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Chapter 30

28 September 1823 — 10 February 1829


The Papacy continued to struggle between its perceived religious and political aims. During the Dark Ages in Europe this dichotomy of ambitions was almost merged as the holders of the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church experienced all too little opposition to their secular greed and lust for political power.

Indeed, many Popes thought little upon the subject of the spiritual realm, directing their energies rather to fulfilling their perceived right to dominate the nations of Europe whose kings, princes, dukes, electors and other rulers were subject to the Bishop of Rome. In this the Holy Roman Empire served as a suitable vehicle for Rome’s machinations.

In 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, Emperor of the Romans at the age of fifty-eight. He had ruled the Franks for the previous thirty-two years. Whether this contributed to Pope Leo’s subsequent canonization is a matter for speculation. Leo owed much to Charlemagne, who had stood as Leo’s protector when opponents physically attacked him, attempting to blind him and tear out his tongue.

Two days after Christmas, 800, Pope Leo, in placing the crown upon his benefactor’s head, declared, "To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, to our great and peace-loving emperor, life and victory!" With these words the Western Roman Empire, which had been destroyed in the fifth century, was in a manner restored, and was to last for six years beyond a millennium until, during the Napoleonic Wars Emperor Francis II, an Austrian, terminated the empire after Bavaria, Baden and Wurtemburg had unilaterally seceded from it in 1806.

The Holy Roman Empire, which ruled a loose alliance of small states throughout western and central Europe, had been a convenient vehicle for the enforcement of Papal aims. The concentration of power in the hands of a single emperor permitted the Papacy to deal with but one individual in its zest to control the political destiny of Europe.

On the other hand, should the emperors thwart the Pope’s plans, most were quickly brought to heel by Vatican threats to support one of the other rulers within the Empire to replace him. This umbrella organization of small kingdoms, princedoms, duchies and electorates perfectly suited the wishes of pontiffs whose lives testified to a paucity of religious interest.

But the usefulness of the empire to the Papacy was seriously undermined by the Reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The threat of Protestantism to Rome concentrated the minds of Popes on spiritual matters and the eighteen-year-long Council of Trent (1546—1564), in which the Counter-Reformation was designed, focused on such weighty matters as the place of Scripture in the Roman Catholic Church and the need to deflect the Protestant identification of the Roman Catholic Church as the antichrist.

Strange as it may seem, as we have previously documented, it had been Roman Catholic prelates who had first applied the appellation "antichrist" to popes. In the fourteenth century when two popes, Urban VI and Clement VII, claimed the See of Rome, the English reforming Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Wycliffe, had declared—

The fiend no longer reigns in one, but in two priests that men may more easily overcome them both in Christ’s name. Now is antichrist divided, and one part fights against the other. (Emma H. Adams, John Wycliffe, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Oakland, 1890)

Since Urban and Clement had each excommunicated the other and identified his contender as the antichrist, Wycliffe felt compelled to agree with each of them in their assessments. A similar situation occurred in the fifteenth century when three men claimed the designation of pope: John XXIII, Benedict XIII and Gregory XII. None was the least reticent to declare the other two to be the antichrist.

However, the budding Reformation ignited by Wycliffe had led to the rise of clergy in high places who placed religion before politics, although this thinking was not always dominant in Rome. They met in 1432 at Basle, Switzerland. These earnest men set forth their platform of reform:

From now on, all ecclesiastical appointments shall be made according to the canons of the Church; all simony [payment of money for offices in the church] shall cease. From now on, all priests whether of the highest or lowest rank, shall put away their concubines, and whoever within two months of this decree neglects its demands shall be deprived of his office, though he be the Bishop of Rome. From now on, the ecclesiastical administration of each country shall cease to depend on papal caprice. . . . The abuse of ban and anathema by the popes shall cease. . . . From now on, the Roman Curia, that is, the popes shall neither demand nor receive any fees for ecclesiastical offices. From now on, a pope should think not of this world’s treasures but only of those of the world to come. (Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, p. 138)

Commenting upon this edict of the Council of Basle, this author stated,

This was strong meat. Too strong. The ruling pope, Eugene IV, summoned his own Council at Florence. Basle he labelled "a beggarly mob, mere vulgar fellows from the lowest dregs of the clergy, apostates, blaspheming rebels, men guilty of sacrilege, gaolbirds, men who without exception deserve only to be hunted back to the devil whence they came."

The papacy had squandered its chances; there were to be no more. The same century that saw Eugene IV censuring the best efforts of Basle at reform was to end with the pope who, above all, had come from the devil: Alexander Borgia [Pope Alexander VI]. (Ibid.)

The Council of Basle did advantage one man, Alfonso de Borgia. He had refused to attend the Council which the pope described as "schismatic," as an envoy of the king of Aragon in Spain. Pope Eugene IV rewarded him, creating him a cardinal. He was later elected Pope and took the name Calixtus III. Borgia’s nephew Rodrigo Borgia Lançol was elected pope in 1492 even though such a Roman Catholic apologist and Jesuit as Joseph S. Brusher, Professor of History at the University of Santa Clara, described him as prospering from the nepotism of his uncle, Calixtus III who created him a cardinal at the age of twenty-five. From then on "Rodrigo reached eagerly for the ecclesiastical plums his uncle shook down to him. His eagerness did not extend to ecclesiastical morals. Though rebuked by Pius II, young Rodrigo continued to live evilly" (Popes Through the Ages, p. 424). He ruled as Pope Alexander VI. His coffin may be seen in the Cathedral of St. Mary Major in Rome. This was the Alexander Borgia to whom de Rosa referred.

Despite Papal resistance to confinement of the Vatican to the spiritual arena, the movement toward this end gathered pace in the early part of the nineteenth century, fueled by the abject political weakness of the Roman Catholic Church. Perceptive priests and prelates saw that if the deadly wound was to be healed, the church would more likely achieve this recovery if seen in a positive, sanctified light rather than as a conniving, political spoiler and manipulator.

It was in this atmosphere that the College of Cardinals met in 1823 to elect Pius VII’s successor. Dominant in the College were those who formed part of the Zelanti movement, a groundswell of clergy desiring a pope whose attention was directed to the moral and spiritual agendas of the church. Once again the mind of the conclave was far from harmony, but eventually on September 28, 1823, Annibale Sermattei della Genga received the mandated two-thirds plus one votes of the assembled cardinals.

For one promoted by the Zelanti it was surprising that from his earliest days in the priesthood Leo XII had been trained in the politics of the church and possessed scant experience in the pastoral side of his calling.

He was born near Spoleto on August 22, 1760. He studied in Osimo and Rome. Pius VI took a liking to the young priest and appointed him at age twenty-three as his private secretary. A year later this Vatican high flyer was appointed ambassador to Lucerne. By the age of thirty-three he was Titular Archbishop of Tyre and from 1794—1805 papal nuncio to Cologne and Bavaria. He was chosen for many diplomatic missions and in 1814 was appointed to the sensitive nunciate of Paris.

It was in Paris that his hitherto unblemished record in diplomacy was sullied. Blaming della Genga for the failure of the Papacy to regain sovereignty over Avignon in France at the Congress of Vienna, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi, dismissed him from office.

This setback was of short duration, for Pius VII elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 1816 and gave him the See of Sinigaglia. Two years later he became Bishop of Spoleto.

As a young priest of thirty he had been given the unenviable duty of preaching the funeral oration for Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire. This assignment required tact of a high order. There had to be a delicate balance, upholding the ecclesiastical rights of the Roman Catholic Church without insulting or offending the Habsburg dynasty. Contemporary reports indicate that he achieved this aim with aplomb.

At the conclave of 1823 pressure was placed on the cardinals by interested European powers led by Austria to elect Cardinal Castiglioni, but the cardinals favored Cardinal Severoli. However, Austria, no doubt upon the insistence of the dominant Austrian statesman, Prince Klemens Wenzel Napomak Lother von Metternich, vetoed Severoli. Miffed, yet unwilling to defy the Austrian veto, the cardinals did not acquiesce to the Austrian favorite, rather voting della Genga into office.

During his pontificate of about five and one-half years, Leo XII did not please many people. Following the Zelanti line he pursued a conservative course, although when this brought him troubles with the nations of Europe he wisely counseled with the man who had dismissed him from his post in Paris only eight years prior to his election, Cardinal Consalvi.

However he did not pursue Consalvi’s policy to liberalize the administration of the Papal States. He reintroduced authoritarianism to the beleaguered 3,500,000 citizens of the territory, which resulted in a nonviolent uprising especially of the middle class against "government by priests." The only benefit Leo brought to the Papal States was to reduce expenditure which permitted him to bring a little tax relief.

Gaunt in appearance, Leo XII, had asked the question of the College of Cardinals, "Will you elect a skeleton?" But his physical appearance was no test of his vigor and determination.

Despite the Zelanti reservations concerning a political pope, he defied the will of King Ferdinand VII of Spain in announcing on May 24, 1827 that he intended to appoint bishops in the newly liberated nations of Latin America. Ferdinand, disregarding his loss of sovereignty over these nations, still believed it was his prerogative to make such appointments.

Here we see the long arm of Rome stretching across the Atlantic to place its authority on the Roman Catholic church in the New World. The nations of South America were easy vehicles for this extension of authority. They yielded, for they judged Leo XII’s action to be implicit Vatican approval of their revolutions against Spanish rule.

Here was a move which as the decades were to progress would have a profound bearing upon the prophecy of Revelation 13. Papal control was to extend north of the borders of Latin America into English-speaking America as a less-than-holy alliance was created in the 1980s. Here was the foretaste of the fulfillment of divine prophecy which almost 1,900 years previously had stated that the second beast of Revelation—the United States—would encourage "them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live." (Revelation 13:14)

It is unlikely that Leo possessed the prescience to evaluate the full measure of his sortie into the ecclesiastical affairs of Latin America, but that in no manner minimizes the significance of this move made at the most opportune time. As speed of transport and communications dominated the last fifty years of the twentieth century, the world for the first time was designed to fulfill the prophecy, "And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the first beast of Revelation 13]." (Revelation 13:8) In an era of relatively slow travel and communications, which could move no more rapidly than the speeds of horse and sail, Leo had struck a blow for worldwide Papal influence, and a telling one it proved to be.

In evaluating his pontificate we must also record the fact that Leo, by reverting to heartless domestic policies in the Papal States had provided sufficient cause for the citizens to welcome Giuseppe Garibaldi’s armies of "liberation" several decades later, leading to the Vatican’s loss of all temporal territories for fifty-nine years. In his work, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, J. N. D. Kelly commented,

The modern states which Consalvi had been tentatively fostering reverted to a police region infested with spies and intent on stamping out, with penalties ranging from petty clerical surveillance of private life to execution, any possible flicker of revolution. (p. 305)

Kelly evaluated the Papal States in Leo’s reign "The most backward in Europe."

The influence of the Zelanti was seen when in 1825 Leo enforced "the Index and the Holy Office [of the Inquisition], favouring Jesuits." (Ibid.) He had the mentality of the Middle Ages but his reign was not set in an appropriate social climate to act as a Medieval Pope. He was a pontiff out of his time.

It must not be forgotten that the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos had seen that the first beast of Revelation 13, which received a mortal wound, would not only be healed, but that all the world would wonder after the beast. Professor James Strong, Professor of Exegetical Theology at Drew Theological Seminary and the author of the exhaustive Bible concordance that bears his name, stated that the Greek word thaumastos from which the word "wondered" was translated had the meaning of "admired." Upon Leo’s death the Roman Catholic church was a great distance from fulfilling that divine prediction, but fulfill it, it would. Indeed admiration was to become adulation by the turn of the twenty-first century.


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