Website accessibility
Show or hide the menu bar
Main home
Section home
Log in

Canon Law in action: Were the Papal States a “perfect society”?

Until 1871 church and state were one in the Papal States of Central Italy. With the pope as absolute monarch, the Church had centuries to show the the world how to run a country in accordance with “Divine law”. Unfortunately, the Holy Father found that he needed a police state to keep his subjects from rebelling to try to enjoy the “Rights of Man”.

 Pius IX said in 1854 that the Church was a “perfect society”. Naturally the pope’s kingdom, where church and state were one, should reflect this perfection. So did it? Depends upon your idea of “perfection”. In 1859 the  kingdom's religious police, in accordance with one of the “sacred canons” and at the pope's behest, kidnapped a Jewish six-year-old. And in France in 1946, in accordance with the same article of Church law, the Church refused to return baptised Jewish children to surviving relatives. Even though other Church laws have been amended since then, that one remains on the books.

“The Spanish State recognises in the Catholic Church the character of the perfect society...” So begins Article 2 of the Franco concordat. And the Dominican Republic also acknowledges the Church as a “perfect society” in Article 3.1 of the Trujillo concordat. Here they are echoing Pope Pius IX who had claimed that the Church was perfect society, and went on to unpack this by asserting that civil law could not prevail over Church teaching. [2]

These claims serve to justify the massive influence granted to the Church by the rest of the concordat. And they seem to be the rationale of concordats in general: why not let the “perfection” of the Church help cure the manifest imperfections of civil society?

So much for the theory, but how does it look when put to a practical test? For centuries the Catholic Church had a free hand in the Papal States of central Italy. Until the last of this territory was conquered by Italian forces in 1870, the Church had an unrivalled opportunity to construct a “perfect society”. In the Papal States the pope was both head of the church and head of state. There a whole society was run by the Vatican on its own territory and its own terms: that is to say, according to the “Sacred Canons”.

These “Canons” are the official Church edicts, stemming from Church councils and from popes. For almost two millennia these miscellaneous Canons piled up until the pope issued a directive to put them in order, using as a model recent civil codes of law. [4] The result of this was the first code of Canon Law which was published in 1917. A revised code was issued in 1983.

What happened when these “Sacred Canons” were used to guide a whole society? The last years of the Pope’s reign were marked by the presence of foreign troops needed to keep his subjects from rebelling in the name of democracy. A newspaper from Genoa described the Pope’s government in 1859 as one “that the oppressed and outraged peoples have repeatedly expelled every time it has been left unprotected by a foreign army”. [3] In fact, even more than a decade after they were freed of the Pope’s rule, the anger was such that a large group of them tried to toss his coffin into the Tiber. [5] Contemporary descriptions show the reasons for their dissatisfaction at being forced to live in this “perfect society”.

Rome, 1849: Victor Hugo reports on the Papal States

 In 1849, the Papal States stretched all the way across Central Italy, from the Po on the north to well below the mouth of the Tiber on the south. Pius IX (of concordat fame) occupied the papal throne, as both the spiritual and temporal ruler. Here the Church did not have to try to bind a secular ruler through a concordat: it ruled directly. Here, if anywhere, the Church should have been able to construct the “perfect society”.

Victor Hugo, French author and Nobel prize winner, describes how the pope’s own kingdom looked in practice.…

…An utter chaos of feudal and monkish laws….For Rome alone fourteen special tribunals. In these tribunals, no guarantee of any kind about what’s going on. The deliberations are secret, oral defence is forbidden. Ecclesiastical judges pass judgement on secular matters and on laymen….

The Jews [are] penned [into the ghetto] and locked up every evening, as in the fifteenth century … the clergy [are] mixed up in everything. Priests report to the police. Treasury officials — and this is their own ruling — do not consider it their duty to be accountable to the Treasury, but ‘only to God Himself’.
A double censorship oppresses thought: political censorship and religious censorship. One throttles public opinion, the other silences the conscience. They have just re-established the Inquisition. [6]

The plaque puts it even more succinctly: in the pope’s domain people were executed “without proof and without defence”.

Bologne, 1858: Kidnapping in accordance with the “Sacred Canons”

The re-established Inquisition, mentioned by Victor Hugo, was charged with enforcing Church doctrine in the territory of the Papal States. The following is a famous example of religious policing, one which shocked the world and probably hastened the end of the pope's reign over central Italy. What Italian statesmen “could not accomplish in the halls of Versailles and London, and even on the battlefield, the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara did by arousing anti-Church feeling in the cause of national unification”. [7]

Edgardo Mortara One night there was a knock at the door of a Jewish family in Bologne. It was the papal police, and their visit was mandated by the “Sacred Canons”. They came to forcibly remove a six-year-old child from his loving family — forever.

No one would tell the Mortara family why they were losing their son. Only later would the distraught parents learn that an illiterate Catholic servant girl who had worked for the family claimed to have “baptised” Edgardo five years before, when the infant was sick — and when his parents were not in the room. Allegedly in exchange for the price of a dowry, the Inquisitor, Father Feletti, got the servant girl to acknowledge the “facts” to him. Once she admitted baptising the child, the Inquisitor’s “investigation” was concluded.  The police could then “legally” take the child from his parents and his home. [8]

It was all in accordance with the “Sacred Canons”, which stipulated that if a Jewish child were near death, any Catholic could baptise the child, even if the child’s parents did not approve. They also stated that if a Jewish child had been baptised, the child was a Christian and could not be raised in a Jewish home, even if the home belonged to his parents. [9]

Satisfied that he had upheld Church law, the Inquisitor, Father Feletti felt no qualms: “I have acted in good conscience, for everything has been done punctiliously according to the Sacred Canons”. [10]

And this was no isolated example. For centuries non-Catholic children had been removed from their parents, and non-Catholics had been persecuted, all properly authorised by the “Sacred Canons”. As early as 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council foreshadowed of Hitler's yellow star, by decreeing that “Jews and Saracens [...] must be distinguished from the Christian by a difference of dress.” This Church council even prepared the way for the kidnapping of little Edgardo by stipulating that “Jews who have received baptism are to be restrained by the prelates from returning to their former rite.” [11]

In the hope of converting Jews more quickly by making them more accessible to preachers, popes and bishops confined them in ghettos. [12] This practice received official sanction in the papal bull of 1555 which, of course, became part of the “sacred Canons”. It begins,

Since it is completely senseless and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt — all of their own doing — has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us [...] [13]

Three centuries later Pius IX was in full accord. He was indignant that the international press questioned his kidnapping of Edgardo: “The newspapers can write all they want. I couldn't care less about what the world thinks,”  he told a Jewish delegation. And he added a threat: “Take care. I could have made you go back into your hole.” [14] In fact he had already confined the Jews to the ghetto again and rescinded their civil rights. In 1871 he said “We have today in Rome unfortunately too many of these dogs...”. [15] 

The requirement that Jews in the Pope’s domain live within the ghetto was only abolished when the last remnant of the Papal State was overthrown on September 20, 1870. The ghetto of Rome was the last remaining ghetto in Western Europe until its later reintroduction by Nazi Germany.

 France 1946: Kidnapping in accordance with the Code of Canon Law (1917 edition)

In 1870 Italian forces breached the walls of Rome and ended papal rule, freeing the inhabitants to live under modern civil law. Since then the temporal control of the Church has been confined to the Vatican City, a city-state within Rome of less than half a square kilometre, where Italian law has no jurisdiction. Canon Law has free rein in the Vatican City, whose 500 citizens are all adults and all clerics. Few would quarrel with this, as it is their choice to live under Canon Law.

However, Canon Law also reigns — as specified in numerous concordats — in Church institutions worldwide. The problem with this is that this puts under Canon Law laymen who have not entered Catholic religious orders and agreed to live under this regime.  

These laymen may be Church employees who work in a Church institution simply because they need a job, yet they can be fired for an infraction of Canon Law, such as remarrying after a civil divorce. And it doesn't end with them, for there is a ripple effect. Those who don't want to spoil a relative's future employment chances can become anxiously pious, as can recipients of these (state-funded) services. In other words, the more the Church is funded by the state to take over social services, the greater the unofficial control by Canon Law of people who may not have freely chosen to come under it. This is especially true in times of high unemployment.

Other laymen who have come under Canaon Law with tragic results are the children preyed upon by paedophile priests. The imbalance of power tends to keep these priests from being reported to the police and the application of Canon Law within the Church rarely leads to more than a period of penance at best, after which they can return to dealing with children.

A third kind of laymen who find themselves under Canon Law are those who seek help during times of danger. That's when Church institutions, because of their protected position, may find themselves besieged by frantic people. Such was the case in countries occupied by the Germans in World War II, when desperate Jewish parents handed their children over to Catholic convents in the hope of saving them. This, of course, put the children under Canon Law. And when these children, while separated for years from their parents, converted and were baptised, they then faced the same fate as little Edgardo. 

In a recently revealed letter “approved by the Holy Father”, Pius XII, and dated 20 November 1946, it is ordered that only those children be returned to their parents who had not been baptised as Catholics. [16] Anything else, of course, was forbidden by Canon Law....

The Church once ran a whole society — the Papal States — in accordance with its “Sacred Canons”. These still govern Catholic institutions and this is guaranteed by concordats. However, Church institutions are anything but watertight, especially when these same concordats provide payments for them to run social services. This effectively lets Canon Law out of the Church and into the wider society. Perhaps those who assume that this is bound to be a “good thing” should consider how it worked out in the Papal States.

Yet another doctrinal element in the case of the kidnapped Jewish child is still retained today. On 7 February 2008 the Vatican re-affirmed its commitment to this traditional theology by releasing the text of a prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews. The Vatican response to the objections that followed was unrepentant. It can be summed up in the title of an interview published the next day: Cardinal Kasper says: No offense! The text comes from St. Paul”. [17]

— MF 


James Walston, "Holy fathers and suffering sons: The Catholic church, embroiled in a row over a Jewish boy abducted by Pope Pius IX in 1858, has a new critic - the child's great-great-niece", The Guardian, 11 March 2000.

"Jews and Catholics: An Exchange", by A.F. Crispin, David Kertzer, reply by Istvan Deak, New York Review of Books, vol. 50, no. 4, 13 March 2003.


1. Pius IX, Allocution “Singulari quadam”, 9 December 1854, quoted in Syllabus of Errors, #19.

2. Canon Law, Concordat Watch. For  specialised sites by canonists see Dr. Edward Peters and “Selected Reference Documents related to the Code of Canon Law prepared by Father Jason Gray of the Diocese of Peoria”,

3. Edward Peters, “Cardinal Gasparri’s letter Perlegisti:Translation and Brief Commentary”,  Canon Law Society of Great Britain in Ireland Newsletter, June 2004, pp. 106-107. 

4. Gazzetta del populo, Bologne, 28 November 1859, quoted in David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997, p. 248.

5. Pius IX. 

6. Victor Hugo, “Assemblée Législative 1849-1851”, [II, Expédition de Rome], 15 October 1849, Actes et Paroles, vol. I, [Online reader, page 131] Translated by Dr. David Holohan.

7. Harry V. Willems, Review of  David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Library Journal, 5/01/1997 

8. Carole D. Bos, J.D. (Juris Doctor), “The Kidapping of Edgardo Mortara”,  Chapter 5. 

9. Bos, Ibid., Chapter 3. 

10. David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997. Chapter I (containing this quote) is posted at: 

11. Medieval Sourcebook: Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV, 1215, Canons 68 and 70. 

12. Stacie Johnson, “The History of Jews in Rome and the Jewish Ghetto”, University of Washington History Department, 2 March 2009.

13. Pope Paul IV, “Cum nimis absurdum”,  14 July 1555. Apparently this Wikipedia article is the only place a full translation can be found.

14. “Not So Saintly?”, Time Magazine, 4 September 2000.,9171,997840-3,00.html 

15. Garry Wills, “‘The Popes Against the Jews’: Before the Holocaust”, New York Times, 23 September 2001. reposted:

16. Document reivives WWII-era Vatican debate, AP, 31 December 2004.,2933,143030,00.html

Elaine Sciolino and Jason Horowitz, “Saving Jewish Children, but at What Cost?”, New York Times, 9 January 2005. 

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “The Church’s Kidnapping Policy: A damning document shows the Catholic Church tried to keep some Jewish children it sheltered from returning to their families”, New Republic, 31 January 2005. 

17. Luigi Accattoli, “Cardinal Kasper says: ‘No offense! The text comes from St. Paul’ ”,  Corriere della Sera, 8 February 2008, (translation). 

Go to Notanant menuWebsite accessibility

Access level: public

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies: OK