Monday, June 4, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope Pius VIII

One of the lesser known pontiffs, Pope Pius VIII was born Francesco Saverio Castiglione on November 20, 1761 at Cingoli in the Marches, part of the Papal States. He came from an aristocratic family and joined the Church and was first ordained on December 17, 1785. This was during the reign of Pius VI when there were growing tensions between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over the independence of the Church and not long before this was eclipsed by the even greater horror of the French Revolution. As an aristocratic cleric he had seen the very worst of the Revolutionary upheaval and had the strongest revulsion against it. In 1800 he became Bishop of Montalto but was removed to France after refusing to swear allegiance to Napoleon as Emperor. From that time on he would spend the rest of his life determined to defend the Christian world, or at least the Catholic Church, from this revolutionary threat that, despite the defeat of the Napoleonic armies, never really went away. While others optimistically thought that all the horrors of the French Revolution were safely packed away with Bonaparte on St Helena, Bishop Castiglione was having none of it.

As his career in the Church progressed Castiglione became a cardinal bishop, the Bishop of Frascati and a grand plenipotentiary. His career had been a fine one but seemed to be for the most part over when he was elected to the See of Peter on March 31, 1829. He was 67 years old and certainly not in robust health. In fact, he could barely get around and was in such constant pain throughout his short reign that he came off as rather cranky to most people. However, despite his infirmities he was dedicated to standing firm where it mattered most. Taking the name of Pope Pius VIII he called to mind his predecessors who had defied the forces of revolution even when it meant imprisonment and exile. As far as Pius VIII was concerned there was not a problem in the world that could not be traced to a few troublesome sources such as the Freemasons, the Italian Carbonari, Protestant missionaries (who were starting to make their presence felt in this period) and, most of all, religious indifferentism; the natural result of the skepticism that had emerged from the “Enlightenment” of the previous era.

If he could not personally destroy these threats to the Catholic Church, Pius VIII would at least do his very best to fend them off and minimize their effect. He was the Pontiff who (symbolically) stood on the battlements, flooded the moat and pulled up the drawbridge. He instituted reforms in the Papal States to try to keep revolutionaries out of his own patrimony and tried to protect Catholic youth from Protestantism by making it clear that the Church opposed “mixed marriages” and would reluctantly consent to them only if the children would be raised Catholic. Most controversially to modern ears he adamantly condemned the idea of freedom of religion. Today this sounds positively monstrous but, of course, we live in an age when most regard “truth” as something subjective and Pope Pius VIII regarded religious freedom as simply the broad and easy path to religious indifferentism. He also condemned the spreading influence of the secret societies which sought to undermine the Catholic Church and legitimate authority (monarchy).

However, Pope Pius VIII was also not a red reactionary who stuck his head in the sand. He opposed liberal tendencies in places like Ireland and Poland where Catholicism was still strong enough to withstand them, but came to the grudging accommodation on mixed marriages in Germany where it was clear that Protestantism was a fact of life that had to be dealt with and could no longer hope to be rolled back. When the July Revolution in France brought to the throne the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe who hoped to reconcile the monarchy with the fact that the French Revolution had happened and could not be undone, the Pope nonetheless allowed King Louis Philippe the traditional title of “His Most Christian Majesty” and signed a concordat between France and the Holy See. He was certainly not happy about the changes in France, but he accepted the realities that existed and tried to move forward from there. There were signs that this could work as only the year before he had been gratified to see the British government pass the Catholic Emancipation Act.

On November 30, 1830 the frail and suffering Pope Pius VIII passed away. Some suspected him of being poisoned but such a conspiracy seems difficult to believe given how long and severely ill the Pontiff had been long before his demise. There were not many great accomplishments during his reign, but for such a suffering Successor of St Peter it is remarkable enough that he was able to make such a determined defense of the Catholic Church. As one XIX Century papal biographer wrote, “Pius VIII died approved by all … because if he had done no good he had, at least, done no harm to anyone”. However, he had done good as much as he was able in standing firm on his principles and shielding his people from the dangers that surrounded on all sides.

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