By Father Sean McManus
Jewish Americans are understandably disturbed with the Vatican’s plans to beatify Pope Pius IX in September 2000.
On June 23, 1858, Pope Pius IX disgracefully used his army to abduct a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his parents’ home in Bologna (which was then part of the Papal States) and had him raised Catholic.
But Irish Americans — and indeed the Irish all over the world — also should oppose the beatification of Pius IX, who was Pope from 1846-1878.
On Jan. 12, 1870, Pope Pius IX excommunicated by name the Fenians — "the American or Irish society called Fenian" as the decree of condemnation put it.
Had Pope Pius IX condemned the Fenians because he believed in the philosophy of non-violence, that would have been a different matter. But that pope did not believe in non-violence. He had his own papal armed forces, and he had earlier appealed to Irishmen to come and fight for his Papal States. Hundreds of Irishmen — including Fenians — answered his call. So it was OK for Irishmen to fight for the Papal States, but it was a sin for them to fight for Ireland.
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The Fenians are probably some of the most revered figures in Irish history. Padraig Pearse, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera — to mention just a few — all drew their inspiration from the Fenians.
Founded in New York
The Fenians were founded in New York in 1858 by John O’Mahony. Their sister body in Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was simultaneously founded in Ireland by James Stephens. Both O’Mahony and Stephens participated in the Young Ireland Rising of 1848. The Fenians provided the historic link between the 1848 Rising and the 1916 Rising "when the first signatory of the Declaration of Independence was that of the Fenian Thomas Clark (1857-1916)" ("The Fenians in England 1865-1872," by Patrick Quinlivan and Paul Rose, p.4, John Calder, London. 1982). So, in a real sense, the Fenians were the founding fathers of the Irish state.
Reasons for excommunication
The reason — specious in my mind — given for the excommunication of the Fenians was that they were a secret, oath-bound society. Well, in the U.S. they were neither secret nor oath-bound. John Devoy (1842-1928), the famous Fenian and later the Clan na Gael leader, believed that the papal condemnation of the Fenians was "begun by Cardinal Cullen [of Dublin] and fomented by an English clique in Rome" ("Recollections of an Irish Rebel," p.118, Irish University Press, Shannon, 1969). The Times’ correspondent in Rome wrote that the role of Cardinal Cullen and Cardinal Manning of England in the papal condemnation was "a piece of toadyism to the British Government." (And the Times’ correspondent was no closet Fenian.) Sad to say, some Irish-American bishops also lobbied Rome to have the Fenians condemned.
Here is what the decree of excommunication said:
"Since some have doubted whether the society of the Fenians is included among the societies forbidden by the pontifical constitutions, our most holy lord, Pius IX, by Divine Providence, Pope . . . has decreed and declared that the American or Irish society of Fenians is included among the societies forbidden and condemned by the constitutions of the Supreme Pontiffs and especially by the most recent edicts of the same Pontiff of October 12, 1869, which began Apostolic’ Sedis and declared under number four [#4] that those persons were subject to excommunication automatically incurred and reserved to the Roman Pontiff . . . "
It is important for the reader also to know, however, the two following points:
€ At a papal audience in January 1866, the British representative, Odo Russell, was told by Pius IX that Fenianism was condemned in a previous encyclical and that he hoped "that the evil would be soon suppressed altogether." At another papal audience in January 1879, Pope Pius IX told Russell he saw Fenianism "the enemy of church and state."
€ At a papal audience in October 1866, Gladstone said Pope Pius IX "spoke warmly against Fenianism" and declared his hostility (cf. E.R. Norman, "The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion," pp. 96, 114 and 131, Cornell University Press, 1965).
John Devoy was well placed to have a long and broad view. Padraig Pearse accurately predicted (at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in Dublin on Aug. 1, 1915) that Devoy would be "recognized as the greatest of the Fenians." He was born on Sept. 3, 1842 in Kill, Co. Kildare, was imprisoned in England from 1866-77, and was granted amnesty with other Fenians on condition they would be exiled to the U.S., where he died in 1928.
Devoy went on to become a towering force in Clan na Gael, which effectively took over from the Fenian movement. Clan na Gael was founded in New York on June 20, 1867, the 104th anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birthday.
Devoy sees change
Devoy would have the consolation of seeing a huge change in church thinking. He would later write, "At the great [Clan na Gael] Convention in Philadelphia . . . Cardinal Gibbons [of Baltimore] stood in his purple robes with 28 bishops . . . and gave his blessings to the movement which Cardinal Cullen had anathematized and which Pope Pius IX had condemned in a Rescript. As I stood behind the venerable Cardinal, noting the evidence of the tremendous change, my mind went back to the days when we were cursed from nearly every altar in Ireland and I nearly broke down . . . " (ibid., p. 126) And Clan na Gael was oath-bound and even more secret than the Fenians ever were.
The American bishops of 1919 realized that the Vatican’s excommunication of the Fenians was wrong and unjust and Devoy lived long enough to see the change. But what of the thousands of Irish in the U.S. and Britain who never lived to see the bishops realize that Pope Pius IX had acted unjustly? Can you imagine the pain those Catholics felt at being condemned by the pope for loving justice and peace in Ireland?
And now the Vatican plans to tear the scab off that old wound by beatifying the pope responsible for that great injustice. The Irish simply ought not stand for it. We owe ourselves — and the Fenians — that much respect.
(The author is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus.)