Faced with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the Catholic Church settled on the response of condemnation and resistance. This policy was far from inevitable. Pope Pius VII (1800-23) spoke favourably of revolutionary democracy in a sermon which he preached as Bishop of Imola at Christmas 1797: "Bring me a man who burns with love for God, and he will find the doctrine of equality before God in his heart.... Do not believe that the Catholic religion is against democracy." This attitude, however, did not last. In 1814, Pius himself complained about the guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in the draft constitution of the restored French monarchy. A fairly typical representative of the conservative Catholic position was Mgr Jean-Joseph Gaume, who put the following words into the mouth of the Revolution in 1877, framing political liberalism as a sacreligious revolt against the God-given social order:
I am not what you think I am. Many speak of me but few know me. I am not Freemasonry, nor rioting, nor the changing of the monarchy into a republic, not the substitution of one dynasty for another, not temporary disturbance of public order.... These things are my works but they are not me.... I am the hatred of all order not established by man and in which he himself is not both king and god.
At papal level, the reaction began in earnest in 1823, when the College of Cardinals elected Annibale della Genga to the pontificate as Leo XII (not to be confused with Leo XIII, who was a very different sort of pope, as we shall see). Della Genga was extremely conservative and extremely ill, but he surprised everyone by recovering and reigning until 1829. He is the pope who is said to have banned vaccination in the Papal States - if God wanted people to get smallpox, they should damn well get it - though this seems to be a myth. Leo attacked enlightenment philosophy and religious pluralism in his first encyclical, Ubi Primum (1824). "The current indifferentism", he complained, "has developed to the point of arguing that everyone is on the right road", not only Protestants but even deists and atheists. He bemoaned a widespread contempt for the authority of the Church and the papacy.
Leo's reign was followed by the brief pontificate of Pius VIII (1829-30), who issued the encyclical Traditi Humilitati in 1829. Traditi is essentially directed against the Enlightenment critique of traditional religion. The pope lamented the spread of godless philosophy and the privileging of natural reason. "All things which concern religion", he wrote, "are relegated to the fables of old women and the superstitions of priests". He condemned religious pluralism and anti-Catholic publications. These are the writings of a man who was clearly fighting a rearguard action. Pius was writing at a time when he could still get away with simply condemning modern thought and restating the conservative Catholic position, but he was palpably on the back foot.
Pius also took the opportunity to reaffirm the great Masonic conspiracy theory of the Counter-Enlightenment. He attacked secret societies, which he said were "wholly dedicated to bringing about the fall of the Church, the destruction of kingdoms, and disorder in the whole world". This was only 1829, however, so the Jews had not yet joined the Freemasons as scapegoats for the changes that were sweeping the world.
A similar but broader message is found in Mirari Vos, an encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI issued in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act. This was Gregory's first encyclical, and it set the tone for his pontificate, which lasted until 1846. Gregory and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini, were diehard reactionaries. Gregory even banned railways in the Papal States, calling them chemins d'enfer: he shrewdly recognised that economic modernisation would create a discontented middle class that would undermine his rule. It is said that Mirari Vos was intended as a counterblast to the unorthodox ideas of the French writer Lamennais.
According to Gregory, the modern world was full of impiety and error, and he and his bishops needed to take some action. He affirmed that people must profess the Catholic faith if they are not to be damned. He condemned freedom of conscience and the separation of the separation of the Church from the State. As for reform of the Church, what was that all about? The Church is a perfect society. It can't be in need of reform.
Gregory was a great believer in obedience, both within the Church and outside it. Subjects must be faithful to their rulers (or, as he called then, "Our dear sons in Christ, the princes") and must refrain from anti-government actions. Rulers must in turn stay faithful to the Church. Priests must be loyal to their bishops, and the laws of the Church must not be attacked. There is more than a little of the lost cause in all this. Gregory was exhorting his readers to be loyal to a political and religious order that was already moribund.
Gregory XVI died in 1846. The resulting papal election was won by Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, who is known to history as Blessed Pius IX (the main conservative candidate was Cardinal Lambruschini). Mastai-Ferretti didn't care for Gregory XVI, and he was widely seen as being quite a subversive figure. Even his cats, it was said, were liberals. Prince Metternich was so troubled by the idea of him sitting on the papal throne that he tried to prevent his election, without success.
Metternich needn't have worried. Pius started out as something of a reformer, but that was as far as it went. In 1848, he was mugged by reality when revolutionaries took over Rome and temporarily forced him into exile. His pontificate turned out to be an era of solid conservatism. It is in this context that Quanta Cura, his 1864 encyclical on religion in the public sphere, is to be seen. The more immediate context was Napoleon III's agreement with the nascent Kingdom of Italy to withdraw his troops from Rome, where they had been protecting the papal regime. The Kingdom of Italy itself had only been created in 1861 after the capture of most of the Papal States by Piedmontese troops. Pius was not just on the back foot: he could barely keep himself upright.
Quanta Cura is directed principally against ‘naturalism’, the view that religious principles should have no influence on the conduct of public affairs. This would include the idea that Catholicism should have no special legal status, the idea that people should be free under the law to propagate any religious credo, and the idea that political actions are not open to moral criticism. Pius specifically condemned certain particular legal restrictions on religion: the suppression of religious orders, the prohibition of public religious almsgiving, the abolition of Sunday as a day of rest, and the mandating of secular education. He further condemned the notion that the laws and property rights of the Church could be disregarded or subjected to the control of civil legislation.
Accompanying the encyclical was the famous Syllabus Errorum, the Syllabus of Errors. This notorious document condemned 80 contemporary errors categorised into 9 groups. Around half of the condemned propositions refer to Church-State relations. The others relate to such matters as rationalism, religious indifferentism and the powers of the Church and the Pope. Some of the more famous errors include the following:
Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.
Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.
In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.
The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.
Quanta Cura was quite a spectacular own goal. It was greeted by Catholics across Europe with dismay. It gave anti-Catholics a stock of ammunition that some of them are still using today. In Britain, Gladstone was particularly indignant, and Cardinal Newman wrote a rather unconvincing reply to him which was incorporated in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. The Pope, he argued, had only condemned extreme freedom to hold and teach any idea that one wished ("What if a man's conscience embraces the duty of regicide? or infanticide? or free love?"), and in any case the laws of jolly old England had been quite authoritarian until fairly recently. A more famous attempt to explain what the Pope had really meant to say came from Bishop Félix Dupanloup of Orleans, who was thanked rather unenthusiastically by Pius for his pains (right-wing French royalists, who rather liked the Syllabus, were even less grateful for his intervention).
And so to Leo XIII, arguably the greatest of the 19th century popes (and a man whose Latin was so good that he apparently wrote his own encyclicals). He had welcomed Dupanloup's attempt to neuter Quanta Cura, and in 1885 he published his own views on the relations between Church and State in Immortale Dei. Europe and the world had come a long way since Leo XII's election 62 years earlier, and an even longer way since the demise of the ancien régime in 1789. By way of reference, France had by now undergone three revolutions, together with several coups and other changes of constitution. The 1881 elections had effectively marked the end of the extreme monarchists (the légitimistes) as a political force, though representatives of the broader monarchist movement lingered on until 1906. Leo had embarked upon the rather thankless task of persuading the extremely chippy French Catholic right to support the Republic. Immortale Dei can be seen as part of this process of recognising 19th century political realities.
To be sure, Leo scrupulously affirms all the old doctrines. Subjects must obey their rulers, who are in turn accountable to God. Popular sovereignty and freedom of conscience are unfortunate errors that lead to civil unrest. It is regrettable that God is no longer granted a place in public affairs, and it is absurd that all religions are regarded as being equally valid. A nation ruled on Christian principles, by contrast, will be tranquil, virtuous and happy.
There is a very real shift, however, both in emphasis and even in substance. Whereas Pius IX and his precedessors were concerned with asserting the Church's rights and prerogatives against those who were taking them away, Leo is more expansive. The Church, he writes, is not against liberty, merely destructive and excessive liberty. She does not condemn any form of government, democracy included, or seek to stamp out legitimate freedoms. Indeed, she has intervened in the past to protect people from oppressive rulers. While Catholicism is obviously the true religion - anyone can see that - it is accepted that the State will sometimes have to accommodate other faiths and that it is wrong to force people to be Catholics. The Church and the State are complementary entities which can and should work together in harmony, the State dealing with temporal matters and the Church dealing with spiritual matters.
We are no longer in the world of Pius IX. The Pope is no longer blindly defending the ghost of an old order that has passed away for ever. He isn't exactly embracing the modern, liberal world - but he is engaging with it, and doing so with intelligence and a degree of sympathy.
Addition - 17 February 2011
I would add that Leo's 1888 encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum follows the same trajectory as I've sketched out above.
Leo again affirms the old doctrines and attacks the contemporary liberal movement. He says that human reason cannot be made the measure of all things, that the Church should not be separated from the State, and that "the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion".
On the other hand, however, he seeks to dissolve any opposition between the confessional Catholic state, good governance and true freedom. Freedom of speech and of the press are permissible in moderation, he says, and God himself has left some subjects to men for free examination and debate. He further says that rulers do not have the right to impose "unreasonable and capricious commands". It is permissible to try to change an oppressive government, and indeed to adopt a democratic form of constitution. He attacks liberals for saying that the Church is the enemy of freedom, and argues that the Church is for true liberty as distinct from "sheer and most foolish licence". Indeed, liberalism itself simply favours the tyranny of the State. The most daring passage is where Leo says that Christ himself asserted "[t]he impartiality of law and the true brotherhood of man". This must have sounded almost blasphemous to some right-wing Catholic monarchists.