From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



Difficult as had been the situation with which the Popes were confronted during the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, when heresy was rampant throughout Europe, and when Catholic nations were obliged to fight for their very existence, it was not a whit more difficult or more critical than that created by the increasing and selfish demands of Catholic rulers, which confronted their successors during the age of absolute government. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), by giving official sanction to the principle of state neutrality, meant nothing less than a complete revolution in the relations that had existed hitherto between Church and State. So long as the Christian world was united in one great religious family, acknowledging the Pope as the common Father of Christendom, it was not strange that in disputes between princes and subjects or between the rulers of independent states the authority of the Pope as supreme arbitrator should have been recognised, or that his interference even in temporal matters should not have been regarded as unwarrantable.

But once the religious unity of Europe was broken by the separation of entire nations from the Church, and once the politico-religious constitution of the Holy Roman Empire was destroyed by the acceptance of the principle of religious neutrality, the Popes felt that their interference even indirectly in temporal matters, however justifiable it might be in itself, could produce no good results. Hence apart from their action as temporal sovereigns of the Papal States, a position that obliged the Popes to take part in political affairs, the whole tendency was to confine themselves strictly to spiritual matters, and to preserve harmony if possible between Church and State. This policy did not, however, satisfy the selfish designs of rulers, who had determined to crush all representative institutions and to assert for themselves complete and unlimited authority. Catholic rulers, jealous of the increased powers secured by Protestant princes through the exercise of supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction, determined to assert for themselves a somewhat similar authority over the Catholic Church in their own territories. It was no longer the supposed inroads of the Church upon the domain of the State but the attacks of the State upon the rights of the Church, that were likely to disturb the good relations between Catholic princes and the Pope. These rulers demanded an overwhelming voice in all ecclesiastical appointments; they insisted upon exercising the Royal Placet upon papal documents and episcopal pronouncements; they would tolerate no longer the privileges and exemptions admitted by their predecessors in favour of clerics or of ecclesiastical property; they claimed the right of dictating to the cardinals who should be Pope and of dictating to the Pope who should be cardinals; of controlling education in their own dominions; of determining the laws and rules concerning marriages and matrimonial dispensations, and of fixing the constitutions of those religious orders the existence of which they were willing to tolerate.

Unfortunately in their designs for transferring ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the Popes to the crown the princes were favoured by many of the bishops, who were annoyed at the continual interference of Rome and who failed to realise that the king was a much greater danger to their independence than the Pope; by a large body of clerics and laymen, who looked to the civil authority for promotion; by the Jansenists who detested Rome, because Rome had barred the way against the speculative and practical religious revolution which they contemplated; by the philosophers and rationalists, many of whom, though enemies of absolute rule, did not fail to recognise that disputes between Church and State, leading necessarily to a weakening of Church authority, meant the weakening of dogmatic Christianity; and by liberal-minded Catholics of the Aufklarung school, who thought that every blow dealt at Rome meant a blow struck for the policy of modernising the discipline, government, and faith of the Church. The eighteenth century was a period of transition from the politico-religious views of the Middle Ages to those of modern times. It was a period of conflict between two ideas of the relations that should exist between Church and State. The Popes were called upon to defend not indeed their right to interfere in temporal matters, for of that there was no question, but their right to exercise control in purely spiritual affairs. It is necessary to bear this in mind if one wishes to appreciate the policy of those, upon whom was placed the terrible responsibility of governing the Church during the one hundred and fifty years that elapsed between the Peace of Westphalia and the outbreak of the French Revolution.

In the conclave that followed the death of Innocent X., Cardinal Chigi, who had been nuncio at Cologne, envoy-extraordinary of the Holy See during the negotiations that ended in the Peace of Westphalia, and afterwards Secretary of State, was elected, and took the title of Alexander VII.1 (1655-67). At first the people were rejoiced because the new Pope had shown himself so determined an opponent of that nepotism, which had dimmed the glory of so many of his predecessors, but at the request of the foreign ambassadors and with the approval of the cardinals he changed his policy after some time, brought some of his relatives to Rome, and allowed them too much influence. His election had been opposed by Cardinal Mazarin in the name of France, and throughout his reign he was doomed to suffer severely from the unfriendly and high-handed action of Louis XIV., who despatched an army to the Papal States to revenge an insult to his ambassador, the Duc de Crequi, and forced the Pope to sign the disgraceful Peace of Pisa (1664). Alexander VII. condemned the Jansenistic distinction between law and fact by the Bull, Ad Sanctam Petri Sedem (1665), to enforce which he drew up a formulary of faith to be signed by the French clergy and religious. He observed an attitude of neutrality in the disputes between Spain and Portugal, secured the return of the Jesuits to Venice, and welcomed to Rome Queen Christina of Sweden, who abandoned Lutheranism to return to the Catholic Church.

His successor, Cardinal Rospigliosi, formerly nuncio at Madrid and Secretary of State was proclaimed Pope as Clement IX. (1667-69). He was deeply religious, generous in his donations to the poor and to hospitals, and uninfluenced by any undue attachment to his relations. He put an end to the religious disorders that had reigned in Portugal since 1648, when that country seceded from Spain to which it had been united since 1580, and proclaimed the Duke of Braganza king under the title of John IV. Matters had reached such a crisis that many of the bishoprics in Portugal and the Portuguese colonies were left vacant. In 1668 after the conclusion of the Peace of Lisbon the Pope appointed those who had been nominated to the vacant Sees. Deceived by the false representations made to him from France, he restored the French bishops who had adhered publicly to the distinction between law and fact. He offered generous assistance to Venice more especially in its defence of Crete against the Turks. During his reign he canonised Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, and Peter of Alcantara.

On the death of Clement IX. the cardinals could not at first agree upon any candidate, but finally as a compromise they elected, much against his own will, Cardinal Altieri, then an old man eighty years of age.2 He was proclaimed as Clement X. (1670-76). Unable to transact much business himself he left too much in the hands of others, especially to Cardinal Paoluzzi. He encouraged and assisted the Poles in their struggles against the Turks, and resisted the demands of Louis XIV. concerning the Regalia. He canonised John Cajetan, Philip Benitius, Francis Borgia, Louis Bertrand, and Rose of Lima.

In the conclave that followed the demise of Clement X. Cardinal Odescalchi, against whom France had exercised the veto on a previous occasion, was elected and took the name of Innocent XI.3 (1676-1689). He was zealous for religion, charitable to the poor, economic and prudent in the administration of the Papal States, anxious for an improvement in clerical education, and a strong opponent of everything that savoured of nepotism. His whole reign was troubled by the insolent and overbearing demands of Louis XIV. in regard to the Regalia, the right of asylum, and the Declaration of the French Clergy (1682), but Innocent XI. maintained a firm attitude in spite of the threats of the king and the culpable weakness of the French bishops. He encouraged John Sobieski, King of Poland, to take up arms against the Turks who had laid siege to Vienna, and contributed generously to help Hungary to withstand these invaders.

After the short and by no means glorious reign of Alexander VIII. (Cardinal Ottoboni, 1689-91), the cardinals were divided into two parties, the French and the Spanish-Austrian. When the conclave had continued five months without any result they agreed finally to elect a compromise candidate (Cardinal Pignatelli) who took the name of Innocent XII. (1691-1700). In every respect he showed himself worthy of his holy office. Nepotism was condemned in the Bull Romanum Decet Pontificum, better arrangements were made for the administration of justice throughout the Papal States; the disputes with Louis XIV. regarding the Declaration of the French Clergy were settled when the bishops who signed these articles expressed their regret for their conduct (1693); and several propositions taken from the Maximes of Fenelon were condemned. The Pope was involved in a serious dispute with the Emperor Leopold I. concerning the right of asylum attached to the imperial embassy in Rome, and the aggressive policy of Martinitz, the imperial ambassador. As a result of this quarrel the Pope, without consulting Charles II. of Spain who had no heirs, favoured the pretensions of Philip Duke of Anjou (Philip V.) to the throne of Spain in preference to the Emperor’s son the Archduke Charles.

In the conclave that assembled after the death of Innocent XII. the majority of the cardinals favoured Cardinal Mariscotti, but, as his election was vetoed by France, they concentrated their votes on Cardinal Albani. For three days he refused to accept the onerous office, but at last he gave way to the earnest entreaties of the cardinals, and allowed himself to be proclaimed as Clement XI.4 (1700-21). His election was acclaimed in Rome, in Italy, and throughout the Catholic world. He was a man of great sanctity of life, devoted to prayer and labour, who set an example to others by preaching and hearing confessions regularly in St. Peter’s. While he was Pope there was no danger of nepotism at the papal court, and no prospect for unworthy or greedy officials in the Papal States. During his entire reign he was involved in disputes with the Catholic powers. The death of Charles II. of Spain led to a conflict between Louis XIV., who claimed the crown for his grandson Philip of Anjou (Philip V.), and the Emperor Leopold I., who supported the cause of his son, the Archduke, Charles III. Clement XI. endeavoured at first to maintain an attitude of neutrality, but as Philip had been crowned and had established himself apparently on the throne of Spain the Pope was obliged to acknowledge him. This action gave great offence to Leopold I. and to his successor, Joseph I., who retaliated by interfering in ecclesiastical affairs and by despatching an army against the Papal States. Clement XI., abandoned by Louis XIV. and by Philip V. was obliged to come to terms with the Emperor, and to acknowledge Charles III. as king of Spain. Immediately Louis XIV. and Philip V. were up in arms against the Pope. The nuncio was dismissed from Madrid and relations between Spain and Rome were interrupted for a long period; the papal representatives were excluded from the negotiations preceding the Peace of Utrecht (1713); and feudal territories of the Holy See were disposed of without consulting the wishes of the Pope, Sicily being handed over to Victor Amadeus of Savoy (1675-1713) with whom Clement XI. was then in serious conflict.

To put an end to difficulties with the foreign bishops, who exercised jurisdiction in portion of his territory, the Duke of Savoy had demanded full rights of nomination to episcopal Sees. When this demand was refused he recalled his ambassador from Rome (1701), and took upon himself the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. He appointed an administrator to take charge of the revenues of vacant Sees, enforced the Royal Placet on episcopal and papal documents, and forbade the publication of Roman censures (1710). A partial agreement was arrived at when the royal administrator consented to accept his appointment from the Pope, but the transference of Sicily to the Duke of Savoy led to a new and more serious quarrel. The latter attempted to revive the privileges known as the Sicilian Monarchy, accorded formerly to the ruler of Sicily. The Pope refused to recognise these claims, and as the king remained stubborn nothing was left but to place the island under interdict. To this the king replied by expelling those priests who observed the interdict. This state of affairs lasted until Sicily passed into the hands of the King of Spain (1718).

The Turks were active once more and threatened Europe by land and sea. Clement XI. sent generous supplies to Venice to equip its fleet, encouraged Stanislaus Augustus of Poland who had joined the Catholic Church, granted tithes upon ecclesiastical property to help him in the struggle, and allowed Philip V. of Spain portion of the revenues derived from the benefices in Spain and in the Spanish-American colonies, on condition that the Spanish fleet should be sent into the Mediterranean to take part in the war against Turkey. The victories of Prince Eugene (1716-18) dealt a severe blow to the power of the Sultan, but the Spanish fleet instead of assisting the Christian forces was used for the capture of Sardinia from the Emperor. As evidence of the difficult position of Clement XI. in face of the powers of Europe it is sufficient to point to the fact that at one time or another during his reign, his nuncios were driven from Vienna, Turin, Madrid, and Naples.

The conclave that followed was, as might be expected, a stormy one; but in the end Cardinal Conti, who had been nuncio in Lucerne and Lisbon, was elected and took as his title Innocent XIII. (1721-24). He granted the kingdom of Naples to the Emperor, who in turn without consulting the Pope bestowed the papal fiefs of Parma and Piacenza on Prince Charles of France. Peace was restored between the Holy See and Spain (1723), and Innocent XIII., yielding very unwillingly to the importunate demands of France, conferred a cardinal’s hat on Dubois, the prime minister.

His successor was Benedict XIII. (1724-30). Cardinal Orsini, as he was known before his election, belonged to the Dominican Order, and at the time of the conclave held the Archbishopric of Benevento. As archbishop he was most zealous in the administration of his diocese, and as Pope he followed the same strict simple life to which he had been accustomed when a Dominican friar. He made peace with the Emperor by granting him practically all the rights contained in the Sicilian Monarchy, reserving to the Holy See only the final decision of important cases (1728), and with the King of Savoy by acknowledging his title over Sardinia and by granting him the right of episcopal nomination in the island. With the demand of King John of Portugal, namely, that Portugal should enjoy the privilege of presenting candidates for appointment to the college of cardinals, Benedict XIII. refused to comply, and as a consequence the Portuguese ambassador was recalled from Rome and communications with the Holy See were interrupted. The extension of the feast of Gregory VII. (Hildebrand) to the whole Church gave great offence to many rulers both Catholic and Protestant, because such a step was interpreted as a direct challenge to the new theories of secular intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. Benedict XIII. was a saintly ruler, whose only misfortune was that he relied too much on unworthy councillors like Cardinal Coscia and Cardinal Lercari, who deceived him in their negotiations with the governments of Europe and in the administration of the Papal States. A rebellion against these men broke out in Rome when the news of the Pope’s death became public. Cardinal Coscia was deprived of his dignity and imprisoned, while many of his associates and subordinates were punished no less severely.

Cardinal Corsini who succeeded as Clement XII. (1730-1740) was faced with a very difficult situation in Rome and in the Papal States. The treasury was empty, the finances were in disorder, and the discontent was general. The Pope, though very old, delicate, and almost completely blind, showed wonderful energy and administrative ability. The financial affairs of the government were placed upon a proper footing. Instead of a deficit there was soon a surplus, which was expended in beautifying the city, in opening up the port of Ancona, and in the drainage and reclamation of the marshes. Like his predecessors, Clement XII. had much to suffer from the Catholic rulers of Europe. He was engaged in a quarrel with the King of Savoy because he tried to limit the privileges that had been conceded to this sovereign by his predecessor. Philip V. of Spain demanded that the Pope should confer a cardinal’s hat together with the Archbishoprics of Seville and Toledo on his son, then only nine years of age. The Pope endeavoured to satisfy the king by granting the temporal administration of Toledo until the boy should reach the canonical age for the reception of Orders (1735), but owing to an attack made upon the Spanish ambassador in Rome during a popular commotion the courts of Naples and Madrid dismissed the papal ambassador and broke off relations with the Holy See. Peace, however, was restored with Spain in 1737, and with Naples in the following year. Clement XII. condemned the Freemasons (1738). He canonised Vincent de Paul, John Francis Regis, and Juliana Falconieri.

The conclave that followed lasted six months before any of the candidates could secure the required majority. At last Cardinal Lambertini was elected and proclaimed under the title of Benedict XIV.5 (1740-58). In many particulars, but more especially as a scholar and a writer, he may be regarded as one of the greatest Popes of modern times. He was born in 1675, was educated at Rome and Bologna, and even as a very young man he was looked upon as a leading authority on canon law and theology. He rose steadily from position to position in Rome till at last he found himself cardinal and Archbishop of Bologna. As archbishop he was most successful in the discharge of all the duties that appertained to his office. He held diocesan synods regularly, visited the most distant parishes of his diocese, superintended the education of his clerical students for whom he drew up a new plan of studies, and above all he strove to maintain most friendly relations with both priests and people. But notwithstanding his cares of office he found time to continue his studies, and to prepare learned volumes on Canon Law, Theology, and History, that placed him amongst the leading scholars of his time.

Nor did he change his policy or his course of life after his election to the papal throne. Benedict XIV. was convinced that a better training would help to strengthen the influence of the clergy, and would enable them to combat more successfully the rising spirit of unbelief. Hence he was anxious to introduce into the colleges more modern educational methods. He founded four academies, one for Christian Archaeology, one for Canon Law, one for Church History, and one for the special study of the history of the Councils. He gave every encouragement to priests who wished to devote themselves to literary pursuits, and in his own person he showed how much could be done in this direction without any neglect of duty. His instructions and encyclicals were learned treatises, in which no aspect of the subject he handled was neglected. His decrees on marriage, especially on mixed marriages (Magnae Nobis admirationis, 1748), on Penance, and on the Oriental Rites were of vital importance. Both before and after his elevation to the papacy he published many learned works, the most important of which were the Institutiones Ecclesiasticae, De Synodo Diocesana, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum canonizatione, Thesaurus Resolutionum Sacrae Congregationis Concilii, and the Casus Conscientiae.

In his administration of the Papal States Benedict XIV. was no less successful. The enormous expenses incurred by his predecessor had depleted the papal treasury, but the schemes of retrenchment enforced by Benedict XIV. produced such good results that in a few years money was available for the development of agriculture, industries, and commerce. With the civil rulers of Europe he had a difficult part to play. Convinced that disputes between the civil and ecclesiastical authority resulted only in promoting the schemes of the enemies of religion, he was determined to go to the very limits of concession for the sake of peace and harmony. For a time at least he was able to secure a partial reconciliation, and had his overtures been met in the proper spirit a working arrangement might have been established, that would have enabled both powers to combine against the forces at work for the overthrow of Church and State.

The title of King of Prussia assumed by the Elector of Brandenburg was recognised by the Pope; peace was made with Portugal by granting to the crown rights of patronage over bishoprics and abbeys (1740), and to set the seal on this reconciliation the title of Rex Fidelissimus was bestowed on the King of Portugal. With the court of Turin the Pope had still greater difficulties, but an agreement was arrived at, whereby the king was to have the right of nomination to ecclesiastical benefices; the foreign bishops having jurisdiction in the territory of Savoy were to appoint vicars-general for the administration of these portions of their dioceses, and the administrator of vacant benefices appointed by the king was to act as the deputy of the Pope (1741). With Spain a formal concordat was concluded in 1753. The dispute in Naples regarding the Sicilian Monarchy was settled by the appointment of a mixed tribunal composed of laymen and clerics, presided over by a cleric for the settlement of ecclesiastical affairs. The Pope’s decision that only those who refused publicly to accept the papal condemnation of Jansenism were to be excluded from the sacraments helped to ease considerably the situation in France. He condemned the Freemasons (1751), and reduced the number of holidays for Spain in 1742 and for Austria, Tuscany, and Naples in 1748.

His successor Clement XIII. (1758-69) found himself in a peculiarly unhappy position. Despite the friendly policy adopted by Benedict XIV. towards the civil rulers, or, as some would say, as a result of the concessions that he made, their demands became still more exorbitant. The Rationalists, liberal Catholics, Jansenists, and Freemasons united their forces for a grand attack upon the Society of Jesus, the suppression of which they were determined to secure. Already rumblings of the storm had been heard before the death of Benedict XIV. His successor, who had the highest admiration for the Jesuits, stood manfully by the Society, and refused to yield to the threats of the Bourbon rulers thirsting for its destruction. His sudden death was attributed not without good reason to the ultimatum, demanding the immediate suppression of the Jesuits, addressed to him by the ambassadors of France, Spain, and Naples.

In the conclave the cardinals were divided into two parties, the Zelanti who stood for resistance to the demands of the civil rulers, and the moderate men who supported the policy of conciliation. The representatives of France, Spain, Portugal, and Naples, left no stone unturned to prevent the election of a Zelanti, and the veto was used with such effect that the choice of the cardinals was at last limited to only three or four. Threats were made that, if a candidate was elected against the wishes of the Bourbons, Rome might be occupied by foreign troops, and obedience might be refused to the new Pope. In the end a Franciscan friar, Cardinal Ganganelli, who was not an extreme partisan of either party among the cardinals, received the required majority of votes, and was proclaimed as Clement XIV. (1769-74). The new Pope was not unfriendly to the Jesuits, nor had he any evidence that could induce him to reverse the very favourable judgment delivered in their favour by his immediate predecessor. He endeavoured to avert the storm by making generous concessions to the Bourbons and to Portugal, by adopting an unfriendly attitude towards the Society, and by offering to effect serious changes in its constitution. But these half-way measures failed to put an end to the agitation, and at last Clement XIV. found himself obliged to make his choice between suppression and schism. In the circumstances he thought it best for the sake of peace to sacrifice the Society (1773) but he was soon to realise that peace could not be procured even by such a sacrifice. His weakness led only to more intolerable demands from France, Spain and Naples.

The cardinals assembled in conclave after his death found it difficult to agree upon any candidate, but finally after a conclave lasting more than four months they elected Cardinal Braschi, who took the title of Pius VI.6 (1775-99). The new Pope was a zealous ecclesiastic, anxious to promote a policy of conciliation, but immovable as a rock when there was a question of the essential rights of the Church. He withstood manfully the Febronian policy of Joseph II. and of the prince-bishops of Germany, and condemned the decrees of the Synod of Pistoia (1794). He endeavoured to maintain friendly relations with Portugal, Spain, Naples, and Sardinia, though the old policy of state supremacy was still the guiding principle of the rulers and politicians. The storm that had been gathering for years broke over Europe during the latter years of his reign; the Bourbon throne in France was overturned, and no man could foretell when a similar fate awaited the other royal families of Europe. Pius VI., though not unwilling to recognise the new order, was stern in his refusal to permit the constitution of the Church to be changed. For this reason his capital was occupied; his cardinals were dispersed, and he himself was brought as a prisoner to Valence, where he died in exile (1799). The enemies of religion could not conceal their delight. They declared triumphantly that with him the long line of Peter had ceased to exist, but the conclave at Venice and the election of Pius VII. (1800) soon showed the world that though kingdoms and dynasties might disappear the Papacy still survived, as Christ had foretold it should survive.

Chapter IX Footnotes

1 Pallavicini, Vita de Alessandro VII., 1849.

2 De Bildt, The Conclave of Clement X., 1905.

3 Bonamici, Da Vita Innocenti XI., 1776.

4 Lafiteau, Vie de Clement XI., 1752.

5 Benedicti XIV. Opera, 17 vols., 1839-46. Heiner, Opera inedita, 1904. Guarnacci, Vie du Pape Benoit XIV., 1783.

6 Ferrari, Vita Pii VI., 1802. Bourgoing, Memoires historiques et philosophiques sur Pie VI. et son pontificat, 1800.

Chapter IX Bibliography

See bibliography, chap. iv. (b). Ciacconius, Vitae et res gestae Romanorum Pontificum, 1677. Sandini, Vitae Rom. Pontif., etc., 1753. Guarnacci, Vitae et res gestae Rom. Pontif., etc., 1751. Ranke, op. cit., Reumont, op. cit. Della Gattina, Histoire diplomatique des conclaves, 1865. Bullarium Romanum.

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