Friday, August 17, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope Leo XII

Pope Leo XII had a relatively short reign (five years) and is often overlooked, coming between the more prominent pontiffs Pius VII and Gregory XVI (his successor Pius VIII reigning only a little over a year). He was born Annibale Sermattei della Genga near Spoleto on August 22, 1760. He came from an aristocratic background, was born and raised in the family castle and he studied in Rome at the Academy of Nobles after deciding on an ecclesiastical career. His rise in the Church hierarchy was rapid under Pius VII and he would always hold that pontiff in very high regard. He served as papal nuncio in Cologne, in Bavaria and in Paris before the conclave of 1823 to elect a successor to Pius VII. Cardinal della Genga was the favorite of neither of the primary factions. However, the candidate of the conservative faction was blocked by the threat of the Austrian veto by Prince Metternich as he opposed any outside intervention in Italian affairs. The candidate of the other faction was seen as being too much under the total control of Austria to be acceptable and so della Genga was decided upon as a compromise candidate. He was elected on September 28, 1823 at the age of 63, taking the name of Leo XII.

Pope Leo XII was seen at the time of his election as the man who would take the papacy in a more pastoral and less political direction. He saw his role as putting back what had been lost during the years of French rule and carrying on with the policies of his predecessor. As was fairly common, there were unkind rumors spread about him at the time of his election, and many of his actions to restore everything as it had been before the revolution led to some unpopularity. He had gates shut around the public houses and “adventurers” could drink wine there but had to stand out in the street and have it poured through the gates. He enlarged the ghettos and re-confined the Jews of Rome to them, which did some damage to the economy, and he stopped the vaccination of Roman children for smallpox which was quite unpopular (he viewed smallpox as the judgment of God and vaccinations as an affront to Heaven). Surveillance was greatly increased throughout the Papal States and the long arm of papal law was swift and heavy. Many people who were members of or affiliated with the Carbonari were sent to the guillotine and a man found guilty of murdering a priest was executed with an axe -the last such execution in the Papal States, the guillotine being used exclusively until the end of temporal papal power under Pius IX. Fines were also common for secular or moral minor crimes and the eyes of Leo XII seemed to be everywhere.

Because of all of this, and the fact that Leo XII was rarely seen, being in poor health from the time of his election, caused the Pope to become quite unpopular amongst his own subjects. However, his action in religious matters were perfectly admirable. He encouraged the strengthening of the Society of Jesus and restored their educational system to them and he reiterated the condemnations of his predecessor against Freemasonry, tolerance and the idea that religious differences should be considered of little importance. He declared 1825 a Holy Year which shut down many businesses in Rome but attracted a large number of pilgrims. There were though some problems when it came to dealing with members of the Carbonari or other revolutionary organizations who came as pilgrims to Rome. When it came to religious affairs, there is no doubt that Leo XII took a very conservative and traditional stance. In terms of his own domestic rule he was downright reactionary but, it is important to note, this did not extent to his foreign policy. In this area he depended a great deal on the talents of Cardinal Consalvi whose opinions on religious matters he consistently ignored. Yet, when it came to dealing with other powers Pope Leo XII had a very practical and realistic approach.

He maintained friendly relations with Protestant as well as Catholic countries but was also very supportive of any effort to end anti-Catholic discrimination in Protestant lands such as Great Britain where he strongly backed the Catholic emancipation movement. However, his time seemed to pass quickly and his health had always been frail. He had received the last rites for the first time on the day of his coronation when it seemed that the long and arduous ceremonies had been too much for him. His end finally came on February 10, 1829 and, truthfully, he was not very greatly mourned by most of his Roman subjects. However, Pope Leo XII had always tried to do the right thing. Putting things back to the way they used to be was seen as an absolute good, even if that meant doing away with things most people generally considered beneficial. He was accused of being tyrannical but often this was only because he refused to tolerate what he regarded as evil, specifically those who spread political views that would ultimately undermine the foundations of the Papal States. Had his health been better he may have been able to accomplish more of his noble goal to see a religious revival across Europe, the abandonment of materialistic doctrines and a return to faith and obedience to God.


  1. You talk about capital punishment for the Carbonari as if it were a bad thing.

  2. Am I the only one who thinks that picture at the top makes it look like the artist who did the image said something monumentally stupid?


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