Some weeks ago I viewed an online auction which included an oil painting of Pope Pius VII. The portrait revealed the Holy Father in his late 50’s, with a thick, untidy mop of black hair, very Italian - looking, with a long face, strong features and pronounced aquiline nose. The eyes were dark as were the bushy eyebrows, and the expression was alert and thoughtful. It was a striking portrait, and I found myself reflecting that I knew absolutely nothing about Pope Pius VII, and decided there and then to remedy this regrettable state of affairs. I was able to borrow two books from the library of the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (F.SS.R), courtesy of Fr Michael Mary.F.SS.R., both dealing with the pontificate of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823). What I have learnt from these books has really opened my eyes to the virtually insuperable difficulties and sufferings, spiritual, physical and temporal, of Pope Pius VII and indeed most if not all of the Popes, since the French Revolution. The two books in question are ‘Revolution and Papacy- The papacy and the revolutionary movement in Europe, 1769-1846’ by E.E.Y. Hales, published by Hanover House (1960); and ‘Pope Pius VII – 1800-1823. His Life, Times and Struggle with Napoleon in the Aftermath of the French Revolution’ by Robin Anderson, published by Tan Books (2001).
POPE PIUS VII (1800 -23)
Last year (2009) was the 200th anniversary of Rome being declared a ‘free imperial city’ by Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, who then incorporated the Papal States into his empire. Pope Pius VII published a ‘Bull of Excommunication’ of all concerned, whereupon he was arrested and taken from Rome to Savona where he was imprisoned. The following year he refused to recognise Napoleon’s remarriage with Marie-Louise of Austria.
It seems incredible to me, that these events occurred only 200 years ago, which somehow does not seem a very long time; even though the world has since experienced two major World Wars and innumerable lesser wars, man has been to the Moon, technology has progressed to an extent undreamt of even 50 years ago, man’s knowledge of the natural world in the fields of medicine and the environment has made huge advances, the list is endless; yet 200 years still does not seem that long! There is one exception to this accelerating, almost frenetic, pattern of so-called ‘human progress’,and this is the unchanging dogmatic truth inherent in the Catholic faith. This will never change because Jesus Christ promised, when he made Peter the head of His Church, that He would be with the Church all days even unto the end of the world, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Of course there have been superficial changes, some more important than others, inevitable because the Church cannot stagnate in the world, and it is made up of men and women influenced by, and members of, the society in which they live.
This is an absolutely inadequate and brief consideration of the religious and political situation prevailing in Europe at the time of, and immediately following, the advent of the French Revolution, with some emphasis on the pontificate of Pope Pius VII. Any efforts of mine will be as a ‘drop in the ocean’ in the overall saga. I have quoted extracts from both books referred to above, and strongly recommend them to those wishing to increase their knowledge of this perhaps rather neglected, but absolutely pivotal period of Church history. Both are eminently readable, clear and concise, and authoritative in their content.
POPE PIUS VI (1775-99)
‘The conclave had dragged on for nearly four months in the
Venetian island ‘Abbey of St George’ (San Georgio), where, because of political conditions in Rome and Europe, the electing cardinals had assembled on the death of Pope Pius VI. On March 15th, 1800, the Benedictine Cardinal Gregory Barnabas Chiaramonti, accepted election, and out of gratitude to his predecessor and benefactor, took the name of Pius VII.
Venice was then governed by Austria whose rulers, members of the house of Hapsburg, had from medieval times held the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor, Francis II was disappointed with the result of the papal election as he knew that the new Pope would not favour his interests. As a result he refused permission for the coronation ceremony to be held in St Mark’s Basilica, neither would he allow the new Pope to pass through the Papal States on his journey to Rome, forcing him to travel by sea in a dilapidated, badly equipped old boat, escorted by the Emperor’s envoy.
By the time Pope Pius VII reached Rome at the beginning of July, the French General Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory over the Austrian forces at Marengo, had significantly altered the European balance of power. The Pope was no longer fettered by the Emperor Francis, instead he was confronted by Napoleon, the ‘First Consul’ of France, who in 1804 was to become ‘Emperor of the French’ and overlord of most of Europe.
Napoleon’s fifteen year rule (1799-1814) was to prove a decidedly mixed blessing for France and for the Church. A man of military genius and great energy, he restored order after the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution of 1789, although he was himself imbued to some extent, with the tenets of the Revolution. His political ambitions further caused him to contest the sacred rights of the Pope and the Church, rights which he endeavoured to dominate and use for ruling and extending his empire.
'Emperor of the French' (1804-13)
The death of Pope Pius VI in France in August 1799, a prisoner of the French revolutionaries, had left the Catholic Church in an apparently catastrophic plight. The Pope was mockingly called ‘Pius VI the Last’, and many thought, not for the first time, that the papacy was finished.
During the latter part of the 18th century the philosophy of Kant in Germany and Hobbes in England discarded the concept of ‘supernatural faith’ in divine revelation, and led the way to the so-called ‘Illuminism’ of the French philosophers who purported to propagate modern science and culture. The ‘Age of Reason’ was proclaimed: ‘mankind, previously in its infancy, had now at last reached maturity.’
The writings of Rousseau and Voltaire had popularised ideas of man’s natural goodness, with no need for authority and law in Church or society. In 1786 the Illuminatist society, secretly founded in Bavaria with anarchical aims, was banned. Its founder, Weishaupt, fled to France, where he merged the society with Freemasonry. The way was paved for revolution.
Any means were considered permissible for overthrowing monarchy and lawful government, and for abolishing private property, hereditary rights, patriotism and military obedience, the family and marriage. With great cunning, Illuminatism appeared to be serving cultural and social interests, whilst pursuing its secret ends. Members included Robespierre, Mirabeau, the Duke of Orleans (who provided the money), and the half-mad Cagliostro, hater of priests and kings, and others who were to become leading protagonists of the French Revolution.
On the religious front, Jansenism, originating with Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres (1585-1638) and possibly one of the most formidable heresies ever in the Church, was strongly established in Europe and spreading. Hostile to Rome and papal authority, and thus inevitably to the Jesuits, it challenged the Church’s magisterium and power of jurisdiction, but hid its true nature under various reforming ideals. Although the 101 censures of the Papal Bull ‘Unigenitus’ (1713) proclaimed by Pope Clement XI, condemned almost every known Jansenist tenet, the authority of Rome was insufficient in France to prevent Jansenist ideas being taught in seminaries or even approved by some Bishops. Jansenists called for a return to what they regarded as the ‘attitude of the Early Church’- based on the Christian church of the first six centuries, and they welcomed persecution as a sign that they were right. They only regarded the earlier Councils of the Church as valid; the later aggrandisement of Papal power, the Lateran Councils, the Council of Trent, and worst of all the Jesuits, represented something alien. They preached an ‘Elect’ - viz. themselves, and by exaggerating the teaching of St Augustine on the power and necessity of God’s grace for any efficacious act, and man’s helplessness either to gain it or to act aright without it, they made themselves not only into an Elect, but into a pre-destinate Elect, like the Calvinists. Jansenists differentiated between the ‘Holy See’ and ‘Rome’. For the former they expressed respect (in principle), but for the latter, the Rome of ‘Unigenitus’ and still worse, the Rome of the Jesuits, they had only hatred.
They were enamoured of their own ‘idea’ of the Church, in complete contrast to the Jesuits who served the Popes of the day, with no special significance attached to the early Church. For them there was one Church, divinely established, which included saints and sinners, tares and wheat, foolish virgins and wise, and in that Church the supreme authority was the Pope. Only he – with or without the aid of a General Council- could define dogma. And as for pious practices, new rules for life in communities, special devotions, and the like, the Society of Jesus accepted them as elements in the developing life of the Church, but only to be embraced as orthodox, and recommended to the general use of Christians, if they received the sanction of Rome.
POPE CLEMENT XI (1700-21)
Issued Bull 'Unigenitus' 1713 condemning Jansenism
The Jansenists, rebuffed by Rome, but ever seeking more support, cultivated many friends among the lower clergy, proposing that they had a right to share in the government of the Church. This idea was based on the flattering theory that if Bishops were the descendants of the twelve apostles, it followed that the parish priests were the descendants of the seventy-two disciples, sent out by Our Lord; and they were therefore entitled to their voice in the defining of dogma and in serious disciplinary measures such as excommunication. An ever-widening gulf existed between the influence and condition of life of the lower clergy and those of the higher. As a class they had become depressed by the gradual elimination of the local patron and by the increasing control over the avenues of patronage and promotion enjoyed by the bishop. The parish priest had discovered that in order to secure his advancement, he must at all cost please his ecclesiastical superiors.
But if the priest must please his bishop, the bishop must please his king. Bishops were nominated by the king or ruler, and throughout the electorates, grand-duchies, and principalities of Europe, it had become customary by the year 1769, for Rome to approve the choice of the ruler. It was this custom which lay at the root of those essentially secular loyalties amongst the higher clergy, which in France showed themselves in Gallicanism; in Germany – Febronianism; and in Austria – Josephism; three terms which described, in different contexts, a closer association between Church and State, which to greater or lesser degree, was widely accepted by the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The opposite tendency, ie the acceptance of Rome as the ultimate authority, was known as Ultramontanism, or just Romanism or Papalism, and its main support came from the Jesuits. The long and unresolved struggle, inherited from the Middle Ages, between spiritual and temporal power, between Pope and Emperor, Archbishop and King, ecclesiastical court and royal court, was very much in evidence in 18th century Europe, and everywhere the Church was losing ground, largely because her leaders so often saw themselves first as the king’s men.
The Jesuit support for the ‘traditional teaching’ regarding papal prerogatives, thus effecting the serious displeasure of temporal rulers, left them open to retribution. Possessed of real influence and authority, the Jesuits posed a threat to royal and parliamentary power. By 1769, the start of the pontificat of Clement XIV, they had already been expelled from Portugal and Spain - including their vast overseas possessions, as well as from France, Naples, and Parma, for invariably spurious reasons. In the Spanish colonies, as part of their mission to improve the lot of the indigenous people, the Jesuits had set up thriving businesses and other commercial ventures for the benefit of the local people. The Jesuits themselves made no financial gains from these enterprises, and when they were expelled it left the way open for exploitation by those commercial interests so inclined. Certain monarchs Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, and Frederick the Great and Catherine of Russia, did not want to lose the Jesuits, primarily because of their excellent teaching abilities and inexpensive schools. In France the suppression was due to the influence of the ‘Parlement’ of Paris and the provincial Parlements, enemies of long-standing, rather than the reluctant King Louis XV. In 1773, the Empress Maria Theresa, succumbing to pressure from Charles III of Spain, authorised the banning of the ‘Society of Jesus’ in Austria, but insisted that the priests be allowed to remain as teachers wearing lay attire. Spain, which had already expelled some 4000 Jesuits – 2000 in the Old World and 2000 in the New, continued to pressurise the Pope; the Ambassador, Jose Monino, threatening that failure to draw up a ‘Brief of Suppression’ against the Jesuits would result in all the Religious Orders in Spain being suppressed. He finally produced a document containing eighteen articles which he bullied the Pope into accepting in principle. In June 1773 Clement XIV issued a Brief suppressing the ‘Society of Jesus’. It was to be 41 years before the Society was re-instated by Pope Pius VII.
POPE CLEMENT XIV (1769-74)
Pope Clement XIV died a year after issuing the Brief in what has been described as rather macabre circumstances. He had suffered for some years from a skin disorder, and as a remedy had been imbibing increasing quantities of mercury in the medicines prescribed for him by his doctors. On September 8th,1774, he collapsed unconscious outside the Quirinale and by the 24th of the month he was dead. His body immediately assumed a black and blue colour and when it was exhibited in St Peter’s, it was necessary to cover the face with a mask. In the popular imagination the manner of his death was either due to the Jesuits who had managed to poison him, or that he had been visited, after the suppression, by the wrath of God. The former theory was immediately dismissed by even those most critical of the Society.
Impartial historians have admitted that in bringing about the suppression of the Society of Jesus, the enemies of Christianity were aiming to bring down the Catholic Church. As in every age saints were not lacking to counter the evils that authority seemed powerless to deal with. The Redemptorist missions founded by St Alphonsus Liguori, undid much of the harm done by the Jansenists; Primary education was carried on with great sacrifice by the Brothers of St. John Baptist de la Salle; and the Retreats given by the Passionists founded by St Paul of the Cross led many back to the practice of true religion. But the gap left in higher education by the Jesuits suppression, was not filled. Clement XIV is said to have admitted that by his act of 1773, he had cut off his right hand.'
In hindsight, it should be recognised that in addition to the heavy responsibilities of Church and State, the Holy Father may well have been unknowingly suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning for some years, which would certainly have effected his physical and mental well-being.
(to be continued)