June 10, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: Napoleon imprisoned two popes

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series of columns)

In last week’s column, I wrote about the attempts to destroy the Catholic Church in France at the end of the 18th century, first during the French Revolution and then the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. This week, I want to write a bit more about Napoleon, who has gone down in history as a military genius. He was also a great enemy of the Catholic Church.

The first time he imprisoned a pope was in 1798 after he and his army occupied Rome. He took Pope Pius VI back to prison in France. Then he invaded Egypt, where he won the Battle of the Pyramids.

After that, he returned to France where he led a coup d’etat, thereby becoming the virtual dictator of France through the foundation of the Consulate in 1799.

Meanwhile, Pope Pius VI died in the same year in a prison in Valence. Napoleon thought that he had destroyed the papacy but, as I wrote last week, the conclave to elect his successor met in Venice under Austrian protection. After 14 weeks, the cardinals elected Cardinal Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonte, who took the name Pope Pius VII in March of 1800.

Pope Pius VII tried to get along with Napoleon, but Napoleon was interested only in using the Church. He recognized the usefulness of having one state religion to unify the people, but he found the authority of the pope over the French Church annoying.

Napoleon therefore entered into negotiations with Pius VII, and the two men agreed to the Concordat of 1801. The concordat made possible the revival of Catholicism in France, but it also gave Napoleon the power to exercise extensive control over the Church, including the right to appoint bishops.

When he proclaimed himself emperor in 1804, Napoleon convinced the pope to travel to Paris and attend his coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral. However, Napoleon crowned himself rather than allow the pope to crown him.

Personal relations between the two men worsened when the pope insisted on a religious marriage ceremony between Napoleon and Josephine. Diplomatic relations worsened when Napoleon occupied Spain, suppressed many monasteries and closed the Church’s schools and universities.

Eventually, enmity became so great that Napoleon again sent an army into Rome. In 1808, he occupied Rome, annexed what was left of the Papal States in 1809, and took Pius VII as a prisoner to France. The pope remained in uncomfortable incarceration for almost five years, until his release in 1814 when Napoleon fell from power.

Napoleon’s demise began with his disastrous invasion of Russia, and culminated when the allied forces of Russia, Austria, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden and others captured Paris. Pius VII returned to Rome, but a year later had to seek refuge in Genoa when Napoleon escaped from his prison on Elba.

The pope finally returned to Rome for good on June 7, 1815. After Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, most of the papal kingdom was restored at the Congress of Vienna. †

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