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The Adoption of the Constitution of the Papal States 1848

In 1848, Pope Pius IX was forced by his disaffected subjects to adopt a constitution for the Papal States and liberalize the enclave’s government. This compromise came about in the midst of the tumult of the Risorgimento and the explosion of revolutions of 1848.  This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that year.

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The 1848 Revolutions

Pope Pius IX was in office when the constitution of the Papal States was adopted in 1848.

After the devastating defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Pope Pius VII was finally released from house arrest in France and was free to return to Rome. The Papal States previously annexed by Napoleon and occupied by French troops were reinstated to the Pope thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1814) and the Congress of Vienna (1815). With Napoleon gone, Italy was once again divided into several independent states and duchies. The Austrian Empire dominated Venice and Lombardy, and to some extent, Tuscany, Lucca, Modena, and Parma. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies, on the other hand, reverted to the House of Bourbon.

Europe enjoyed more than a decade of peace, but old problems eventually resurfaced. Early 19th-century Europe was plagued with bad harvests, bankruptcies, and unemployment. The prices of grain and other foodstuffs rose which inevitably resulted in riots. European monarchs, however, were either downright oppressive or indifferent to their subjects’ plight. By the 1830s, revolutions rooted in liberalism and nationalist aspirations were commonplace in Western and Central Europe. Italy, in particular, was engulfed in uprisings led by revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi.  

The Papal States themselves were not spared from the outbreak of revolutions. In 1831, the cardinals elected the deeply conservative and authoritarian Pope Gregory XVI. The Papal States were also steeped in inequality and conservatism–something the pope’s subjects deeply resented. During his reign, Gregory XVI had to face the revolution launched by a group called the Carbonari which forced him to ask the Austrians for help. Austrian troops successfully quashed the rebellion in the same year, but uprisings continued to break out every now and then during his reign.

Gregory XVI died in 1846, and he was succeeded by Pope Pius IX. Early in his reign, he issued amnesty to exiles and prisoners and allowed the Jews in the Papal States the freedom to live outside their ghettos. He also eased the rules on press censorship and reformed his cabinet. He issued other economic and social reforms that hoodwinked his liberal-minded subjects and nationalistic Italians into believing that he was one of them.

1848 Revolutions and the Papal State Constitution

In early 1848, the citizens of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies rose up against King Ferdinand II after hearing about the reforms implemented by Pope Pius IX. The revolt was quickly quelled and barely made the headlines in Europe, but it was soon followed by the February Revolution in France. The Prussians launched their own revolution in March, followed by other German states and the Austrian Empire. Europe was once again engulfed in uprisings.

The revolutions forced some European rulers to implement economic reforms, adopt political liberalism, and allow the promulgation of a constitution. Pope Pius IX was among those who were forced to negotiate a compromise with his subjects. On March 14, 1848, he issued the Papal States’ first constitution entitled Fundamental Stature for the Secular Government of the States of the Church. The pope allowed the formation of a bicameral legislative body. This legislative body was made up by the clerics the pope appointed and by the deputies elected by the citizens. However, it was not enough for his subjects as the pope and his cardinals still retained the right to veto any parliamentary move.

He appointed the reform-minded Pellegrino Rossi as Minister of the Interior. The minister tried to implement liberal reforms, but his efforts mostly fell flat. He was assassinated by Pius’s disgruntled subjects later that year, forcing the pope to seek refuge in Gaeta. With the pope out of the way, the revolutionaries held elections to form a constituent assembly on the 9th of February, 1849. The assembly announced the abolishment of the Papal States and the end of pope’s temporal power. In addition, they declared the creation of the democratic Roman Republic in its stead.


Picture by: Unknown (User:Czinitz at hu.wikipedia) [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.

Carson, H.M., Peter Toon, and C.T. McIntire. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Pouthas, Charles, and D. Mack Smith. The Cambridge Modern History: The Zenith of European Power 1830-70. Edited by J.P.T. Bury. Vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

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1 thought on “The Adoption of the Constitution of the Papal States 1848

  1. The Papal States were absorbed by Italy about 1870 and the whole situation was resolved by the Lateran Treaty of 1929. The pope’s “country” was limited the 108 acres of Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. Even most Catholics agree that this was a good solution.

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