Barchester Popes

Douglas Johnson

  • The Popes and European Revolution by Owen Chadwick
    Oxford, 646 pp, £28.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 826919 6

It has long been recognised that one of the saddest moments in the history of the Papacy was the death of Pius VI, on 28 August 1799. He died in captivity, in Avignon. This death seemed to illustrate how the Papacy, and the Catholic Church as a whole, had been brought low, reduced to a state which some thought to be one of complete ruin, humiliated both by the general movement of 18th-century thought and by the more spectacular shocks of the French Revolution. Voltaire, no friend to Popes, had praised the Pontiff Sixtus Quintus (who died in 1599). In L’Essai sur les Moeurs he had seen fit to quote those who had described this Pope as ‘le plus haut, le meilleur, le plus grand des pontifs, des princes et des sages’, and had gone on to apply to him his own criteria for the good ruler and the great prince.

By the 18th century there was no one to praise. This period is usually taken as marking the great decline of the Papacy, not only in terms of the institution itself, faced with orientations of philosophical and scientific thought which challenged the basis of the Church, but also in terms of the chosen individuals, who were incapable of assuming the international position which a Pope is expected to fill. With the exception of Clement XIV, who was Pope from 1769 to 1774, the Popes of the 18th century are usually seen as politicians who submitted themselves to the rival influences of the rulers of Spain, France and Austria. This was natural enough, since the Conclaves which had elected them had often been the scenes of prolonged and complex struggles. The Conclave which eventually elected Benedict XIV lasted from 18 February to 17 August 1740, whilst that which chose Clement in 1769 was in session for some four months. It is not surprising that Papal elections which were the result of so much bargaining and rivalry should result in a situation in which it was common for sovereigns to threaten Popes and for Popes to be prepared to give up rights which might have been considered fundamental to their power and influence. The King of Sardinia was allowed to appoint his own bishops, the ruler of Naples appointed his own judge of ecclesiastical affairs and the Grand-Duke of Tuscany had the excellent idea of threatening to organise a schism which would acutely embarrass the Holy Father. Thus, in the 18th century, the Papacy is inevitably seen to have declined both in effective power and in general reputation, and historians have tended to sigh as they have contemplated the frailties and frivolities of successive Holy Fathers, aptly representative of a Church which reeked of decadence, worldliness and intrigue.

Professor Chadwick does not share this attitude. The Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge, who, with his brother, the Regius Professor of Divinity, is general editor of the Oxford History of the Christian Church, is more benign in his approach. He sees the 18th-century Papacy in terms of the cathedral and close of Barchester. This was a mellow world, a sunlit countryside, a stable system and an esteemed institution. The Popes were typical of the 18th century: they were humane, comfortable, paternal, considerate. He finds it appropriate that one of these Popes said to the artist who was painting his portrait: ‘I’m the pastor of the people, so make me look gentle.’ Doubtless the artist did as he was told. Gentle is as gentle pays. If not heroic, the Popes were, he tells us, ‘good men’ (and this is a not inconsiderable claim). It was a good-humoured age, he assures us, and the Roman Church was led by good-humoured men. Perhaps it is natural that when a Cambridge don writes a book in an Oxford series, we should see the world in terms of an ancient college, recalled with affection and explained in terms of its façades, staircases, chapels, fountains and treasures. One thinks of Sir George Trevelyan viewing French history through the window of an English squire and reflecting that if only the French aristocracy had played cricket with their tenants on their village greens, then there would have been no French Revolution.

But Professor Chadwick’s purpose is not simply to indulge in a nostalgic evocation of the Catholic Church of the old regime. He is concerned rather to replace the stock image of his subject, because he does not believe that the Church fitted the usual caricature, in which fat and privileged prelates ruled over lean and humble priests and exploited an ignorant and superstitious laity, whilst Popes were bullied by ambitious princes and the cause of religion suffered. The Enlightenment was not always hostile to Christianity in general or to Catholicism in particular, the Revolution was not everywhere destructive of the authentic search for religious consolation and understanding. Professor Chadwick’s aim is to show the development and triumph of a pastoral Catholicism and to explain how it evolved over a long period of time. It is wise, when considering the Catholic Church, to think in terms of longue durée, and not to be hypnotised by the sudden storms created by Febronius’s discussion about the place of the Pope in the Church’s constitution or by the immediate upsets caused by revolutionary policies of de-Christianisation and anti-clericalism.

Professor Chadwick achieves his aim by various methods. One is common sense. A good man, he tells us, was not always a good Pope, and there are examples of how a saintly man could make a particularly bad Pope. The fact that it was invariably elderly men who were elected Pope did not necessarily mean that the Pontiff was to be inactive or unambitious. ‘I’ve got to get a move on because the eleventh hour has already struck,’ remarked Alexander VIII when he was elected at the age of 79. Revolutionaries were always less revolutionary than they appeared to their contemporaries or chose to think themselves. Unbelievers were never so sweeping in their rejection of the faith as either their enemies or their champions maintained. Even Napoleon was said by Talleyrand to have been a believer (although Talleyrand tried to explain this away by saying that he had a taste for theology).

Professor Chadwick’s level-headed approach should help remove some of the clichés and question many of the easy assumptions with which Church histories abound. Furthermore, he examines in some detail certain of the episodes which have given rise to exaggerations, if not legends, about Papal weaknesses. It has been said, for example, that the Conclaves were infiltrated by agents of foreign governments. But such reports often derive from the letters written by ambassadors or foreign cardinals who had every reason to overestimate the importance of their interventions and to suggest that their achievements were considerable when they might have been very minor indeed. In practice, it is clear that the methods which were at the disposal of foreign powers, such as the veto or the threat of veto, the demand for guarantees or undertakings, attempts to intimidate or persuade, were all methods which had to be used with discretion and care. They could be counterproductive and might alienate a whole body of opinion, isolate a favoured individual, or discredit a desired candidate. The College of Cardinals was composed of experienced men who were skilled at manoeuvring, and within them there was a group of resolute men, the Zelanti, determined to maintain their freedom and to avoid making a foolish choice of Pope. These facts, and the need to have a two-thirds majority, meant that it was never possible to force upon the cardinals a candidate whom they did not want. At most, foreign influence could prevent someone from being elected who was unacceptable, but governments often had to put up with an election which, from their point of view, was third or fourth-best, or with a Pope who was an unknown quantity.

The most hostile accounts have been given of the election of Cardinal Ganganelli as Clement XIV. It occurred at a time when four Catholic powers, France, Spain, Portugal and Naples, were determined to have a Pope who would destroy the Jesuits. Certain of their envoys had no hesitation in demanding that no Pope should be elected who had not given an undertaking, before witnesses, that he would abolish the Society of Jesus. The Spaniards, in particular, singled out Cardinal Stoppani as a candidate who was likely to carry out this policy. But Stoppani refused to make the desired declaration; and when it was known that some of the powers wanted Stoppani, the Zelanti deserted his cause. The candidature of Stoppani thus came to a halt. But Cardinal Ganganelli had a conversation in which he was reported as being hostile to the Jesuits; he repeated these sentiments to one of the assistants of a French cardinal. Both France and Spain then favoured his election and he was elected unanimously very shortly afterwards. It was therefore claimed that he had been bought, that he was guilty of bargaining and double-dealing in order to become Pope, that no one was more capable of ruining the See of Rome. Professor Chadwick does not believe this. There was, he claims, no prior undertaking, since he seems to have refused to write down his views and the only document which he signed was couched in such general terms as not to be binding. Apart from rumour, second-hand accounts of what was said, and speculation about what a largely unknown man would do once he became Pope, there was only the natural fact that when a man was immured for a very long and tedious time with all the other leaders of the Church, it was natural that he should express his opinion on a subject of great moment, the future of the Society of Jesus. Nor was the choice of Ganganelli in any way scandalous, since this Franciscan was learned, humane and likeable, and his chief fault, procrastination, was linked to the most laudable desire to be conciliatory and to exercise his wisdom in order to keep the Catholic Church united. Professor Chadwick reminds us that Gladstone listed Ganganelli along with Pascal and Bossuet as models of the Catholic faith.

The case of Pius VII is even more convincing. The circumstances of the Conclave which elected him were exceptional: the French invasion of Rome caused it to be held on Austrian territory and under strong Austrian pressure to choose someone who would fit in with their territorial ambitions and their fears of revolution. But the College of Cardinals rejected Cardinal Mattei when he appeared as the Austrian choice; the representative of the Austrian Government, Cardinal Herzan, succeeded in preventing the election of either Cardinal Bellisomi or Cardinal Gerdill when they emerged as the possible representatives of a majority in the Conclave. The unknown Bishop of Imola, unusually young (he was not yet 58), nervous, scholarly, poor and devoted, was elected. In a situation which was intensely political, the choice was made of a Pope who was essentially religious. And although it frequently appeared during his Pontificate that he was being humiliated – when the Austrians refused to let him be crowned in Venice, when Napoleon summoned him to Paris to crown him Emperor, or when over-zealous French troops made him a prisoner – in fact under his leadership the prestige of both Papacy and Church was raised. ‘I have lived like a lamb,’ Pius VII was reputed to have said, ‘but I know how to defend myself and die like a lion.’

Professor Chadwick has had the considerable task of writing about the Catholic Church at a time when its history was inseparable from the general history of the age. After all, the two main reasons why the situation of the Papacy changed in the 18th century were the emergence of governments staffed by bureaucrats who were determined to extend secular control over the internal affairs of the Church, and rising prices, which caused hard-up governments to look longingly at Church revenues. The prince-bishops of Germany, like other rulers, sought to extend their authority at the expense of the Papacy. As the role of government increased, so, throughout Europe, priests found themselves acting almost as agents of the state, engaging in various forms of social work and improvement. By the end of the wars and the period of restoration which began in 1814, the Catholic Church could neither choose nor hope to resemble the Church that it had been. Many of its buildings were empty, its wealth had been despoiled and its privileges reduced. But whilst Church still needed State, there were many states which appreciated as they had never done before the need for the Catholic religion. This, too, is part of the general history of the age.

It seems probable that Professor Chadwick’s difficulties have been increased rather than diminished by the editorial decision to devote a separate volume to the story of the Church in France. Much of the history of French Catholicism – the decline in the observation of Easter during the 18th century, for example, or the popular religious revival which followed 1815 – could have served as useful pointers for this consideration of the rest of Catholic Europe. Professor Chadwick’s occasional obliqueness of style and his predilection for the one-sentence paragraph will not always evoke admiration, but the massive erudition and the completeness with which he has accomplished this grand survey can only be seen as wholly admirable.