Pius VI, Pope
PIUS VI, POPE
Pontificate: Feb. 15, 1775, to Aug. 29, 1799; b. Giovanni Angelo Braschi, Cesena, Italy, Dec. 25, 1717. His pontificate was the longest and most dramatic of the eighteenth century.
Prepapal Career. Gianangelo came of an ancient and noble, but far from wealthy, family of Cesena, in Emilia, North Italy. Following a youthful education in his home town, he studied law, became a Doctor utriusque juris (1735), and then entered the papal administrative service under the patronage of Cardinal Ruffo, legate to Ferrara. His aptitude for public affairs led to his rapid advancement under Benedict XIV. Under Clement XIII, he was named treasurer of the Apostolic Chamber, i.e., finance minister of the States of the Church. Only in 1758 did he become a priest. Clement XIV elevated him to the rank of cardinal in May 1771.
An amiable and rather ostentatious man gifted with excellent health and attractive presence, he had avoided the politico-religious debates that brought the Holy See into conflict with Catholic crowns concerning the suppression
of the jesuits. Upon Clement XIV's death (Sept. 22, 1774), Braschi ranked high among the papabili. Adversaries and friends of the Society of Jesus counted equally on him, one group hoping to achieve the dissolution of the order decreed by the deceased pontiff; the other, to temper the application of the brief Dominus ac Redemptor. After a long conclave of 134 days, Cardinal Braschi emerged as successor to the throne of St. Peter. He received the tiara on February 21.
Decline of the Ancien Régime (1775–89). Between 1775 and 1789 Pius VI had to confront an almost universal hostility of governments and public opinion against the Holy See. Rulers maneuvered to wrench from the pope concessions designed to earn popular acclaim, or to increase their authority over the clergy in their domains. Under the influence of the enlightenment in France and England, incredulity infiltrated the educated classes, the upper ranks of society, and even the clergy. National churches, even when they preserved regularity and piety, displayed active defiance of the absolutism of the pope and the Roman curia. This "anti-curialism," bolstered by jansenism, aligned the bishops against the "pretensions of ultramontanism."
A pope able to hold his own against these opposing forces, oblige lax clerics to reform, and impose respect for papal authority would have needed unparalleled genius and energy. Pius VI possessed neither quality. Sincerely intent on fulfilling his duties as administrator and defender of the Church's rights, he lacked firmness, and even clearsightedness, concentrating on secondary questions, personal considerations, and petty diplomatic quarrels.
Rome and the States of the Church. Although greater tasks demanded his attention, Pius VI became absorbed in the administration and defense of the states of the church. No doubt the ruinous condition and misery of that region clamored for remedies. Too much money, however, was spent on an unsuccessful attempt to drain the Pontine Marshes, and on lavish projects within Rome, e.g., the foundation of the Pio-Clementine Museum in the vatican, and the restoration of the Capitol. The Eternal City regained a rather artificial brilliance which attracted outsiders, but the pope did not enhance his prestige by his excessive nepotism, and his ostentatious entourage.
For years Pius VI persisted in demanding from his neighbor, the King of Naples, a feudal tribute of a white palfrey, symbolizing centuries-old papal suzerainty. Failing to obtain satisfaction, he kept dispatching protests to all the European courts until the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Catholic States. In his relations with Catholic kingdoms, Pius VI was able to attain some improvement. In Portugal the death of King Joseph I (1777) resulted in the disgrace of pombal, archenemy of religious orders and of the Holy See. The very devout Queen Maria I put an end to anticlerical violence. In Spain the situation improved during the final years of the reign of Charles III (1759–88). In France Louis XVI, ruler since 1774, was pious and personally well disposed. Both Madrid and Versailles, however, were prepared to take action against impiety only when the Holy See maintained great reserve in its interventions within their borders, and when it continued to effect the total destruction of the Jesuits.
Prussia and Russia. frederick ii, King of Prussia, and catherine ii, Empress of Russia, sovereigns who were not Catholics but maintained relations with the Holy See, constituted themselves protectors of the last small communities of Jesuits, whose educational talents they appreciated. Catherine II even authorized the Jesuits to establish a novitiate within her realm. Pius VI tried to have them apply the brief of Clement XIV suppressing the Society of Jesus, at the risk of displeasing two powerful rulers who controlled, since the Partition of Poland, the fate of large numbers of Catholics.
Febronianism. Germany was the source of the gravest fears during the 15 years preceding 1789. Anti-Roman tendencies there affected the leaders among the clergy. In 1763 "Febronius" issued against the authority of the Roman pontiff a veritable manifesto, repercussions of which were to be widespread. Pius VI succeeded in unmasking the author, hontheim, coadjutor to the archbishop of Trier, and extracting from him a retraction, but febronianism was not thereby checked in southern and western Germany. At the request of the Elector of Bavaria, Pius VI sought to establish (1786) a nunciature in Munich. This impelled the archbishops, who were also electors, to issue a public declaration, the Punctation of ems, affirming that German Catholics depended only on their bishops, to the exclusion of any papal representative. Schism seemed imminent.
Josephinism. In the Austrian territories the situation during the same period was still more alarming. joseph ii, emperor since the death of maria theresa (1780), had put into practice ideas inspired by the enlightenment and Febronianism, and constructed from them a system of ecclesiastical government known as josephinism. He sought: (1) to submit the Church in Austria completely to the State; (2) to grant tolerance to all religious confessions; (3) to suppress houses of religious; (4) to oblige candidates for the secular priesthood to attend State colleges; (5) to abolish practices that he considered superstitious; and (6) to impose modifications in the liturgy and worship of the Church.
Pius VI was alarmed by the emperor's haste and uncompromising rigorousness. After his protests proved vain, the pope believed he could win over the ruler by an extraordinary move. Although no supreme pontiff had left Rome since 1533, he made a personal visit to Vienna, and resided there a month (March-April 1782). Joseph II received him courteously, visited him in return, but made no agreements. Joseph even persisted in carrying ahead his reforms, with so little regard for popular traditions that insurrections broke out in the more ultramontane provinces, notably in Brabant. At his death (1790) Belgium was aflame with revolt. Such was the determination of the population that this country was on the verge of obtaining concessions that Pius VI had been unable to gain from the emperor by persuasion.
Synod of Pistoia. The contagion of Josephinism reached Italy. In Tuscany Grand Duke Leopold I copied the reforms of his brother Joseph II. He found in Bishop Scipione de' ricci a collaborator by conviction. The Synod of Pistoia (September 1786), an assembly of Tuscan priests with Ricci presiding, published decrees hostile to papal authority. As a result the Holy See beheld itself defied by anticurialists in ultramontane territory near Rome itself. This moved Pius VI to an unaccustomed outburst of energy. He roused the indignation of the faithful attached to orthodoxy, compelled Ricci to quit his See, and issued against his heretical theses the apostolic constitution auctorem fidei (1794), a solemn condemnation of the aftereffects of Jansenism.
French Revolution (1789–99). The french revolution, far from ending the difficulties of the Holy See, posed more menacing perils.
Papal Attitude. Pius VI perceived events in France as signs of a rebellion against the social order ordained by God and of a conspiracy against the Church. He was convinced that the world faced a religious persecution. Doctrinally he condemned the principles formulated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while he supported the league against the Revolution.
Counterrevolutionary Actions. Pius's conduct up to the spring of 1791 seemed hesitant, either because he still counted on Louis XVI to preserve in France the constitution and Catholic traditions, or because he was uncertain about the will to resist on the part of the Gallican clergy. The enactment of the civil constitution of the clergy, the royal assent to it, and the firm opposition of the episcopal body induced him to act. In two briefs (Quod aliquantum, March 10, 1791, and Caritas, April 13, 1791) he condemned not only the ecclesiastical reforms decreed by the Assembly, but also the political principles on which they rested, represented by the pope as the negation of the fundamental truths of divine revelation. The uprising of the citizens of avignon and of the Comtat Venaissin against his sovereignty served to render the Revolution detestable. Basically, however, his opposition arose from religious considerations. This explains his unwavering condemnatory attitude toward all the oaths of obedience required of the clergy by the revolutionary assemblies and his resolution to demand of all Catholics submission to the "judgments of the Holy See on the affairs of France."
Once diplomatic relations with France were broken with the recall of the nuncio Antonio Dugnani (May 31, 1791), Pius VI pressed for the formation of a counter-revolutionary crusade. His support of the First Coalition partially explains the enduring hate vowed against him by the Jacobins. The States of the Church, not yet menaced by the war, welcomed numerous émigrés, including aristocrats and priests who were victims of the deportation laws. Toward the priests particularly, Pius VI displayed extraordinary generosity. The Oeuvre pie de l'hospitalité française, confided by the pope to Monsignor Lorenzo Caleppi, enabled several thousand to live at the expense of the papal treasury.
French Antipapal Action. The invasion of Italy (1796) by Napoleon abruptly changed the situation by advancing the Revolution to the frontiers of the Papal States (see napoleon i). The Directory intended to take vengeance on Pius VI, at least by exacting a ransom for Rome, and perhaps by destroying the papacy itself. For two years the prudence of General Bonaparte, who refused to be the destroyer of the Holy See, permitted papal diplomats to purchase a precarious peace at the cost of abandoning the legations, or northern provinces of the States of the Church, at the armistice of Bologna (1796), and the Peace of Tolentino (1797).
Once Bonaparte left for Egypt, incidents inevitably occurred between Jacobins and zealous partisans of the Holy See. This furnished the pretext for a French punitive expedition against Rome. General Louis Berthier entered the city (Feb. 10, 1798), proclaimed the establishment of the Roman Republic, and drove out Pius VI and the Curia.
Capture and Death. The pope was placed in circumstances that made his spiritual government of the Church impossible. The French made him captive, and began (March 1799) forcing him from city to city toward France. The octogenarian pontiff was afflicted with a seizure depriving him of the use of his legs, yet he appeared a picture of courageous and serene resignation. Unexpected consolation came to him from the veneration accorded him by the French populace. He reached Valence, in southeastern France, on July 14, and was held prisoner there until his death, August 28. This marked the nadir of papal fortunes in modern times.
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