Pius VII, Pope

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Pontificate: March 14, 1800, to Aug. 20, 1823; b. Barnaba Chiaramonti, Cesena (Emilia), Italy, Aug. 14, 1742.


He was from an old aristocratic family with a tradition of culture. Among his ancestors were the astronomer Scipione, famous for discussing with Galileo the nature of comets; jurists; and physicians of repute. His mother came from the Ghini family, closely connected with the Braschi, the family of Pius VI. Left a widow in 1750, she entered a convent of the Carmelites (1762) after rearing her five children. This background helps explain Chiaramonti's attraction toward positive sciences and his religious spirit. He exhibited also the characteristics of a native of the Romagna: independence, openness, vigor, vivaciousness. While studying under his first teachers, the Benedictines at Cesena, he often gave vent to his love for pranks.

Benedictine Monk. After entering the Benedictines (1756) he took the name Gregorio and pronounced his vows (1758) at the Abbey of Santa Maria del Monte of Cesena. During his studies at St. Justina's in Padua and later at St. Anselm's in Rome, which prepared professors of the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Cassino, Dom Gregorio was exposed to the influences of jansenism, and to a milieu receptive to modern sciences. At St. Anselm's, one of his teachers was the inventor of the seismograph, Andrea Bina, considered an excellent physicist. Italian Jansenism was then very influential, but less interested in doctrine than in reforms. From it Gregorio retained a desire to spiritualize the Church, and disengage it from temporal interests.

From 1766 to 1775 he was professor at the Abbey of St. John in parma, a city penetrated with French culture. There he acquainted himself with contemporary problems; witnessed Tillot's attempt to apply the principles of the Physiocrats; learned new bibliographical techniques after heeding the counsels of Paciaudi, organizer of the celebrated library in Parma; knew condillac, tutor of the young prince; and supported his method of introducing into psychology the principles of Isaac Newton.

Dom Gregorio's years as professor at St. Anselm's in Rome (177581) determined the orientation of his life. They coincided with the early years of the pontificate of Pius VI, a fellow native of Cesena and friend of the Chiaramonti family. The Abbey of St. Paul in Rome was experiencing domestic dissension. When the pope learned that the young professor was accused of supporting the young monks against the authority of the abbots, the pontiff named Dom Gregorio titular abbot, and in 1783 bishop of Tivoli.

Bishop of Tivoli and of Imola. In the small diocese of Tivoli Chiaramonti showed himself a model pastor, although he had to spend long months at the Quirinal familiarizing himself with what he termed "the great labyrinth of the Roman Court." Thanks to his influence he succeeded in defending his episcopal rights against the Holy Office.

Bishop Chiaramonti was transferred (1785) by Pius VI to the more important See of Imola, and raised to the cardinalate. At Imola the young cardinal displayed his abilities. Obliged to occupy himself with local civil administration since he was in the states of the church, he was able to ascertain the weakness of papal government. He was very energetic in repressing abuses, independent in his relations with the papal legate at Ferrara, and above all else careful of spiritual interests. His charity, firmness, broadmindedness, and tact were revealed especially during the french revolution. During the first French military invasion (1796), he intervened to prevent incidents between his flock and the invaders and opposed the uprising in Lugo. Under the regimes of the Cispadane Republic and the Cisalpine Republic, his attitude was very clear: to recognize the existing government, but to resist strongly whenever spiritual issues were at stake.

His Christmas homily (1797) admitted that democracy is not contrary to the Gospel, but recognized that it requires more than natural virtues, and cannot last if it disregards religion, which is ready to lend its support. On matters of principle he was inflexible, whether it was a question of taking an oath to support the Constitution of the Cisalpine Republic, or of the application of religious laws. His diplomatic skill and willingness to conciliate succeeded in conserving the essentials. When, for example, the Cisalpine Republic fell, he saved Imola, menaced by reprisals from General Hulin. Likewise he saved the Jacobin municipal government from being executed. He reproved the excesses of the anti-French reaction, preaching pardon and peace. So generous was the cardinal to French refugee priests in his diocese and to his own flock, suffering from a grave financial crisis and high food prices, that he had to borrow money to reach the conclave held in Venice after Pius VI's death (Aug. 29, 1799).


During the fourteen-week conclave (Dec. 8, 1799, to March 14, 1800) Cardinal Chiaramonti voted with the more liberal group, the politicanti. The adroit intervention of Antonio Despuig, representative of Spain, and Ercole Consalvi, both future cardinals, broke the deadlock and settled the election.

From the beginning of his pontificate Pius VII left no doubt of his independence of Austria, which wanted to entice him to Vienna, and forbade him to traverse the Legations on his way to Rome. Forced to travel by sea to Pezzaro, he reached Rome, occupied by the Neapolitans, on July 3 and appointed consalvi as secretary of state.

Concordat with France. Overtures came a few days later from Napoleon for a concordat with France (see napoleon i). Although taken unaware, the new pope proved decisive and revealed the spirit that was to animate his entire pontificate. Although he was pleased with the prospects of religious peace, he declared himself discontent that the First Consul should promise to safeguard the States of the Church provided the pope proved accommodating in religious matters. Effectively Pius VII was repudiating a confusion between the temporal and the spiritual, and making clear his intent to concentrate exclusively on the latter. He also discerned the difficulties involved in arranging an agreement, and still more in applying it. Yet he did not hesitate to accept the risks, for these delicate conversations could, he realized, reconcile the Church with the society that issued from the Revolution. Despite formidable obstacles; despite Bonaparte's brutalities; despite the opposition of Louis XVIII, the royalists, and the conservative zelanti group of cardinals, Pius VII succeeded in concluding the concordat of 1801.

States of the Church. The reorganization of the States of the Church, whose richest provinces, the legations, had been amputated, also posed problems. The pope relied heavily on his secretary of state. His solution was one of great moderation and adaptation. An amnesty, which exempted only the revolutionary leaders, prevented excess in the way of reaction. The question of alienated Church possessions was regulated by compromise. Lay persons, chosen from the nobility, entered the civil administration. The judicial system was simplified. Financial problems were faced by retiring the monetaria erosa to restore value to the coinage, and by improving the tax system. Chief among the innovations was the liberty accorded commerce. Efforts were made to improve agriculture, including a tendency to the partitioning of latifundia into tiny sections. Despite these measures the economy remained weak; nor were the reforms promoted by the opposition of the zelanti and the passivity of the bureaucracy.

Relations with Napoleon. The first part of the pontificate (180015), as indeed the whole history of Europe during these years, centered around the struggle against Napoleonic domination. The enterprises of Napoleon as first consul, then as emperor, imperiled the independence of the spiritual. Pius VII resisted this threat with increasing energy, conciliatory though he was in other respects. He protested against the Organic Articles, which reintroduced the gallicanism abolished in the Concordat. He also castigated the weaknesses of his legate caprara for permitting the nomination of constitutional bishops to the new French sees. The government's doctrine on marriage met his further disapproval. Contrary to the zelanti, however, he resigned himself to the sometimes regrettable application of a Concordat that was on the whole very beneficial.

Italian Concordat. The Italian Concordat (1803) with the Italian Republic, eventually to become the Kingdom of Italy, disappointed the pope in other ways. Although it recognized Catholicism as the religion of the state and provided conditions more favorable to the Church than those in France, the Melzi d'Eril's decrees putting the accord into practice were inspired by josephinism. Divorce was legalized with the introduction from France of the Civil Code.

Imperial Consecration. Despite the opposition of the cardinals, the Holy Father agreed to go to Paris for the consecration (Dec. 2, 1804) of Napoleon as emperor, although given only vague promises. Pius VII refused to demand the restoration of the Legations as a condition of his journey, in order to concentrate on matters spiritually advantageous. He agreed to modifications in the traditional ceremonial proposed to him beforehand by bernier, and consented to have Napoleon crown himself. He refused, however, to receive from the latter the constitutional oath, since the constitution contained clauses contrary to the Church's principles.

The pope's remonstrances to Napoleon to improve the religious situation in France were for the most part repulsed. From the constitutional bishops who had not retracted but remained obstinate the pope could obtain the submission of Bernier alone. Marriage legislation remained unchanged. Catholicism was not recognized as the state religion. Concessions were limited to assurance of a salary for 25,000 priests (desservants ), the foundation of six metropolitan seminaries, the expulsion of married priests from teaching posts, and greater liberty to religious congregations dedicated to education and charity. To compensate for this, Pius VII made so deep an impression by his spirituality and won so much acclaim from the populace that his visit gained extraordinary prestige for the papacy.

Increasing Tension. Napoleon failed to gain acceptance from the pope of a concordat with Germany; but the pope was unable to prevent the secularization of ecclesiastical possessions in Germany. Pius VII distrusted dalberg with good reason. He also feared that the emperor wished to extend to all Europe his religious system by introducing the spirit of the Revolution, as he had in Italy. Napoleon's coronation in Milan as king of Italy (1805) resulted in a new statute given to the clergy from abroad, one which Rome judged contrary to its rights. As this Napoleonic system extended to the Italian Peninsula and approached Rome, the danger mounted that the Holy See would become a vassal of France. After the papal conversations in Paris, the events at Milan caused an irremediable rupture in the entente between the priesthood and empire.

The agreements realized became more difficult to maintain for reasons at once strategic and economic. Napoleon found himself impelled to take possession of all Italy. This led him into a conflict of ever-increasing gravity with Pius VII, who wanted to maintain neutrality as head of the Church and to assure the spiritual independence guaranteed by his secular sovereignty. The occupation of Ancona (October 1805) provoked a strong papal protest. Napoleon replied after Austerlitz by demanding that the Holy Father expel from his States the agents of the Allies, and close his ports to their vessels. Pius VII categorically refused. The conquest of Naples and the occupation of the west coast completed the encirclement of Rome. The recall of fesch, which provoked the resignation of Consalvi (June 17, 1806), heightened the tension. Napoleon went so far as to summon the pope to league with him against the heretical English and the infidels, and then to participate in the Continental Boycott.

Pius VII reacted by suspending the application of the Italian Concordat. After this the Holy See awaited the worst; but the emperor, who had crushed Austria and Prussia, waited until he was finished with Russia before regulating his accounts with "the old imbecile." After Tilsit he tried vainly to make the pope yield, but a negotiation carried on by Cardinal de Bayane failed. General Miollis invaded Rome (Feb. 2, 1808), and in 1809 annexed the Papal States to France. In return the supreme pontiff launched an excommunication against the instigators of this aggression, without explicitly designating Napoleon. The non-Roman cardinals were driven from Rome. Pius VII, who had opposed the arrest of Pacca, his Secretary of State, was seized, carried off from Rome (July 10, 1809), and deported to Savona, near Genoa.

Captivity of Pius VII. Deprived of his liberty and his counselors, the sovereign pontiff henceforth refused to exercise his papal authority. As a result he would not canonically appoint those nominated to bishoprics by the emperor. Numerous sees remained vacant, to the great embarrassment of the French government. An attempt was made to escape this predicament by compelling chapters to name vicars capitular the bishops chosen by the emperor; but the papal brief reproaching maury for accepting the See of Paris under these conditions was brought to France by reliable messengers and disseminated by Monsieur Émery. A further effort to bend the Holy Father was made by a delegation of bishops sent to Savona from the National Council in 1811, but the pope did not weaken. The affair of the "black cardinals," those who refused to attend Napoleon's religious marriage (April 1810) with Marie Louise, as a religious one, marked the beginning of a police persecution that increased Catholic resistance.

Fontainebleau. Napoleon then (June 1812) transferred Pius VII to Fontainebleau, near Paris, to force his capitulation after the French victories in Russia. When the Russian campaign turned into a disaster, Napoleon hastened to finish with the pope. Under compulsion Pius VII appended his signature to a projected concordat, which was intended as a basis for future negotiations and to remain secret. But Napoleon published the document, the so-called concordat of fontainebleau, as if it were a final one. After the emperor's departure, Pius VII, exhausted, sick, and fearing his death, had drawn up in the form of a testament a text in which he annulled and abrogated the concessions granted in the project he had signed. This document, recently found in the private papers of pacca, contradicts what Pacca says in his Memorie. He was not, nor were the cardinals who returned to Fontainebleau after their liberation, responsible for Pius VII's retraction. They only counseled the pope on how to inform the emperor of his decision. Pius VII wrote to Napoleon in vigorous terms, but Napoleon kept the letter secret. Military reverses in France induced Napoleon to liberate his prisoner, who reentered Rome on May 24, 1814.


Save for the crisis during the Hundred Days, which obliged the pope to retire to Genoa because of the impulsive act of Murat, who wanted to stir up all Italy, the second part of the pontificate (181423) proved less dramatic than the first. It was a period of attempted reorganization in the States of the Church, and restoration of the Church in various countries.

States of the Church. At the Congress of Vienna Cardinal Consalvi succeeded in obtaining the restitution to the Holy See of its temporal domain, with the exception of avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, which the Most Christian King Louis XVIII intended to retain. Reorganization of the States of the Church posed grave problems. Two opposing tendencies clashed. Cardinal Pacca and the zelanti wanted to return to the conditions of the ancien régime, abolish French innovations, and severely punish collaborators in them. A second group, headed by Consalvi, now returned to the secretariate of state, judged excessive reaction unwise and adaptation to changed conditions necessary. "After a new deluge one cannot act as before," wrote Consalvi. He undoubtedly realized that a pope-king could not adopt a constitutional regime, since his temporal sovereignty was meant to assure his spiritual independence, which would no longer be guaranteed if his temporal authority were limited by assemblies capable of voting laws contrary to Church principles. Consalvi did not regard all French institutions as bad; indeed, he esteemed many of them as excellent. He also found it essential to take into account the marked change in mentality due to long French occupation, and the force of new ideas sprung from the Revolution. The cardinal sought, therefore, a compromise between past and present by a series of administrative, judicial, financial, and economic reforms. These provoked the opposition of conservatives without satisfying liberals, who organized in secret societies, with sanfedists combating the carbonari and the followers of neo-guelfism with their own methods.

A series of revolts (1816, 1817, 1820) resulted and was blamed on the secretary of state's weakness. Pius VII relied on Consalvi for administrative details and supported him more readily, since Metternich wanted the pope to supply military aid to crush the Neapolitan revolution, and unify the police and postal service of all Italian sovereigns in the battle against secret societies. Pius VII was as careful to safeguard his independence as under the Napoleonic regime and sharply refused.

Ecclesiastical Restoration. In Europe the Church everywhere, save in Austria, had been disorganized during the period of Revolution. A program of restoration had to take into account situations varying widely from country to country, and react against anti-Christian liberalism without becoming a party to the holy alliance. Pius VII braved both parties by restoring the jesuits (1814). He had to conserve a sage equilibrium in dealing with governments in order to arrange agreements concluded at least by papal documents, if not by concordats.

Negotiations, carried on in a conciliatory spirit, succeeded in Piedmont, Naples, the Lombard-Venetian Kingdoms, the Principalities of Tuscany and Parma, Bavaria, Prussia, Baden, Württemberg, both Hesses, Saxony, and in Russia, concerning Poland. The way was prepared for future settlements with England and Switzerland. Only Spain, Portugal, and Austria remained aloof to this movement. In France the ultraroyalists sought to abolish the Concordat of 1801. Five years of negotiation and the defeat of two projects were required for a return to this Concordat.

In South America the revolt of the Spanish colonies was first reproved by Rome on the basis of information received solely from the Spanish court and the South American bishops (all appointed by the king of Spain). Better informed toward the end of his pontificate, Pius VII decided to send a papal mission to South America to investigate the situation and to prepare a reconciliation. The mission, under Muzi and Mastaï (the future Pius IX), took place after his death. North America left the pope with a freer hand, and offered much hope. Missions had suffered from the European crisis, and began to revive very slowly.

Conclusion. In eight years the aged and unwell pope could not solve all the problems of religious restoration of the Church and the reorganization of the States of the Church in a changing world. At least he labored constantly to discover a modus vivendi between the new society and the Church, which would preserve the Church's principles without violating those of the modern world. Pius VII's troubled pontificate was characterized by a desire for comprehension and conciliation without weakness and by an alternation of the most amiable suppleness with firmness to the point of inflexibility. For the monk become pope, detached from all temporal interests, what counted above all else was the spiritual, which he lived intensely. He was courageous, lucid, and although averse to administrative minutiae, able in critical moments to frame major decisions to orient the Church. He deserves to be called "the pope of the new age."

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[j. leflon]