Otherwise, it will open the way to requests for other civil rights for the Jews and for other non-Catholics” (Kertzer, David, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, New York: Vintage Books, 2001, p. 116).

These events in the Italian areas highlighted the precarious nature of Jewish rights in Western Europe during a time of political progress and liberalization.  These events pointed to why some Jews were considering a state of their own to prevent uncertainty and precariousness in their lives.  In 1904, Pope Pius IX would refuse to offer recognition or assistance to Theodor Herzl and the Zionist movement.