Clement XI

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Clement XI

Regarded as a scholar as well as a patron of letters and science, Clement XI (1649–1721) served as pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1700 to 1721. Initially reluctant to serve as pontiff, he is remembered for essentially destroying Christianity in China but also for establishing the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a major church holiday.

Noted Scholar

Pope Clement XI was born Giovanni Francesco Albani on July 22, 1649, in Urbino, a province in central Italy. In his book The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, author J.N.D. Kelly noted that the Albani family was of "aristocratic Umbrian stock." His grandfather had been a Roman senator, and his uncle served as a prefect (a high-ranking official) of the Vatican Library.

It was recognized early that young Giovanni was of exceptional intelligence. At the age of 11, he was sent to study at the Roman College where, Kelly noted, he "received a thorough classical education." By the age of 18, his writings received recognition for their scholarly merit, and he attracted the attention of Queen Christina of Sweden. At her personal invitation, he went to study at the Royal Accademia in Sweden. He studied theology and law and ultimately earned doctorates in both civil and canon (church) law.

Rose Through the Church Ranks

As Albani rose to the ranks of the prelates (high-ranking clergy), he was sent to govern in Rieti, Sabina, and then Orvieto. He was recalled to Rome and was named the Vicar of St. Peter's. Upon the death of Cardinal Slusio, Albani succeeded to the important position of Secretary of Papal Briefs, a position he held for thirteen years. On February 13, 1690, he was created a Cardinal-deacon, and ten years later, received the holy order of priesthood.

Elected Pope

After the death of Pope Innocent XII on September 27, 1700, the cardinals convened a conclave to elect the new pope. In the book Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy commented, "At every conclave, there was a strong party of zelanti who deplored all political interference. They were rarely able to secure their first choice for pope, but they were often decisive in preventing mere political appointments. Their interventions were admirable in principle, but not always happy in their outcome." The zelanti would be key players at this conclave.

The early 18th century was a critical time for Europe and the papacy. During the conclave, Charles II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs who was the ruler of Spain, had died childless. This left his realm vulnerable to attack by other countries. The will of Charles II named Philip of Anjou, grandson of King Louis XIV of France, as sole heir to the Spanish Empire.

Some royalty were against this plan of succession, as they believed they had a right to the Spanish empire, for themselves and their heirs. As retold on the Catholic Encyclopedia website, what many did not know was that Charles II had secretly met with Pope Innocent XII and three trusted cardinals about who should be his heir. These men aided Charles in deciding a plan of succession. Cardinal Albani had been one of those three cardinals. This decision would have ramifications for both the next pope and feuding European kingdoms over the next several years.

After deliberating and discussing for 46 days, the conclave of cardinals, led by the support of the zelanti, selected Cardinal Albani to be the next pope, even though some considered him too young to be pontiff. Kelly wrote, "Only 51, devout, austere, but lacking political flair, he [Albani] accepted with genuine reluctance after several days' anxious reflection, although his elevation was enthusiastically received even in Protestant countries." Duffy noted that the "pious and dedicated" Albani took the papal throne as Pope Clement XI in December of 1700.

A Man of Integrity

Clement was regarded as hard working and genuinely concerned for the poor. He was a patron of the arts and contributed generously to the Vatican Library. His reputation for integrity won him popularity even among Protestants, while Catholic reformers were concerned about this new pope's conservative policies.

As noted by the Catholic Encyclopedia website, some Catholic reformers believed that Clement's accession would be the end of papal nepotism. His predecessor had placed friends and relatives into high positions, and it was known that Clement had written a severe condemnation of that abuse. In fact, he appointed the most qualified person to various positions and titles and asked family members to keep their distance.

When it came to governing the church, Clement was a capable administrator. He provided for his subjects, bettered the condition of the prisons, and found food for the people when it was scarce. The Catholic Encyclopedia website stated that the dedicated Clement ate and slept very little. In addition, he went to confession and celebrated Mass every day.

However, Duffy noted, "A splendid administrator and a likeable man, he [Clement XI] turned out to lack judgment and plunged the papacy into conflict with Spain and with the church in France."

Trouble With the Spanish Throne

Immediately after becoming pope, Clement faced his first crisis, over the Spanish throne. Charles II had died during the conclave and had named Philip of Anjou his heir. Both Austrian King Leopold and Archduke Charles of Spain protested this plan of succession. In his book, Kelly reflected, "the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), which filled much of his [Clement's] reign, soon exposed his and the papacy's ineffectiveness"

Although Clement sympathized with Philip, he tried to remain neutral. However, that changed when, as Kelly noted, "In January 1709, when the troops of Leopold's successor Joseph I had invaded the papal states, conquered Naples, and threatened Rome." Kelly continued, "Clement had to accept the new emperor's harsh terms, which included his abandonment of Philip V and recognition of Archduke Charles as the Spanish king."

As noted on the Catholic Encyclopedia website, "though the Bourbon monarchs had done nothing to aid the pope in his unequal struggle, both Louis and Philip became very indignant and retaliated by every means in their power." In 1713, as the key points for the Peace of Utrecht were negotiated, the rights of the pope and the Catholic Church were disregarded.

Even though the dispute over the Spanish throne was now over, Clement's troubles were not. As recounted on the Catholic Encyclopedia website, the new king re-established "the so-called Monarchia Sicula, an ancient but much-disputed and abused privilege of pontifical origin which practically excluded the pope from any authority over the church in Sicily." Clement responded with an interdict (a decree that prohibits something). In turn, the new Spanish king banished all the clergy, approximately 3,000 in number, who remained loyal to the pope. The pope was forced to find a means to give them food, water, and shelter. The interdict was lifted in 1718, but the tactic of Monarchia Sicula, would continue over the years.

While all the fighting between the kingdoms and the pope were going on, the Turks decided to take advantage of the situation and invaded Europe by land and sea. The threat of the Turks was over quickly, but damage had been done. As Duffy noted, "Clement XI was the last Pope before the French Revolution to play a major role in European politics as a prince in his own right, and that role was an unqualified calamity for the papacy."

Missionary Work and Church Policy

Many agree that Clement's efforts to keep peace and sustain the rights of the Church among the powers of Europe were not successful. However, many concur that he had more prosperous results with his missionary endeavors. Author Kelly wrote, "Clement was keenly interested in missionary work, and not only founded missionary colleges but promoted missions overseas, notably in India, the Philippines, and China."

However, one decision Clement made regarding missionary work had far-reaching ramifications. Duffy commented, "His decision to outlaw the so-called Chinese Rites, by which Chinese missionaries had accommodated Christian practice to Chinese culture, effectively destroyed Christianity in China." This decree led to hostilities between the Church and the Chinese people, and resulted in the closure of many Catholic missions. This policy remained in effect for over 200 years, before it was retracted by Pope Pius XII in 1939.

The "Jansenism" Debate

A major religious challenge that Clement and many of his predecessors had faced was "Jansenism." Named for its founder, the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), Jansenism was a reform movement among Roman Catholics that thrived during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Jansenism had many traits in common with Calvinism. Among the principle beliefs were predestination, loss of free will, and the inability to resist God's grace. Duffy added that it also rejected Protestantism and also "took a gloomy view of the average man or woman's chances of salvation."

Kelly reflected, "Clement played a decisive role, largely at the instigation of Louis XIV of France in the repression of Jansenism." In a papal bull (an official document or decree, usually issued by the pope) entitled Vineam Domini, written in 1705, Clement rejected the Jansenist views that deny the existence of human free will.

In his book, Duffy wrote, "The Jansenist quarrel came to a disastrous climax in 1713, when Clement XI issued the bull Unigenitus, condemning 101 propositions taken from the best-selling devotional treatise by the Jansenist Pasquier Quesnel, Moral Reflections of the Gospels. In addition, Clement took the extreme step of excommunicating (barring someone from participating in the Catholic Church) many Jansenist leaders in 1718.

The Legacy

Pope Clement XI died on March 19, 1721, and was succeeded by Pope Innocent XIII. Many of his official papers, letters, and homilies were later collected and published by his nephew, Cardinal Albani. Like many of his papal predecessors, Clement, considered a man with good intentions, is remembered for both positive and negative decisions and policies made during his reign as pontiff.


Duffy, Eamon, Saints and Sinners-A History of the Popes, Yale University Press in association with S4C, 1997.

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


"Catholic Encyclopedia: Pope Clement XI," New Advent website, (November 15, 2003).

"Clement XI," The Gale Group Biography Resource Center website, (November 15, 2003).

"Patron Saints Index: Pope Clement XI," Catholic Community Forum website, (November 15, 2003).

"Pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani)," Catholic Hierarchy website, (November 15, 2003).