Pius VI (1717-1799), who was pope from 1775 to 1799, reigned during one of the most critical periods in the history of the Church. He combated, with little success, the anticlericalism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Pius VI was born Gianangelo Braschi at Cesena, Italy, on Dec. 25, 1717. He took a degree in law and then became secretary to Cardinal Antonio Ruffo, in whose service he remained until 1753. Braschi gained the attention of Pope Benedict XIV through some clever diplomacy and was appointed canon of St. Peter's, Rome, and private secretary to the Pope. He was made bishop in 1758 and treasurer of the apostolic chamber in 1766. The title of cardinal was bestowed upon him on April 26, 1773.
The death of Clement XIV late in 1774 occasioned bitter controversy over the selection of a new pope. After a conclave of 4 months' duration, Braschi was chosen with the understanding that he would continue the anti-jesuit policies of his predecessor, who had dissolved the Society of Jesus in 1773. Immediately upon becoming pope, Pius VI had to face two problems of great magnitude. Internally, the Church, secular and regular, stood in need of great reform. From without, meanwhile, it was being battered by the rationalist exponents of the Enlightenment in all the major countries of Europe.
Among the Church's attackers were several crowned heads, traditionally supporters of the Church but now operating under the influence of the principles of enlightened despotism. Emperor Joseph II of Austria seized Church properties in 1782 with the intention of using the income from them to make priests salaried officials of the state. He followed the confiscations with restrictions upon the number of festivals and observances permitted to the Church. Pius VI went personally to Austria and objected, but his objections were ineffectual.
Shortly after the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the new French government confiscated the property of the Church, an obvious and enormous source of wealth. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, promulgated in 1790, made French priests paid employees of the state. Pius VI temporized and attempted to bring about some improvement in the relations between the Church and the French government; however, when an oath of loyalty to the new French constitution was demanded of the clergy, the Pope formally denounced the Civil Constitution and the entire Revolutionary movement on March 10, 1791.
The French Church remained in confusion, and Pius VI allied himself with the enemies of France. Napoleon's forces invaded and occupied the papal territories in 1796, and on Feb. 15, 1798, occupied Rome. Pius VI was taken prisoner and, while still in captivity, died broken and abject in Valence on Aug. 29, 1799.
Further Reading on Pius VI
The most satisfactory treatment in English is in Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, vols. 39 and 40 (trans. 1952-1953). For the tensions between Pius and Joseph II see also M. C. Goodwin, The Papal Conflict with Josephinism (1938).