The Pope Who Outlasted a Tyrant


On November 30, 1799, 34 cardinals from across Europe gathered in a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Pius VI. The papal election, however, was not held in the Sistine Chapel, not in Vatican City, and not even in Rome. Less than two years before, in February 1798, French troops had marched into Rome and taken Pope Pius VI prisoner. They placed the sickly pontiff in the citadel of Valence where he died on August 29, 1799.

While secularists asked how long the Church could survive in the new age of the Revolution, the members of the College prepared for the future. Rome was occupied, so the cardinals assembled at the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio near Venice. On March 14, 1800, they chose the holy Benedictine Cardinal Barnaba Luigi Count Chiaramonti, the bishop of Imola. He took the name Pius VII, but there were little means for crowning the new pope. Indeed, without a papal tiara available for the coronation, the noblewomen of Venice paid for a papier-mâché papal tiara and adorned it with jewels from their own rings and necklaces.

Few in the conclave that elected Pius VII could have anticipated the severity of the struggle that awaited the pope and the Church in the coming decades, for the new Vicar of Christ spent the next 15 years in battle with the dictator openly cursed as an Antichrist and an enemy of civilization: Napoleon Bonaparte. The relationship between the emperor and the pontiff is one worth remembering, for it is a powerful lesson to Catholics that the Church has always been blessed by successors to Peter whose gifts have been provided at the moment when they are most needed. Indeed, through the determined holiness, fortitude, and prudence of Pius VII, the Church survived the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and the would-be master of Europe came in the end to lament, "Alexander the great declared himself the son of Jupiter. And in my time I have met a priest more powerful than I."

The Napoleonic Crisis Begins

Chiaramonti was born to noble parents in Cesena, in Emilia, Italy and entered the Benedictine order at the age of 14. Renowned for his intelligence and goodness, he earned the favor of the future Pope Pius VI. He was named an abbot, then Bishop of Tivoli in 1782, then Bishop of Imola three years later, and then a cardinal in February 1785.

From the very start of his pontificate, Pope Pius VII saw clearly that the central crisis facing the Church was Napoleon. To assist him, the pope appointed Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824) as his cardinal secretary of state. The two embarked upon a careful policy that prevented the destruction of the temporal and spiritual authority of the papacy but that also held out room for future resistance to Napoleon’s long-range ambition: complete domination of the Church.

Cardinal Consalvi negotiated with Napoleon the Concordat of 1801, which the French leader promptly violated by adding to it articles that tightened his hold over the French Church. Against the advice of the Curia, Pius accepted Napolean’s invitation in 1804 to travel to Paris to crown him emperor, hoping thereby to win concessions from him. Pius said the Mass at the infamous coronation of Napoleon on December 1 (at which the emperor placed the crown upon his own head), but no modifications in policy were forthcoming.

War broke out again the next year. As Pius was resolute in presenting a neutral stance in the struggle, relations with the French Empire deteriorated steadily, especially after Napoleon won resounding victories against Prussia and Russia and the Napoleonic shadow fell across the Continent.

The neutrality of the pope proved particularly maddening to the emperor. In early 1806, the pope wrote words that have been echoed by many popes to succeeding dictators. No pope, Pius wrote, should become involved in wars between states, and he concluded prophetically, "If our words fail to touch Your Majesty’s heart we shall endure with resignation faithful to the gospel and accept every kind of calamity as coming from God." In reply, Napoleon forced Pius to remove Consalvi in June 1806. It was only the start, as the emperor declared boldly, "I am Charlemagne, the sword of the Church, and their [the clergy’s] emperor."

Held in Check

A chess game of move and counter-move followed over the next years, and Napoleon found himself constantly outmaneuvered by the humble old pope, who was undeterred by threats and French troops waiting to march on the Vatican itself. With mounting pettiness, Napoleon occupied Rome in February 1808, arrested many of the cardinals, and finally imprisoned the pope within the Quirinal Palace in Rome. With his papal government now under threat, Pius VII broke off all diplomatic relations with Napoleon. In answer, the dictator annexed the Papal States, and Romans awoke to see the French tri-color flag flying over Castel Sant’Angelo.

The pope met this move the very next day. Placards appeared suddenly all over the Eternal City with the announcement that Pius had excommunicated all persons involved in the annexation, including Napoleon (although his name was never actually used).

Upon hearing that he had been excommunicated, Napoleon exclaimed that "the old priest" had clearly gone insane and ordered his commander in Rome to arrest the pope. In the early morning of July 6, 1809, French troops seized Pope Pius and brought him hurriedly to Savona, between Nice and Genoa.

Henceforth Pius was a prisoner, isolated from his advisers and staff. Napoleon failed to realize, of course, that the pope was never truly alone, and with each new outrage committed against the Church, the power of the weary one-time monk only seemed to grow.

The Church Defiant

Pius’ faithful cardinals remained unbending to Napoleon’s wishes. Their adamant refusal to acknowledge Napoleon’s divorce from the beloved Empress Josephine to marry the Austrian princess Marie-Louise in 1810 was so great an embarrassment that he stripped them of their scarlet robes, all rights as cardinals, and even signed their death warrant before changing his mind at the last moment. As it was, the cardinals could wear only their black cassocks and so earned the honorific title among faithful Catholics of "Black Cardinals."

When the emperor commanded that no newspaper should print any word of his excommunication or the pope’s situation, devout Catholics secretly carried copies to Lyons and then distributed them across France. Word spread everywhere of the pope’s seizure, and even the most ardent anti-clericalists in Europe were aghast at the degree to which Napoleon’s regime had sunk into tyranny.

In February 1810, Napoleon officially attached the Papal States to the French Empire as a free imperial city, and the Bishop of Rome was promised an annual income of two million francs (less than some of the empire’s bureaucrats).

Pope Pius, meanwhile, lived in his jail, assisted only by his valet, who had to double as his secretary. The gendarmes spied upon him at every moment and subjected him to various humiliations. Pius refused steadfastly to accept the decree of February 1810 and so faced harsher conditions.

Desperate to deliver a final blow to his prisoner, on June 16, 1811, Napoleon forced cardinals and bishops from the occupied territories to gather in a sham council in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to raise charges against Pius VII. Instead, Napoleon’s supposedly intimidated prelates gave a formal oath of loyalty to the pope and made an appeal for his immediate release.

By June 1812, the pope’s physical condition in Savona began to alarm his supporters, including the emperor of Austria. Preparing for his massive invasion of Russia that was intended to mark the final conquest of Europe, Napoleon ordered the pope moved to Fontainebleau, near Paris. There, encouraged by the French emperor to make public appearances and give assurance of his good health, Pope Pius declined, preferring to live in the palace as a humble Benedictine monk. He ate sparingly and even maintained his own tonsure, in keeping with his monastic life years before.

Old Foes Meet Again

Europe was once more convulsed by war as Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched into Russia. There followed the disastrous campaign that ended with Napoleon’s retreat. With his return from Russia in December 1812, Napoleon took time from resisting the imminent revolt to overthrow him to make peace with Pope Pius. He proposed a new concordat that demanded various concessions of the papacy and went himself to Fontainebleau on January 18, 1813.

The two had not met since 1804, and both had changed considerably. The emperor, now 44, was a corpulent, spent genius whose empire rested precariously on a knife’s edge. The pope, 71, was emaciated and drained from years in captivity. Napoleon spent the next days relentlessly bullying the haggard pontiff into accepting his demands. Finally, on January 25, the pope gave his signature to what came to be called the Concordat of Fontainebleau,.

Napoleon immediately and unfairly published the Concordat and released the Black Cardinals. Pius VII regained sufficient strength to send a letter retracting his signature to the emperor on March 24. Preoccupied with the massive war brought against him by virtually all of Europe, Napoleon allowed months to pass in fruitless negotiations with the pope and his cardinals who were at long last permitted to be at his side. In the end, Napoleon declared the Concordat in full force and began filling the long vacant sees and exiling anew the obstinate cardinals.

The irregularly installed bishops found the faithful Catholics and clergy just as defiant as the cardinals at Fontainebleau. Napoleon banished seminarians and arrested priests who would not submit. By this time, however, his enemies were closing in. At the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden. France was invaded in early 1814. Frantic for allies to help him keep his throne, Napoleon offered to restore the Papal States and free Pius, but the pontiff calmly replied it was mere justice to return the States. On January 23, rather than have the pope rescued by the Allies, Napoleon commanded that Pius be taken from Fontainebleau back to Savona. When the Allies insisted that the pope’s release must be a condition of any peace, Napoleon at last sent him off toward the Austrian outposts in Italy.

On March 31, the Allies entered Paris. Betrayed by his closest marshals, Napoleon surrendered and was exiled to the Island of Elba. After a legendary return of 100 days in 1815, he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 by the combined armies of England and Prussia. Expelled from Europe, he was sent to the island of St. Helena under the watch of the English. The one-time ruler of an empire died there on May 5, 1821.

Restoration and Forgiveness

As for his former prisoner, Pius made a triumphant return to Rome on May 24, 1814 and was hailed across Europe. The relieved pope issued a declaration to all of the Catholics who had suffered under Napoleon:

We have shed tears of grief in our prison, first for the Church committed to our care, because we knew of her needs though we were powerless to help her, and then for the people subject to our authority, because the cry of their tribulations reached us without being able to bring them comfort . . . The pride of the madman who set himself up as equal of the Most High has been humbled. (Encyclopedia of the Papacy 2:1188)

As Pius enjoyed heightened prestige and international favor, he moved quickly to secure the restoration of the Papal States. In 1814, Pius reinstituted the Society of Jesus and gave it the task of helping to rebuild the shattered Church in Europe.

The courageous pontiff lived on until 1823. He had led the Church during one of the darkest periods in her history. But before his death, he also had one more remarkable act to perform. At a time when the relatives of Napoleon Bonaparte were pariahs everywhere, Pius VII issued an invitation to Napoleon’s mother and sisters to reside under his protection in the Papal States. It was a fitting act for the former monk whom Napoleon—looking back in time and with regret while waiting to die on St. Helena—had referred to as "an old man full of tolerance and light."


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 4.