Part Two: Two Popes and an Emperor
The same year farmers from rural Massachusetts fired on government troops at the villages of Lexington and Concord and sparked the American Revolution, Pope Pius VI was elected Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. His was a difficult task. The Catholic Church, like all other Christian bodies, had taken severe attacks for a century from European intellectual elites, dedicated to showing the ancient doctrines of the Church as false and absurd. It was mocked in theaters, salons, Masonic meeting halls, and the chambers of royal courts. Its greatest tool for defense and for evangelization, the Society of Jesus, had been disbanded years earlier. The Jesuit general, Father Ricci, had been imprisoned at Castle Sant’ Angelo.
Father Ricci, aged seventy-two, died shortly after the election of Pius VI. The pope could do nothing to help him, but he did help his Society. Jesuits, though their Order was officially dissolved in 1773, had continued to conduct schools in Prussia, with the support of King Frederick II. In Russia they kept a community under the protection of the Empress Catherine the Great. These got a wink and a nod from Pius VI as he sought ways to revive the Society.
Meanwhile, the new pope had his hands full with an empire which was normally his greatest ally, Austria. The emperor of Austria was Joseph II and his policies became known as Josephism, the complete separation of Church and State. Joseph saw his role as sovereign to change the Church, in his mind, restoring it to its “primitive constitution,” that is to say, having no role outside the spiritual, a department of the state government much as a Department of Parks and Recreation would be. “We have weakened deep rooted traditions by the introduction of enlightened principles,” the emperor said.
These enlightened principles included the introduction of universal education, though on a secular model. Austrian universities were to be reformed, with expansion of all faculties, except theology and philosophy. “Impractical” Orders, those who did not minister to the sick, educate, make beer or breads or cheeses were hounded out of Austrian lands. Correspondence between Rome and Austrian churchmen was curtained. Into this mess, Pope Pius VI took a personal gamble. He went to Vienna.
It was a rare thing for a pope to leave Rome and to travel to a foreign capital. In 1782, Pius VI did just that. He was received by the emperor and his court as a visiting head of state. The visit was cordial but formal. The people saw what the emperor could not. They saw their shepherd, their spiritual father and they broke out in great, spontaneous processions and gathers. Their devotion was obvious, but none of this moved Emperor Joseph II. After the pope left, he demanded an oath of loyalty from the bishops and set to re-organize the dioceses. Papal failures followed even with the imperial successor, Leopold II, as well as in places like Venice, Sardinia, Spain, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
But it was events in France that struck hardest. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the confiscation of Church property and lands, the reduction of clergy to civil servants and the erection of a state church which Pius pronounced as schismatic, the suppression of Orders, the martyrdom of hundreds of clergy, Religious and laity: could things get any worse?
Pope Pius VI soon found out. In 1796 a French army invaded the Italian peninsula. It was led by an ambitious Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte. His victories forced the pope to sign the punitive treaty of Tolentino in 1797. A war indemnity was paid; territory taken from the Papal States and art works carried off to Paris.
A year later Rome was occupied by a French army, the Roman Republic was declared and Pope Pius VI was arrested and removed to Valence in France. The capture and transportation of the old man was brutal and in Valence he died, refused his last request for Last Rites from a priest.
The conclave held to replace the fallen pope was assembled in Venice, as Rome was occupied by hostile forces. It took three months to form and only thirty-five Cardinals could attend, such was the state of affairs in Europe in 1800. The Austrian emperor made arrangements and funded the conclave as the Church was destitute. He expected a favor in return, the election of a pro-Austrian pope. He would not be pleased.
The Cardinals gathered on san Giorgio Island had an independent air about them. On March 14, 1800 they elected a Benedictine, Bishop Chiaramonte of Imola. He had once preached, “Be a good Christian and you will be a good democrat,” to his flock. Such egalitarian sentiments were unbecoming in the eyes of the emperor. His anger was so petty that he refused a safe-conduct pass to the newly elected pope.
The new pontiff chose his predecessor’s name and became Pius VII. The fifty-eight year old pope made his way down the coast of Italy in a fishing vessel and arrived in Rome only on July 3, 1800. Immediately his relative youth and unbridled energy aided him in making changes and reforms at the Vatican. He was being watched at a distance.
Pope Pius VI’s nemesis, General Napoleon Bonaparte, had done well for himself. After his Italian successes, Napoleon was sent by the French government, known as the Directory, off for fresh victories. The assignment was Egypt. The task was to break the British communication link between the Mediterranean and their holdings in the Eurasian subcontinent, especially India.
But things did not go well. Land victories were followed by a disastrous naval defeat in the mouth of the Nile River, followed by the ravages of disease. In the end, Napoleon declared victory, slipped back to France, denounced the corruption of the Paris regime and announced his own coup d’etat. That was in November, 1799. By July of the next year, as the new pope was taking up residence in Rome, Napoleon had scored another military victory at Marengo, had settled a revolt in the Vendee, not by force, but by persuasion and had come to the conclusion that France had to settle its church-state problem.
The Vendee revolt was settled when the people were allowed to have their priests back. It was that simple. France must be Catholic, Napoleon concluded, because the people are Catholic. Those many years of persecution and suffering bore fruit even as it had created many martyrs. The resistance of the people and the courage of their priests and Religious won the day. Napoleon sought negotiations for a Concordat to stabilize relations between his French government and the Church. These were conducted by Cardinal Consalvi for the Vatican and the former bishop Talleyrand for Napoleon.
The Concordat of 1801 called for the pope to abandon claims to Ravenna, Ferrara and Bologna. In return he received no material benefits, but great spiritual ones. All bishops in France were to resign to the pope on July 15, 1801. Napoleon, the First Consul, would nominate new bishops and these would be invested by Pope Pius VII. Priests would be nominated by their bishops, approved by the government and ordained by the bishop. Cathedrals and churches would be returned while seminaries and monasteries would stay in government hands. The Civil Constitutional Church was wiped away in an instant; the pope had authority to depose bishops as well as invest them, power he did not have even in the pre-revolutionary church.
Indeed, opposition to the Concordat came from that very corner. There were ninety-six émigré bishops. Forty-five of these refused to tender their resignation arguing that Napoleon’s government was no more legitimate than the Jacobin one. These rallied to the Bourbon successor, Louis XVIII. They formed “La petite Eglise,” creating in turn their own schismatic church.
Napoleon’s application of the provisions of the Concordat was imperfect. While he reopened six seminaries and funded them, the faculties were forced to sign the Gallican Decree of 1682 which said that general councils were superior to popes, that papal influence in the Church in France should be minimal and that a separate French liturgy of the Mass and a French catechism should be used. But the real challenge came in 1804, when a grateful Senate declared Napoleon Emperor of France.
France had not had an emperor for a thousand years. In 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne went to Rome and was crowned emperor by the pope. Now Napoleon invited the pope to come to Paris to bless and crown him emperor. This put Pius in a dilemma. What would Louis XVIII think? What would Emperor Francis II of Austria think? Which brought up another point: Charlemagne’s crown was not in France, nor in Rome. It was at the Hofburg in Vienna!
Then there was the marriage problem. Napoleon was married to Josephine through a civil marriage. How could the pope crown such an emperor? These and other conflicts were negotiated by Cardinal Consalvi over the next three months. Napoleon and Josephine agreed to a religious wedding as long as they did not have to go to confession first. Pope Pius VII was to come to Paris to anoint Napoleon, but not to crown him.
With these agreements the coronation was set and the pope began his journey. As much as the popular reception of Pius VI in 1782 Vienna was exceptional, the popular greeting of Pius VII in 1804 Paris was stunning. Here was a city which was home to some of the most anti-Christian, anti-Catholic critics of the Enlightenment, the site of massacres of hundreds of priests, nuns and brothers, the birthplace of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a city held in revolutionary grip for fifteen years. Yet wherever Pius VII went he was mobbed by great crowds asking his blessing, holding up rosaries stashed away these many years, hold up wedding rings.
But things soured soon after. In February 1806, the Bourbon monarchs of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were thrown out. They were replaced by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. Now in the Italian peninsula, only the Papal States were independent of the emperor. When the Continental System was established to create an all-European trade union, excluding Great Britain, only two states defied the emperor – Russia and the Papal States. Punishing Russia would have to wait, but the pope soon felt the wrath of the man he had once anointed.
In May 1809 the Papal States were taken from Pius. In June Rome was occupied. The pope excommunicated all those who had attacked Rome and the French responded by sending troops into the Quirinal, arresting Pope Pius VII.
The pope had disappeared. None one knew his whereabouts except a small entourage heading for France. For forty-two days he was kept in hiding, given double sedatives to drug him. Pius became very ill.
French churchmen were restive over this action. When Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Princess Maria Louise of Austria, half the cardinals of France refused to attend the wedding. Napoleon engaged in a heated Senate floor debate once for two hours with Monsignor Emery, the rector of St. Sulpice. Finally, Pius was brought out of hiding as sent to house arrest at Fountainbleau in June 1812. There he would remain until the emperor returned victorious from the battlefields of Russia.
1812 was not a good year for the emperor. He returned to France and to Fountainbleau clearly shaken. His 500,000 man army had evaporated in Russia. Now all Europe saw an opportunity to exert freedom from years of French domination and tyranny. For six days in the quiet confines of the palace at Fountainbleau, the emperor consulted with his captive, the pope. No records attest to the conversations, but after six days the emperor declared a new Concordat had been signed. Despite solitary confinement, despite restrictions on contact, on possessing paper, pen or pencil, the prisoner at Fountainbleau, managed to get a message out, denying a new concordat.
1813 was not a good year for the emperor. Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations. He fled back to France, to Fountainbleau where the allies captured him and set Pope Pius VII free. Napoleon was sent to the Mediterranean island of Elba, to experience an exile of relative comfort and ease. Pius returned to Rome.
But the story does not end there. Ever ambitious the former emperor snuck off the island of his exile and landed in southern France. His return was greeted by throngs of people. Soldiers sent to arrest him, including their commander, Marshal Ney, went over to his side. The emperor was back. He rallied briefly and was defeated by an Anglo-Prussian army at Waterloo. Thereafter, his escape was foiled. He was sent into exile on the West African island of St. Helena, to be tormented in the final few years of his life. One voice along pleaded for mercy to the Prince Regent of Great Britain. Pope Pius VII wrote asking him not to be too severe on the man who had tormented him for so many years.
There is no better way to summarize this conflict of twenty-six years, from the calling of the Estates-General in 1789 to the demise of the Emperor Napoleon in 1815, this challenge to the health and even existence of the Catholic Church in Europe than to turn to the words of the historian E. E. Y. Hales.
Yet amidst the persecution, the profligacy, and the prating of pompous official platitudes, the Faith still lay silent in the breasts of brave priests crowed into prisons or into boats, or hidden in the cellars or the cupboards of hospitable houses; in the hearts of those of heroic virtue who disguised themselves in order to pass amongst the condemned, following the very tumbrels with their words of comfort; in the bearing of some of those in exile who made a profound impression upon their hosts in Protestant countries; in the communities of nuns who adhered throughout, amidst every hardship, to their devotions; amongst the faithful who contrived to find out the secret places where they could knell behind the priest who was saying Mass. If some of the Romanists were more preoccupied, in their exile, with the fate of the monarchy than with the fate of the Church, if some of their bishops were blind adherents of the ancien regime, and if many of the Constitutional clergy dishonored their calling, it is right that the sacrifice of the devoted, during a period of extreme trial, should be remembered, for without it the remarkable revival of the Church in France, in the following century, is unintelligible.