Friday, September 21, 2012
Papal Profile: Pope Pius VII
When the forces of the French Revolution swept into northern Italy in 1797 they were determined to spread revolutionary republics as they went. Soon, the green-white-red tricolor first appeared on Italian soil with the creation of the Cisalpine Republic which, some may be surprised to know, Cardinal Chiaramonti called for loyal submission to. The aristocratic cardinal preached in his Christmas sermon that Christ advocated for equality and that the Catholic Church was not opposed to democracy, indeed that Christians would be the best democrats. Of course, the French did not stop there but invaded neutral Venice and the Papal States where clerical rule was overthrown and the Roman Republic declared. Pope Pius VI was effectively taken prisoner by the French and died in captivity in 1799 which a triumphant republican newspaper in Paris called, “a seal on the glory of philosophy in modern times”. Because of this, there was some doubt as to whether there would be a new pope at all. However, a conclave was finally arranged and held in Venice under the protection of the Emperor of Austria, who hoped this would ensure the election of the candidate of his choice.
By that time, it had become clear that the republics planted in Italy by France were not all taking root very well and, for a variety of reasons, the Austrian Emperor invited Pope Pius VII to reside in Vienna. Was it out of genuine concern for his safety, an effort to make up for the setting of the coronation or an effort to solidify the Austrian position in northern Italy and influence Church administration? It did not matter. Pius VII realized that, regardless of what actually happened, to go to Vienna would be to be seen as the chaplain of the Hapsburg Emperor and to lose any chance of making amends with France. He also knew that, as the Bishop of Rome, his place was the See of Rome and that is where he had to go, regardless of the danger. So, on a very austere and rickety Austrian ship the new Pope was sent to Pesaro, the rough passage taking nearly two weeks, and from there on to Rome. Once back, the French-sponsored Roman Republic had been overthrown by King Ferdinand of Naples, one his first acts was to appoint the brilliant Ercole Consalvi to the rank of cardinal and make him Secretary of State. His first duty was to negotiate a concordat with the French Republic. This would have seemed an impossible task given how virulently anti-Catholic the French Republic had been, however, Pius VII was determined that some understanding be reached and, by the time he attained the papacy, the more radical revolutionary leadership had given way to the Consulate of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, a much more pragmatic and realistic man than his predecessors.