A couple of days ago, I happened to see a brand new anti-Catholic slur online on Instagram. Here’s the item:
It’s not spread that far as yet, but claims to be from Cracked.com – a US humour site.
The poster makes three claims:
The Catholic Church opposed street lights.
In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI even banned gas lighting in papal states.
The church argued that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown flew in the face of God’s law.
Well that’s pretty plain. The Catholic Church under Gregory XVI made it offical teaching that street lights were evil, and that even (note the emphasis) gas lighting was banned in “papal states” (by which most people will understand “Catholic countries”).
It’s obvious that this poster is intended to defame, to injure and to bring contempt on the Roman Catholic Church. But it is interesting to find that the words in the poster are very recent indeed. In fact I can only find a single near-match anywhere. This is in a 2015 publication by Bruce H. Joffe, “My Name Is Heretic: Reforming the Church, from Guts to Glory”. The author appears in fact to be a homosexual activist. The Cracked.com poster is clearly derived (with a couple of word changes) from this.
The claim that “The church argued that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown flew in the face of God’s law” does not appear elsewhere, and in the absence of evidence and reference we may hypothesise that Joffe simply invented it.
The poster also gives a reference, to Desmond Bowen. But when we search for street lighting, we find only a single result:
Papal ceremonies assumed unprecedented magnificence, and audiences were conducted with more than royal protocol. The building programme of Leo XII was continued, more ancient churches and monuments were restored, new palaces were built, and the Vatican was further enriched with valuable collections of art. At the same time the people of Rome were denied street lighting, and the pope refused to allow the coming of the railway to the city. Gregory XVI was a thoroughgoing reactionary, but his policies were implemented only because of the presence of French and Austrian as well as papal troops.
The Google books preview indicates no other reference to street lighting in the book.
With every historical claim, our first step must be to discover whether the claim is in fact true, as stated. If it is true, we must next discover whether it is a fair representation of the facts, or a distortion.
Our first source of information is none other than the great Charles Dickens, in Bentley’s Miscellany, vol. 24, 1848, p.305, where he is reviewing a book about Italy by a certain James Whiteside, of whom more in a minute.
The effete but jealous despotism of the ancient system [of Papal government before Pope Pius IX] is well illustrated by the following anecdote.
“I became acquainted with a young, handsome, fashionable Count, who mixed largely in English society in Rome. During an evening’s conversation he remarked, he had never beheld the sea, and had a great desire to do so. I observed that was very easy, the sea was but a few miles distant, and if he preferred a sea-port, Civita Vecchia was not very far off. The Count laughed. ‘I made an effort to accomplish it, but failed,’ he then said. ‘ You English who travel over the world do not know our system. I applied lately for a passport to visit the coast; they inquired in the office my age, and with whom I lived; I said with my mother. A certificate from my mother was demanded, verifying the truth of my statement. I brought it; the passport was still refused. I was asked who was my parish priest; having answered, a certificate from him was required, as to the propriety of my being allowed to leave Rome. I got the priest’s certificate ; they then told me in the office I was very persevering, that really they saw no necessity nor reason for my roaming about the country just then, and that it was better for me to remain at home with my mother.’ He then muttered. ‘The priests, the priests, what a government is theirs !’”
This passage sufficiently explains Pope Gregory’s hostility to railroads, but the cause of his hostility to gas-lights is less generally known, and must not be suppressed. When the chairman of a company formed for lighting Rome with gas, waited on the Pope to obtain the required permission, Gregory indignantly asked how he presumed to desire a thing so utterly subversive of religion! The astonished speculator humbly stated that he could not see the most remote connection between religion and carburetted hydrogen. “Yes, but there is, sir,” shouted the Pope, “my pious subjects are in the habit of vowing candles to be burned before the shrines of saints, the glimmering candles would soon be rendered ridiculous by the contrast of the glaring gas-lights, and thus a custom so essential to everlasting salvation would fall into general contempt, if not total disuse.” No reply could be made to this edifying argument. Silenced, if not convinced, the speculator withdrew; the votive candles still flicker, though not so numerously as heretofore, and they just render visible the dirt and darkness to which Rome is consigned at night.
We need not spend too long on this anecdote, which Dickens – no friend of the church – tells us that he heard from a failed salesman. The aged and suspicious Pope doubtless had seen a series of such salesmen, and might well have said something sarcastic and irrefutable to get rid of a particularly irksome commercial gentleman. But sadly the veracity of salesmen cannot always be relied on, even when the sale succeeds.
Much more interesting is Whiteside’s anecdote about the Roman prince denied a passport. This gives an interesting picture of the Papal administration in the period – positively third-world. It’s the sort of story that might come out of Egypt today, or some African slum state, where ordinary people are knotted up in pointless and destructive bureaucracy. In this case no doubt the official really just wanted a bribe.
This gives us our first clues about this story. We are not, in fact, dealing with “the Catholic Church”. We are dealing with a now long-vanished petty Italian princedom, the Papal States, and its wretched and backward administration.
This is promptly confirmed when we consult Whiteside’s volume. Unlike Dickens, who knew without saying why the Papal government had banned railways, Whiteside actually does know:
Political fears deterred the government from sanctioning railways. When Gregory understood his loving subjects of Bologna might visit him in Rome en masse, he would not hear of the innovation. I remember the remark of a man of business on the subject: “Il Papa non ama le strode ferrate.” No reasons were given for the refusal to adopt the improvement, except that his Holiness hated railways. Gregory reasoned as did an inveterate Tory of my acquaintance, who condemned railways because they were a vile Whig invention. Any improvements in agriculture which could be effected by agricultural societies were interdicted, all such noxious institutions repressed.
In fact if we read Whiteside’s pages, we see the familiar picture of a weak government, of the kind found everywhere in Africa today, suspicious of everything and willing to ban anything unless they see pecuniary advantage in it.
Around the same time, an Irishman named Mahoney published, under the pen-name of Don Jeremy Savonarola (!), a series of letters that he wrote from Italy. These throw considerable light on attitudes in Rome at the time, not only among the government.
On p.24 Mahony describes the fate of an English sculptor who sought to warm his studio in Rome with a coal-fired stove:
But concerning the development of steam-power in this capital, and the prospect for its utterly idle people of the varied branches of industry to be created through that magic medium, I can hold out none but the faintest hopes. A straw thrown up may serve for an anemometer. One of our sculptors took a fancy to import from Liverpool an Arnott stove to warm his spacious studio this winter, and laid in his stock of Sabine coal with comfortable forethought; great was his glee at the genial glow it diffused through his workshop: but short are the moments of perfect enjoyment: in a few days a general outcry arose among the neighbours: the nasal organ at Rome, guide-books describe as peculiarly sensitive : a mob of women clamoured at the gate: they were all “suffocated by the horrid carbon fossile.” Phthisis is fearfully dreaded here: with uproarious lungs they denounced him as a promoter of pulmonary disease. Police came, remonstrance was useless. The artist’s lares were ruthlessly invaded, and his “household gods shivered around him.” The Arnott Altar of Vesta now lies prostrate in his lumber yard, quenched for ever!
On p.55 the subject of gas lighting appears:
There is much of quiet amusement not untinged with a dash of melancholy supplied perpetually to strangers here by the efforts of government to arrest the progress of those modem improvements which must obviously ultimately be adopted even in Rome. The mirth which borders on sadness is stated by metaphysicians to have peculiar fascinations… Some such feelings were apt to creep o’er the mind, in reading last week the newest edict of the local authorities affixed on the walls for the guidance of all shopkeepers and others; this hatti-sheriff, which it is impossible not duly to respect, denounces the modern innovation of gas light, made of our old acquaintance, the previously denounced “carbon fossile” and all private gasworks of this nature are suppressed. Hereby many an industrious and enterprising establishment has its pipe put out all of a sudden, while those which are suffered to remain are subjected to a thousand vexatory restrictions and domiciliary visits from officials, who, as usual, must be bribed to report favourably. They are further told that their private gas generators will be all confiscated at some indetermined period when it shall please the wisdom of authority to establish government gas works: a period far remote, to be sure, but sufficiently indefinite effectively to discourage the outlay of private capitalists on their private comforts or accommodation. Milan, Florence, Leghorn, Venice, Turin, and Naples are gas-lit long since.
This really makes things clear. There is no Papal opposition to gas as such, because government gasworks are proposed. The concerns are about air-quality, and the proliferation of smog in the city from all these private burners and get-rich-quick companies. These are not illegitimate concerns, as anyone who has experienced the aroma from a neighbour’s barbeque on a swelteringly hot day can testify.
Later, on p.171, we learn that the new Pope, Pius IX, dismissed the city prefect, Marini, “an implacable foe” of “every amelioration”.
The letters, in fact, are well worth the reading, for the picture which they give of a minor Italian state, on the cusp of modern improvements in the early 19th century. Clearly the government – the Pope, if you like – did ban gas lighting, and railways, and all sorts of other modern improvements, from the papal state. This policy was reversed by Pius IX, this successor. But there is no theological question here – only politics.
It would be really interesting to see the text of the Edicts in question, actually. But I could only find one online, which was for setting up a Chamber of Commerce, here.
Papal Rome is a country which is now far away in time and space. We forget it ever existed – but it did. It was a country which had its own laws, its own army, and its own political factions. Like every Italian statelet it was perpetually concerned about foreign nations, and the threat of the Austrian army, or the French army. It is, therefore, quite a mistake to treat the political initiatives of the government of that state as if they were theological directives by a modern Pope.
Let’s return to where we started. The poster is very misleading indeed, therefore.
The first claim is mainly false. The Catholic Church did NOT oppose street lighting. The elderly ruler of the papal states in 1830s opposed gas lighting as projected by a foreign company, probably reflecting the ignorance and squalid suspicions of his people and worries about air quality. His successor ruled differently.
The second claim is mainly true, but it is entirely misleading because the reader will think of Pope Gregory as like Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XV. That Pope was not a modern Pope, issuing statements of faith and morals, but the autocratic ruler of a third-world state with a low-grade and corrupt administration, obstructing progress out of fear and obscurantism.
The third claim appears to be utterly unevidenced before 2015.
Thus are legends started; and, with luck, that one ends here.
All the same, I hope that you have enjoyed our visit to Papal Rome. There are indeed guidebooks online in English for visitors, which might well repay the curious reader. It may have been a backward place, but it had the charm that Rome has always had, whatever the faults of its rulers.
UPDATE: Please see the comments for further information from Italian on all this matter, and even an order by the prefect Marini, from March 1846, in the last months of the pontificate of Gregory XVI, laying down safety regulations for gas lighting.