Leo, Pope, XII

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Pope Leo XII

Leader of the Roman Catholic Church from 1823 to his death in 1829, Pope Leo XII (1760–1829) ruled during a time when the traditional balance of power between the Church and the governments of Europe had shifted in the wake of the secularizing influences of the Enlightenment.

Appointed leader of the Church of Rome in 1823 at the age of 63, Leo XII was chosen for his weaknesses, not his strengths. Despite rising through the ranks of the Vatican, Leo was not prepared to navigate the political landscape of modern Europe. Charged with leadership following the death of Pius VII, Leo proved to be an unpopular pope, and the brevity of his reign did little to restore strong moral and spiritual underpinnings among an increasingly secular society.

Rose through the Ranks

Leo XII was born Annibale Sermattei della Genga, in Spoleto, Papal States, on August 22, 1760. He was of noble birth on his father's side; his mother, Maria Luisa Periberti, counted him fifth among her seven sons. As was common for younger sons in such wealthy families, della Genga was destined for a life in the Church. At age 13, he was sent to the Collegio Campana of Osimo, and at 18 followed the traditional course to the Vatican, from Rome's Collegio Piceno to the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici. He was ordained a priest in 1783, after receiving a papal dispensation due to his youth.

Handsome and charismatic, the 23-year-old della Genga attracted the notice of Pope Pius VII, who named him his personal secretary. By the time he was in his early thirties, della Genga had gained a reputation for his diplomacy. Without angering the crowned heads of Europe, he successfully delivered the funeral oration following the death of Emperor Joseph II of Austria in 1790. He became a canon of the Vatican church, and in 1793 was made archbishop of the Mediterranean city of Tyre (now in Lebanon). After serving as papal ambassador to Lucerne, Switzerland, he was transferred to the nunciature at Cologne, Germany, in 1794.

Pleased with della Genga's diplomatic abilities, Pius VII appointed him nuncio extraordinary to Regensburg, Bavaria, in 1805, hoping to end conflicts between the German Church and the Prussian government. Although his presence angered Napoleon Bonaparte of France, who objected to the Church's continual interference in his plans to unite Europe under his imperial reign, Pius sent della Genga to Paris in 1808 to facilitate an agreement between the Holy See and Bonaparte. Napoleon was ruling Italy, on the verge of taking Prussia, and desirous of bringing the Papal States surrounding Rome under his control as well. He received della Genga coldly and the negotiations faltered. Returning to Rome after failing in his task, della Genga watched as the French emperor continued to undermine the authority of Pius VII, and temporal rule over the Papal States fell to Napoleon's appointees. After French troops occupied Rome and imprisoned Pius in his palace in January 1808, it was clear there was little della Genga could do to bring Napoleon in line.

With Pius now sequestered in Savona, Papal States, as a prisoner of the French emperor, della Genga retired to the Abbey of Monticelli, which had been granted to him for life. With little interest or training in administering to the spiritual needs of the region, he devoted himself to organizing a choir of local peasants and building tombs for his family members. In ill health and expecting to live out his remaining years at Monticelli, Genga was once more called into service after the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814 and Pius VII's return to Rome. Appointed as papal envoy to Paris, he was charged with conveying congratulations to King Louis XVIII after his ascension to the throne of France and initiating negotiations for the return of Church lands. Dismissed by the pope's powerful secretary of state Cardinal Consalvi due to his inability to represent the interests of the Vatican during these negotiations, a humiliated della Genga returned once more to Monticelli to retire. In 1816, however, Pius VII appointed his former secretary cardinal of Santa Maria in Trastevere and bishop of Sinigaglia, but della Genga's poor health prompted him to resign the see of Sinigaglia in 1818 in favor of becoming bishop of Spoleto. In 1820 della Genga was made vicar of Rome, as well as arch-priest of the Liberian Basilica and prefect of a number of small congregations.

Became Pope by Default

On September 2, 1823, 26 days after the death of Pius VII, della Genga was named pope and took the name Leo XII. He was not the popular choice of the College of Cardinals assigned to the task of electing Pius's successor; but rather was selected by the conclave as a way to mediate factions. Politically liberal Austrian interests backed Cardinal Castiglioni and his moderate views, while an equally strong conservative faction known as the Zelanti backed Cardinal Severoli, who desired to restore the moral and spiritual underpinnings of the Church. After a veto of Severoli was made by the Austrian cardinal, della Genga's name was put forth as an alternative. Conservative and yet ineffective due to his advanced years and meticulous temperament, the elderly della Genga was accepted because he was not likely to live long. The more moderate Castiglioni, in fact, would be named Pope Pius VIII upon Leo's death, although Castiglioni would reign only 20 months.

Surprised by the news of his appointment, the sickly, puritanical della Genga at first declined the office, reminding the cardinals of his ill-health with the statement, "Will you elect a skeleton?" Ultimately crowned on October 5, 1821, he quickly dismissed Consalvi, not realizing that the secretary of state's expertise would have been valuable in navigating the many competing political interests of early nineteenth-century Europe. A conservative in both philosophy and temperament, Leo's first acts were designed to preserve and in many cases restore the status quo among the faithful. Unable to respond to the social changes then underway in response to such liberalizing forces as the Enlightenment, he attempted to fight the growing move toward increased social liberty by restoring archaic traditions.

Opposed to the concept of "indifferentism," a liberal viewpoint that extended equality to all forms of religion, Leo battled the growing tide of Protestantism across Germany and elsewhere and expanded the influence of the conservative Jesuits as a way to bolster weakened religious orders. Leo also balked to pressure by Ferdinand VII of Spain to keep sees unmanned in Mexico and Colombia in order to maintain Spain's hegemony in the region and weaken the rebel movements of Simon Bolivar and others. Ignoring the diminished role of the Church in the political realm, he insisted upon appointing missionary bishops to unattended posts in America, viewing it as a way to curb the influence of evangelical Protestants. Meanwhile, in Italy, secret societies such as the Carbonari and the Freemasons flourished, prompting Leo's condemnation of them in his encyclical Quo graviora: Condemning Secret Societies, dated March 13, 1826.

Was Medieval Ruler in a Modern Age

In addition to imposing strict moral guidance among Catholics, Leo took seriously his role as both spiritual and temporal overseer of the 3,500,000 citizens of the Papal States. These Church-owned lands immediately surrounding Rome had been wrestled from Pius VII by Napoleon and only recently returned to the Church. Believing that the region required firmer religious guidance than it had received from his predecessor, Leo determined to set things right. He quickly enacted laws forbidding women to wear tight dresses and men to play games on Sundays and feast days. Rome's bars were prevented from selling alcoholic beverages, and actors were arrested for making ad-lib comments critical of current affairs.

Leo also enforced an ordinance forbidding Jews and Christians from engaging in business with each other, and imposed other restrictions on Jews living in Rome. Freed from their ghettos during the French Revolution only decades before, Jews living in the Papal States were now ordered to return to segregated communities, which Leo had walled in. Many Jews were also told to attend weekly Christian sermons. Not surprisingly, Leo's reign as ruler of the Papal States was unpopular and marked by nonviolent though vocal uprisings. Meanwhile, beleaguered Jews fled the area, hurting the region's economy in the process.

Despite his inability to understand the changes in society, Leo did oversee some positive changes. During his reign the Vatican's Library was revived with the addition of new books, its printing presses restored to their pre-Napoleonic order, and work was continued on the ongoing restoration of St. Paul's Cathedral. He also revived several spiritual traditions, such as proclaiming a universal Jubilee in May of 1824. He commented on the revival of jubilees in the encyclicals Quod hoc ineunte, dated May 24, 1824, and Charitate Christi, dated December 25, 1825.

Due to his physical frailty, Leo could not sustain his efforts to preserve the traditions of the old Church as the early nineteenth century society changed dramatically. Continually threatened by bad health, Leo XII's reign was characterized by overall inaction. On February 5, 1829, following a meeting with secretary of state Cardinal Bernetti, Pope Leo XII once again took ill. Four days later he became unconscious and died the following morning.

Rigidly disciplined and old fashioned in his approach, Leo XII proved unable to understand or cope with the social, cultural, and philosophical changes fomenting throughout Europe and the New World during his brief reign. Unpopular in the Papal States, he left behind a papacy diminished in stature in an increasingly secularized world of new ideas, fresh viewpoints, and technological change.


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Greenslade, S. L., editor, The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Holmes, J. Derek, The Triumph of the Holy See: A Short History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century, Doubleday, 1972.

Kelly, John N. D., Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Wiseman, N., Recollections of the Last Four Popes and Their Times, [London, England], 1855.


New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/ (February 28, 2006).