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Chapter 26

1798 Approaches


Between 1590 and 1605 no less than seven men occupied the See of Rome. It seemed that election was a portent of imminent death. Urban VII (1590) died of malaria after 12 days, Gregory XIV (1590—91) reigned only ten months, Innocent IX (1591) two and a half months, dying of a respiratory infection and Leo XI (1605), expired from a chill which he developed following his coronation after twenty-six days in office. Such rapid alterations in the Papal succession were not designed to strengthen the Vatican’s political influence as it entered the seventeenth century.

The one pope who had survived the immediate period following his appointment, Clement VIII (1592—1605), hardly added stature to the political influence expected of his role. The kingdom to the south of Rome, Naples, and the republic to its north, Venice, constantly overrode Papal ecclesiastical rights with impunity.

The brief rule of Leo XI brought to an end the de’ Medici family’s remarkable Papal success in appointments. When Naples breached the privilegium fori, the right of priests charged with criminal offenses to demand to be tried by their own religious orders rather than the state, the Neapolitan minister was excommunicated by Leo’s successor, Paul V. The pope then turned his attention to Venice where the same affronts to Papal demands had erupted. The Doge and the members of his Senate were all excommunicated and the Republic placed under an interdict. The Doge responded by demanding all priests in the territory to continue, against the decree of the interdict, to perform their religious duties. Those who refused were expelled. It was a battle of Papal and Venetian wills which almost led to war. Venice had not only arrested two priests but had prohibited the erection of new church buildings. Paul V attempted to raise a continental army to crush this insult to his power, but he was forced to withdraw when tidings from afar brought news of English and Dutch intentions to send troops in support of Venice.

King James I of England introduced a new oath of allegiance after the Gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes; this oath, comprising carefully selected words, was seen by Paul to be unacceptable. The oath caused a schism among English Roman Catholics, weakening them even further.

When Pope Paul V died of a stroke in 1621, his successor of short duration, Gregory XV (1621—1623) established the Congregation of Propaganda in order to emulate the missionary zeal of the Protestants, and his successor, Urban VIII (1623—1644), created a missionary training college for the purpose of spreading the Roman faith worldwide.

The Popes had held it to be their duty to act as mediators between the warring factions of Europe; but the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648) was to debase this powerful weapon in the hands of successive Popes who were ever mindful of their faith’s interests in the mediatorial process. This was a complex religious war in which France found itself allied to Protestant nations against principally Austria and Spain.

Although he died six years prior to the cessation of the war, the Duc de Richelieu, who was not only a Duke but also a Cardinal, served as French King Louis XIII’s chief minister. He was the powerful political figure of that period. He and his successor, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, first minister for King Louis XIV, refused Papal mediation. That successive cardinals would snub the traditional mediatorial role of the Papacy, was an augury of great insults to follow, and of Papal decline. The Papacy was not accustomed to its senior clergy placing national interests ahead of the Vatican’s desires.

On the Austro-Spanish side Count Maximilian von Trauttmannsdorf of Austria dominated discussions. He had more than philosophical reasons to ignore Papal mediation despite his Roman Catholic faith, for he, being on the losing side of the conflict, was intent on compensating Austria’s inevitable loss of territory by the acquirement of regions under Rome’s control. In fact von Trauttmannsdorf was the representative of the Holy Roman Empire, which was in the hands of the Habsburg dynasty.

In reality Urban VIII had abrogated his right to mediate, asserting that he must refrain from compromising his role of common fatherhood. He thought his neutrality in the conflict would recommend him for such a role; but instead his ploy offended the devoutly Roman Catholic Ferdinand II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and no doubt removed Austrian compunctions against seeking to compensate territorial losses with territorial gains at the expense of Rome. Never again, following the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, chiefly between France and the powerful kingdom of Sweden on the one hand, and the Holy Roman Empire on the other, was the Papacy to play a pivotal role in peace settlements in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Further, many Roman Catholic ecclesiastical estates were lost as the Holy Roman Empire was compelled to cede some of its territory to Protestant nations. Despite vigorous protests from Pope Innocent X (1644—1655), the Papacy was weakened.

It must not be overlooked that the same enlightenment which blessed Europe with the dispersion of Protestant Biblical principles also led to the rise of secularism among those who were not spiritually inclined and who saw the weaknesses, duplicity and even evil evident in the lives of many popes and prelates. This rise in secularism was to reach a crescendo at the end of the eighteenth century when France threw off all restraint, and damned Christianity.

Secular states decided it was their prerogative to regulate ecclesiastical affairs. These Catholic nations desired to make the church a subservient ally of the state. This led King Louis XIV of France to introduce a policy termed Gallicanism, which usurped the Papal right to control ecclesiastical affairs in France and promoted administrative autonomy of the Roman Catholic Church in that nation. Other states in Europe looked favorably upon the French pattern.

Thus by the time of Clement XI’s election in 1700, the power of the Papacy had endured a century of decline in influence. It was to be further damaged by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701—1714). This war was fought over the succession to the Spanish throne upon the death of King Charles II. Louis XIV of France promoted his grandson, Philip of Anjou as the new king, since Charles II died without issue.

Louis’ action brought the two great regal families in Europe, the Bourbons in France and the Habsburgs in Austria, into fierce conflict. Charles II was a Habsburg and his replacement by a Bourbon was seen to be a crucial alteration in the balance of power in Europe. Philip of Anjou ruled Spain as Philip V. The Austrians, supported by their allies, promoted the Habsburg son of Emperor Leopold I, Archduke Charles, as the suitable successor to the Spanish throne.

Pope Clement XI was placed in an unenviable position with the two most powerful monarchs of Europe, Louis XIV and Leopold I locked in deadly conflict. While Clement’s inclinations were toward France, he capitulated to Austria’s candidate when the Austrians conquered the Papal States and entered Naples, the kingdom of which had been linked to Spain.

The Pope’s about-turn led Philip V to act against the Vatican, breaking diplomatic relations and expelling the papal nuncio from Madrid. The Papacy now had the worst of both parties to the dispute—the ire of France and Spain on the one hand and decidedly frosty relations with Austria on the other, for despite the pope’s unwilling recognition of Archduke Charles as the rightful claimant to the throne of Spain, the Austrians were well aware of Clement’s real sentiments. To be out of favor with the major political players in Europe inevitably weakened Papal influence. Worse still, both monarchs were Roman Catholics.

Austria was joined by England and Holland. These nations feared an extension of Louis XIV’s influence. Further support came from Denmark, Portugal and some German States. Bavaria and Cologne united their forces with France. This conflict saw the rise of John Churchill (later created Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill) to military fame, especially after his troops routed the French and Bavarians at Blenheim.

Depleted in influence in Europe and ignored in the peace negotiations of Utrecht in 1713 and Rastatt in 1714, the Papacy had been effectively sidelined on the continent of its origin and lost territory including Comacchio. Clement also managed to compromise his missionary outreach in Asia by condemning the rites of the Chinese Church and the Malabar rites in India in 1704. This led to persecution of Roman Catholics in China and seriously interrupted their evangelistic endeavors.

Innocent XIII (1721—1724) and Benedict XIII (1724—1730) further depleted Papal prestige. Schismatics known as Jansenists succeeded in having one of their own choosing elected Archbishop of Utrecht without Papal approval.

But the greatest faux pas was Benedict’s promotion of the feast of Gregory VII, the renowned Hildebrand, who in the eleventh century had postulated the concept that all rulers were subject to Papal dictates and held their posts by Papal pleasure and could equally be dismissed if it pleased Rome.

The Roman Catholic Potentates of Europe of the eighteenth century were of an entirely different mind. Pope Paul V’s canonization of Gregory VII in the early part of the seventeenth century availed nothing in the minds of these rulers. They saw Pope Benedict’s promotion of the feast of Gregory VII as a subtle effort to reassert Papal authority over emperors, kings and princes once more. This they would not tolerate. The mood of the era was not akin to that which pertained seven centuries earlier.

There were stern protests from France, Venice and Naples. The Netherlands prohibited priests from reciting the office of St. Gregory. Ineffectually the Pope declared all the contrary decrees of secular governments to be null and void. This was to be the final failed attempt by Rome to assert its ancient authority, as with gathering speed it moved toward its crucial meeting with prophecy before the century was completed.

The appointment of Clement XII (1730—1740) at the age of 78, a man troubled by gout and soon to be blind, symbolized the realization in Rome that their fortunes were in decline. On every side this ailing pontiff saw, if that is the correct word for a blind man, trouble. The Papacy was once more squeezed between the bitter rivalries of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons in its own fiefdoms of Parma and Piacenza when the Duke died without successor. Insulting the pope, these two nations chose Protestant England to mediate their dispute.

Even worse, rebellion welled up within the church. The French-inspired concept of Gallicanism spread to Spain and was promoted by Bishop Gaspar Molina of Málaga, thus excluding Rome from influence in Spanish church appointments.

Both Sardinia and Naples caused no little concern to the Pope. Cryptically Brusher summarized the plight of the eighteenth century Papacy:

In dealing with the Great Powers, Clement suffered the same humiliations as most eighteenth-century popes. (Popes Through the Ages, p. 492)

Benedict XIV (1740—1758) is reported to have stated at the conclave that elected him,

If you want a saint take Gotti; if you want a statesman, take Aldovrandi; if you want a good fellow, take me.

Apparently the cardinals wanted neither a saint nor a statesman. They needed both.

This was the age of nationalism, and atheism was preparing to sweep through Roman Catholic Europe. Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were finding ears attuned to their attacks on Christianity. Their writings found a responsive chord in the hearts of those who saw not beyond the acts of the church to the love of Christ. The seeds of the French Revolution were sprouting, and the sixth head of the first beast of Revelation 17 was soon to reach its prophesied preeminence.

Incredibly, Benedict XIV accepted Voltaire’s dedication of his drama, Mohomet, to him and bestowed two gold medals upon the infidel. This did nothing to deter Voltaire from his strident attacks on the Christian faith. Benedict promoted Domenico Passionei to the rank of cardinal even though his ultimate ambition was to destroy the Jesuits. While many claim Benedict did not plot against the Jesuits, nevertheless he appointed Cardinal Francisco de Saldarvha to make reports on the Portuguese Jesuits. These were, each one, strange Papal acts.


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