This post is a continuation of the previous post on Pope Pius VII and the times and struggle of the Papacy in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It is important to consider the events in the late 1790’s involving Napoleon Bonaparte, the Austrian Empire, and Cardinal Bishop Chiaramonti of Imola, which events were to have such a profound influence on the subsequent thinking and actions of Cardinal Chiaramonti, in his capacity as Pope Pius VII.
'Saint Michael the Archangel's Defeat of Satan' - by Guido Reni (1636)
I am indebted to the book ‘Revolution and Papacy – the papacy and the revolutionary movement in Europe 1769 – 1846’ by E.E.Y.Hales, published by Hanover House 1960’, which has proved an indispensible source for the material in this post, and from which I have quoted. For readability, clarity of thought and explanation, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
(Continued from previous Post)
‘In 1797 Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Rivoli, which resulted in the Treaty of Tolentino - naturally on his terms, which included the surrender of the Legations - the most valuable and prized of the Papal States; a payment of fifteen million crowns; and the seizure of valuable works of art. Bonaparte decided against marching into Rome, primarily for military reasons, but also preferring to keep the Church ‘on his side’ as it were, rather than aiming at its destruction - as the ‘Directeurs’ in Paris would have preferred. Similarly in his attitude to the Papal States, his interests were practical and military, he wanted the Legations for geographic, economic, and political reasons, for his plan was the creation of a new Republic in which he would control the papal ports of Ancona on the east coast and Civita Vechia on the west coast, with the geography of these States providing a natural defence against future Austrian invasion, and the rich productivity of the plains and the area generally, providing great economic benefits.
Napoleon at the battle of Rivoli 1797 - followed by the Treaty of Tolentino.
Although Napoleon was imbued with Republican sentiments, he had been brought up as a Catholic and he knew that although the Church might be temporally weak and disorganised, and sometimes wracked with spiritual division e.g. Jansenism, it was nevertheless tenacious, as the lesson of the Vendee had shown, and he had found Italy saturated in the Faith. From the beginning his policy wherever possible was one of appeasement, for to him it made no sense to oppose the Catholic religion. At Tolentino, he had told the Cardinal Archbishop of Ferrara, Mathieu, that, “if only they could see things aright at Rome, they would realise that I am no ogre but really their friend.” He also noted that during the fighting and disturbances, the Cardinal Bishop of Imola, Chiaramonti, the future Pope Pius VII, had remained at his post and cooperated with the revolutionary authority of the recently created Cisalpine Republic. Thus in this small but important experimental State, with its 3.5 million inhabitants, Catholic in tradition, we see Napoleon as a civil ruler, confronting the Church led by three Cardinals, viz. Archbishops of Ferrara, Bologna, and Imola. The first two Archbishops fought the new regime at every step, Chiaramonti on the other hand, cooperated with it. Whereas his brother Cardinals at Ferrara and Bologna declared the secularist and egalitarian constitution of the Cisalpine Republic to be incompatible with the rights of the Catholic Church, Chiaramonti accepted that constitution, and tried as it were, to ‘baptise’ it. It was his way, for when Bonaparte had first invaded Lombardy the previous year, and Chiaramonti’s diocese had fallen under the French, the Cardinal had told his flock to accept the new order, and had tried to dissuade those who had staged a futile revolt against it. For this he had been called a Jacobin ( a Revolutionary sympathiser), when his true objectives were calm, order, and mercy, as he showed when he pleaded with the French General Augereau for the lives of the captured leaders of the revolt who had ignored his advice. When the constitution of the Cisalpine Republic abolished all titles and privileges, he was ready to give up his estates, to abandon his title of Monsignor, and to style himself ‘citizen Cardinal’. He saw that these things did not matter, what mattered was to save the essentials. Moreover he thought that the principles of the Revolution could be interpreted in a Christian sense. In his view the Church could have no quarrel with political liberty or with social equality; but for fraternity i.e. for the ideal of society held together only by the bond of natural human affection - he preferred to substitute the peace of God, or the bond which arose from being His children. He illustrated this interpretation by labelling his personal note-paper with ‘Liberty’on the left-hand corner, and ‘Equality’ on the right, only insisting on putting in the centre not ‘Fraternity’, but, ‘And Peace in Our Lord Jesus Christ’.
Map of Europe showing part of Italy, including Papal States and Cisalpine Republic (1803)
In practice there were only two occasions when the Cardinal had difficulty in collaborating with the French. The first was when they tried to introduce into Italy something analogous to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, excluding the Pope from his canonical investiture of the Bishops and from all other rights in the Cisalpine Church, and introducing election of parish priests. The Cardinal succeeded in thwarting this by a mixture of flattery and firmness, when he responded to the Directors of the Cisalpine that ‘as perceptive men professing themselves solicitous for the dogmas and discipline of the Catholic Church, you would be sure to appreciate that her reorganisation must rest with her own ecclesiastical hierarchy’. The second occasion was rather more difficult, arising as a result of the government deciding to adopt the French Declaration of the ‘Rights of Man’, proclaiming official ‘religious indifference’ on the part of the State; disestablishing the Catholic Church; placing every sect, Christian, non-Christian, and anti-Christian, on a footing of absolute equality. In December 1797 the Cardinal was required to publish a Pastoral letter which would show that ‘the spirit of the gospel is founded on the maxims of Liberty, Equality, and .Fraternity, and is in no wise contrary to Democracy.’ Chiaramonti in a Christmas homily, set himself to show that, if only they were properly understood and interpreted in a Christian sense, there was nothing irreconcilable between the new revolutionary ideas and those of the Church. He insisted however, that the new ideas could only be carried out effectively if they were interpreted in a Christian sense. He had been told to demonstrate that the gospel was founded upon the maxims of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and was in no way contrary to democracy; very well he would invert the demand and show that liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy could only be founded on Christianity. He took his argument even further by showing that of all kinds of society, a democratic one was the kind which stood most urgently in need of the supernatural graces of the Church. For under the ‘old regime’, he pointed out, a man had been obliged to obey the government blindly, whereas in a republican democracy a higher degree of virtue was called for on the part of the citizen. Precisely because of this new responsibility, supernatural grace and the guidance of the Church were more necessary than ever. In other words the Revolution, far from superseding the Church, had made her more necessary than ever “Ordinary virtue might, perhaps suffice to guarantee the lasting prosperity of other forms of government. Our form requires something more. Strive to attain to the full height of virtue, and you will be true democrats. Fulfil faithfully the precepts of the gospel, and you will be the joy of the Republic.Be good Catholics and you will be good democrats”.
This homily, published by the future Pius VII, has some claim to be regarded as one of the key documents of modern Catholic history. For in the 18th century the assumptions of Bossuet, who had taken it for granted that monarchical government was of divine right, had held sway amongst orthodox Catholics. It is true that the constitutional bishops in France had also accepted the ‘principles of 1789’, but then they had gone too far and lost sight of the unity and authority necessary to the Church. Chiaramonti, abandoning inessential externals, and turning a blind eye towards the endless insults of the revolutionaries, accepted their political and social democracy, but at the same time affirmed absolutely and unequivocally, the essential need of the supernatural grace and spiritual guidance of which the Church was the custodian, and therefore the need for her to be independent in her organisation and spiritual authority. He foreshadowed the line of liberal Catholic thought in the nineteenth century - ‘The more one is a democrat the more it is necessary to be a Christian; the fervent and practical cult of ‘God-made-Man’ is the indispensable counter-weight of that perpetual tendency of democracy, to establish the cult of man believing himself to be God.’ (Montalembert, Malines Congress 1863). The bearing of Chiaramonti at Imola under the Revolution, was to prove the inspiration of a later Bishop of Imola, who would also be elected Pope, and who would take the name of Pius in honour of his predecessor. Pius IX in his early years as the ‘liberal Pope’ was inspired by the sympathies of Chiaramonti, just as later in the time of his troubles, he would repeat the very words used by Pius VII in his afflictions.
Coat of Arms French Monarchy - Bonaparte Dynasty
Whilst the Revolution when it chose to, could harmonise its principles with those of the Church, and greatly benefit by so doing, it could not harmonise itself with Rome, for the Pope was not only Head of the Church but was also a temporal sovereign with a principality and a Court. The execution of King Louis XVI followed by that of Marie Antoinette, alienated any sympathy the Pope and the majority of Romans, might have shown for the new regime. Thus in 1798 when the French, under General Berthier, invaded Rome, they found the Roman populace hostile, in spite of existing social and economic depression, and an elderly and sick Pope Pius VI with a papal government powerless both to protect and to provide for its citizens. Once in Rome General Berthier declared the Pope deposed, and accepted an ‘Act of the Sovereign People’, setting up a consular regime, the document having been hastily drawn up by a scratch gathering of patriots that same morning. The cardinals in Rome at the time, there to celebrate the twenty-third anniversary of the Pope’s election, were promptly arrested and imprisoned. The Pope was told that he had to leave within three days, after which he was taken first to Sienna, then to Certosa, outside Florence. He was 81 years old, physically and mentally exhausted, forced to move across the Appenines to Bologna, and thence to Parma. Then as the Austro-Russian forces encroached, he was moved yet again, first to Piedmont, then over the Alps to Briancon, Grenoble, and finally Valence, where he died in the dilapidated ‘Hotel du Gouvernement’, with a last prayer for his enemies. Pius VI had reigned for 24 years and 6 months, the longest pontificate since the traditional 25 years of St Peter. Although in some ways a worldly man, happiest perhaps among the treasures of his library and museum, or when watching the progress made in the draining of the Pontine marshes – an undertaking dear to his heart, he nevertheless had understood very clearly what was essential to the Church and what was the nature of the challenge, in his times, to her position; and there had never been any danger that he would yield on essential issues. An aristocrat, he equally abhorred the French Revolution with its secularism and impiety, and the erastianism of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. His death marked the end of an era, after the French Revolution and after the Italian revolutions, neither society nor the Church-in-society could be the same again. It was widely supposed that the Papacy itself had come to an end, although that had been supposed before and would be supposed again – notably in 1870. But in 1799, when the paralysed pontiff died in Valence, and the cardinals were scattered, and the intellectuals were still talking about the new age of philosophy and reason, it did seem as though there might be something in it.
Austrian Empire - Coat of Arms (1804-67)
By the summer of 1799 the French forces had been driven out of Italy, and were in retreat on the Rhine, and its best general had left his army cut off in Egypt. Austrian forces occupied the Legations of the Papal States, and Rome was now occupied by Neapolitan troops.At the head of the anti-French coalition stood Emperor Francis II and his Chancellor Thugut. To them the Catholic Church represented both a natural and spiritual ally for everything for which they fought. After all that had occurred in the last three years in Italy, it hardly seemed possible to them that the dignitaries of the Church should think otherwise. The Revolution was clearly ‘anti-Christ’; the Emperor was clearly ‘Defender of the Faith’ They were happy for the conclave to elect a new Pope, to be held in Venice, for true to the Josephist tradition they anticipated the election of a compliant Pope. Thugut saw this as an opportunity to secure the election of a friendly Pope who would be willing to yield to the Austrian protector of the Italian peninsular what was necessary to make that protection effective, namely suzerainty over the legations of the Papal States. Now that Austrian military power was paramount, he planned an Austrian protective belt across northern Italy which would prevent any further incursions by the French. In this plan, the Papal legations were important both militarily and economically, as had been recognised earlier by Bonaparte when he created the short-lived Cisalpine Republic. Unfortunately for Thugut, the cardinals knew what he wanted and why he wanted it, and they did not mean to let him have it.
Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor (1792-1806) and Emperor of Austria (1804-1835)
The legations were not only the most prosperous part of the Papal States, without which the rest was unviable, but also the whole plain was peculiarly rich in Roman and Papal tradition, with the last four Popes all coming from that region, or from neighbouring Venetia. When the Emperor argued that the legations had been signed away to Bonaparte at Tolentino in 1797 so why could they not now be transferred to the Emperor to help him defend the Roman religion, the response was that Tolentino had recognised a military ‘fait accompli’ in time of war, it had not given papal blessing to a new order in time of peace.
Coat of Arms of Pope Pius VII
The Austrian government meant to change this Roman attitude, and they hoped that the election to the papacy of a suitably disposed Cardinal, would effect this. If the issue behind the Conclave of 1769 had been the fate of the Jesuits, the issue behind that of 1799 was little less than the ending of the temporal power of the papacy, for nobody supposed that the Papal States could long survive without the legations. In hindsight it could be argued that the ending of the temporal power and interests of Rome might not have been such a bad thing in so far as the Church would then have been able to concentrate its energies on its spiritual mission and role in the world. On the other hand, without a state and with northern Italy under Austrian rule, Rome would in fact, have been subject to Vienna. Thus with the papacy retaining its temporal power, and with the Austrian army a comfortable 200 miles to the north –which was the situation after 1815, she could at least feel free from immediate domination by either Austria or France, with their intense mutual rivalry ensuring that neither would allow the other to make any strategic move in Italy. When in 1860/70 the Papal States were eventually eliminated, the new power which took their place was not strong enough to defy Catholic Europe and to oppress the papacy with impunity, as Francis II, who inherited the Josephist tradition, might well have done had he been sole overlord of Rome, and as Bonaparte soon did when he acquired that position, albeit for a retively short period of time.
Monastic Church of San Giorgio,Venice - venue of Papal Enthronement of Pope Pius VII (1800)
Thus the Papal Conclave in Venice was critical. We know from the numerous accounts of the Conclave contained in biographies and Church histories, that the candidate favoured by the Emperor was Cardinal Mattei, and the thirty-four Cardinals in attendance were fully aware of this. A stalemate ensued with some 18/20 cardinals supporting Cardinal Bellisomi, and 10 supporting Mattei. This deadlock continued for several weeks, when finally a third candidate acceptable to both sides was proposed. This was Chiaramonti, the Benedictine Bishop of Imola, who combined the qualities of holiness, simplicity, graciousness and humour. Only two tenable objections could be raised against him, the first that at fifty-eight years old he was too young, and the second that he was very close to the previous Pope who had reigned for more than twenty-four years, and the cardinals were tired of the friends and relations of the Braschi family. Neither objection was considered important, and Chiaramonti was duly elected, taking the name of Pius VII out of deep respect for and in honour of his predecessor. Vienna was not pleased, and as we have already seen refused the use of St Mark’s for the papal enthronement, as well as immediately pressurising the new Pope with strident but fruitless demands for the outright cession to Austria of the three legations. The new Pope having been enthroned in the monastic Church of San Giorgio, was refused permission by the Emperor to travel to Rome overland, and instead was forced to endure a twelve- day trip by sea in an ill-equipped and ill-manned frigate ‘la Bellone’, only to find on his arrival in Rome, that with the French victory over the Austrians at Marengo, the balance of power in Europe had changed yet again.
The Battle of Marengo 1800
The papacy was once more confronted by Bonaparte...................(to be continued)