At one time, a sarcastic dictator might have asked, "How many warships does the pope have?"
The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once asked sarcastically, “How many divisions does the pope have?”
Of course, the bishop of Rome doesn’t have any military divisions. But there was a time when he had a navy.
It’s hard to imagine today: we don’t think of the Church as being “armed,” so to speak. But the history of the Papal Navy is tied up with the history of the Papal States.
“Historians believe the pontifical navy was established in the 10th century by Pope John VIII,” said Catholic News Service. “Popes Nicholas V and Sixtus IV sent military ships against the Turks during the Ottoman wars, and the ‘St. Bonaventure’ was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V to fight seafaring pirates in the 16th century.”
The fleet, consisting of armed frigates, corvettes, steamer ships and schooners, was beefed up when the Papal States were under considerable threat, first by the French in the 18th century and then by burgeoning Italian nationalism in the 19th century, the news service explained.
Armed papal ships guarded the Italian port of Civitavecchia and cruised the waters of the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas in search of contraband. Three paddle steamers built in England joined the fleet in 1842 to run upstream the Tiber River, a major route for bringing commercial goods and materials to Rome. Another paddle ship joined the ranks, and in 1848 the ships were used to fight nationalist forces that sought to end the popes’ temporal power and establish a Roman Republic. The pontifical navy came to an end with the end of the Papal States in 1870.
Even the U.S. Naval Institute examined the history of the Papal Navy. “Although it was not a large force at any time, this navy did more than its share to keep the peace in the Mediterranean Sea for about 1000 years,” the institute said. “In its time it rescued hundreds of thousands of Christians from slavery, convoyed merchantmen, guarded the coast against barbaric invasions, and sent expeditions to the relief of Christian settlements in the Holy Land.”