The Roman Question

The struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian state is referred to as the Roman Question. The issue emerged in 1861, when Rome was declared the republic of Italy's undivided capital. The Lateran Pacts, signed in 1929 by Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Pope Pius XI, eventually addressed the matter.
In the background, the Papal States' administration was toppled and taken over by the Roman Republic in 1849. After Napoleon Bonaparte brought French troops to Rome to save the Papal power, the pope's authority was regained.  The reason behind such was the support and influence of clerics and conservatives to Napoleon which forced him to take action against the act of the Roman Republic (Kertzer). In 1860, the majority of the Papal States were annexed by the Kingdom of Italy and the influence of the Papal States was restricted to the territory around Rome. In 1861, Rome was declared the capital of Kingdom of Republic, however as a large French garrison stayed in Rome to protect the authority of Pope, the government was not able to take its seats. The seat of the government was shifted from Turin to Florence in 1865.

In 1987, Napoleon III had to withdraw his forces from Rome as a result of the Franco-Prussian war. However, the government did not take any action until the collapse of their strongest opponent did not become a reality. The government then sent officials to Pius IX to negotiate the issue of Rome (David). Pius IX, however, rejected any such offers. After the failure of the talks, a military intervention was launched to assume the control of Rome. The declared capital and the region of Lazio were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy after a plebiscite. Pope Pius IX and his followers did not recognize the legitimate authority of the government. This caused the conflict to remain active between the Pope and state (Kertzer). Various options were sought however none was accepted. The issue was finally resolved after the Lateran Treaty in 1929. In the treaty, Vatican City was acknowledged as a sovereign territory for the Holy See, while the former Papal States were recognized as part of the Italian state. The Holy See preferred to refrain from several of its claims that had been made by the previous Popes.

Roman Question and Italian unification

A very important question that arises as a result of Roman question is that how important was the Roman Question to Italian unification. To answer the question we first have to understand the nature of the Risorgimento or the movement for Italian Unification. The movement was aimed at liberating the Italian states from foreign domination and unites all the states under one umbrella of United Italy. The question arises, could Italian unification be achieved without making Rome a part of the Kingdom of Italy. There are various points that need to be elaborated here. At first, the Italian unification was successfully achieved by Camillo di Cavour, an aristocratic politician and the prime minister of Sardinia. He proposed the notion of Realpolitik to provide an ideological basis for the unification of the Italy. Previously, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi could not have achieved the objectives of Italian unification by means of democratic measures. It is important to understand that the major obstacle to the United Italy was not the Papal States but the State of Austria that dominated the Italian states. Cavour with his ingenious political, foreign affairs and military ideas was able to remove the obstacle with the help of France (Kertzer). This could, therefore, be argued that if no “Roman Question” has ever arisen, the unification of Italy could still have been achieved with outstanding strategic planning and implementation of Cavour. This definitely underestimates that role of the Roman question for Italian unification. However, in actual, the importance of the Roman question in the unification of Italy cannot be avoided.

As soon as Cavour succeeded against Austria, Garibaldi came out of the exile to work towards his objective of Italian unification. The advances were not welcomed by Cavour and he considered Garibaldi steps as a threat to his own objectives (David). To put an end to Garibaldi's offensive, Cavour attacked the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. These were the attacks that gave rise to the Roman Question. However the annexation of Rome had greater symbolic importance and in a way, it actually showed that the State of Italy had support both from the masses, the spiritual powers. It also tended to unify the religious forces with the masses. It was not till the annexation of the Papal States and the Rome, that Garibaldi yielded his territories to Cavour in the name of Italian unification (Kertzer). It, therefore, ended any chance of conflict between the two main propagators of Italian unification and Italy was therefore termed one nation. It could, therefore, be argued, that Roman Question had greater importance in Italian unification due to its perceived importance among masses.

Factors facilitated addressing Roman Question

As discussed above, the Roman question was only addressed after the Lateran Treaty in 1929. However, prior to the treaty, various factors were in force to lead to the resolving of the issue. The most important factor was the desire, both from the political side and from the side of the Papacy to resolve the issue of Roman Question. For Benito Mussolini, the Roman question was an issue he believed must be solved in the earliest time possible as without the resolution of the issue he believed his ultimate objectives could not be achieved. It would, however, be important to understand that there were three major problems that were related to the Roman Question. The first problem was with respect to the ecumenical position of the Pope. For all the Catholics around the world, the Pope was the figurehead. The government of Italy wanted to keep the figurehead position of Pope intact for the whole Catholic Church. It was, therefore, crucial that the issue could be resolved in such a manner that the position of the Pope may not get impacted as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church. The second important issue that the government faced was with respect to the temporal sovereign over a portion of Italy. The government could not accept a state within a state (Kertzer). The third important problem was with respect to the relationship between state and church. Without the resolution of these issues, the problem of Roman Question was difficult to address. As discussed above one of the factors to the solution of the question was the preliminary steps that the church and state took to move forward in a positive direction. Pius X between 1903 and 1914 relaxed the ban on Catholics to take part in Italian politics. This ban was completely withdrawn in the year 1903. In reply, the Italian state supported the role of Church by acknowledging the culture traditions such as religious ceremony on marriages and religious education in elementary schools for the student’s whose parents desired so.

Another important factor was the authoritarian rule that was desired by both the Pope and Mussolini (David). The Pope was the ultimate figurehead in Catholic Church while the Mussolini wanted to be the ultimate ruler of the Italy. Interestingly the desired authoritarian was also one of the factors to bring the Pope and Mussolini close to each other. Their opposition to Liberalism and Socialism was also a factor of their mutual understanding. Most importantly both the parties were eager to resolve the issue and surprisingly were ready to concede from some of their initial positions. In this regard, the stance of the papacy was quite emphasizing on the resolving of their issue as it was the papacy which had lost the most out of the treaty (Kertzer). The Pope by then had also realized that the political and military support it once enjoyed is no more there to support the church. Furthermore, the changing dynamics of the world of that time and important events such as World War 1 also made the church to realize the importance of a political settlement with the Italian government. The shrewd political analyst that Mussolini was, he quickly capitalized on all the issues and arrived at a settlement on the Roman Question with Pius X.

Italian State and the Roman Question

In order to answer the question, whether the Italian State successfully resolved the Roman Question, various facts need to be analyzed. At first, the most important question is, did the Roman Question resolve as a result of a war or peaceful negotiations between the parties. Although the nature of the Roman Question itself cannot be termed peaceful as the Rome was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy by means of military power. Even during the siege of Rome, more than 50 soldiers of both the sides were killed. Therefore the Roman Question itself and the background surrounding it cannot be termed peaceful. However, when we emphasize particularly on the solution of the problem, it could be clearly witnessed that no military force or power was used to bring about the settlement. The issue was resolved after taking various steps from both sides that indicated harmony and a resolve to settle the issue in a peaceful manner. The Government of Italy and the Pope both took various steps that created an atmosphere of mutual understanding so that issue could be resolved with a greater support from both the sides. The back door or secret negotiations ensued between both the parties for a considerable time. Both the parties escalated back from their positions to resolve the issue in which the contribution of the Pope was greater than that of the Italian government. As the issue by resolved by negotiation and without any use of the force, it could be argued that the Italian state resolved the issue successfully.

The next important thing to analyze is the later developments as a result of the treaty of Lateran. The Vatican City was pronounced as a sovereign state. This state remained neutral in the World War II. Although the Pope or the Catholic Church as a whole could not contribute effectively to reducing the disasters of the war, the Vatican City established as a result of Lateran Treaty did effectively keep itself away from the horrors of War at large. Since then, Vatican City has generally remained an important city for all the Catholics around the world. The authority of the Pope that was affected as a result of the Roman Question was one again established. Though the influence of the papacy and church has reduced considerably than the Church had enjoyed in the past, it nevertheless obtained an exact piece of land where it could perform without the intervention of any foreign state. On a more important level, the Lateran Treaty also decided on the relationship between the States and the Church and jurisdiction of both the powers were impliedly decided (David). The State of the Italy recognized the particular areas such as Catholic culture, traditions, teachings and instructions, in which it will not interfere without the consulting or obtaining approval of the church. The church, on the other hand, recognized the power of the State and acknowledged the fact that they would never intervene in the affairs of the state whether politically, militaristically or by any other measure. The jurisdiction of both the state and the church were defined and acknowledged implicitly if not explicitly. Combining both the above factors it could be argued that with its political wisdom and shrewd diplomacy, the Italian State was successful in resolving the Italian Question, once and for all.


David, John A., ed. Italy in the 19th Century, 1796-1900: The Short Oxford History of Italy. Oxford university press, 2000.

Kertzer, David I. The Pope and Mussolini: The secret history of Pius XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Kertzer, David I. Prisoner of the Vatican. Playaway Digital Audio, 2008.

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