Friday, October 12, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV

Pope Clement XIV has not fared well in many histories, indeed not in many specifically Catholic histories. Regardless of all else he will probably always be most remembered as the pontiff who officially suppressed the Society of Jesus. Too many, however, are critical of the Pope without considering the situation at the time and the circumstances he found himself in. He was born Lorenzo Ganganelli on October 31, 1705 at Sant’ Arcangelo near Rimini in the Papal States into a family of fairly modest means. His father was a simple, small town doctor and young Lorenzo, after being educated by the Jesuits, grew up with a desire for humble, religious service. As a young man of 19 he became a Franciscan friar. Over the years he rose higher in the order and eventually became a close friend of Pope Benedict XIV. It was at his appointment that he studied the issue of the “blood libel” or the idea that all Jews are guilty of the crucifixion of Christ -which he found untrue. He also wrote a treatise on theology which he dedicated to St Ignatius Loyola and in the forward praised the work of the Society of Jesus; facts which should dispel any rumors that he harbored any sort of grudge against them in later years. Because of his years of faithful service he was eventually appointed cardinal-priest and was the only Franciscan in the Sacred College at that time.

Upon the death of Pope Clement XIII, Cardinal Ganganelli was elected to wear the papal crown on May 19, 1769. It was not an enviable position to be in. Virtually all the Catholic countries had finally come together to agree on something and that was that the Jesuits had to go. His predecessor had already been compelled to call a consistory on the subject but his death came before any decision was reached and so Pope Clement XIV came to the throne with the Catholic powers demanding the Society of Jesus be suppressed and expecting it to be so. This was not something that Clement XIV was eager to do, both because of his admiration for the work the Jesuits had done since their founding and also because he was reputedly afraid they might have him assassinated. Evidently the stories of Jesuit priest-assassins reached even to the Vatican, despite the glaring lack of evidence that anyone, ever, was assassinated by a Jesuit priest. No doubt such rumors spread in Catholic countries for the same reason they spread in Protestant ones: they served the purpose of those putting them out. Yet, to his credit, Clement XIV did his best to postpone, delay and obfuscate (something the Holy See has always excelled at) to the point that it was not until three years later that he finally yielded to overwhelming international pressure and published a papal bull suppressing the Society of Jesus.

In the document, titled Dominus ac Redemptor noster, which dissolved the order on August 16, 1773 Clement XIV justified his decision by saying that the Jesuits were no longer capable of carrying out the mission for which it was founded. Although often dismissed as patently false, given the intransigent opposition of all the Catholic powers to the Jesuits, there probably was some truth to this. The Jesuits were banned from most Protestant countries and had recently been expelled from almost every Catholic country as well and in such circumstances it would be difficult indeed for any religious order to carry on as usual. The more widely accepted justification, however, was that the suppression of the order was necessary, “to restore a true and lasting peace to the Church”. The Pope did not say that the Jesuits were themselves responsible for disrupting the peace of the Church but there could be no doubt that their existence was causing a problem simply because the great powers refused to cooperate with the Church until the society was dissolved. Pope Clement XIV was doubtlessly also nervous about what had been said when his predecessor first, reluctantly, took up the issue. The Bourbon and Hapsburg blocs had began to talk about using the occasion of demanding the suppression of the Jesuits to annex Papal territories in France and Italy for themselves.

Pope Clement XIV was also a very upright and moral man, a pontiff who furthered righteous causes and a patron of the arts (he famously knighted a young Wolfgang Mozart) but he had the misfortune to reign at a time when, aside from the Protestant and Islamic nations, the entire Catholic world had set itself in opposition to the papacy. Even “most faithful” Portugal had broken off diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the Bourbon kingdoms were threatening to do the same and Austria was unwilling to help, but perfectly willing to participate in any partition of papal territory. The reign of Clement XIV highlights how far the political power of the papacy had fallen since the High Middle Ages. With the outbreak of the French Revolution just around the corner, things were not going to improve in the immediate future. The popes had become accustomed to playing the game of power politics and counted on their spiritual position enabling them to ‘punch above their weight’. However, with the Jesuit issue, for once the papacy found none of the Catholic powers willing to support the Pope on a particular issue. That by itself must have been a terribly frightening prospect for Clement XIV.

The question must have weighed on his mind of what other issue such pressure might be brought to bear against him on? Originally there had also been efforts to make the Jesuits more acceptable to the various national governments but the Jesuit leadership had always rejected any change, their general famously repeating, “Let them be as they are or let them cease to be”. With Clement XIV they had ceased to be, for the time being at least, and education suffered throughout most of Europe as a result. The Church also lost an order famous for their debating and argumentative skills at a time when the philosophies of the so-called “Enlightenment” would be drastically on the rise. As it turned out, only the Protestant Kingdom of Prussia and the Orthodox Russian Empire saw the value in this corps of highly educated clerics and granted them safe haven within their borders. Their downfall had not been something Clement XIV had wished for and he undertook it only as a result of unprecedented political pressure; something which should be kept in mind before judging him too harshly. Pope Clement XIV, after a short, tense and seldom happy pontificate, died on September 22, 1774 after reigning 5 years, 4 months and 3 days.

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