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Innocent X

Innocent X

Innocent X (1574-1655) was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church as a compromise candidate between fighting factions, although the significance of his papal reign (1644-1655) remains disputed. While some considered him a shrewd politician as well as a reformer, others questioned how much Innocent was influenced by his self-serving sister-in-law.

The future Pope Innocent X was born Giambattista Pamfili on May 6, 1574 in Rome. He was the son of Camillo Pamfili and Flaminia de Bubalis, and the family resided in the region of Umbria. With the assistance of his uncle, young Pamfili studied law, like many well-bred young men of his day. He graduated from the Collegio Romano at the age of twenty.

Since the eighth century the Catholic Church controlled Rome and the surrounding regions as part of the Papal States; there was no civil government, and all courts were run by the Church. Pope Clement VIII appointed Pamfili to a judgeship on the Rota, a high court in Rome that served as a court of appeals for matrimonial cases. Pamfili served on that court from 1604 to 1621, and then made steady progress up through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy. Pope Gregory V appointed him nuncio—a permanent official representative of the pope to a foreign government—to Naples, and in 1625 Pope Urban VIII sent Pamfili to France and Spain as a datary—an official who dates documents—under Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who was the pope's nephew.

A gifted politician, Pamfili impressed both the pope and Cardinal Barberini, and was subsequently named nuncio to Madrid. In 1626, at the age of 52, he was created the cardinal-priest of Sant' Eusebio, although he was not formally announced as a cardinal until 1629. In addition, Pamfili was also a member of the congregations of the Council of Trent, the Inquisition, and Jurisdiction and Immunity.

Became Pope

In August of 1644, the conclave of cardinals was held in Rome in order to elect a successor to Pope Urban VIII. The meetings were stormy; Urban had been decidedly pro-French, and the Spanish legation was determined to correct the balance of power within Europe. The French faction, in contrast, made it known that they would not give their vote to a candidate who was a Spaniard or was known to be friendly toward Spain. The Spanish candidate, Cardinal Firenzola, was rejected, as he was considered to be the enemy of France, and negotiations almost reached an impasse.

Eventually, fearing the election of a true enemy of France, the French faction came to a compromise with the Spanish faction, and finally agreed upon Pamfili, even though his sympathy for Spain was well known. When the news of their decision reached France, French Prime Minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin sent a veto, but it arrived after the decision had been reached, and on September 15, 1644, Pamfili was elected pope. To honor his uncle, Cardinal Inocenzo del Bufalo, Pamfili took the papal name Innocent. He was crowned in October of 1644 as Pope Innocent X.

Took Pro-Spain Stance in Foreign Affairs

Innocent quickly revealed to the French court that his sympathies indeed were aligned with those of Spain. One of his first papal acts was to begin an investigation into how the powerful Barberini family had amassed its wealth and property while serving under Pope Urban VIII. As part of this investigation, he took down the very man he had once served, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, and eventually, the Barberini property was seized by the Catholic Church.

Cardinals Antonio and Francesco Barberini fled to France to avoid further punishment, and found a powerful ally in Prime Minister Mazarin. In response, in February of 1646 Innocent issued a Papal Bull declaring that any cardinals leaving the Papal States without his permission and remaining away for more than six months would suffer harsh consequences. The Bull declared that such cardinals could forfeit their benefices and their rank as cardinals. In response, the French Parliament declared the papal ordinances to be null and void, but even this threat did not cause the pope to relent; finally the Bull was withdrawn after Cardinal Mazarin threatened to send troops to Rome.

In Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy explained that "The political helplessness of the papacy became clearer with every pontificate, and particularly so in the relations of the popes with France. Elderly and mistrustful … Innocent X was as hostile to France as Urban had been favorable." Duffy added, "France's gain, Innocent considered, was inevitably the Roman Church's loss—'only on Spain could the Holy See rely.'" While Innocent was not adverse to efforts to achieve a peace between France and Spain, he viewed Spain as less of a threat to the Church, which power France was attempting to erode. This position led Innocent to side with Spain in refusing to recognize the election of Juan IV as king of Portugal in 1648, eight years after Portugal declared its independence from Spain.

In The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, J. N. D. Kelly noted that Innocent X "was not immune from nepotism." Like many of his predecessors in the papacy, he placed family and colleagues in positions of merit. However, it must be noted that Innocent named two capable men as Vatican secretary of state, both of whom he chose over his nephew, Cardinal Camillo Pamfili. The second of these men, Fabio Chigi—the future Pope Alexander VII—was chosen in 1651 and was made a cardinal the following year.

In 1648 the Thirty Years' War between France and the Habsburgs of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia. Provoked in part by the spread of Protestantism throughout northern Europe, the Peace of Westphalia was seen as a threat to the Church of Rome. Essentially, the treaty declared that a monarch's subjects must follow his or her religion, which Innocent viewed as harmful to Roman Catholic interests, and he formally denounced the treaty in an 1648 Papal Bull. The Bull was not immediately published and was generally considered ineffective.

Despite his efforts to stop the inevitable diminishment of the Church's power in Europe, Innocent also had some notable accomplishments. Papal relations with Venice, which had been strained under Pope Urban VIII, improved under Innocent. Innocent gave financial aid to the Venetian rulers during their fight against the Turks in the struggle for Candia. On their part, the Venetians allowed Innocent free reign in filling the vacant clergy positions within their territory, a right they had previously claimed for themselves.

Obtained Questionable Confidante

As noted by a New Catholic Encyclopedia contributor, Innocent was "a lover of justice and his life was blameless; he was, however, often irresolute and suspicious." Another of his failings, as recorded by history, was his reliance on Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, his widowed sister-in-law. Maidalchini was reportedly avaricious and hungry for power, and she is credited by some with provoking the pope to take entrenched positions on matters where he would have been better served by being more open to alternatives. In The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Kelly described Innocent as "an old man, taciturn and mistrustful, slow in reaching decisions." These traits allowed his "powerful and sinister" sister-in-law the opportunity to greatly influence him.

As the New Catholic Encyclopedia contributor noted, "for a short time" Maidalchini's influence gave way to that of another persuasive advisor, "the youthful Camillo Astalli, a distant relative of the pope." Innocent was also influenced by Astalli, and made the young man a cardinal. However, Maidalchini soon regained her influence as confidante to the pope; as the Catholic Encyclopedia contributor noted, "the pope seemed to be unable to get along without her, and at her insistence, Astalli was deprived of the purple [—lost his position as a cardinal—] and removed from the Vatican." Although Innocent was respected for his moral character and his loyalty to the Church, his reliance on his sister-in-law ultimately clouded his pontificate. By the close of his reign, Kelly explained, Innocent "took no important decision without consulting her."

Condemned Jansenism

The primary religious challenge of Innocent's reign, and one that grew increasingly controversial in subsequent papal reigns as a result of Innocent's actions, had to do with the spread of Jansenism. Named for its founder, Dutch theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585-1638), Jansenism was a reform movement among Roman Catholics that thrived during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to the efforts of theologians such as Antoine Artaud. As Duffy explained, the controversy first broke out in the French Church in the 1640s "over the teachings of the posthumously published treatise Augustinus by a former bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansen. Jansen's immense and unreadable Latin treatise was in fact a manifesto for a party of devout Catholics alienated by the worldliness of much Counter-Reformation religion."

Jansenism had many traits in common with Protestant Calvinism due to its central belief in the corrupt quality of human nature. Among the principle beliefs of the movement are predestination and the rejection of the Catholic dogma regarding free will. The Jansen movement stands in marked contrast to the Jesuit doctrine, which holds out to Catholics the chance to redeem one's soul through good works; Jansenism holds that original sin destroyed the chances of all except predestined men and women to obtain salvation. Because of this central conflict, Duffy explained, Jansenists "detested the Jesuits … whom they saw as chief culprits in the spread of lax moral and sacramental teaching." Duffy further noted that Jansenists also reject Protestantism and places a strong emphasis on the sacraments and the hierarchy of the traditional Church. In short, it takes "a gloomy view of the average man or woman's chances of salvation." However, due to its conservative slant, "on such matters as the need for a Catholic political alliance against Protestantism, Jansenists were ardent supporters of the papacy."

For several decades Jansenists had been a particular target of the French Church, which attempted to ban the sect. Because of his virulent anti-French stance, Pope Innocent X now found himself embroiled in the political as well as religious aspects of the controversy. In 1651 Innocent appointed a special commission to examine the central five propositions within Jansen's Augustinus, and even took part in several of the commission's sessions. In 1653 he issued the bull Cum occasione, in which he condemned these five propositions as heretical.

Cum occasione is seen as perhaps the most important act of Innocent's papacy; indeed, it proved to be the most controversial. Ultimately, the papal bull, in supporting the Jesuit doctrine over that of the Jansenists, spoke to the need of the Church to embrace rather than alienate its followers. However, it did little to stem the ongoing controversy surrounding Jansenism that would continue to rage over the next several years due to the work of French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who managed, through clever argument, to maintain an uneasy peace between the Church and the faction through several papal administrations.

Patron of the Arts

Like most popes, Innocent supported the arts and, like his predecessor, was a patron of the sculptor, architect, and painter, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. During his reign the interior decoration of St. Peter's Basilica remained ongoing and the Piazza Navona was restored and decorated with the Fountain of the Moor and Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers. As Duffy reflected, Innocent X's patronage of Bernini "bore fruit in a series of astonishing projections of the Baroque papacy's self-image." Although, as Kelly added, "a combination of straitened finances and thrift prevented Innocent from embellishing Rome on the scale of his predecessors," during his papacy "the interior decoration of St. Peter's was completed."

Innocent's Legacy

In addition to improving papal relations with the Venetians, Innocent expanded the authority of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and elevated Manila's Dominican College to a university. To further the spread of the Catholic doctrine, he also strongly supported the efforts of missionaries attempting to convert the inhabitants of non-Christian regions in the America and Africa. In civil matters, he oversaw the redesign of prisons in the Papal States, instituting cells for living quarters. However, he also instituted a system for criminals to purchase their freedom after being sentenced, and ended the use of Chinese rituals during the liturgy in China.

Pope Innocent X died on January 7, 1655 in Rome. He was buried in St. Peter's Basilica, but in 1730, his remains were taken to his beloved Spain where he was finally laid to rest at the church of Sant' Agnese of Agone in the Piazza Navone. While it has been argued that his conservative stance did little to command respect, Innocent has also been viewed as a canny politician who, during an era fraught with political, social, and religious upheaval, managed to sustain and perhaps even increase the influence of the Vatican.


Bokenkotter, Thomas, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, revised and expanded edition, Doubleday, 1977.

Duffy, Eamon, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997.

Kelly, J. N. D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1991.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw-Hill, 1967-79.

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