History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Papacy and a New Empire

[Illustration] from Church - Later Modern Times by Notre Dame

I. A Would-Be Charlemagne

Not content with his glory as a conqueror and his commanding position as First Consul, Napoleon aspired to revive the Holy Roman Empire in his own person and to pose as a second Charlemagne. More than this, he followed the example of sovereigns, such as had lately been seen in Louis XIV. of France and Joseph II. of Austria, by claiming not only political but also ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Once this pretension had taken definite shape the friendly relations with Rome necessarily became strained. For the present, however, the Pope must be kept in ignorance of the ultimate object in view.

Pius VII. was invited to Paris for the purpose of adding solemnity to the ceremony of Napoleon's coronation as Emperor in 1804. His arrival was the signal for a series of breaches of etiquette unpardonable as such towards any sovereign, but deliberately intended, in this instance, to convey the impression that the Emperor came first, the Pope second. To avoid a ceremonious reception of his august visitor, Napoleon, in hunting costume, met him, as it were by accident, at a distance from the city. Miss Allies, in her Life of Pope Pius VII., graphically describes the scene. She tells us how, on that wet November day, the white silk shoe of Pius had to encounter the mud of the road in order to walk across the measured distance which Napoleon had settled should be traversed before he would make any advances. The Pope and Emperor having met and embraced, the carriage was drawn up in such a way as to separate them. Two footmen opened the doors simultaneously; and though, by every law of courtesy and good breeding, the guest should have taken precedence of his host, by this arrangement both entered the carriage together, Napoleon taking the right side for himself and leaving the left for the Pope.

The magnificent ceremony in the cathedral of Notre Dame was marred by a singular and characteristic action of the imperial upstart. After the Pope had performed the anointing and when the moment had come for the coronation, Napoleon seized the diadem and placed it on his own head. He then proceeded to crown the Empress with his own hands, completely ignoring the fact that the coronation was the only ostensible reason for the Holy Father's presence and for the long journey he had undertaken. At the banquet which followed, the third place was assigned to the Pope, the Emperor and Empress preceding him. Yet Pius bore all with patient dignity, ever hoping that an opportunity would come for asserting his legitimate claim to the reverence due to his position as Supreme Pastor of the Church.

II. Under the Shadow of the Empire

There was soon no doubt that Napoleon had made up his mind to keep the Pope in Paris, and to use him as an instrument for promoting his own glory. But Pius VII. had not been so short sighted as to place the interests of the Church in the power of a tyrant. He took an early opportunity of informing the Emperor that before leaving Rome he had signed a legal form of abdication which was to come into force in the event of his being detained a prisoner. The gold would thus be turned to dross, and instead of a captive Pope there would remain but a poor monk, valueless even as a hostage. The Cardinals could proceed at once to elect a successor to Pius VII., and the struggle would begin anew.

Under these circumstances there was no advantage in keeping the Pope in France. Napoleon consented to his departure, and the Roman people had the joy of welcoming their Sovereign on May 16, 1805. It is interesting to note that the member of the Sacred College who by right of seniority received Pius VII. at the great door of St. Peter's, according to custom, was Henry Cardinal York, the last of the Stuarts.

The question of the temporal sovereignty was in reality the point at issue, but Napoleon could not refrain from interfering in spiritual matters. When it suited his purpose he neglected the terms of the Concordat, and he especially displeased the Holy Father by claiming administrative authority over the French Bishops, and by treating the clergy as paid officials. The permanent residence of the Pope in France might have enabled him to gain his ends by degrees, but the declaration of His Holiness with regard to his abdication obliged the Emperor to postpone his ambitious designs to a more favourable time.

Though Pius was allowed to return to Rome, the States of the Church continued to be occupied by French troops, and it was in vain that the Pope requested the Emperor to remove them. Other difficulties arose from time to time, such as the continental blockade of Napoleon, which the Holy Father declined to observe. The years 1806 and 1807 were marked by a constant struggle over petty details, giving endless annoyance, and carried on for the purpose of wearing out the patience of Pope and Cardinals.

Early in 1808 the French General, Miollis, was ordered to take possession of Rome. Pius did everything that was honourable and possible to keep peace, but the Emperor was resolved to quarrel. The crisis came in May, 1809, when the imperial decree was issued, whereby the States of the Church were united to the French Empire. "The form of the decree," according to J. H. Rose, "was as remarkable as its substance. With an effrontery only equaled by its historical falsity, it cited the example of ` Charlemagne, my august predecessor, Emperor of the French,' and, after exalting the Imperial dignity, it proceeded to lower the Popes to the position of Bishops of Rome." A bull of excommunication was the reply to this aggression, but, though it included in general the authors of the attack upon the Papal possessions, Napoleon was not mentioned by name. He was, nevertheless, enraged at the implied censure, and lost no time in retaliating. On July 6, 1809, Pius VII. was forcibly removed from Rome by French soldiers, and conveyed to Savona and thence to Fontainebleau, where he was detained as a prisoner of State, subject to many indignities from his keepers, while Napoleon continued his career of conquest.

III. Captivity of Pius VII

"It is impossible," says J. H. Rose, "briefly to describe the various conflicts between Pius VII. and Napoleon. Though now kept in captivity by Napoleon, the Pope refused to betray his trust, and the credit which Napoleon had won by his worldly-wise Concordat was now lost by the infraction of many of its clauses, and by his harsh treatment of a defenceless old man. It is true that Pius had excommunicated Napoleon, but that was for the crime of annexing the Papal States, and public opinion revolted at the spectacle of an all-powerful Emperor now consigning to captivity the man who in former years had done so much to consolidate his authority. After the disasters of the Russian campaign he sought to come to terms with the Pontiff; but even then the bargain struck at Fontainebleau was so hard that his prisoner, though unnerved by ill-health, retracted the unholy compromise. Whereupon Napoleon ordered that the Cardinals who advised this step should be seized and carried away from Fontainebleau. Few of Napoleon's actions were more hurtful than this series of petty persecutions; and among the influences which brought about his fall we may reckon the dignified resistance of the Pontiff, whose meekness threw up in sharp relief the pride and arrogance of his captor. The Papacy stooped, but only to conquer."

Joseph Fesch, Napoleon's maternal uncle, became Archbishop of Lyons, and was admitted to the Sacred College for his services in the restoration of religion in France at the time of the first Concordat. As Grand Almoner of the Emperor, he received from the Pope faculties to perform the marriage ceremony between Napoleon and Josephine on the eve of the coronation. These faculties included a dispensation from the decree of the Council of Trent, which requires the presence of the parish priest under pain of clandestinity—the very point which had invalidated the civil marriage of 1796. But Napoleon was, in 1804, contemplating an alliance with one of the reigning families of Europe, and had no intention of giving up his freedom. Though he went through the ceremony, he willfully rendered it null and void by protesting before witnesses that he withheld his consent. The Pope and Josephine and the world at large were, however, carefully kept in ignorance of the impediment until the proper moment. When, in i8ro, it became expedient to ally himself with Austria, it was easy to prove that no real marriage had ever taken place. Cardinal Fesch was employed by the Emperor in each of these cases, and again for his marriage with Marie Louise, so that no shadow of complicity could ever be imputed to Pius VII. The whole affair was treated by Napoleon as a domestic and political matter, in which the Church played but an insignificant part, and the mystery with which he surrounded it prevented his contemporaries from seeing it as clearly as we do in the light of recent investigation. The position of Fesch was exceedingly difficult, for, as chief of the "Red "Cardinals, he appeared to serve the cause of his nephew rather than that of the Church.

While negotiations with Austria were proceeding, the Pope was left solitary and a prisoner in the Palace of Fontainebleau. His faithful friends dared not approach him, and he had the grief of knowing that some of the very princes of the Church had taken part with his enemies against him. They were high in Napoleon's favour, and became known as the "Red "Cardinals, because those who were courageous enough to risk the consequences of open disapproval of the irregular proceedings with regard to the Austrian marriage were forbidden to wear their scarlet robes. If Fesch was the leader of the Emperor's party, Consalvi was undoubtedly the head of the "Black "Cardinals, and his unfaltering loyalty to the Pope brought him frequently under the displeasure of Napoleon.

In 1811 the Emperor convoked what he was pleased to call a "National Council of the Gallican Church." The Cardinals and Bishops assembled, but, to their honour be it said, there were many who preferred exile or imprisonment to desertion of the cause of the captive Pope. The Council was unsatisfactory, and broke up without effecting anything of moment. Napoleon's correspondence at this period betrays his anger at the resistance he encountered. "Does the Pope suppose," he wrote, "that his anathemas will cause the weapons to fall from the hands of my soldiers?" Yet at that very time he was preparing for the disastrous expedition to Russia, where the muskets fell from the benumbed fingers of his men, and where, weak with hunger and fatigue, they cast away their swords in order to fly more quickly from the inhospitable steppes. The failure of this great invasion was the beginning of a series of reverses which brought Napoleon to his ruin.

The following extract from Miss Allies summarizes the situation after the return from Moscow:

"A dark and heavy pall stretched from Fontainebleau over every member of the Catholic Church. Thirteen Cardinals, exiled to various provincial towns, under the supervision of the police, expiated their fidelity to Pius VII. Three Bishops shared the same fate. A number of priests were detained in Fenestrello and other State prisons on similar pretences; and a great many dioceses languished for want of pastors, because Napoleon willed the evil and would not will the remedy. In Italy things looked even worse. Rome, the centre of the Catholic world, was reduced to the rank of second city in the French Empire; the convents and monasteries were despoiled; a large proportion of Bishops and ecclesiastics had been carried off by violence to France, because they obeyed God rather than man."

The august prisoner of Fontainebleau was led to believe that he was alone in holding out against the proposals for a new Concordat placed before him early in 1813. Yet the very enumeration of the articles bears on the face of it the most flagrant usurpation of both temporal and spiritual jurisdiction. To quote from the same pen:

"Before their coronation the Popes would be required to swear that they would neither do nor command anything contrary to the Four Propositions of the Gallican Church. They would nominate only one-third of the Sacred College. The nomination of the remaining two-thirds would be the right and privilege of Catholic Sovereigns.... The Papal residence was to be fixed in Paris. . . The Emperor reserved to himself the exclusive nomination of the Bishops of the Roman States," etc.

Pope Pius VII.


No wonder that, although weak and ill, the solitary prisoner rejected propositions so extravagant and so derogatory to his position as Head of the Universal Church. His resistance was so determined that an alteration was made in those articles to which he showed the greatest repugnance. Coercion of the most unscrupulous kind was made use of to obtain his consent, at least to the modified form of the treaty. In a moment of depression and extreme physical weakness the Pope signed the agreement. Advantage was at once taken of this false step; the Concordat was proclaimed to be the joint work of Pope and Emperor, and Pius was left to repent at leisure of what he himself considered as a betrayal of his Master's cause. But the faithful Cardinals, set free on the proclamation of the Concordat, hastened to rouse the Holy Father from the dejection into which he had fallen. A complete retractation was drawn up and sent to the Emperor. His only reply was to order that Fontainebleau should become once more a prison, and to continue carrying out to the letter the provisions of the recent Concordat.

IV. Triumph of the Papacy

While this cruel war was being waged upon the Head and Princes of the Church, Napoleon's enemies had been gaining ground. The Powers of Europe had combined against him, and the star of his destiny was fast declining. One or two brilliant victories on the side of France did not prevent the steady advance of the allied armies, and it became evident that total defeat was threatening the conqueror. Napoleon knew that he must either free the Pope or see him reinstated with honour by his enemies. He resolved, therefore, to prepare for the emergency by sending Pius back in the direction of Rome; but without revealing his intention of arrogating to himself, in the event of the allies entering Paris in triumph, the glory of restoring the Pope. The decree by which he at length proclaimed that the Sovereign Pontiff was at liberty, served no purpose, for it was immediately followed by his own abdication. It is a significant fact that the Palace of Fontainebleau, which had been the Pope's prison, should have witnessed the scene of the Emperor's deep humiliation in the presence of the representatives of the European Powers. Nay, the very table at which Napoleon sat was that at which Pius had signed his forced abdication of his temporal power. "` Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord."

"It was on May 24, 1814," writes Miss Allies, "that the Feast of Our Lady, Auxilium Christianorum, ushered in a glorious spring day, whose Italian sun lit up the cavalcade which passed through the streets of Rome. It was that of an old man with eyes dim from emotion blessing his people on their knees. A white-robed band of young men and girls met him at the Porta del Popolo, bearing palms which a gentle breeze swayed as the sun's rays touched them with its golden beams. ` Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord!' It was re-echoed from mouth to mouth, as the Romans looked again upon the Father, whom suffering had not broken because he trusted in God, and whose humility was proof against so great and glorious a triumph, because in the manifestation of popular feeling he saw before all things a homage rendered in his own person to the Lord whose Vicar he was. . . . At the Ponte del Milvio thirty young men of the noblest families of Rome esteemed it an honour to replace the horses of the Papal carriage, and thus to draw Pius VII. to the tomb of the great Apostles."

The Congress of Vienna, assembled for the purpose of reorganizing Europe, did not ignore the dominions of the Holy Father. He was represented in its deliberations by the great statesman, Cardinal Consalvi. The claims of the Pope were generously dealt with, and a more complete rehabilitation could not have been desired. With the exception of Avignon, in French territory, all the Papal States were restored. The return of Napoleon with the passing terror of the "Hundred Days " did not affect the Church, though the Pope was much distressed at the necessary rigour of the captivity of St. Helena. The treatment meted out to Napoleon was, nevertheless, much better than Pius himself had received at the hands of his gaolers. The unfortunate relatives of the once mighty Emperor found an asylum in Rome, and the Pope's solicitude for their welfare was unfailing. The death-bed of the lonely exile himself was soothed by the consolations of the religion of his childhood, provided for him by the meek and forgiving Pius whom he had so cruelly persecuted. It was perhaps in some sense an expiation that the number of years spent by Napoleon in St. Helena almost coincided with the number of those passed by Pius VII. at Fontainebleau.

On his return to Rome the Pope found the palace of the Quirinal fitted up with lavish magnificence. The son of Marie Louise had in his cradle been proclaimed King of Rome, and Napoleon had chosen the Quirinal for his abode when it suited him to visit the second city of his Empire. The only room left untouched was the simple cell from which Pius had been conducted as a prisoner to France. The joy of the Christian peoples at the restoration of the Sovereign Pontiff was expressed in gifts and congratulations from all sides. England vied with the Catholic countries in doing him honour. The Prince Regent made him a truly royal present in the form of a blank draft on the English Exchequer to be filled in at his pleasure,

With Rome as its centre, Europe seemed to recover from the strife and turmoil into which it had been plunged by the French Revolution. There were many things to engross the attention of the Holy Father. The Church in France was in disorder, and the Napoleonic code had affected religion in other lands. Education needed re-organization in harmony with Catholic ideals, and teaching Orders were ready to undertake the task. The great work of the Jesuits was once more placed in the hands of the scattered members of the Society, and the sons of St. Ignatius were bidden by the voice of Pius VII. to come forth from the annihilation to which obedience to Clement XIV. had reduced them. Each nation had its claims on the Sovereign Pontiff, and with the assistance of his eminent Secretary of State, Consalvi, and his other faithful Cardinals, Pius devoted himself to the arduous task of reconstruction. It was truly a resurrection of the Papacy after its terrible struggle with the new Empire of the self-styled "second Charlemagne."

[Illustration] from Church - Later Modern Times by Notre Dame