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To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII, by Ambrogio A. Caiani

by
07 May 2021

Alexander Faludy finds lessons in Napoleon’s dealings with Pius VII

THE entry of Brigadier Etienne Radet, supported by 700 soldiers of the occupying French garrison, into Rome’s Quirinale Palace in the small hours of 5/6 July 1809 was ill-starred. An attempt at surreptitious ingress via the gardens and an upstairs window descended into noisy farce, gendarmes first entangling themselves in ornamental foliage and then crashing to the ground on an overloaded ladder.

Desperately, Radet took an axe to the front door, somewhat compromising any vestigial element of surprise in his attempt to take the Sovereign Pontiff into Imperial custody. By the time he arrived in the pope’s study, he was looking decidedly sweaty and dishevelled. Radet succeeded, none the less, in initiating an extended papal captivity with profound implications for the Holy See and European politics.

Pius’s exile and house arrest in French-controlled Piedmont would last until Napoleon’s defeat by the combined European powers in 1814. During those five long years, there would be intermittent, fitful, and fruitless negotiations aimed at securing Pius’s relinquishment of practical jurisdiction over the French Church and his acknowledgment of French suzerainty over the Papal States.

From the vantage point of the ostensible diplomatic triumph of 1801, this unfolding of events looks incomprehensible. That year, Pius and Napoleon as First Consul rather than Emperor accomplished the seemingly impossible: dissolving the antipathy between the secular republic and the papacy, the enduring scar of the 1789 revolution. They did so by means of a novel legal instrument on the status of the Roman Catholic Church in France, the Concordat.

This treaty, which established the basic form of many later agreements between the Vatican and secular rulers, guaranteed state financial support for the Church while entailing the papacy’s abandonment of the Legitimist Bourbon cause. In a situation that foreshadows today’s contentious Vatican-China deal, the Concordat also sought to heal the schism between a persecuted “loyalist” Church and tolerated “constitutional” one.

The French state would gain thereby the strength that came from social cohesion in the religious sphere and the right to nominate bishops for papal approval. Conversely, by being given a state-sponsored hand in the work of ecclesial reconstruction, the papacy saw an opening for undermining the traditionally problematic autonomy of the Gallican Church in relation to Rome.

AlamyDouble Portrait of Napoleon and Pope Pius VII by L. B. Coclers (c.1805, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Napoleon died 200 years ago this week

Despite the obvious mutual advantages of this arrangement, relations between Pius and Napoleon soured rapidly. Napoleon’s importunate demands for the annulment of his marriage to Josephine echoed Henry VIII’s two centuries earlier. Increasingly, it became evident that Imperial territorial ambitions in Italy were a threat not only to external papal dependencies, but the Papal States and even the Eternal City itself. In Napoleonic Europe, there would be no room for the temporal autonomy that the papacy saw as the precondition for spiritual independence.

Conversely, Napoleon, Emperor from 1804, discovered Pius unprepared to allow him the local free hand that he had expected. A particularly bitter divide opened up between them over the Imperial Catechism of 1806. The latter was not only launched without consultation with the Holy See, but actually reordered and revised church teaching. The idea of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was glossed away, while questions and answers were inserted that affirmed a divine providential mandate for Napoleon personally as a matter of doctrinal truth.

Ambrogio Caiani’s telling of this story in the present volume is impressive. A particular strength is his deft integration of intellectual and narrative history — especially when it comes to new insights on the Enlightenment. Caiani locates Napoleon’s ecclesiastical policy within a mentality that sought not to destroy religion, but to reshape it and harness its power. Thus “Napoleon, as a man of the Enlightenment, tolerated all religions equally. In return he expected them to preach obedience and subordination to the state as the ultimate source of authority.”

To Kidnap a Pope is a scholarly monograph that reads like a thriller; and is a work of narrative history which ably threads ideas into the heart of its presentation. It is also a timely reminder of the dangers that ecclesiastical leaders face when they seek to “ride the tiger” of contemporary power politics for transient institutional gain.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.

 

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII
Ambrogio A. Caiani
Yale £20
(978-0-300-25133-3)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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