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Why Pius IX Might Be The 'Most Important Pope' In Modern Church History

Pius IX became head of the Catholic church in 1846 and instituted the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kertzer says his exile led to the emergence of modern Italy.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2018: Interview with David Kertzer; Review of film 'Zama.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church. My guest David Kertzer is the author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe."

Pius became pope in 1846. He was the last pope to rule over the Papal States, which covered much of what is now Italy. There was no separation of church and state until a rebellion by Italian nationalists forced Pope Pius IX into exile, which led to the creation of modern Italy. After the pope returned from exile without the Papal States to rule over, he was confined to the Vatican, giving the Vatican a new significance. Pius also instituted the doctrine of papal infallibility. He saw freedom of speech in of the press as incompatible with Catholicism.

David Kertzer won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for his book "The Pope And Mussolini" about the secret relationship between Pope Pius XI and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He's also the author of "The Popes Against The Jews: The Vatican’s Role In The Rise Of Modern Anti-Semitism." Kertzer is a professor at Brown University.

David Kertzer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So there are several turning points in the Catholic Church during the period that you're writing about - turning points that Pope Pius IX was responsible for. Can you just give us a sense of why his papacy was a turning point in Catholic history?

DAVID KERTZER: The Pope Pius IX became pope at a time of revolutionary ferment in Europe, when the old ideas of autocracy were being questioned, when demands for constitutional rights were being heard. And he was being buffeted. There were those, including other high-ranking priests, who were urging him to come to terms with modern times, to grant people more freedoms, to let up on the rule by priests of the state over which he ruled - the Papal States with its capital in Rome. And it wasn't always clear which way he would go - whether he would go with those more liberal or progressive elements or stick with those who thought the medieval vision of the church had to remain unchanging.

At the same time, there was another drama playing out in Italy at the time, the drama of Italian unification - the Risorgimento. When there were those, including high-ranking priests, who - urging the pope to play a leadership role, to actually preside over a federation of Italian states that would drive out the foreigners - the Austrians - and create an Italian unified nation-state presided over, in some way, by the pope, if only in an honorary way. And the pope, at a certain point, was tempted by that as well. But in rejecting that, in opposing the unification of Italy, in insisting that the pope could not exist except also as a temporal ruler - as a king - the pope would set the church on a conservative, even reactionary, path that would have a major influence on the course not only of the Roman Catholic Church for many decades but also on Europe.

GROSS: You know, we take for granted the separation of church and state as a Western principle, but that wasn't true in the era of the pope that you're writing about. You describe, you know, the pope as the pope who would be king. You describe him as the pope king. What does that mean?

KERTZER: Well, for a thousand years, the pope was not only a spiritual leader of Roman Catholics, but he was also a king. He ruled over a swath of Italy, although their capital was in Rome. It ranged all the way up to Bologna in the north. So it formed a major part of the Italian peninsula for many, many years. And by the 19th century, it would be one of the main obstacles to the unification of Italy.

GROSS: So as the ruler, what powers did the pope have over his people?

KERTZER: The pope had absolute power over his people. He, in fact, inflicted capital punishment at the extreme case. So there'd always be a certain popular interest in attending the executions by guillotine or by other means in the center of Rome of people found guilty of major crimes.

But more than that and what the people really feared in the Papal States were the ecclesiastical courts that had power over them. The parish priest could send their spies into people's homes or intrude themselves at any time to see if anything illicit was going on, such as eating meat during Lent or - on a Friday - or unmarried people living together. And then haul them off to jail to await sentencing, and the sentencing would be by a court ruled by a priest. So priests had this dual role, and the clergy had this dual role of - basically - police and government as well as spiritual guides.

GROSS: So when Pope Pius IX became pope, he had a palace. The popes up until that point had palaces. What was the palace like, and where was it?

KERTZER: Yes, the people think, of course, the pope always was in the Vatican. But, in fact, the popes were not in the Vatican. They were in the Quirinal Palace, this huge - makes the White House look tiny - this huge complex in the - on top of one of the hills of Rome in the center of Rome. It's the palace that, today, has the president of the Republic of Italy in it. The pope only retreated to the Vatican when he lost control of Rome in 1870, a few years after the events that are discussed in this book.

GROSS: So Pope Pius IX becomes Pope in 1846. At first, he's really popular. Why is he popular?

KERTZER: Pius IX replaced a reactionary pope who was extremely unpopular - Gregory XVI. And he was a relatively young man - about 51 or 52 - when he became pope. He had a reputation as being a kind bishop of his flock in central Italy. And so people began to have hope that he could turn things around. They had been demanding reforms for a long time and gotten only repression. And then he began to do things that they liked. He issued an amnesty to all the political prisoners that were languishing in the papal jails. He formed a consultative council of laymen. To date, all governments had been in the hand of priests. And, in fact, it was what they called the priestly rule that people most resented.

So he did one thing after the next to please his people. He was a pope who wanted to be loved. And he had not been involved in the politics of the Vatican before, so he came in as an outsider. The result was that night after night, huge crowds - thousands of people would crowd outside the papal palace and sing his - literally sing his praises and recite poetry - odes to his greatness - and call on him to come out to his balcony to bless them, which he regularly did.

GROSS: Another thing he did was open the Jewish ghettos, and let the Jews out of those ghettos. So let's start with the fact that the Jews were confined to ghettos in the Papal States.

KERTZER: The Jews had been confined to ghettos from the mid-16th century - the mid-1500s - by papal edict. And they were languishing in a fetid, overcrowded zone on the river of the Tiber River, which at the time was yellow with pollution. And they flooded regularly. It was really living in miserable circumstances. Plus, they were not allowed to have social contact with Christians. They were not allowed to practice professions. The children were not allowed to go to school with Christian children, so they were really living in these desperate straits. And the times were changing, and the Pope felt under pressure. So he began to lift some of the restrictions on the ghetto, including - the ghetto for years had had its gates locked at night by Christian guards, who had to be paid by the Jews of the ghetto to lock them in each night. And to much celebration, he - in early 1848 - allowed those gates to be destroyed. So although most of the Jews remained living in the ghetto, they were - no longer felt themselves imprisoned in the ghetto.

GROSS: OK. So the pope doesn't stay that popular for long, and they're not literally singing his praises for very long. Why do people turn against the pope?

KERTZER: It's a very dramatic turn of popular opinion against the pope. He had been so popular, yet he felt himself in a bind. His cardinals were very upset. Many of the ambassadors from the various monarchies - autocracies of Europe were telling him he was making a big mistake. He was leading the church toward disaster by his reforms. And at a certain point, he decided he could go no further.

And actually, the breaking point came with a decision he made about the unification of Italy. This was a time when the desire was to unify all Italy in some kind of confederation. Many people thought the pope would, in fact, be the most obvious leader of such a confederation because what people had in common throughout Italy actually was not language. It was not political tradition. It was their Roman Catholicism that 99 percent had in common. So from being the possible hero of creating an Italian nation and reform and bring constitution, which he did - new rights to people - all of a sudden, he said, I could go no further. I will not lead the efforts to drive the foreigners out of Italy. The Austrians at the time were occupying the whole northeast of Italy. And at that point, the people turned against him.

GROSS: So this story about Pope Pius IX takes a lot of twists and turns. But let's jump ahead to when he's actually forced out of the territory that he rules. He's forced out of his home in the Papal States. What was the last straw?

KERTZER: Well, there was a violent revolt. In fact, his prime minister was murdered in the middle of Rome not far from his own palace and within a few minutes of having visited the pope himself. He was going to address the parliament that had been established by the pope in his new constitution earlier that year of 1848 when on November 15, he is stabbed in the neck. And his blood drains out of him. He dies on the steps of the parliament.

Following this, there is popular rejoicing, and the crowds actually wheel a cannon into the piazza facing the papal palace and point it at the doors of the papal palace. Others start setting fire to the doors of the papal palace. At this point, the papal troops are all disarmed, and the civic guard that ironically the Pope had set up earlier turn against him and essentially make him a prisoner in his own palace. So he then has to decide what to do.

GROSS: So he has - he escapes. It's a very complicated escape. Where does he go?

KERTZER: Well, one of the curious things about this story is he lets out a different word to different - the people who are helping his escape as to where he's going. He turns, for example, to the French ambassador to play a key role, and he lets it be known to the French Ambassador that he's planning to board a ship that will take him with the French ambassador to France. And as a result, the president of France announces with great pride to the assembly that the pope is on his way to France - same thing with the Spanish ambassador.

A Spanish ambassador is told that he will go to take refuge in Majorca - the Spanish island of Majorca. Yet what actually ends up happening is the Bavarian ambassador takes him in his carriage and takes him not to France, not to Spain but south to the kingdom of Naples ruled over by the so-called Bomb King, King Ferdinand II.

GROSS: And so that's what happens. But then the pope ends up coming back, another really complicated story. But I want to kind of cut to the chase here (laughter). So the pope returns. People aren't necessarily thrilled to have him back, right?

KERTZER: Yes, he - first of all, he doesn't come back right away. He waits several months after the French have re-conquered Rome to return. And in fact, the king of Naples is not at all eager to see him go because the king is now portraying himself as the great protector of the pope and Christendom, and this is helping his popularity, which is otherwise at a low ebb itself.

And the other thing is the pope is broke. He has no money, and so he is worried about returning to his sullen subjects without any largesse that he can disperse. But he finally goes back in April of 1850. And at that point, he meets a rather cool reception.

GROSS: The pope, after he returns to Rome, forces the Jews back into the ghettos.

KERTZER: Yes, and that's really a major part of the story. The Jews were something of the bellwether, I'd say, of this whole story in that the story is one of the preservation of a medieval view of society against Enlightenment ideas of personal freedoms and constitutional rights and the equality of all citizens. So the notion that the Jews should be holed up in a ghetto with great restrictions against them was part of this medieval, theocratic view of society.

So with the restoration, the Jews are sent back into the ghetto. And one of the curious things that I found is it was often Christian merchants who would alert the papal officials about Jews who were still outside the ghettos, especially Jews who had businesses outside the ghettos because the Christian merchants resented the competition. So when the papal authorities heard about this, they would then go after the Jews who were still outside the ghetto and shut down their stores and send them back.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kertzer. He's the author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Pope And Mussolini." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Kertzer, author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Pope And Mussolini."

So in 1864 after the Pope's return to Rome, he issues his first encyclical since his return. This is a very important encyclical. What does it say?

KERTZER: Yeah, the encyclical is "Quanta Cura," and probably most importantly and best known about it is along with that encyclical came what was called as the "Syllabus Of Errors." And it stated that it would be an error for any good Catholic to believe that the pope could exist without being also a king over his own lands, therefore king over the Papal States. It stated that no Christian could believe in freedom of religion, in freedom of speech, in freedom of association, in freedom of the press, that these were all condemned by the Christian religion.

GROSS: And he also wrote that Catholics were bound to reject the view that the pope can and should reconcile himself to progress, liberalism and modern civilizations. So he saw progress and liberalism and modern civilizations as being anti-Catholic.

KERTZER: Yes, and here this is an issue that seems strangely to still live on today - those in the church who think that the church really shouldn't be changing its doctrine in response to modern times, those who believe that there's unerring truths of the faith that should remain unchanged or cannot be changed. So this pope was a pope who stood against modernity.

For him, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, these were the great dangers of the time, these were the great enemies and the church should abide by its eternal verities.

GROSS: The idea of papal infallibility, does that originate with Pius IX?

KERTZER: Yes, one of Pius IX's great contributions to the church history and what makes - and one of the reasons I think he's probably the most influential and most important pope in modern church history is in 1869 amidst all these threats to his power as king, he called a great - a Vatican Council, what came to be known as the First Vatican Council where all the bishops and other church leaders from around the world converged on Rome. And he called it to shore up his position.

And the major item on his docket was to have the council proclaim infallibility of the pope as a doctrine. It had never been official church doctrine before. It had been discussed, it was around as an idea, but it was never official church doctrine until that vote that took place in 1870. Curiously, many of the bishops strongly opposed it. But he pushed it through, and it went through.

And in going through, it antagonized many of the civil rulers of Europe, including the French Emperor Napoleon III, whose troops were then propping up papal rule in Rome. So it was just really within a couple of months of the proclamation of papal infallibility that the pope finally lost Rome to the Italians, the Italian army.

GROSS: So Rome, which was the capital of the Papal States, was seized in 1870, which is when modern Italy was created. Who seized it?

KERTZER: It was seized by the Italian army. So the Italy - many people seem to think Italy was around for many, many years, but Italy is actually a relatively recent creation of the mid-19th century. And one of the main obstacles to the creation of the Italian nation state was the existence of the Papal States that occupied this swath of land in the center of the peninsula.

So the early parts of the battle for Italian unification, which took place 1859, 1860, 1861, chopped off a good part of the Papal States. And in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy for the first time was proclaimed. But the area around Rome was still protected largely because of French troops that were protecting it. And there was an uneasy kind of truce in those first few years of the Kingdom of Italy because Patriots thought Rome was the natural capital, yet Rome was under papal control.

So that it was only in 1870 that once the French troops had left, the troops under the King Victor Emmanuel II were sent in, bombarded the walls of Rome and crashed their way in. The pope finds himself having very few defenders, certainly not among his people, none of whom rose in his defense. And he retreats to the Vatican Palaces and proclaims himself a prisoner of the Vatican.

GROSS: This is when the Vatican becomes the pope's home in the center of his authority.

KERTZER: Yes. What had happened is there had been a shift in 1850 - so after he has gone into exile, after the Roman Revolution, after the French troops finally return him to power in 1850, he actually doesn't want to go back to his former palace, the Quirinal Palace, which he's identified with these ungrateful citizens and with unpleasant memories. So he, in fact, at that point in 1850, moves into the Vatican, which then becomes the center of the papacy.

And this is where he was living at the time that the Italian troops break through the walls of Rome and will proclaim it the capital of Italy. So from that point on, you can talk about the Vatican when you mean basically the papacy or the Holy See.

GROSS: My guest is David Kertzer, author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." After we take a break, we'll talk about how Pius' legacy continues today. And film critic Justin Chang will review "Zama," an 18th century epic about colonialism and the New World. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Kertzer, who's written extensively about the history of the Catholic Church. He won a Pulitzer for his book about the secret relationship between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. His new book "The Pope Who Would Be King" is about Pope Pius IX, the last pope to rule over the Papal States, which covered much of what is now Italy.

A rebellion against him by Italian nationalists sent him into exile. When he returned, the Papal States no longer existed and the pope was confined to the Vatican.

So you have all these changes under Pope Pius. He rules that there's papal infallibility, that modernity violates Catholicism. This period ends the pope's authority to rule over the Papal States, he's limited to the Vatican. So Pope Pius IX dies in 1878. Then what? Like, how were the things that he instituted continued after that?

KERTZER: The pope's legacy - Pius IX's legacy certainly lives on. He had proclaimed himself prisoner of the Vatican. He refused to step foot outside the Vatican. He told all the Italians that to recognize the Italian nation state, the Italian government, was a sin, that no one should vote, for example, in national elections or run as a candidate. He had excommunicated the king and the prime minister of Italy. And so when Leo XIII succeeded him, he maintained that same position that the pope was a prisoner of the Vatican. They used to send around kind of postcards which showed pictures of a prisoner lying on a straw bed behind bars, as if he was actually literally a prisoner, rather than living in these splendid palaces.

But the popes after that - they would not leave the hundred acres, more or less, of the Vatican because to do so would be to step onto Italian territory, and this they would not do. And they, in fact, would not do it until Mussolini in 1929. So it was for many, many decades that this direct influence of Pius IX as prisoner of the Vatican, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Italian state, that this held true.

GROSS: So it was Pope Pius XI in 1929 during the beginning of Mussolini's power in Italy. It's during that period that Vatican City is formed. So what's the importance of that? 'Cause that's, again, the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

KERTZER: Yes, 1929 is really a turning point in Vatican history, this long period of the popes proclaiming themselves prisoner of the Vatican, not recognizing the legitimacy of the Italian state. And it took, really, it took a dictator, Mussolini, to work this out because the deal meant the end to the separation of church and state in Italy, something that had been one of the foundational points of the foundation of the Italian nation state. So with this deal, they established Vatican City as a sovereign state. It had not existed before as a sovereign state. And they also recognized basically Catholicism as the state religion of Italy, mandated the teaching of Catholicism, Catholic religion in public schools, put crucifixes in all the classrooms and courtrooms of Italy and so on.

GROSS: So during the era of Pope Pius IX you write about, he saw freedom of speech and freedom of the press as being anti-Catholic. How long did that last?

KERTZER: That lasted in some ways until the Second Vatican Council and John XXIII. So really...

GROSS: So you're talking about the 1960s.

KERTZER: Yes. The early 1960s with the Second Vatican Council, which in a way overturned the First Vatican Council of 1869, 1870. There had been some, you might say, slippage. Certainly, the experience of the disaster that came with fascism and with the Nazism and the immediate post-World War II period led to some serious rethinking. But I think in terms of official church doctrine, really, this only changes with the Second Vatican Council and the 1960s.

GROSS: So really there are some ideas that were created in the second half of the 1800s under Pope Pius IX that have been accepted as eternal but were actually pretty recent in terms of church history.

KERTZER: Well, this is true in terms of papal infallibility. Of course, what Pius IX was embracing was a medieval vision of the church, the notion that there should be a marriage of church and state, for example. The notion that other religions were the work of the devil, and therefore the idea of interreligious dialogue would make absolutely no sense. So in that sense, there was certainly continuity with the past. It was only - therefore, one might look at it somewhat differently that it was only with the post-World War II period, and especially the Second Vatican Council that this whole medieval vision of the pope's of the church really changed in a major way.

GROSS: What are some of the reforms that the Second Vatican Council instituted?

KERTZER: The Second Vatican Council tried to modernize the church. It introduced a liturgy in English rather than Latin, which had English-speaking countries in the vernacular of the country rather than Latin. This was, among other things, a rather democratizing influence, since previously really only the clergy had the knowledge of the sacred language that could directly participate in a meaningful way in the liturgy. It, however, very importantly ended the demonization of the Jews and more generally embraced the idea of religious pluralism, ideas that had previously not been part of the official Catholic teachings.

GROSS: So in 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX, the pope that we've been talking about. And beatification is the first step toward sainthood. So with all that you've told us about Pius IX, about him putting his enemies in dungeons, using the guillotine against his enemies, confining Jews to ghettos, saying that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were anti-Catholic, declaring papal infallibility - with all the things that Pope Pius did, why did Pope John Paul II want to beatify him?

KERTZER: Well, it's interesting. If you look at the day that he beatified him, which was in September 2000 - it was part of the millennium celebrations - he beatified another pope the same day. That Pope was Pope John XXIII, hero of the liberals of the Church. So many papalogists or Vaticanologists...

GROSS: He was the pope during Vatican II, right?

KERTZER: Yes. He was the pope who called Vatican II and presided over those reforms. And so many people believe that - and this seems obvious to me - that John Paul II was trying to please both the liberals and the conservatives in the Church by beatifying both at the same time. While John XXIII still had, you know, huge popular backing, I'd say, among Catholics worldwide as this heroic figure, Pius IX had largely been forgotten. Yet among conservatives in the church, we find even today, Pius IX very much remembered as the hero of the church who stood for those unchanging verities of the Catholic religion. And there were protests. There were protests from the Jewish community of Rome, for example, against the beatification of Pius IX. And there were also some protests from more patriotic Italians who remember that it was Pius IX who stood against the unification of Italy.

GROSS: So where's Pius IX now on his road to sainthood?

KERTZER: Well, there's just recently out of the Vatican a story - I don't know how reliable it is - that things, after having apparently slowed down, are now speeding up again. So there's been a little burst of concern by those who are not happy about the idea of Pius IX becoming a saint. But we'll have to see. As far as we know, the proceedings are certainly going on right now.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kertzer. He's the author of the new book, "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Kertzer, author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." He won a Pulitzer for his earlier book "The Pope And Mussolini," and that was about Pius XI and Mussolini.

So there's an issue from Pius IX's era that's actually in the news today. And it involves the kidnapping of a boy named Edgardo Mortara. So this was a kidnapping that relates to a law that was in effect about baptizing Jewish children. Can you explain what the law was?

KERTZER: Yeah. From the church point of view, if a Jewish child was baptized, even without the parents' knowledge or consent, that child was to be considered a Christian and could not be raised by Jewish parents and, therefore, had to be physically seized from the parents and sent to someplace that they could be raised in the Christian religion.

In 1858 in Bologna, which was the second-largest city after Rome of the Papal States, the inquisitor - and there was still an inquisition back in the mid-19th century. The inquisitor heard a rumor that a 6-year-old child in a Jewish family had, years earlier, been secretly baptized by a Christian teenage illiterate servant girl. And so he ordered the police to go to the family home and seize the child. The child ended up being sent to Rome. And because it created an international hubbub, the pope himself, Pius IX, became directly involved and, in fact, began to consider himself the foster father, the new father of this formerly Jewish child.

GROSS: Why did this servant baptize the Jewish boy or call for his baptism? Did she do it herself or have a priest come in? What happened?

KERTZER: No, she - turns out that, from church doctrine, you, first of all, don't need to be a priest. You don't even actually need to be Catholic to perform a legitimate baptism. You just need to sprinkle water while saying a very simple formula. And the - they were also taught that if a child died without having been baptized, the child would not go to heaven.

So it seems that - although there's some controversy whether the baptism ever took place - but the story told by this young woman was that at the time this child was just 12 months old, he was very sick. She was afraid he would die. She knew he was, of course, Jewish. And so when the parents weren't looking - well, she first went to the local store and asked the more literate person there how one baptizes. After being taught the formula, she says she went back, sprinkled water from the faucet over the child's head and said the one-sentence formula and then kept it a secret - but a secret that the inquisitor later would find out.

GROSS: So this boy's parents were told that if they converted to Catholicism, they'd be allowed to live with their son as a Christian family.

KERTZER: Right. The parents were desperately trying to get the child back. And they helped create international pressure. In fact, in the United States, thousands of people showed up at protest demonstrations in 1858 to call on the pope to return the child to his parents. The French emperor, whose troops were protecting the pope in Rome, also called to send his French ambassador to the pope to urge the pope to return the child to his parents.

But the pope held firm and said that my religion, my duty as pope do not allow me to do so. So when - the parents who are begging for their child back were told by the cleric who was in charge of the - it's called the House of the Catechumens, this institution set up in Rome to convert the Jews. They were told that, yes, there is a way you can be reunited with your child. If you and your other children all come here and accept baptism, you can be reunited as a family, a Christian family.

GROSS: Why is this story back in the news?

KERTZER: Pius IX remains the heroes of those in the church who think, with Pope Francis, the Church is going wrong - its progressive direction is somehow not in keeping with the traditions of the church. And in a - an article was published in a influential conservative Catholic magazine in February - a magazine called First Things - which defended the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, said the pope did the right thing. And it was based on a recently published book by a very prominent Italian Catholic journalist, someone who has written a couple of books together with popes, which represents itself as the actual memoirs of Edgardo Mortara himself, his own story of what had happened to him.

And what's - so the archbishop of Philadelphia, for example, wrote a rejoinder saying, no, he doesn't think the pope did the right thing. And Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, has tweeted about this. And it's been in all sorts of papers. Most recently - I published a piece recently in The Atlantic, which exposed the fact that this so-called authentic memoir of Edgardo Mortara, which was recently published in English version by a Catholic press in the United States, systematically changed the original manuscript that Edgardo Mortara wrote to craft the story to be more in harmony with the desired narrative of these conservatives.

GROSS: So in the Catholic Church now, is it still true that people can baptize a Jewish baby or a baby of any other faith and just automatically make them Catholic without the consent of the family?

KERTZER: This is one of the sore points, actually, today because my understanding is, even the most recent revision of Canon Law, still includes the idea that it's a good thing if one finds a child dying who hasn't been baptized to baptize that child, even without the parents' consent. Of course, what's different is these days, the pope and the church does not have police power, so there's no way to take the child away from the parents in that case. But that aspect - my understanding is that aspect of canon law still exists today.

GROSS: So because you write so much about popes, I'm wondering, were you raised in any faith and if so how writing about popes has affected your own faith or lack of it?

KERTZER: Well, there is a personal story here. My father was actually a rabbi. And he was a chaplain to the American troops who landed at Anzio in the beginning of 1944 seeking to liberate Rome, which was then in Nazi hands. And he was with the troops that marched into Rome a few months later in June. And a few days after that, he together with the chief rabbi of Rome conducted the first service in the Great Synagogue of Rome after liberation.

It was an incredibly dramatic scene because thousands of Jews of Rome had been in hiding. Many, of course, had been carted off to Auschwitz to their murder. So those who remained came out of hiding and looking in the synagogue that evening to see who had survived. And so as I grew up and hearing these stories from my father, this certainly influenced both my love for Italy but also my interest in some of this history.

And then later after the war, my father became the first director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. So one of the - as I was growing up, my father was spending all of his time with priests and ministers talking about how to overcome the kind of hatreds and anti-Semitism that had poisoned the past.

GROSS: So how has writing about papal history affected your own interest in practicing Judaism?

KERTZER: Well, I don't know that it affects me as a Jew in terms of my Jewish practice. But it does affect my sensitivity when I hear people, for example, fellow Americans talk about the secularism as the enemy and the need to return to faith and to bring God back into the schools and back into government. This really gives me chills.

GROSS: Because...

KERTZER: Because I see what happens when the government is identified with a religious belief that someone has some kind of monopoly on divine truth and others don't share that knowledge of what God wants. That's a very dangerous idea.

GROSS: And you saw that in your study of Pope Pius IX?

KERTZER: Pius IX certainly incarnated that idea. He was doing God's will. If he realized, for example, in keeping Edgardo Mortara, that 6-year-old Jewish child he took, he told the child, he says, you know, you've cost me dearly. In fact, you may cost me my kingdom. But he felt he had no choice. He was doing God's will by taking that child from his parents.

GROSS: Well, David Kertzer, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

KERTZER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: David Kertzer is the author of the new book "The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile Of Pius IX And The Emergence Of Modern Europe." After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review "Zama," a new film set in 18th century about colonialism and the New World. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Film critic Justin Chang has a review of "Zama," the new film by Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. At the center of "Zama," an 18th century epic about colonialism and the New World, is a Spanish official stationed in what is now Paraguay. It's Martel's first film in nearly 10 years.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: How do you make a movie about stagnation, a movie that doesn't just tell you a story about someone wasting away but that seems to embody a state of physical and moral decay for nearly two hours? It may not sound like a glowing recommendation but Lucrecia Martel has made such a movie with "Zama," her feverishly brilliant adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto's 1956 novel of the same title. This is one of the most atmospheric and transporting films I've seen all year and also one of the best.

Di Benedetto's novel tells the tragicomic story of Don Diego de Zama, an official of the Spanish crown stationed at a remote outpost along the Paraguay River. He was born in the New World but serves the old, an empire in which he has never once set foot. The year is 1790, and Zama, bored, frustrated and separated from his wife and children, hopes for a transfer to Buenos Aires, where he's certain he will find greater purpose and prosperity.

The book, narrated by Zama himself, is a bitterly ironic account of pride, pettiness and self-pity, a devastating critique of European colonialism from the inside. "Zama" the movie is remarkably faithful to the book's spirit. Played in a superbly weary, bone-dry performance by Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Don Diego de Zama is very much a figure of mockery. But his slowly dawning awareness of his own futility is not without a certain pathos. In the opening shot, we see him standing alone on a beach wearing a sword and a tricorn hat and striking a ridiculous would-be heroic pose.

The rest of the movie will slowly lay waste to his delusions of grandeur. The first half plays like a comedy of bureaucratic errors by way of Samuel Beckett as Zama repeatedly pleads with his superior to write a letter to the king and obtain approval of his transfer. Apart from his occasional duties as a magistrate, Zama mostly just waits and waits and every scene seems to compound the indignity of his existence.

He is forever being ignored by his superiors, thwarted by his colleagues and rebuffed by a noble woman, Luciana, whom he hopelessly lusts after. She's played by Lola Duenas, known for her work with Pedro Almodovar, who is credited as one of the film's producers. No one, however, is likely to mistake "Zama" for an Almodovar movie. Martel has little use for straightforward narrative. Her style is immersive yet disorienting.

Rather than neatly sorting out the characters' relationships or cutting from one plot point to the next, she creates a highly specific, intricate world that demands and rewards your close attention. Surrender to this movie and you might find yourself held rapt by the sheer intensity of Martel's filmmaking. Her sensuous camerawork and wild, teeming sound design, alive with the noises of buzzing insects and screeching birds, conjure an air of stifling humidity.

The physical world here is palpably present and completely indifferent to men like Zama and their arrogant attempts to tame it into submission. Martel's previous films, which include "The Holy Girl" and "The Headless Woman," have been sly satires of bourgeois privilege. And her sense of class rage makes her a natural fit for di Benedetto's anti-imperialist takedown.

Whereas so many screen adaptations of first-person narratives tend to lose their focus, Martel ingeniously forges her own point of view. She doesn't just march Zama through a series of humiliations, she strategically undermines his position in every shot, often placing him off to the side or dwarfing him visually. Barely a scene goes by in which we aren't made aware of the indigenous slaves employed by Zama and his cohorts, going about their business in the background or foreground, looking on in judgmental silence.

These visual strategies may seem odd at first, but they have a real sense of purpose. In refusing to make Zama the center of the frame, the movie reminds us that this man, whatever he may think, is not the hero of his own story. That becomes increasingly apparent in the movie's second half as the desperate and disenfranchised Zama ventures into the swampy wilderness, joining a dangerous mission to capture an enemy of the empire.

The story ends as it must, in a whirlwind of violence and Martel's precisely controlled imagery turns rapturous, almost in spite of itself. It's a terrifying vision worthy of Werner Herzog and Joseph Conrad. The grand dream of human conquest becomes a nightmarish descent into madness.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the white power and paramilitary movements in America. My guest will be Kathleen Belew, author of the new book "Bring The War Home," which traces these movements from the '70s through the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. She writes about their vision of a white nation, their declaration of war against the government and their preparations for the apocalypse.

I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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