Three Heroic Popes—Part I

, Charles G. Mills, Leave a comment

GLEN COVE, NY — The destruction of Western Christian Civilization
had its beginnings in the late 15th century in northern Europe. Three
centuries later, in approximately 1790, the destructive forces had
gained enough momentum to reach the heart of Europe. During the next
hundred years, three brave Popes stood firm against the tide of decay.
This column will cover the heroic lives of two of them. The third,
Pius IX, will appear in my next column.

Pius VI (1775-1799)

Pius VI (Giovanni
Angelico Braschi)
was elected Pope in 1775, in large part because
he was acceptable to both major factions in the Church. He was a great
patron of the arts and established the Vatican Museum.

In 1790, 15 years into his papacy, he faced a major crisis when the
members of the revolutionary French government decided that they, not
the Pontiff, should have authority over the bishops in France. They abolished
57 dioceses and all archdioceses and claimed the power to appoint all
bishops. They forbade bishops from seeking confirmation of their appointment
from the Pope and forbade all clergy from appealing to Rome. Moreover,
they required that all clergy take an oath of loyalty to the French Constitution.
This split the French clergy down the middle: those who were loyal to
the Pope refusing to take the oath, and those who went along with the

Pius asked King Louis XIV to oppose these anti-Catholic measures, and
Pius suspended any priests who took the oath. King Louis XVI, despite
attempts to appease the revolutionaries, was soon beheaded. Pius VI protested
this brutal execution. Pius VI himself was hated by the revolutionaries,
who burned an effigy of him. The Marquis de Sade and Sylvain Marechal
included obscene parodies of him in their works.

Napoleon Bonaparte waged a series of wars against the Pope from 1796
to 1798 that ended in the capture of Rome and “unbaptizing” ceremonies
in the holy city. When Pius VI refused to renounce his temporal power,
Bonaparte tried to destroy the papacy. He took Pius prisoner and moved
him further and further north, city by city. Eventually Pius VI died
in captivity in 1799. Some historians believe that he was martyred.

Pius VII (1800-1823)

One of Pius VI’s last acts was to require that the conclave
to elect his successor be held in Venice, which was still a free republic
and where most cardinals were at the time of his death. This frustrated
Bonaparte’s plan to prevent a new conclave, and Pius
VII (Barnaba Chiaramonti)
was elected
in 1800. He succeeded in returning to Rome. The following year, Bonaparte
entered into a truce with the newly-elected Pope that allowed Bonaparte
and Pius VII to coexist in a fragile peace, despite repeated personal
insults by Bonaparte. The Pontiff, however, refused to agree with anything
that would compromise the rights of the Church, and Bonaparte limited
his attacks on the rights of the church.

This tenuous truce ended in 1809 when Bonaparte declared Rome to be
part of the French Empire. He began arresting cardinals, and it became
clear that he had not abandoned his 1799 plan to destroy the papacy.
Despite the presence of hostile French troops in Rome and the arrest
of most of the Roman Curia, Pius VII excommunicated Bonaparte and the
French Army and circulated copies of the excommunication.

When Bonaparte was defeated and exiled in 1815, Pius VII made a triumphant
return to Rome after more than five years of house arrest in France.
The Roman people almost unanimously celebrated their liberation from
the French. That same year, the Congress of Vienna restored the Papal
states and the diplomatic privileges of the papacy.

The Congress of Vienna ushered in a period of relative safety from
the anti-Christian violence of the Revolutionaries, but their ideas
continued to fester below the surface. An example of this occurred
in the early 1820s, when an anti-Catholic revolutionary government
took power in Spain. However, that government fell within four years
and all its anti-Catholic laws were repealed. Between the late 1840s
and the 1870s, revolutionary violence repeatedly broke out, and another
heroic pope opposed it He is the subject of my next column.

The Confederate

The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2009
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation,
All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.