The Catholic Church once formally opposed street lamps for religious reasons, and Pope Gregory XVI banned gas lighting.
In the spring of 2022, we received inquiries from Snopes readers regarding an intriguing online meme which claimed that the Catholic Church had once opposed the provision of street lighting and, more specifically, that Pope Gregory XVI had banned gas lighting in the 19th century because modern innovation “flew against the law of God”.
This meme contained a kernel of truth, as a ban on street gas lighting was temporarily in place in Rome, towards the end of Gregory’s time as pope, in the 1840s. However, the ban was based on concerns about pollution, and there was no church-wide doctrinal or theological opposition to gaslighting. As a result, the meme misrepresented the historical record, and we’re assigning a rating of “mostly false.”
The meme was first published by comedy site Cracked.com and contains the following text:
The Catholic Church opposed streetlights.
In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI even banned gas lighting in the Papal States.
The church argued that God had very clearly drawn the line between night and day, and that turning on lights after sunset was against God’s law.
Some of the same language used in this meme also appeared in a 2015 Post cracked.com titled “8 Hilarious Historical Fears That Seriously Staggered Progress”. The section on street lighting said:
… Then there was the Catholic Church, which opposed street lighting on the grounds that God made the line between night and day very clear, and turning on lights after sunset was like spitting in the open. face of Jesus, while cats chase dogs and giant sausages pour mustard on screaming human beings. In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI went so far as to ban gaslighting in the Papal States, fearing that the extra hours of visibility would allow a rebellion against the church.
This 2015 post contained two sources for the “street light ban” claim. The first was a 1983 book about Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first cardinal and an influential conservative figure in the 19th century Catholic Church. The meme itself also quoted this book in the fine print at the bottom.
In a section of this work, author Desmond Bowen wrote about Gregory’s zeal to put down rebellions against Church rule in the Papal States (now northern Italy), and what described as “papal triumphalism”:
“… More ancient churches and monuments have been restored, new palaces have been built, and the Vatican has been further enriched with valuable art collections. At the same time, the people of Rome were denied street lighting, and the Pope refused to allow the railroad to come into the city.
As we can see, this source did not provide any elaboration or detail, and did not specify whether the people of Rome were denied public lighting for cultural reasons, for supply reasons, because of their own poverty or by law.
The second source mentioned was a book 2013 titled “A Corrupt Tree: An Encyclopedia of Crimes Committed by the Church of Rome Against Humanity and the Human Spirit”. Volume I of this tome presented Gregory as an ultra-conservative traditionalist who rejected progress and modernization. The book stated that:
“Grégoire even went so far as to prohibit steamships and railways in the Papal States. He also banned street lamps on the grounds that people might congregate under them to plot against papal authority. He also refused to admit gas into the Papal States, as that would mean the devil had set foot in the door.
So far we have cited two sources, neither of which provides a deeper source, and two purported justifications for the church’s supposed ban or opposition to street lighting: that it went against the law of God; and that the pope feared it would facilitate rebellion against his rule.
In a post 2016 About the meme, Christian blogger Roger Pearse presented several relevant sources, most of which provided interesting background information. These contemporary sources presented the pope, in this part of the 19th century, as a distinctly unremarkable political executive overseeing bureaucratic control of the poorly run northern Italian Papal States, as opposed to the modern-day pontiff, who tends to issue moral opinions and philosophical advice rather than signing local administrative orders.
In particular, this blog post points to two sources that conclude that gas streetlights were temporarily banned during Gregory’s reign, but allowed again, especially after the election of Gregory’s successor, Pope Pius IX.
First, a Letter of April 4, 1845 written by Irish journalist Francis Sylvester Mahony to Charles Dickens. Mahony, who was living in the Eternal City at the time, lamented what he described as “the government’s efforts to arrest the progress of those modern improvements which obviously must eventually be adopted even in Rome.”
In particular, Mahony highlighted a new bylaw, posted on city walls, which “denounces modern gaslight innovation” and dictates that “all private gasworks of this nature are abolished”.
Second, a Order of March 1846, authored by Governor of Rome Pietro Marini, which set out detailed regulations and conditions for the use of gas streetlights, effectively reversing the earlier outright ban, but raising what would now likely be described as concerns of ” public health” regarding the use of lights. The title of the command read (translated from Italian): “Provisions on gas lighting introduced in some houses, and other places in the capital with gas installed in the city.
Based on the available evidence, we can draw the following conclusions:
- Gas streetlights were banned in Rome for at least part of Gregory’s term (1831-1846)
- It is unclear to what extent Gregory himself, as opposed to a junior bureaucrat or official, enforced the ban
- Opposition to gaslighting was based on concerns about pollution and respiratory health, and the church has never issued a doctrinal or religious ruling on the subject, contrary to claims in the meme.
Bowen, Desmond. Paul Cardinal Cullen and the formation of modern Irish Catholicism. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1983.
Carnell, Pat. “8 Hilarious Historical Fears That Seriously Staggered Progress.” Cracked.ComMarch 11, 2015, https://www.cracked.com/article_22224_8-plainly-stupid-fears-that-held-back-human-progress.html.
Mahony, Francis Sylvester. Italy facts and figures. R. Bentley, 1847.
Pearse, Roger. “Did the Catholic Church oppose streetlights? Some Notes on the Papal States in the 1830s. Roger PearseAugust 18, 2016, https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2016/08/18/did-the-catholic-church-oppose-street-lights-some-notes-on-the-papal-states- in-the-1830s/.
Raccolta delle leggi e disposizioni di pubblica amministrazione nello stato pontificio. Stamp. from the RCA, 1849.
Stockwell, Antoine and AS A Corrupted Tree: An Encyclopedia of Crimes Committed by the Church of Rome Against Humanity and the Human Spirit. Xlibris Corporation LLC, 2014.