At dawn on July 6, 1809, French soldiers under the command of General Radet stormed the papal palace on the Quiniral Hill to arrest and take prisoner Pope Pius VII. The soldiers rapidly overran the palace and reached the pope’s private apartments. There the general stood in a line with his officers, while directly opposite stood the pope, dressed in his soutane and mozzetta, vested with the stole. Cardinal Pacca, the secretary of state, flanked him on one side; Cardinal Despuig stood on the other. In his memoirs, Pacca vividly recalls the silent face-off in the pope’s rooms, with the soldiers staring blankly at the clerics. General Radet sheepishly broke the silence, informing the pope that he must either renounce temporal power or face arrest. Pius refused.
For Pius, the invasion was not a surprise. He had been preparing for an assault since the 10th of June, the date on which Napoleon’s forces had lowered the papal flag from the Castel Sant’ Angelo and raised the French tricolor in its place. That night, Pius order published and posted throughout the Rome a bull, prepared months earlier, excommunicating Napoleon. He knew that the emperor’s reprisal would come swiftly, and, less than a month after the excommunication, the soldiers sacked the Quirinal.
Upon the pope’s refusal to concede his temporal authority to the French Empire, the soldiers immediately escorted the pope and the secretary of state from the palace, with no time to make provisions for travel. They were placed into a waiting carriage, the doors of which were swiftly locked, and then they were driven out of the city. Pius would not see Rome again for five years.
* * *
July 6, 1809 marks the second time that the Papal States were stricken from the map and their sovereign imprisoned. The States of the Church had been pronounced dead 11 years prior, also at the hands of French soldiers. As I recount in my recently published historical play, The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI and the Sack of Rome, in February 1798, an army of the French Republic arrested and imprisoned Pope Pius VI, driving him from Rome. The pope had refused to concede the suppression of the temporal power in favor of the French-sponsored Roman Republic, styled as the revival of the republican glory of Brutus and Cicero. Pius VI never again saw Rome. He died physically broken at a fortress in Valence, France in August 1799.
Although the revolutionaries of the ruling Directory had planned to make Pius VI the last of Peter’s successors, the cardinals, meeting in exile on an island off Venice, managed to elect Pius VII in March 1800. His accession came only three months after Napoleon’s rise to “First Consul” of France. While Napoleon was a man of the modern age and an ideological ally of the Revolution, he was, at the start, sympathetic to the claims of the Catholic religion, the faith he regarded as part of the national character of France. His mother was devout; his uncle was a cardinal.
Napoleon assumed that the successor to the intransigent Pius VI was a moderate man willing to compromise with the power of the age. Surely, the new pope would wish to avoid the fate of his predecessor, whose stubbornness had brought him to ruin. Napoleon knew Pius VII from the latter’s time as the cardinal-bishop of the Italian city of Imola. Imola was one of the cities Napoleon, then leading the Revolutionary Armies, had incorporated into a new nation carved from the northern areas of the Papal States in February 1797, dubbed the Cisalpine Republic.
To his republic Napoleon brought the novelties of the age of Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man became its official legal foundation. Catholicism was disestablished as the state religion. The bishops of the ancient sees incorporated into Napoleon’s new country were aghast and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any act of the irreligious republic. The bishop of Imola, Cardinal Chiaramonti, however, stood apart from the others. He wished to make peace with the republicans and seemed to advocate accommodation between the Revolution and the Christian religion. He adopted a new motto: Liberty, Equality and Peace in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet accommodation and compromise are not tantamount to capitulation. In December 1797, the Cisalpine government demanded that its bishops publish circular letters to their flocks in which they were to assure the people that Revolution and Christianity were true friends. The bishops were ordered to proclaim that “the spirit of the gospel is founded on the maxims of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and is in no wise contrary to Democracy.”
Cardinal Chiaramonti refused. Instead of the desired letter, he preached a sermon at the Mass of Christmas Day in which he reversed the government’s theme. It is not the Gospel that is founded upon the republican maxims, but the republican maxims that are founded upon the Gospel. Only Christian virtue can profit democracy, because, unlike the people dominated by hierarchical government, the free choice accorded to the people of a democracy requires in a particular fashion their infusion with supernatural grace and the sure guidance of doctrine, lest they use their freedom unwisely or immorally.
Ordinary virtue might, perhaps, suffice to guarantee the lasting prosperity of other forms of government. Our form requires something more. Strive to attain the full height of virtue and you will be true democrats. Fulfil the precepts of the gospel and you will be the joy of the Republic. Be good Catholics, and you will be good democrats.
On the election of Chiaramonti as pope in March 1800, Napoleon, recalling him as the reasonable bishop of the Cisalpine Republic, chuckled that the cardinals had elevated a Jacobin.
* * *
The path that led to July 6, 1809 was circuitous. As pope, Chiaramonti worked ceaselessly for peace with the emperor, for whom he carried a degree of affection, a sentiment of charity that Pius retained even after enduring tremendous and sustained abuse from Napoleon. Napoleon was a man of power, and, as such, was arbitrary, capricious, and implacable. He wished to count the pope as his ally, but only on his terms.
When Pius resisted the emperor’s efforts to manage religion and politicize the Church, Napoleon, over time, became enraged. After July 6, 1809, he held the pope under house arrest at Savona and later at Fontainebleau. Pius was not set at liberty until March 1814 on the eve of Napoleon’s abdication. Napoleon’s obsession with breaking the Church is perhaps as much responsible for his downfall as is the invasion of Russia. Miraculously, Pius survived his torment and, on the emperor’s fall, was returned to Rome and came to preside over the restoration of the Papal States. The 1,000-year-old kingdom remained on the map for another 50 years until the relentless march of modernity finally destroyed it.
* * *
In our time, we find ourselves once again confronted with the ferocious spirit of the Revolution. There are appeals to high-sounding abstractions. There is a tendency to conflate these “ideals” with the Gospel and cast them as an expression of Christian morality. Herein lies the danger that Pius VII foresaw on Christmas 1797.
The abstract principles — pro-equality, anti-racism — are not, in themselves, objectionable. But when they are detached from individual acts of virtue, zeal to implement the abstractions can become a mania. Those suspected of dissent, or of less than a wholesale embrace of the ideological constructs, are enemies to be destroyed. This is the way of the guillotine; it grants freedom to hate and destroy in the name of an ideal whose definition is never certain.
Christian morality — that is, true morality — is based not upon ascent to an ideal, but upon actual acts of humility, sacrifice, self-discipline, and charity. The moral law is the Decalogue and its crown, the Sermon on the Mount. It is found in the practice of faith, hope, and charity, these three. Ultimately, it is the Cross.
Our aspirations must proceed from love of God, then love of neighbor, for this is the Law and the Prophets. They must be tempered by the humble fact that each of us is an unworthy sinner who ought to see himself as the publican, not the Pharisee. Be good Catholics, and you will be good democrats.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.