Pio Nono Doesn’t Love You

One of the odder things you’ll find in the American South are streets named after Pope Pius IX or “Pio Nono.” I know for sure that Macon, GA has a Pio Nono Avenue, and there must be others in smaller towns and cities. At the time these Pio Nono streets were going up, the United States was enduring a pretty severe culture war regarding the Catholic church, namely whether it was possible for Catholics to be “good Americans” and whether the church’s teachings were compatible with liberal democracy. Yet, despite these controversies, many parts of the otherwise anti-Catholic South decided to name things after Pius IX. If I may be permitted to use the vernacular, what’s up with that?

The answer isn’t too hard to figure out. At about the same time Pius IX was routed from the Papal States, the Confederate States of America (CSA) were embroiled in the Civil War. From the perspective of Pius IX, CSA president Jefferson Davis was a man after his own heart, as another “godly” head of an agrarian society being pushed around by the modern world. To show his solidarity with Davis, the “Prisoner of the Vatican” sent “the Honorable President of the Confederate States of America” a crown of thorns as a sign of their shared suffering. This gift of the crown of thorns has been seized upon by modern-day Catholic traditionalists as an endorsement not just of the antebellum social order, but that the Old South was the only part of the United States where traditional Catholicism could have flourished.You can see this sort of blinkered attitude in a question posed to EWTN that manages to both downplay the horrors of American slavery and make the Old South seem like a traditional conservative paradise:


Ignoring for a moment the fact that the KKK and other Southern nativist groups weren’t too fond of “Romanism” or swarthy Southern European immigrants, let’s examine the problematic nature of Pius IX’s personal endorsement of the Confederacy. When Pius IX gave Jefferson Davis that crown of thorns, he was putting his solidarity with oppressors and slaveholders. As far as I can tell, the plight of the slaves living in the CSA — or anywhere else — was not on Pius IX’s radar. As with the Jews in Rome’s ghettos, blacks on Southern plantations simply were not part of the moral community as constructed by Pius IX. While it is true that Pius IX appears to have found New World slavery personally distasteful, I don’t think he could imagine a world in which blacks and whites could live like equals or even a world where slavery would always be condemned in all situations. Remember, slavery isn’t considered intrinsically wrong according to “natural law” so there was no need for Catholics to get involved with abolitionism or other forms of resistance against the slave trade. For Pius IX, the CSA stood for tradition and conservatism, just like the Papal States, and the “losers” in these societies, like the black slaves or the Jews in the ghettos who complained about their treatment were just malcontents complaining about a “natural” social order that couldn’t and shouldn’t be changed.

As a black person, I cannot support any institution that does not consider slavery and racism to be intrinsically wrong, a system that reduced humans to a status somewhat lower than farm equipment.. Thus, I cannot support an institution like the Catholic church that can find sympatico with Jefferson Davis, but not the people he owned. Pius IX’s crown of thorns was just one of many examples of the Catholic church siding with oppressors to preserve its own power at the expense of ordinary people. The concordats made with Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, the Utase, and the various “dirty dictators” in Latin America are just more recent iterations of the same theme.

I will end this entry with a quote from the great nineteenth century agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll, “For my part, I never will, I never can worship a God who upholds the institution of slavery. Such a God I hate and defy. I neither want his heaven nor fear his hell.” If an “infidel” like Robert Ingersoll could understand the inherent wickedness of slavery, why then could not “God’s Vicar” do the same?