In an era of seismic political and economic change, he rose to the world’s most visible seat of power. He roused the passions of those who felt ignored by political elites. He claimed to be the unwavering defender of religious faith, called for war on liberalism and secularism, boasted of his infallibility and battered the other branches of government. A political novice at first, he transformed his office, sparking the reverence of supporters and revulsion of critics.
If this description sounds eerily familiar, it should. Opponents of Donald Trump might apply it to an American president they believe would be king. In the middle of the 19th Century, as biographer David Kertzer argues, it described a pope who would be king: Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, better known as Pope Pius IX. Times and temperaments differ, but there are parallels in the rules of Pio Nono and Donald Trump. These similarities warrant reflection during a year when one of the most defining doctrines of contemporary Catholicism turns 150 years old.
In 1870, the First Vatican Council came to an end. It utterly reshaped the power of the papacy. Convened in late 1869 by Pius, the council assembled nearly 800 cardinals and bishops under the vast dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Pius’s motivations were not a mystery. Shaken by the tremors of social and political unrest across Europe, the pope moved to galvanize the forces of reaction. In 1864, he had already posted his manifesto in his famous Syllabus of Errors. Posing as the heroic foe to the godless ideologies spawned by modernity, Pius denounced individualism and socialism, free speech and free thought. As the last of the 80 errors made clear, the enemy was greater than the sum of these ills and ideologies: Pius was opposed to “modern civilization” itself.
In order to win his war of the past against the present, Pius created what we might call the “imperial papacy.” If faith was to overcome the forces of revolution, the pope had to force the church to revolutionize his office. Pius pressed his prelates to proclaim the dogma of papal infallibility. While much ink has been spilled on the implications of this doctrine, its intent is clear: It affirms that the pope, when he speaks on matters of faith and morals, cannot be wrong.
As this pope made clear, he would not be deterred from his goal of becoming infallible. Though the institution constituted by the cardinals, the Sacred College, was as unpopular then as the U.S. Congress is now, it represented a brake on the pope’s power. For this reason, he bullied and abused recalcitrant cardinals by turns, labeling one “evil,” another a “madman,” and yet a third an “incorrigible, schismatic snake.” Terrified of running afoul of Pius, the cardinals backed the doctrine and broke their institution.
In the lead-up to his impeachment trial, U.S. President Donald Trump, who excels at terrifying his own followers, has also shown himself equal to Pius’s claims of power. Last July, he declared that Article II of the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” During the impeachment trial, his lawyers have made similar claims. Most notably, Alan Dershowitz asserted that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” Dershowitz has since scrambled to explain his remark, but it perfectly distills the ethos of the president and his enablers.
Pius failed to stem the tide of change. When he died eight years later, the anti-clerical government of a unified Italy had made Rome its capital, confining Pius to the hundred acres of the Vatican. Yet the juridical powers he had assumed remained in force, frightening not just other European states, but even many devout Catholics.
Among them was the English Catholic politician and historian Lord John Acton. Sitting in the spectator’s gallery to the First Council, Acton was filled with horror at Pius’s pretensions. Several years later, Acton he explained his reaction to a fellow historian, writing that he could never accept that we “are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.”
Acton then coined the line for which we remember him: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Often omitted, though, are Acton’s concluding words: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” As the Senate prepares to vote on the president’s fate, we should recall these lines as well as the corollary: The holder of the office can just as easily desecrate it.
Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston and is author, most recently, of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment (Harvard 2019). The views expressed are the author's own.