A ban on gas street lighting was briefly in place in Rome, towards the end of Pope Gregory XVI's tenure, in the 1840s. However ...
This was a narrowly-defined administrative order based on public health concerns, did not last long, and was not based on any church-wide doctrinal or theological objection to gas lighting.
In the spring of 2022, we received inquiries from Snopes readers about an intriguing online meme that claimed that the Catholic Church had once opposed the provision of street lighting and, specifically, that Pope Gregory XVI had banned gas lighting during the 19th century because the modern innovation "flew in the face of God's law."
That meme contained a kernel of truth, because a ban on gas-fueled street lighting was in place temporarily in Rome, towards the end of Gregory's time as pope, in the 1840s. However, the prohibition was based on concerns over pollution, and there was no church-wide doctrinal or theological opposition to gas lighting. As a result, the meme badly misrepresented the historical record, and we are issuing a rating of "Mostly False."
The meme was first published by the humor website Cracked.com, and contains the following text:
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.
Some of the same language used in that meme also appeared in a 2015 Cracked.com post entitled "8 Hilarious Historical Fears That Seriously Delayed Progress." The section on street lighting read:
... Then, there was the Catholic Church, who opposed street lighting on the grounds that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown was like spitting right in Jesus' face, while cats chase dogs and giant wieners ladle mustard over screaming human beings. In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI went so far as to ban gas lighting in Papal states, fearing that the extra hours of visibility might enable rebellion against the church.
That 2015 post contained two sources for the "street light ban" claim. The first was a 1983 book about Paul Cullen, the first Irish cardinal and an influential conservative figure in the Catholic church of the 19th century. The meme itself also cited this book in small type, at the bottom.
In one section of that work, author Desmond Bowen wrote about Gregory's zeal in suppressing rebellions against church rule in the Papal States (now northern Italy), and what he described as "papal triumphalism":
"... 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."
As we can see, that source provided no elaboration or detail, and did not specify whether the denizens of Rome were "denied" street lighting for cultural reasons, supply reasons, due to their own poverty, or by law.
The second source mentioned was a 2013 book entitled "A Corrupt Tree: An Encyclopedia of Crimes Committed by the Church of Rome Against Humanity and the Human Spirit." Volume I of that tome presented Gregory as an ultra-conservative traditionalist who rejected progress and modernization. The book stated that:
"Gregory even went so far as to ban steamboats and railways in the Papal States. He also banned street lights on the grounds that people might gather under them to plot against papal authority. He also refused to admit gas into the Papal States, as that would mean that the Devil had got his foot in the door."
So far, we have two sources cited, neither of which provides a deeper source, and two purported rationales for the supposed church ban on, or opposition to, street lighting: that it went against God's law; and that the pope feared it would facilitate rebellion against his rule.
In a 2016 post about the meme, Christian blogger Roger Pearse presented several relevant sources, most of which provided interesting contextual background. Those contemporary sources presented the pope, in that part of the 19th century, as a distinctly mundane political executive overseeing bureaucratic control over the poorly-run Papal States in northern Italy, as opposed to the modern-day pontiff, who tends to issue moral and philosophical guidance rather than signing off on local administrative ordinances.
In particular, that blog post points to two sources that yield the conclusion that gas-fueled street lights were temporarily forbidden under Gregory's rule, but allowed once again, especially after the election of Gregory's successor, Pope Pius IX.
Firstly, an April 4, 1845 letter written by the Irish journalist Francis Sylvester Mahony to Charles Dickens. Mahony, who was living in the Eternal City at the time, bemoaned what he described as "the efforts of government to arrest the progress of those modern improvements which must obviously ultimately be adopted even in Rome."
In particular, Mahony highlighted a new regulation, posted to the walls of the city, which "denounces the modern innovation of gas light," and dictates that "all private gasworks of this nature are suppressed."
Secondly, a March 1846 order, written by the Governor of Rome Pietro Marini, which set out detailed regulations and conditions for the use of gas-fueled street lights, effectively reversing the earlier outright ban, but raising what would now likely be described as "public health" concerns over the use of the lights. The title of the order read (translated from Italian): "Provisions on gas lighting introduced in some homes, and other places in the capital with gasses installed within the town."
Based on the evidence available, we can reach the following conclusions:
- Gas street lights were banned in Rome for at least a portion of Gregory's tenure (1831-1846)
- It's not clear to what extent Gregory himself, as opposed to some subordinate bureaucrat or official, imposed the ban
- Opposition to gas lighting was based on concerns over pollution and respiratory health, and the church never issued any doctrinal or religious ruling on the subject, contrary to the claims contained in the meme.