Pius VII

Pius VII (1740-1823), who was pope from 1800 to 1823, began his reign with some sympathy for the liberal goals of the French Revolution, but under Napoleon he withdrew to a conservatism more consistent with the traditions of his Church.

Forced into an ambiguous relationship with the French Empire and later with the restored Bourbon monarchy, Pius VII expended most of his energies combating the Gallican separatism of the state-dominated French clergy by emphasizing papal supremacy throughout the entire Church and by striving for a revival of Ultramontanism.

Pius VII was born Luigi Barnabà Chiaramonti at Cesena, Italy, on Aug. 14, 1740. At the age of 18 he entered the Benedictine monastery of S. Maria in his native city. He later became a teacher within the Benedictine order and was assigned to teach at the Benedictine colleges of Parma and Rome. Chiaramonti was made bishop of Tivoli in 1782 and bishop of Imola in 1785. In the latter year he also received the cardinal's hat.

The conclave that elected Chiaramonti to the papal chair was forced to gather at Venice because of the seizure of Rome by French forces in the final months of his predecessor's reign. Pius VI had died in French captivity, and the resulting paralysis of the machinery of the Church evidenced itself in a consistory that took 7 months to elect a pope. Cardinal Chiaramonti became Pope Pius VII on March 14, 1800.

Concordat of 1801

Pius VII's first task as supreme pontiff was to establish a modus vivendi with Napoleon I. Negotiations produced the Concordat of 1801, which removed the confusion that had plagued the French clergy since the promulgation of the Civil Constitution in 1790. The concordat stated that Roman Catholicism was the religion of most Frenchmen, implying thereby that other religions would be tolerated. It further provided that the French clergy would be paid by the state, thereby tacitly closing the door to any hope that the property confiscated from the Church during the Revolution would be returned. In the following year the French government added to these provisions the so-called Organic Articles, which withdrew all papal jurisdiction from France except that specifically authorized by the government.

Pius protested but could do nothing. Napoleon was the master of Europe, and the papacy was prostrate, its power to influence European affairs at its lowest ebb in centuries. Napoleon's last decade witnessed the relations between himself and the Pope degenerate badly. In 1804 Pius VII suffered the humiliation of being virtually forced to crown Napoleon emperor of the French. Rome was once again occupied by French soldiers in 1808, and in 1809 Napoleon formally annexed the papal territories to France. When Pius excommunicated the Emperor and his army, he was imprisoned by Napoleon. Until the invasion of France by the Allies in 1814, Pius VII was forced to do Napoleon's bidding, and it was only Napoleon's ultimate defeat that restored to Pius his personal liberty and some hope for the future of the papacy.

Congress of Vienna

Pius's imprisonment, however, had a bright side for the Pope. It gave him a special aura of martyrdom, so that when he arrived back in Rome in May 1814, he was greeted most warmly. His absence had made Italian hearts grow fonder. The Congress of Vienna, meanwhile, in its construction of a post-Napoleonic Europe, made some encouraging decisions for the papacy. The Papal States were returned to the Pope, and changes in diocesan boundaries were made to correspond with new territorial settlements. A series of concordats, with legitimate monarchs and not with revolutionaries, followed. Pius VII was glad to return to the papacy's habitual policy of seeking to live in harmony with kings. The Society of Jesus was restored, and on the surface the Church seemed to be moving once again toward the power and prestige it had possessed during the last years of the ancien régime. However, Pius was forced to accept the bitter fact that the Church of the Metternich era would be far less influential than the Church of prerevolutionary days. Louis XVIII resisted any resumption of papal jurisdiction in France, and the Austrian government, although well disposed toward the papacy, would not repudiate the reforms made under Joseph II, which, prior to the French Revolution, had reduced ecclesiastical privileges.

Nevertheless, Pius found the reactionary atmosphere prevalent throughout Europe satisfying. He clearly resisted all further social change. In Italy the social legislation introduced in the Napoleonic era was repealed. Pius seconded this repudiation of social reform and proceeded in the manner of his fellow monarchs in the Papal States. He condemned the Carbonari, an underground liberal society, in 1821. Meanwhile, Pius VII conducted negotiations with France for modifications of the Concordat of 1801. His repeated efforts in this direction, however, proved unsuccessful. The French government, with its traditional determination to control the clergy within its borders, was unwilling to yield to Rome the jurisdiction it had so recently wrested from it.

Pius VII believed that the Church, in order to retain its integrity and in order not to descend to the level of a series of weak national churches, had to reassert itself. He believed that the papacy needed to strengthen itself and to maintain at least some measure of authority over the clergy of the countries of Europe. This large task was undertaken by the Pope, although he knew that he could not complete it. He died on Aug. 20, 1823.

Further Reading on Pius VII

Books on Pius VII in English are few. The best are two extensive works by Edward E. Y. Hales, Revolution and Papacy 1769-1846 (1960) and The Emperor and the Pope (1961). The latter is a specific study of relations between Napoleon and Pius.

Additional Biography Sources

Hales, Edward Elton Young, The Emperor and the Pope: the story of Napoleon and Pius VII, New York: Octagon Books, 1978, 1961.

O'Dwyer, Margaret M., The papacy in the age of Napoleon and the Restoration: Pius VII, 1800-1823, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.

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