Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) was one of the most eminent popes of his century and considered by his contemporaries one of Europe's leading learned minds of the day. His 17-year pontificate was remarkable for several advancements in canon law, in which he was an expert, and reforms that revealed his scholarly, progressive mind. When he was still a cardinal, he wrote a treatise on parapsychological phenomena that helped establish firm guidelines for the canonization of saints.
Born Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini in the city of Bologna on March 31, 1675, the future Pope Benedict XIV was the son of a senator, Marcello Lambertini, in that city. The Lambertinis were an esteemed family in Bologna but, by the time of this second son's birth, had suffered financial hardships because of flooding on their estates. A promising student at an early age, Benedict went to Rome at the age of 13 in 1688 to study at the Clementine College, which had been established by Pope Clement VIII to educate young Italian men of a devout nature. At the age of 16 he was invited by the rector of the college to deliver a discourse, in Latin, on the Trinity. Word of his remarkable intellect reached the new pope, Innocent XII, who invited him for a private meeting and granted him a stipend that allowed him to enter the University of Rome. Beginning in 1692 Benedict studied theology, canon law, and civil law there. He earned his doctorate two years later, at the age of 19, in the faculties of theology and law.
Benedict initially held a post as an advocate in Rome's ecclesiastical courts and became a priest at the age of 23, in 1698. The following year he became an assistant to an Auditor of the Rota, one of the secret tribunals within the church that handled serious ecclesiastical matters. In this capacity Benedict first became familiar with the intricacies of the canonization process, which at the time was a type of hearing in which a prosecutor, called the advocatus diaboli, or devil's advocate, challenged evidence presented that the deceased holy person in question had led an exemplary life and that miracles could be attributed to his or her piety.
Advanced through Church Ranks
In 1702, Benedict was named to the devil's advocate post himself and held it for more than twenty years. He became one of the ablest holders of the office, famous in Rome for the zeal, clarity, and wit that he deployed in hearings. He held other posts concurrently, including serving in the Congregation of Rites and as a consultant on canon law. In 1724, Pope Benedict XIII made him archbishop of Theodosia "in partibus," a term denoting that the city had been conquered by Muslims and its Christian hierarchy ousted, but a titular head remained. He was made a cardinal in 1728, and his characteristically wry sense of humor was evident in a letter he wrote to a friend, musing, "One must have a very firm belief in the Pope's infallibility to think he has made no mistake over my promotion," according to his biographer, Renée Haynes, in Philosopher King: The Humanist Pope Benedict XIV.
In 1731 Pope Clement XII named Benedict archbishop of Bologna, a cause for great celebration in his native city. He spent the next nine years there, during which time he wrote extensively when not busy with administrative matters. He finished his De beatificatione servorum Dei et canonizatione beatorum (Of the Beatification of the Servants of God, and of the Canonization of the Blessed), which set forth important ground rules for judging miracles. Benedict admitted that miracles attributed to the grace of God were possible, but should be distinguished from those that were the result of otherwise explainable natural phenomena. He wrote that there were three kinds of paranormal phenomena: from God, from the Devil, and neutral. He wrote extensively on the miracles and incidents of sudden healing attributed to past saints throughout the ages. In a superstitious age, he assured readers that such phenomena as comets and shooting stars are entirely natural and not evidence of the supernatural.
Witty Remark Taken Seriously
In February of 1740 Clement XII died, and Benedict was summoned to Rome to take part in the top-secret conclave of cardinals to elect a successor from among themselves. The conclave remained deadlocked for many months, and so one day he rose and told his colleagues, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "If you wish to elect a saint, choose Gotti; a statesman, Aldobrandini; an honest man, elect me." An old friend of his, Cardinal Aquaviva, formally proposed Benedict's name, and he was elected unanimously—save for his own vote. Surprised, he accepted, as he told the conclave, "for three reasons; so as not to resist God's will; so as not to be ungrateful for your kindness; and so as to finish our assembly, which has lasted so long that I think it is giving scandal to the world at large," according to Haynes in the Philosopher King biography.
Taking the name Benedict in honor of the pope who had made him archbishop, he was crowned in St. Peter's Basilica on August 22. Upon taking office, he eschewed formality in his meetings with other prelates and politicians and did not practice nepotism, which was common in his era and beyond. Popes often gave munificent offices and appointments to nephews in their family; instead the new pope wrote to his nephew and told him not to come to Rome unless invited—and the invitation never came. He reduced the papal household expenses and ordered that granaries be built in every town and village in the Papal States to alleviate hunger among the poor. In Rome, he liked to explore the city on foot, as he had done in Bologna, and was known to wander into some of its more dangerous neighborhoods and genially chat with denizens.
A Progressive Pontiff
In ecclesiastical matters, Benedict issued his first important decree regarding the matter of the Eastern-rite churches, which had been split from the Roman church for some centuries. His 1742 bull Etsi pastoralis prohibited any attempts to Latinize them. He established four academies in a bid to make the holy men of Rome more learned: one for Roman history, another sacred history and ecclesiastical learning, another on the history of the Councils, and the fourth on the liturgy. He himself lectured at one of them every Monday. In his native city, Bologna, he endowed its university and embellished its cathedral.
In a more pressing matter of the day, Benedict weighed in with a strong opinion on the matter of anti-Semitism. At the time, Jews were gaining more social and economic rights— once they were prohibited from owning land or growing their own food—and were no longer relegated to the ghettoes of the medieval era. Anti-Semitism remained strong in some places in Europe, however, and the bishops of Poland sent a letter of complaint to Benedict that asked for new edicts against Jews there. Benedict replied in his encyclical A quo primum that none were necessary and reminded them that St. Bernard had cautioned against singling out the Jews for persecution, for "they are eminent reminders for us of the Lord's suffering." On the matter of usury, or charging interest on a loan, Benedict established a commission of cardinals to deal with the topic. It had been prohibited for Christians since the early Middle Ages, and by papal decree officially since Pope Clement V in 1311. Because of this prohibition, some great Jewish banking fortunes had arisen. The pope's 1745 commission issued their recommendations to maintain the ban. The Pope then wrote the encyclical Vix pervenit that same year. It noted that not all interest is usurious, and that scholars should decide the matter.
Decried Superstitious Habits
Regarding Islam, Benedict formally prohibited Christians from using Muslim names, which had become common in some places like Serbia as a means to avoid certain taxes. In other realms of his empire Benedict warned against the rise of fanatical cults, confirmed the decrees of his predecessors that priests—save for the Fate bene Fratelli order—were forbidden to practice pharmacy and issued the 1741 bull Dei miseratione on marriage practices. Divorces had become more common, and Benedict warned the judges responsible for the grants of dissolution of Christ's words, "Whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder." Benedict implemented a "defender of marriage" for each diocese, charged with the duty of adjudicating all such divorce cases. A 1748 bull Magnænobis admirationis set parameters for marriages between Catholics and Protestants, conceding that they were permissible if both parties agreed that the children of such unions were to be brought up in the Catholic faith. Elsewhere, the pope agreed to reduce the number of holidays of obligation, which some bishops had argued were keeping the poor from working and thus brought hardship to their families. Benedict also ordered that all churches in the Papal States should be cleaned and renovated and, following his duties as bishop of Rome, undertook the same in that city; under this decree the mosaics of St. Paul's Basilica were repaired.
In administrative matters, Benedict established a formal college of consistorial advocates, as he had once been, designed to provide advice to the pontiff. One of his more lasting achievements, however, was to end a controversial practice of the Jesuit missionaries in South America. There they had established reducciones, or reductions, which were settlements established for the local Native Americans in order to convert them to a Christianized, European way of life. They were often sites of cruelty, which led to uprisings and martyrdoms of the Jesuit priests. Benedict's Immensa pastorum principis disbanded these in Paraguay and Argentina. The pope also stepped in and issued orders regarding conflicts between Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries in India and China. He reached a 1753 concordat with King Ferdinand VI of Spain that rescinded the monarch's right to name archbishoprics and bishoprics in his country. An Apostolicum issued that same year sent missions to England, which had emerged from a long and bitter war between Catholics and Protestants in the previous century.
Friendly with Voltaire
Benedict was well respected throughout Europe, during an era when the Catholic Church was declining in influence as Protestantism and the ideas of the Enlightenment took hold. He corresponded with famed French philosopher and author François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, who dedicated a 1744 play, Mahomet, to Benedict. The pope was roundly excoriated in some quarters for his links to the maverick French intellectual, whose name was symbolic with the Enlightenment, an important movement of the eighteenth century that stressed secular thought over spiritual dogmatism. Benedict also endured criticism from the superiors of religious orders for frequently granting requests from monks, priests, and nuns to be freed of their religious vows. In other matters, he regularly chastised members of the clergy who came to him with petitions that certain religious objects be granted his blessing. "This just shows," he wrote, according to Haynes's Philosopher King, "how religion is dishonoured by intolerable abuses, and how it is that people dare to traffic in holy things."
The pope's health worsened in 1758, after a long battle with gout, and he died on May 3, 1758, in Rome. A year before his death, the English author Horace Walpole wrote an inscription for a bas-relief portrait of Benedict honoring him as, according to Philosopher King, "Prospero Lambertini/Bishop of Rome/By the name of Benedict XIV/Who, though an absolute Prince/reigned as harmlessly/as a Doge of Venice./He restored the luster of the Tiara/by those arts alone/by which He attained it,/his Virtues./Beloved by Papists/esteemed by Protestants:/a priest without insolence or interest;/a Prince without favourites,/a Pope without nepotism;/an Author without vanity;/in short a Man/whom neither Wit nor Power/could spoil.
"The Son of a favourite Minister,/but One who never courted a Prince/nor worshipped a Churchman,/offers in this free Protestant Country/This deserved Incense/to the Best of the Roman Pontiffs."
Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, 2002.
Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, fifth edition, Gale, 2001.
Haynes, Renée, Philosopher King: The Humanist Pope Benedict XIV, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.
"A quo primum," Papal Library website, http://papal-library.saint-mike.org/BenedictXIV/Encyclicals/A_Quo-Primum.html (March 3, 2002).