Friday, September 21, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope Pius VII

Pope Pius VII reigned over the Catholic Church during a particularly difficult and volatile time. This, naturally, meant that he had many difficult decisions to make and difficult situations to deal with. Nonetheless, given the unfair things many people have said about other pontiffs, Pius VII remains widely respected and almost surprisingly so. One can only imagine what would be said of him if the counter-revolutionary forces had not prevailed in the Napoleonic Wars and the many compromises he was obliged to make had to stand. Would he then be judged as harshly and unfairly as other Bishops of Rome have been? We will never know. What we do know is that Pope Pius VII earned the respect of almost all the crowned heads of Europe by the handling of the many hardships he faced. Even Protestant states which had formerly been quite hostile toward the Catholic Church and the papacy in particular were won over by this aristocratic monk and theologian from the Romagna. Few men ever came to the papal throne under worse conditions only to leave it in such a state of security, renewed strength and political independence.

The man who would be Pius VII was born Barnaba Niccolo Maria Luigi Chiaramonti on August 14, 1742 in Cesena to Count Scipione Chiaramonti and his wife Giovanna, daughter of the Marquis Ghini. As such, he came from an aristocratic family but one that was certainly not the most wealthy in the land and so he grew up knowing both the feeling of a proud heritage along with the necessity of hard work and determination; a background that would serve any future leader quite well. In 1756 he joined the Benedictine Order and took the name Gregory, eventually becoming a teacher in Parma and later in Rome. He was ordained priest on September 21, 1765 and his career developed quickly for the better following the election of Giovanni Angelo Cardinal Braschi as Pope Pius VI as Chiaramonti was related to the Braschi family through his mother. In 1782 he was appointed Bishop of Tivoli and in 1785 was made Bishop of Imola and given the red hat of a Cardinal-Priest of the Basilica of St Callistus.

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.

However, the Princes of the Church (predominately Italian of course) were not very impressed with the spread of veto power. They were less impressed that it should be done at such a time when the Church was clearly on hard times and they were also cognizant of the fact that the famous city of Venice, where they were meeting, was then under the rule of the Emperor of Austria only because it had been handed over to them by a rising star in the French republican army named Napoleon Bonaparte. So, the situation emerged that the first two choices were vetoed by the Hapsburg faction but most of the other cardinals refused to vote for the candidate favored by Austria. A compromise candidate was needed and the choice fell on Cardinal Chiaramonti who was finally elected unanimously. On March 14, 1800 it was announced that Cardinal Chiaramonti was the new Pope, taking the name of his persecuted predecessor as Pius VII. Because of his earlier speaking on reconciliation with the forces of the revolution he was not welcomed by those in the Sacred College who favored a hard line against revolutionary republicanism but he seemed the only possible choice and the choice was made. The Hapsburg Emperor was less than thrilled as well and showed his displeasure by forbidding the papal coronation to be held in the grand Basilica of St Mark. Instead, the new pontiff was crowned at the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on March 21, 1800. Pius VII had to be crowned with a Triple Tiara made of papier-mâché as the real one had been taken by the French in their seizure of Rome

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.

The concordat was signed, to the surprise of many across Europe, with the Catholic Church being recognized as the religion of France but giving Napoleon final say on the publication of papal documents and certain other privileges. Napoleon later made other revisions to the concordat and used the status of the Church in France to induce the signing of a concordat with the French-sponsored Italian republic which gave the government far-reaching powers over the Church. As usual with such agreements, at the time, few seemed pleased with the result. The radical revolutionaries screamed about any official recognition being given to the Catholic Church while conservatives shouted just as loud about the Pope giving up too much to the regime of a usurper. However, Napoleon had been astonishingly successful in his career thus far and seemed to be determined to be a permanent fixture on the European scene and the Pope would not ignore him. In 1804, after some cajoling, the Pope even agreed to go to Paris to preside over Napoleon crowning himself “Emperor of the French”. Pius VII did not perform the actual coronation but gave Napoleon his blessing and recited the traditional Roman phrase, “Vivat imperator in aeternum!” (“May the Emperor live forever!”). However, after the coronation, Pius VII was repeatedly refused permission to leave and ended up staying in France all winter.

Obviously, if Pius VII had thought such gestures on his part would be reciprocated he was sorely mistaken and conflicts continued between France and the Papacy. As Napoleon was successful across the continent, the lack of concessions from Rome seemed all the more outrageous to him and when Pius VII refused to close the main papal port to British shipping, Napoleon seized the opportunity and marched on Rome, annexing the Papal States to the French Empire in 1809. The Pope responded by formally excommunicating the French Emperor who himself then responded by taking Pius VII prisoner, holding him in Savona. In 1812 he was transferred to Fontainebleau and remained there until Napoleon fell from power in 1814. It was during this time of political impotence that the reputation of Pius VII soared the highest as across Europe people marveled at his staunch refusal to give in to French demands despite the perilous condition he was placed in. In fact, he revoked the previous concessions he had made. When the Pontiff at last returned to Rome he was met with a thunderous welcome with one observer noting that even “Protestants who witnessed the scene wept scalding tears”.

The downfall of Napoleon marked a great triumph for Pius VII as the Congress of Vienna restored all of central Italy to papal control while other former sovereigns, even ones who had never allied or made peace with Napoleon, were not so fortunate. In Papal Rome, restoration was the order of the day. Pius VII restored the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, the Index of Forbidden Works and the Society of Jesus. Concordats were signed with non-Catholic powers such as Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia while Pius VII also issued condemnations of the new and growing Protestant Bible Societies and Freemasonry whose members had been the authors of so much misfortune. He also instituted the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith as a countermeasure to these movements. Finally, just to show that he was more than willing to forgive and forget, the Pope sent a chaplain to attend to Napoleon in his exile on St Helena and even spoke up for him after hearing about the conditions he was subjected to there. In Church matters he was staunch in upholding traditional teachings, condemned those who said that Ecumenical Councils could overrule the Pontiff and while his predecessor had been less than positive on the formation of the United States of America, Pius VII praised the new republic for the American naval campaign against the Barbary pirates of North Africa, famously saying that the Americans “had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages”.

Pope Pius VII had been elected at one of the darkest hours for the Catholic Church, a time when the previous pope had died a prisoner, Rome was in secular hands and the cardinals forced to elect a successor on what was officially “foreign” soil. Yet, by the end of his reign all that had been lost was restored and the Catholic Church had a newfound respect around the world. Even adamantly Protestant powers like Great Britain had come to recognize the Catholic Church, on the continent at least, as a force for order and stability; in other words a fairly good thing all in all. Pius VII had accomplished this by holding fast on the issues that mattered while being pragmatic enough to give ground where it was possible to do so. Thanks to the success of the Allied armies, the concessions he made only had to be temporary but the Pope was always a realistic man who recognized that he had to deal with the world as it existed rather than as he might wish it to be. In 1823 he broke his leg and this caused his health to deteriorate rapidly and Pius VII died, respected by all, on August 20, 1823 at the age of 81.


  1. Any discussion of Pius VII ultimately turns to Napoleon's relationship with him. I'll say that I consider him one of the great popes. Napoleon said that it was always a shame that politics had embroiled their cabinets, since conviction did not.

    And for the record, Pius VII may not have crowned Napoleon, but he did anoint him Emperor, not merely preside over the coronation.
    I have a lot to thank Pius VII for, as one of the agents of legitimacy.

    1. Odd as it may sound, I have wondered if Napoleon did not do the Pope a great favor in taking him prisoner. The sympathy he gained because of that is the only explanation I can find for the very critical types not finding considerable fault with Pius VII. Here was a man who had preached reconciliation with the forces of republicanism, who was opposed by the Hapsburgs at his election and yet, by making peace with Napoleon he won the support of Bonapartists while his later inprisonment by and excommunication of Napoleon won him the support of the Allies. In a way, they each helped the other without neccessarily meaning to.

    2. Part of the reasons behind taking the Pope prisoner of course was a fear of British kidnapping, so I suppose that is true in more ways than one.


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