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Chapter 29

Pius VII
14 March 1800 ó 20 August 1823

 

The Papacy was extinct: not a vestige of its existence remained and among all the Roman Catholic powers not a finger was stirred in its defense. The Eternal City had no longer prince or pontiff; its bishop was a dying captive in foreign lands, and the decree was already announced that no successor would be allowed in his place. (George Trevor, Rome: From the Fall of the Western Empire, London: The Religious Tract Society, 1868, page 440)

The deadly wound had most certainly been inflicted upon the Papacy. The last public execution for opposition to the Roman Catholic faith ("heresy," as the church termed it), had taken place in the Spanish city of Seville in 1776. It is little wonder that the Jesuit historian Joseph Rickaby, concluded tható

half Europe thought . . . that [along] with the Pope the Papacy was dead. (Joseph Rickaby, The Modern Papacy, in Lectures on the History of Religions, Vol. 3, Lecture 24, London: Catholic Truth Society, 1910, page 1)

Trevorís claim that no Roman Catholic nation of Europe lifted a finger in defense of the Pope was amply illustrated in that the Prime Minister of Spain in 1798, Don Manuel de Godoy, in his memoirs made no mention whatsoever of the plight of the Pope. (Manuel de Godoy, Principe de La PazóMemoirs of Don Manuel de Godoy, Prince of the Peace, 2 vols., London: Richard Bentley, 1836)

Yet the prophetic utterance made 1700 years earlier had declared with unquestionable authority that the deadly wound would be healed (Revelation 13:3). Godís word is certain. It is sure, for One whose omniscience sees the future with equal clarity to the past and present is its Author.

Step by step through fourteen pontificates we will trace that healing. A mere 197 days (there was no leap year in 1800) were to pass after the death of Pius VI before the initial evidence of this healing could be detected, at least under microscopic examination.

Despite the prohibition of the French Government preventing the election of a successor to Pius VI, a new Pope, Pius VII was elected on March 14, 1800. Even the will and the might of Napoleon Bonaparte was of no avail in withstanding the divine prediction.

Reverses of the French army led Napoleon to temporarily weaken his hold on Italy. Taking advantage of this respite and the assurance of Austrian protection, the cardinals met in Venice to elect a new Pontiff. Those who had "sneered that Pius VI would be Pius the Last" (Joseph S. Brusher S.J., Popes Through the Ages, D. van Nostrand Co., Inc, New Jersey, 1959, p. 502) were proven wrong.

Later historians clearly traced the violation of the French demand that no further Popes be elected and that power would slowly be restored to the Papacy. Arthur Pennington recorded,

Many of the men in those days [of 1798] imagined that the dominion of the Pope had come to an end, and that the knell of the temporal power was then sounding among the nations. This supposition, however, proved to be erroneous. The French republicans were very anxious that Rome should not have another Pope. But as the reverses of the revolutionary armies had left Southern Italy to its ancient masters, the cardinals were able to proceed to an election at Venice. They elected, on March 14th, 1800, Barnabas Chiaromonti, who assumed the name of Pius VII.

The first transaction of this Pope was a negotiation with the government of France, of which Napoleon Buonaparte, was the First Consul. . . .

He [Napoleon] felt that, as the large majority of the inhabitants of France knew no other form of faith than Romanism, it must become the established religion of the country. Accordingly we find that he now began negotiations with the Pope, which issued in a Concordat in July, 1801, whereby the Roman Catholic religion was once more established in France. He also left Pius in possession of his Italian principality. (Arthur Robert Pennington, Epochs of the Papacy, George Bell and Sons, London, 1881, pp. 450ó452)

A second historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay of Rothley, included Rankeís History of the Popes in his 1840 Critical and Historic Essays. It stated,

The tricoloured flag floated on the top of the Castle of St. Angelo. The successor of St. Peter was carried away captive by the unbelievers. He died a prisoner in their hands; and even the honours of sepulture were long withheld from his remains.

It is not strange that, in the year 1799, even sagacious observers should have thought that, at length the hour of the Church of Rome was come. An infidel power ascendant, the Pope dying in captivity, the most illustrious prelates of France living in a foreign country on Protestant alms, the noblest edifices which the munificence of former ages had consecrated to the worship of God turned into temples of Victory, or into banqueting-houses for political societies, or into Theophilanthropic chapels, such signs might well be supposed to indicate the approaching end of that long domination.

But the end was not yet. Again doomed to death, the milk white hind was still fated not to die. Even before the funeral rites had been performed over the ashes of Pius the Sixth, a great reaction had commenced, which after the lapse of more than forty years, appears to be still in progress [in 1840]. (Republished by Longmans in 1865. In Volume 2, pages 147, 148.)

The members of the conclave wrestled long with the appointment. Only a man of the highest quality could be trusted to lead the church in this time of dire emergency. The choice eventually fell to a man of noble birth, Cardinal Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonti. He was a scholar who had studied theology in both Padua and Rome and was appointed as Professor at Theology at Parma (1766ó1775) and Rome (1775ó1781). Born in Cesena, August 14, 1740, he was 59 at the time of his appointment.

In 1782 Pope Pius VI had transferred him from the academic arena to church administration, appointing him Bishop of Tivoli. In 1785 he had been created a cardinal and elevated to the See of Inola.

When one is at the foot of a lofty and rugged mountain the first steps are daunting. The Papacy was at its nadir. Initially Pius VII took bold steps. Incredibly, in the second year of his reign he sought to make a settlement with the Papacyís erstwhile enemy, France. His ploy was initially successful and in 1801 a concordat was signed in which Catholicism was restored in atheistic France. The first post-deadly wound concordat was to show the way to Piusí successors in recovering lost prestige and influence and would lead in the twentieth century to strong Papal control over Roman Catholic adherents scattered through the various nations of the world, and further achieved the aim of exerting Roman Catholic influence on the policies of these territories.

The Papal States had been decimated by the threefold occupation by France, Austria and Naples. Pius VII was successful in his request that Austria and Naples evacuate the Papal territories they had occupied. However his request to France to do likewise fell on deaf ears.

Notwithstanding the concordat with France, Napoleon in 1802 greatly restricted Papal intervention in church affairs in France. Nevertheless he did invite Pius to attend his coronation as emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on December 2, 1804, in order to perform the coronation. Pius would have done well to heed the reservations of the members of the curia, but no doubt sensing that his act of coronation may strengthen the Vaticanís prestige and influence in a nation which had all but thrown off its Roman Catholic heritage, he reluctantly agreed to acquiesce to Napoleonís request.

Piusí presence proved to be his humiliation, for as he was about to crown the new Emperor, Napoleon rudely snatched the emblem of sovereignty from the Popeís hands and crowned himself. It was not to be the last occasion upon which Napoleon poured humiliation upon this pope. Perhaps as a sop to the pope, Napoleon deigned to send Pius a gift of the two giant exquisite porcelain candlesticks which stood eight feet tall beside the coronation throne during the ceremony. These trophies may still be viewed in the Vatican Museum today.

In 1803 Pius had surprisingly concluded a concordat with the Italian Republic which was, in all respects, a vassal state of Napoleon and was centered on the city of Milan and extended through northern Italy. The republic had been created in 1797 under the designation of the Cisalpine Republic. This concordat shocked many members of the curia as well as lay people. On May 26, 1805, Napoleon came to Milan to receive the ancient iron crown of the Lombard kings. The Lombards of northern Italy had vainly hoped that this coronation would lead to greater self rule.

The concordats did involve Pius in making alarming concessions to Napoleon. In France he had waived the right of the Roman Catholic church to be declared the State church. Even more demeaning, Pius accepted the secularization of ecclesiastical property already undertaken by the revolutionary government and called on all surviving bishops to resign their sees.

But unprincipled and detrimental to the Roman Catholic Church as these concessions may strike us at first, we notice there was a decided advantage for the Papacy in its steady and determined efforts to heal its deadly wound. A paragraph from The Encyclopaedia Britannica is worthy of our notice. Speaking of the Vaticanís demand that all French Bishops resign from their sees the paragraph provides a carefully analyzed insight:

This last concession was altogether without canonical precedents; and by inducing Pius to agree to it Napoleon struck a heavy blow at the Gallican [French] tradition [which prohibited Vatican interference in French Catholic affairs], since the pope, however well he may have been aware of the extent of his powers over bishops, had never previously dared to assert them so drastically in practice. Moreover, the fact that the concordat was signed was by itself a victory for the papacy. Whereas in the 18th century it had been either disregarded or treated as a foreign power against which the national episcopate [bishops] could be brought into play, the papacy now became an ally whose influence over the clergy of the Catholic world was acknowledged by the several governments and whose cooperation would be sought in settling the religious questions that the state had formerly tried to settle by unilateral action. (1963 edition, volume 17, p. 222)

Perhaps in no period during the past two centuries was the power of the Vatican to dictate the course of its prelates, clergy and laity, more strongly used to allay proper Roman Catholic fears and deep concerns, than during the twelve years of Nazi rule in Germany (1933ó1945).

Despite that the Concordat signed with France in 1801 seriously weakened Pius VIIís position, we must not in the least understate its significance in respect to the initial stages of the healing of the deadly wound. Hales presents a balanced evaluation:

It is important to remember how desperate was the position from which the Concordat with Napoleon saved the Catholics; it may be that it was one more ominous than any to which she had been driven throughout the centuries of her history, since the time of the persecutions under the Roman Empire. Harassed in the land of France, traditionally her "eldest daughter," it was the same story in Belgium (now [since 1793] annexed to France), in the Rhineland (also annexed), in Italy, controlled by anticlericals dependent upon France, in England and Ireland, where the movement for Catholic emancipation had been rejected by King George III, in Poland, partitioned by non-Catholic powers. Even in Austria, where "Josephism" survived, the Church was far from free, while the governments in Portugal and Spain were anti-clerical. The Concordat which Pius VII signed with Napoleon followed as it was by another in Italy, and by provisional arrangements in Germany . . . served the immediate and cited purpose of enabling the life of the Church to be lived in relative security over much of Europe.

However . . . in publishing the Concordat, in April 1802, the First Consul published alongside it, without any previous consultation with Rome, what were called the "Organic Articles," designed to regulate the administration of the Church in France. His excuse was that he was only publishing the police regulations which the Concordat had allowed him to make for the maintenance of public order, but a glance at the articles in question shows . . . that he was, in fact, concerned to subject the Church, even in matters evidently spiritual, to the control of the State. (E. E. Y. Hales, The Catholic Church in the Modern World, Hanover House, New York, 1958, pp. 60, 61)

Subsequent events during Pius VIIís pontificate were to erode seriously this power over national hierarchies, but the course had been set and no doubt employed the thoughts of his successors.

In 1809 Pius commenced a five year-period of incarceration. Napoleon was not averse to using his military power to settle disputes. His demand that the Papal States join Franceís blockade of England was the reason for Napoleonís actions. Determined to enforce that which he could not obtain by cooperation, Napoleon sent his forces to occupy Rome on February 2, 1808. On May 17, 1809, the Papal States were annexed by Napoleon.

Pius evinced sufficient courage to excommunicate his irreligious tormentor, but not enough to name him. Rather he excommunicated all "robbers of Peterís patrimony."

The emperor, although little concerned about the spiritual consequences of the Popeís action, nevertheless did not accept kindly the intended slight. On July 5, 1809, Pius was arrested and interned in Savona near Genoa. On May 12, 1812, his imprisonment was transferred to Fontainbleau just southeast of Paris. Here, ill and dispirited, Pius on January 25, 1813, signed the Concordat of Fontainbleau in which he renounced control over the Papal States and made further concessions.

With the pope imprisoned, the Papal States in effect ceded to France, despite all Piusí diligent efforts to rebuild from the Papal ashes and his selection of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, a man of secular genius, as his Secretary of State, the Papacy had returned to the apparent demise which had taken place during the reign of his predecessor. The wound again was apparently fatal.

But relief from this calamitous situation was not far away. This would have been so even if the remorseful pope had not retracted his signature to the concordat, which he did on March 24, 1813. By January, 1814, Napoleonís military reverses were so staggering that he sent Pius back to Savona and released him on March 10, 1814. Within a very short period Napoleon found himself confined to Elba. His short-lived return to France ended in defeat at the hands of the renowned British General, the Duke of Wellington on the Belgian battlefield of Waterloo. Late in that encounter Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von BlŁcher arrived with the Prussian Army in assistance, but the die was cast before the Prussian intervention.

Cardinal Consalviís political and diplomatic skills were richly rewarded by the return of the Papal States to Vatican control, much to the disquiet of many of their citizens who had found the secular French administration much to be preferred to that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps former Jesuit Professor of Ethics at Westminster Roman Catholic Seminary in England, Dr. Peter de Rosa, summed up the reason for this antipathy to Papal rule in the nineteenth century as well as any author when he stated,

By 1870 only tsarist Russia was more wickedly run than the Papal States. In them there was no freedom of thought or expression, and no elections. Books and papers were censored. Jews were locked up in ghettos. Justice was a blind and hungry lion. It was frankly a police state flying the papal flag, with spies, inquisitors, reprisals, secret police, and executions for minor offences a commonplace. A small, corrupt, lascivious, tight-knit clerical oligarchy ruled, in his Holinessís name, with a rod of iron.

The situation had only deteriorated since Lord Macaulay visited Italy in 1838. He tried then to imagine what England would be like if all Members of Parliament, ministers, judges, ambassadors, commanders-in-chief and lords of the Admiralty were bishops or priests. Worse than that, celibate bishops or priests. In order to gain promotion, the most lascivious men were obliged to become clerics and take a vow of celibacy. The result was, according to Macaulay, in his Letters, "corruption infects all the public offices. . . . The States of the Pope are, I suppose, the worst governed in the civilized world; and the imbecility of the police, the venality of public servants, the desolation of the country, force themselves on the observation of the most heedless traveller."

Thirty or so years later, the Papal States were ripe for rebellion. (Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, Corgi Books, England, 1989, p. 181)

The delegates to the Congress of Vienna which convened in 1814 and 1815 to redistribute territories in Europe at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, may have had their own reasons for returning the Papal States to Rome. It has been suggested tható

numbers of European statesmen came to think that an independent spiritual power vested in the person of the pope constituted a valuable guarantee. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, op.cit.)

If this was so, then a foundation for wound healing was tentatively established. We say "tentatively" because fifty-five years later the Papal States were wrested from Rome by the army of Garibaldi.

Pius VIIís last nine years on the Papal throne, while strongly lauded by most Roman Catholic historians, did not recommend the Pope to perceptive Protestants. On August 7, 1814, he restored the Jesuits throughout the world. Their impact was soon seen in the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church of the 1820s and 1830s. This movement led to many Anglicans accepting the Roman Catholic view of prophecy as set forth by the Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Ribera, in his published work of 1590. Ribera, in denying the Papacy to be the antichrist, proposed that he was an evil individual who would come in the future. The wholesale acceptance of this unscriptural thesis was to lead millions of Protestants in the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century to deny the plain Biblical identity of the antichrist and thus pave the way for the final healing of the deadly wound.

Pius also reestablished the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in 1817, a congregation which was worthy of the final portion of its title.

A common source of ecclesiastical ire in the first pontificates after the revival of the Papacy was the spread of Scriptures, especially by the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804. Pius VII led the way by condemning Protestant Bible Societies in 1816. Undoubtedly his concerns were justified, for nothing is so inimical to Roman Catholic dogma as the Word of God. If Rome was to gain the ascendancy once more, if its mortal wound was to be healed, it had to find a means of defusing the explosive impact of Scripture so detrimental to its aims, doctrines and practices. The Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, based upon the Latin Vulgate, was rightly eschewed by Protestants.

But in the 1870s Rome was to find faithful allies in the persons of two Anglican priests, Professor Hort and Bishop Westcott who together deviated the British Bible from the accurate Textus Receptus Greek to that of the Roman Catholic Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. The great majority of modern translations such as the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible are based on these corrupted Greek manuscripts (Russell and Colin Standish, Modern Bible Translations Unmasked, Hartland Publications, Rapidan, Virginia, 1993). Thus when Rome could no longer ban the Bible it discovered a more subtle means of achieving its aim.

On balance, despite his midterm disasters, Pius VII did achieve some success in presiding over the early healing of the deadly wound. When he died in 1823 the source of the infliction of the deadly wound had been eradicated from Europe, and Napoleon, although twenty-seven years his junior, had predeceased him by two years. But the spirit of atheism was growing in reaction to Papal dogma and injustices.

Pius however had engineered restored sovereignty over the Papal States in Italy, although denied Avignon in France; he had demonstrated, in a limited manner, the usefulness of concordats, which he made even with non-Catholic states such as Prussia and Russia. This played a limited role in pursuing Papal aims and had made a not inconsiderable step in centralizing Vatican control over the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. From the pit of Papal decline, and despite years in prison, these were not inconsequential achievements.

 


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