Chapter 3: Mastai and Masonry

By Moina Arcee, Edited July 13 2018

Mastai became a priest in 1819. In 1823 Pius VII sent him on a diplomatic mission to Chile. By the time Mastai returned, Pius had died. His successor, Pope Leo XII, appointed Mastai Archbishop of Spoleto, a troubled diocese in the papal state of Umbria, in 1827.

Although the Congress of Vienna had ceded temporal power over the Papal States back to the pope, that authority was quickly attacked. It could not have been otherwise. Modest as they were, the Papal States were living proof the Church could govern in the temporal realm. Moreover, the architect of the Vienna Restoration, the Austrian Empire’s political master Prince Klemens von Metternich, urged the reconstituted European monarchies to “suppress Secret Societies, that gangrene of society.”1  Leading authority of 19th century Italy, Dennis Mack Smith, is obliged to note: “Very soon after the Restoration of 1814-15, secret societies became active with the avowed policy of overthrowing the Vienna settlement.”2

The societies were nowhere more active than in the Papal States, including Archbishop Mastai’s diocese of Spoleto. The chief troublemakers were the Carbonari, an Italianized version of the French Freemasonry imported by Napoleon:

“This secret society of the ‘charcoal burners’ had an interesting ideology, partly derived from French Freemasonry, partly from more obscure Italian sources. Their motto was ‘despotism annihilated’ – an achievement symbolized on a medal by the Goddess of Liberty slaying the Dragon of Tyranny. The authority most particularly sought out for slaying was that of the Church, though this was not disclosed, explicitly, to any but those few who attained to the Seventh Grade of initiation.”3

It was the Carbonari who organized the revolt of 1830-31. The violence in the Papal States spilled over into Rome itself, and the new Pope, Gregory XVI, was forced to use Austrian troops to end the violence. When a Carbonari force came to Spoleto, Mastai met with the revolutionaries and, through a combination of verbal persuasion and money, induced them to disarm and disband. Later one of the Carbonari, Prince Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Bonaparte, privately requested assistance. Mastai gave the future Napoleon III, and his mother, passports to Switzerland. When Austrian secret police sought Mastai’s assistance in ferreting out Spoleto’s radical underground, the Archbishop refused.

One could infer from this that Mastai was a fellow traveler. It has occasionally been asserted that before becoming Pius IX, Mastai was a Freemason, or that he was at least a liberal sympathetic to the ideals of Masonry. The anecdotes above would support either assertion. It is, of course, very difficult to prove membership in a secret society. It should also be noted that allegations of Mastai’s alleged Freemasonry have come from Masons, hardly an objective source. One such allegation, that Mastai was enrolled in a lodge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is simply ridiculous.

Perhaps the best argument against the charge of Freemasonry is the character of Pius IX. Had he, when younger, been involved in Masonry to any extent, he would surely have publicly disavowed this. Moreover, his formation, his purity, his piety, his zeal, and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin makes an affinity for Masonry stand awkwardly alone, like a smelly sock. It is likely his intervention with the Carbonari was in the interests of preventing bloodshed in his diocese, and his coldness to the Austrians was probably due more to his Italian nationalism than his fidelity to a secret society. Mastai was as patriotic as any of his countrymen, most of whom never dreamed of separating Church and State. The extent of Mastai’s radical politics was his interest in the question of Italian unification, which at the time was closely allied with ending foreign involvement in Italian affairs. This merely makes him an informed man of his times, however; to imply more risks overstatement.

The charge of liberalism seems more plausible, on the surface at least. Mastai’s parents had a vague reputation for being “enlightened,” which was not a compliment. Pope Gregory’s Secretary of State, Lambruschini, complained that “Everyone in the Mastai family is a liberal, even the cats!”4 Details were not forthcoming, however, and Mastai was never accused of being a follower of, say, Lammenais, who was condemned in 1832 by Gregory XVI5 shortly after the incident in Spoleto, and shortly before Gregory appointed Mastai Bishop of Imola (1833). It is reasonable to assume Gregory was sufficiently satisfied with Mastai’s orthodoxy to put him in a see that invariably produced cardinals. It is also reasonable to assume that the nine years Mastai had to wait for the cardinal’s hat was Gregory’s way of making sure he had the right man for the job.

The explanation of Mastai’s liberalism that makes the most sense is well put by Henri Daniel-Rops:

“His so-called liberalism was nothing more than a true liberality of soul and the clear conviction that the methods employed hitherto against the new ideas were wrong. He judged it absurd to oppose railways, gaslight, suspension bridges and scientific congresses – all novelties that could do the Church no harm. He considered that the papal administration needed a thorough overhaul. Lastly, he believed that the best way for a ruler to halt the advance of revolution was not to have recourse to high-handed measures, but to set himself to win men’s hearts by gentleness, generosity and confidence.”6


1 From Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1815-1829, ed. Prince Richard Metternich (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970; photoreprint of a Scribner and Sons 1881 Edition, Volume III, as presented electronically by Paul Halsall in the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.

2 Smith, op. cit., p. 11.

3 Hales, op. cit., p. 28.

4 CRC September 2000, online edition.

5 In Mirari Vos, issued August 15, 1832. When Gregory apologizes to the episcopate for not addressing them sooner, and says that “From the first instant of Our pontificate” he was “carried away” into “the midst of a tempest,” he is referring to the Carbonari uprisings in the Papal States. See Mirari Vos, Angelus Press Edition, 1998, p. 1.

6 Rops, op. cit., p. 239. This is also what I argued in The Ninth Pius, though not as eloquently.

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