Out of the Roman States, there is no country where I am Pope except the United States.
Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Gregory XVI was a complicated man. In 1839 he issued a papal bull condemning both the slave trade and slavery. He also opposed railroads in the Papal States, calling them chemins d’enfer, “roads to hell” a pun on the French for railroad, chemin de fer, “iron road”. He feared that they would lead to more commerce, a larger middle class, and the growth of liberal revolutionary movements that would topple papal secular government. In the wake of the French Revolution of 1830, the Papal States had been convulsed with revolutionary republican movements initiating a guerrilla war, the papacy calling in Austrian troops to defeat them.
In Europe Republicanism tended to be anti-clerical, and Pope Gregory set his face like flint against these movements, behaving like a reactionary of the deepest hue, opposing the slightest political change, fearing that such changes would inevitably lead to persecution of the Church. In Europe he was largely correct in his analysis, at least in the short term, but when he looked at the United States, he saw something different.
There a Republican government persecuted the Church not at all and allowed the Church to manage her affairs as the Pope saw fit. As the quote at the beginning of this post indicates, this gave the Pope far more power than he had elsewhere except for the Papal States, including countries where Catholicism was the state religion with Catholic monarchs who never ceased to attempt to control the Church in their domains. Perhaps to the surprise of the Pope, his bishops reported that the Church was growing swiftly in the United States, with a steady stream of converts, the Church proving to be a strong competitor in the free market of religions that existed in the United States.
Pope Gregory took a keen interest in evangelizing the United States and established new bishoprics there. He was no fan of new-fangled Republics, to say the least, but the United States was different: a free land where the Church was also free. Continue Reading