Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world’s largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy, fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. If you’ve never made a gift, now is the time. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar this week only. Thanks and God bless.
Dear visitors: This Catholic Answers website, with all its free resources, is the world’s largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. We receive no funding from the institutional Church and rely entirely on your generosity to sustain this website with trustworthy, accessible content. If every visitor this month donated $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. If you’ve never made a gift, now is the time. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar this week only. Thanks and God bless.

Gregory XVI

Pope (Mauro, or Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari), b. 1765; d. 1846

Click to enlarge

Gregory XVI, POPE (MAURO, or BARTOLOMEO ALBERTO CAPPELLARI), b. at Belluno, then in the Venetian territory, September 8, 1765; d. at Rome, June 9, 1846. His father, Giovanni Battista, and his mother, Giulia Cesa-Pagani, were both of the minornobility of the district and the families of both had in former times been prominent in the service of the state. When eighteen, Bartolomeo gave evidence of a religious vocation, and after some opposition on the part of his relations, was clothed in 1783 as a novice inthe Camaldolese monastery of San Michele di Murano, taking the name Mauro. Here, three years later, he was solemnly professed, and was ordained priest in 1787. The young monk soon showed signs of unusual intellectual gifts. He devoted himself to the study of philosophy and theology, and was set to teach these to the juniors at San Michele. In 1790 he was appointed censor librorum for his order, as well as for the Holy Office at Venice. Five years later he was sent to Rome, where he lived at first in a small house (since destroyed) in the Piazza Veneta, afterwards in the great monastery of San Gregorio on the Coelian Hill. The times were not favorable to the papacy. In 1798 took place the scandalous abduction of Pius VI by General Berthier, at Napoleon’s orders, and in the following year the death of the pope in exile at Valence. It was this very year, 1799, that Dom Mauro chose for the publication of his book, “Il trionfo della Santa Sede”, upholding papal infallibility and the temporal sovereignty. The work, according to Gregory himself, did not attract great attention till after he had become pope, yet it attained three editions and was translated into several languages. In 1800 Cardinal Chiaramonti was elected pope at Venice, and took the name of Pius VII, and returned to Rome the same year. Early in that year Dom Mauro had been nominated Abbot Vicar of San Gregorio, and in 1805 the pope appointed him abbot of that ancient house. He retired to Venice to rest, but returned in 1807 as procurator general, only to be driven out in the following year, when General Miollis repeated on the person of Pius VII the outrage of Berthier on Pius VI. Dom Mauro returned to Venice, but San Michele was closed as a monastery the next year by the emperor’s orders. In spite of this the religious remained, in secular habit, at the monastery, and Dom Mauro taught philosophy to the students of the Camaldolese college at Murano. But, in 1813, the college was transferred to the Camaldolese convent of Ognissanti at Padua, Venice being too disturbed and inimical. The following year Napoleon fell from power, Pius VII returned to Rome, and Dom Mauro was at once summoned thither. In rapid succession the learned Camaldolese was appointed consultor of various Congregations, examiner of bishops, and again Abbot of San Gregorio. Twice he was offered a bishopric and twice he refused. It was considered certain that he would become a cardinal, and it caused general surprise when, in 1823, Pius VII chose in his stead the geographer, Dom Placido Zurla (also a Camaldolese). In that year the pope died, and Cardinal della Genga, who took the name of Leo XII, was elected. On March 21, 1825, the new pope created Dom Mauro cardinal in petto, and the creation was published the following year. Cappellari became Cardinal of San Callisto and Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda. It was in this office that he successfully arranged a concordat between the Belgian Catholics and arranged William of Rolland in 1827, between the Armenian Catholics and the Ottoman Empire in 1829. On St. George’s Day of the latter year Cardinal Cappellari had the joy of learning that Catholic Emancipation had become a fact in the British Isles.

On February 10, 1829, Leo XII died, and Pius VIII, broken by the revolutions in France and in the Netherlands, followed him to the grave on December 1, 1830. A fortnight later the Conclave began. It lasted for seven weeks. At one time Cardinal Giustiniani appeared likely to secure the requisite number of votes, but Spain interposed with a veto. At last the various parties came to an agreement, and on the feast of the Purification, Cardinal Cappellari was elected by thirty-one votes out of forty-five. He took the name of Gregory XVI, in honor of Gregory XV, the founder of Propaganda. Hardly was the new pope elected when the Revolution, which for some time had been smouldering throughout Italy, broke into flame in the Papal States. Already on February 2 the Duke of Modena had warned Cardinal Albani that the conclave must come to a speedy decision, as a revolution was imminent. The next day the duke caused the house of his erstwhile friend, Ciro Menotti, at Modena, to be surrounded, and arrested him and several of his fellow-conspirators. At once a revolt broke out at Reggio, and the duke fled to Mantua, taking the prisoners with him. The disturbance spread with prearranged rapidity. On February 4 Bologna revolted, drove the pro-legate out of the town, and by the eighth had hoisted the tricolor instead of the papal flag. Within a fortnight nearly the whole of the Papal States had repudiated the sovereignty of the pope, and on the nineteenth Cardinal Benvenuti, who was sent to quell the rebellion, became a prisoner of the “Provisional Government”. Even in Rome itself a rising projected for February 12 was only averted by the ready action of Cardinal Bernetti, the new secretary of state. In these conditions, the papal forces being obviously unable to cope with the situation, Gregory decided to appeal to Austria for help. It was immediately forthcoming. On February 25 a strong Austrian force started for Bologna, and the “Provisional Government” soon fled to Ancona. Within a month the whole movement had collapsed, and on March 27 Cardinal Benvenuti was released by the rebel leaders, on the understanding that an amnesty should be granted by the pope. The cardinal’s action, however, was without authority and was not endorsed, either by the papal government or by the Austrian general. But the rebellion, for the moment, was crushed, and after an abortive attempt to seize Spoleto, from which they were dissuaded by Archbishop Mastai-Ferretti, all the leaders who were able to do so fled the country. On April 3 the pope was able to assert that order was reestablished.

In the same month, the representatives of the five powers, Austria, Russia, France, Prussia and England, met in Rome to consider the question of the “Reform of the Papal States”. On May 21 they issued a joint Memorandum urging on the papal government reforms in the judiciary, the introduction of laymen into the administration, popular election of the communal and municipal councils, the administration of the finances by a skilled body selected largely from the laity. Gregory undertook to carry out such of these proposed reforms as he deemed practicable, but on two points he was determined not to yield: he would never admit the principle of direct popular election to the councils, and he would never permit the establishment of a council of State, composed of laymen, parallel to the Sacred College. By a succession of edicts, dated July 5, October 5, and 5 and November 21, a comprehensive scheme of reform of the administration and of the judiciary was set afoot. The delegations were to be divided into a complex hierarchy of central, provincial and communal governments. At the head of each of these bodies respectively was to be a pro-legate, a governor or a mayor, representing the pope, and assisted by, and (in financial matters) controlled by, a council who were selected, out of a triple-elected list, by the government. All these bodies were to keep the pope informed as to the wishes and requirements of his subjects. The reform of the judiciary, as regards civil litigation, was even more thorough. An end was put to the confusing multiplicity of tribunals (in Rome no less than twelve out of the fifteen conflicting jurisdictions, including that of the arbitrary uditore santissimo, were abolished), and three hierarchies, composed each of three civil courts, one for Bologna and the legations, one for Romagna and the Marches, and one for Rome, were established. In each of these the agreement of any two courts inhibited further appeal, and most of the courts were to be composed largely of laymen skilled in the law. The criminal courts were not so radically reformed, but even in these an end was made of the vexatious and often tyrannous secrecy and irregularity that had hitherto prevailed.

All these reforms, however, despite their extent, were far from satisfying the aims of the revolutionary party. The Austrian troops were withdrawn on July 15, 1831, but by December much of the Papal States was again in revolt. Papal troops were dispatched to the aid of the legations, but the only result was the concentration of 2000 revolutionists at Cesena. Cardinal Albani, who had been appointed commissioner-extraordinary of the legations, appealed on his own authority for aid to the Austrian General Radetzky, who at once sent troops. These forces joined the papal troops at Cesena, attacked and defeated the rebels, and by the end of January had taken triumphant possession of Bologna. This time France intervened, and as a protest against the Austrian occupation, seized and held Ancona, in sheer violation of international law. The pope and Bernetti protested energetically and even Prussia and Russia disapproved of this act, but though, after long negotiations, the French commander was ordered to restrain the outrages of the revolutionists in Ancona, the French troops were not withdrawn from that city until the final departure of the Austrians from the Papal States in 1838. The rebellion, however, was quelled and no further serious outbreak occurred for thirteen years. But, amidst all these disturbances in his own kingdom, Gregory had not been free from anxieties for the Faith and the Universal Church. The revolutions in France and the Netherlands had created a difficult situation: the pope had been expected by the one party to condemn the change, by the other to accept it. In August, 1831, he issued the Brief, “Sollicitudo Ecclesiarum”, in which he reiterated the statements of former Pontiffs as to the independence of the Church and its refusal to be entangled in dynastic politics. In November of the same year, the Abbe de Lamennais (q.v.) and his companions came to Rome to submit to the pope the questions in dispute between the French episcopate and the directors of “L’Avenir”. Gregory received them kindly, but caused them to be given more than one hint that the result of their appeal would not be favorable, and that they would be wise not to press for a decision. In spite, however, of the representations of Lacordaire, Lamennais persisted, with the result that, on the feast of the Assumption, 1832, the pope issued the Encyclical “Mirari vos”, in which were condemned, not only the policy of “L’Avenir”, but also many of the moral and social doctrines that were then put forward by most of the revolutionary schools. The Encyclical, which certainly cannot be considered favorable to ideas that have since become the commonplaces of secular politics, aroused a storm of criticism throughout Europe. It is well to remember, however, that some of its adversaries have not read it with great attention, and it has been sometimes criticized for statements that are not to be found in the text. Two years after its publication, the pope found it necessary to issue a further Encyclical, “Singulari nos”, in which he condemned the “Paroles d’un croyant”, the reply of Lamennais to “Mirari vos”.

But it was not only in France that errors had to be met. In Germany the followers of Hermes (q.v.) were condemned by the Apostolic Letter, “Dum acerbissima”, of September 26, 1835. And in 1844, near the end of his reign, he issued the Encyclical, “Inter praecipuas machinationes”, against the unscrupulous anti-Catholic propaganda in Italy of the London Bible Society and the New York Christian Alliance, which then, as now, were chiefly successful in transforming ignorant Italian Catholics into crudely anti-clerical free-thinkers. While he was engaged in combating the libertarian movements of current European thought, Gregory was obliged also to struggle with the rulers of States for justice and toleration for the Catholic Church in their realms. In Portugal the accession of Queen Maria da Gloria was the occasion of an out-burst of anti-clerical legislation. The nuncio at Lisbon was commanded to leave the capital and the nunciature was suppressed. All ecclesiastical privileges were abolished, bishoprics filled by the ex-king, Dom Miguel, were declared vacant, religious houses were suppressed. The pope protested in consistory, but his protest only led to severer measures, and no efforts on his part were successful until 1841, when the growing popular uneasiness forced the queen to come to terms.

In Spain, too, the regent, Queen Maria Cristina, was able, during the minority of her daughter, Queen Isabella, to carry out an anti-clerical program. In 1835 the religious orders were suppressed. Then the secular clergy were attacked: twenty-two dioceses were left without bishops, Jansenist priests were admitted to the committee appointed to “reform the Church“, the salaries of the priests were confiscated. In 1840 bishops were driven from their sees, and when the nuncio protested against arbitrary acts of the government in power, he was conducted to the frontier. Peace was not restored to the Church in Spain till after Gregory’s death.

In Prussia, at the very commencement of his reign, the question of mixed marriages was causing trouble. Pius VIII had dealt with these in a Brief of March 28, 1830. This, however, did not satisfy the Prussian Government, and von Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador, exhausted every means, honest and dishonest, of bringing about a modification of the Catholic policy. The Archbishop of Cologne and the Bishops of Paderborn, Munster, and Trier were induced, in 1834, to enter into a convention not to put into execution the papal legislation. But the archbishop died the following year, and his successor, von Droste zu Vischering, was a man of very different calibre. In 1836 the Bishop of Trier, feeling his end approach, revealed the whole plot to the pope. Events moved quickly. The new Archbishop of Cologne announced his intention of obeying the Holy See, and was in consequence imprisoned by the Prussian Government. His arrest caused general indignation throughout Europe, and Prussia endeavored to justify its action by inventing charges against the prelate. Nobody, however, believed the official story, and the Archbishop of Gnesen and Posen, who had imitated the courageous example of his brother of Cologne, was also imprisoned. But this arbitrary action aroused the indignation of German Catholics, and when King Frederick William III died in 1840 his successor was more ready to come to terms. In the end Archbishop Droste zu Vischering was given a coadjutor, and retired to Rome; the Archbishop of Gnesen was released unconditionally and the question at issue was quickly allowed to be decided in favor of the Catholic doctrine.

But no such success was possible in Poland and France. In the former unhappy country the Catholic religion was, then as now, inextricably united with the nationalist aspirations. As a consequence the whole force of the Russian autocracy was employed to crush it. With monstrous cruelty the Ruthenian Uniats were driven or cajoled into the Orthodox communion, the heroic nuns of Minsk were tortured and enslaved, more than 160 priests were deported to Siberia. The Catholics of the Latin rite were no better treated, bishops being imprisoned and prelates deported. Gregory protested in vain, and in 1845, when the Emperor Nicholas visited him in Rome, rebuked the autocrat for his tyranny. We are told that the Czar made promises of reform in his treatment of the Church, but, as might have been expected, nothing was done.

In France, the success of the Catholic revival had been so great that the anti-clericals were infuriated. Pressure was brought to bear upon the Government to obtain the suppression of the Jesuits, always the first to be attacked. M. Guizot sent to Rome Pellegrino Rossi, a former leader of the revolutionary party in Switzerland, to negotiate directly with Cardinal Lambruschini (q.v.), who had replaced Bernetti in 1836 as secretary of state. But Gregory and Lambruschini were both firmly opposed to any attack on the society. Rossi, therefore, turned his attention to Father Roothan, the General of the Jesuits, and through the Congregation of Ecclesiastical Affairs, was successful in obtaining a letter to the French provincials advising that the novitiates and other houses should be gradually diminished or abandoned.

The reign of Gregory was drawing to its close. In August, 1841, with the intention of entering into closer relations with his people, he undertook a tour throughout some of the provinces. He travelled through Umbria to Loreto, thence to Ancona, and on to Fabriano, where he visited the relics of St. Romuaid, the founder of the Camaldolese. He returned by Assisi, Viterbo and Orvieto, reaching Rome by the beginning of October. The progress had cost 2, 000,-000 francs, but it is very doubtful whether it had the intended result. Cardinal Lambruschini, to whom the pope as he grew older confided more and more of the actual direction of state affairs, was even more arbitrary and less accessible to modern political doctrines than Bernetti; the discontent grew and threatened. In 1843 there were attempts at revolt in Romagna and Umbria, which were suppressed with relentless severity by the special legates, Cardinals Vannicelli and Massimo. In September, 1845, the city of Rimini was again captured by a revolutionary force, which, however, was obliged to retire and seek safety in Tuscany. But the impassioned appeals of Niccolini, of Gioberti, of Farina, of d’Azeglio, were spread throughout Italy and all Europe, and the fear was only too well founded that the Papal States could not long outlast Gregory XVI. On May 20, 1846, he felt himself failing, and ordered Cretineau-Joly to write the history of the secret societies, against which he had struggled vainly. A few days later the pope was taken ill with erysipelas in the face. At first the attack was not thought to be serious, but on May 31 his strength suddenly failed, and it was seen that the end was near. He died early on June 9, with but two attendants near him. His tomb, by Amici, is in St. Peter’s.

Gregory XVI has been treated with but scant respect by later historians, but he has by no means deserved their contempt. It is true that in political questions he showed himself almost as opposed as his immediate predecessors to even a minimum of democratic progress. But in this he was but similar to most rulers of his time, England itself, as Bernetti sarcastically remarked, being ready enough to suggest to others reforms it would not try at home. Gregory believed in autocracy, and neither his inclinations nor his experience was such as to make him favorable to increased political freedom. Probably the policy of his predecessors had made it very difficult for any but a very strong pope to oppose the growing revolution by efficient reforms. In any case both his temperament and his policy were such that he left to his successor an almost impossible task. But Gregory was by no means an obscurantist. His interest in art and in all forms of learning is attested by the founding of the Etruscan and Egyptian museums at the Vatican, and of the Christian museum at the Lateran; by the encouragement given to men like Cardinals Mai and Mezzofanti, and to Visconti, Salvi, Marchi, Wiseman, Hurter, Rohrbacher, and Gueranger; by the lavish aid given to the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls and of Santa Maria degli Angioli, at Assisi; by researches encouraged in the Roman Forum and in the catacombs. His care for the social welfare of his people is seen in the tunnelling of Monte Catillo to prevent the devastation of Tivoli by the floods of the river Anio, in the establishment of steamboats at Ostia, of a decimal coinage in the Roman States, of a bureau of statistics at Rome, in the lightening of various imposts and the repurchase of the appanage of Eugene Beauharnais, in the foundation of public baths and hospitals, and orphanages. During his reign the losses of the Church in Europe were more than balanced by her gains in the rest of the world. Gregory sent missionaries to Abyssinia, to India, to China, to Polynesia, to the North American Indians. He doubled the number of Vicars-Apostolic in England, he increased greatly the number of bishops in the United States. During his reign five saints were canonized, thirty-three servants of God declared Blessed, many new orders were founded or supported, the devotion of the faithful to the Immaculate Mother of God increased. In private as in public life, Gregory was noted for his piety, his kindliness, his simplicity, his firm friendship. He was not, perhaps, a great pope, or fully able to cope with the complicated problems of his time, but to his devotion, his munificence, and his labors Rome and the Universal Church are indebted for many benefits.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free

More from

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!Donate