The pope who confronted the French Revolution

On Oct. 1, Pope Francis will take a one-hour helicopter ride from the Vatican to Cesena, a northern Italian city of around 100,000 people. After an address to local residents in the town square, the pope will head to the city’s cathedral, where he will meet with priests, young people and families. The entire visit will take only about two hours, before the papal helicopter takes him to nearby Bologna for another brief pastoral visit and then returns him to the Vatican that evening.

According to the Vatican, the papal visit to Cesena is timed to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth there of one of Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-99). Though not well known by most Catholics today, Pius VI led the Church at a time of monumental transition and challenge. He also faced questions that, in some ways, remain relevant today.

“Pope Pius VI stands for the question of where a Catholic’s loyalty ultimately must lie: with the Church or with one’s nation,” Christopher Bellitto told Our Sunday Visitor. Bellitto, professor of history at Kean University in New Jersey, is also the author of “101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy” (Paulist Press, $16.95) and several other books on Church history.

“We see this same question continue to come up, even in current headlines and events,” Bellitto said.

Three hundred years after his birth, then, Pope Pius VI is worth another look.

Late vocation

Giovanni Angelo Braschi, who would later become Pius VI, was born on Christmas Day in 1717 into a family of minor nobility. He was the first of his parents’ eight children.

Though he would end up a pope, a call to priesthood came surprisingly late in life. An impressive student, Braschi had earned doctorates in both canon law and civil law before he turned 18. He began to work toward still another degree before accepting a position as the private secretary of Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo, a papal legate. Braschi even assisted the cardinal at the papal conclave of 1740 — making him perhaps the only person in the history of the Church who has played a role as a layperson in one conclave and then gone on to be elected pope in a later one.

Braschi continued his work for Cardinal Ruffo until the latter died in 1753. Having been impressed with Braschi’s work, the pope at the time, Benedict XIV, then hired him as his own secretary. He also honored Braschi to serve as a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Braschi was engaged to be married, but he called off the marriage in 1758, when he was 40, and became a priest. After ordination, he served for more than a decade in mostly administrative roles within the Church before Pope Clement XIV named him a cardinal in 1773. Less than two years later, in 1775, Braschi was elected pope (unusually, it was only upon his coronation as pope that he was also consecrated a bishop).

Establishing the Church in America

Pope Pius VI became pope at time when Western society was changing dramatically. The Enlightenment — a social, political and scientific movement that emphasized reason, equality, freedom, the right of peoples to a constitutional (rather than monarchical) government and the separation of church and state — was sweeping Europe.

This was reflected in two issues that Pius was forced to address movements known as Febronianism in Germany and Josephism in Austria. Both involved efforts to tie the Church in those countries more closely with the national governments. Pius opposed them both, insisting on the independence of the Church and rejecting extreme nationalism.

Of course, the same Enlightenment ideas were crucial in the United States’ newly won independence from the British monarchy. Indeed, one of Pius VI’s most notable roles was his formal establishment of the Catholic Church in the new nation.

In 1784, just a year after the Revolutionary War ended, the Catholic priests in America — there were about two dozen, who had until then been acting under the authority of the bishop of London — requested the appointment of a resident superior. The pope allowed the priests to nominate one of their own for the role, and they selected Father John Carroll. Pius confirmed the appointment.

Five years later, Pius created a new diocese that encompassed all 13 states and seated it in Baltimore, because the highest concentration of Catholics in the country was found in Maryland. Again accepting the choice of the priests of the young nation, the pope named Father Carroll to be America’s first bishop.

Revolutionary forces

At around the same time, history took an even more dramatic turn that would impact the rest of Pius’s pontificate — and much of Church history for generations to come. Inspired by the Enlightenment ideals, the French Revolution broke out in the summer of 1789.

But besides calling for human rights and constitutional government, the revolution also was a radical demand for the dismantling of ancient institutions and a rejection of traditional authorities. It quickly turned chaotic and violent. Catholic church buildings were destroyed; Church property was confiscated; and monastic orders were outlawed. Some priests and nuns were put to death. Some in France at the time, suggesting the current pope would have no successor, referred to him as “Pius the Last.”

An 'Intolerable' Oath
On April 13, 1791, Pope Pius’ encyclical Charitas was published in response to the French requiring an oath of loyalty from Catholic clergy. It reads, in part:

Pius VI tried to navigate the Church through these dangerous waters. He condemned the excesses of the revolution, including the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which made priests civil servants who were employed and paid by the government rather than the Church (see sidebar). Bellitto, from Kean University, notes that Pius was again forced to address the balance between a Catholic’s commitment to his or her faith and to his or her nation.

“Pius might have been able to accept priests as civil servants. What he could not accept was the oath of loyalty that the Civil Constitution of the Clergy required them to take, acknowledging the French government’s authority in Church matters. That, for Pius VI, was a bridge too far,” Bellitto said.

Pius also condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a forceful affirmation of human rights that Thomas Jefferson, living in France at the time, had a hand in creating. After King Louis XVI was beheaded by revolutionaries in 1793, Pius VI called him a martyr and wanted to canonize him, but this never happened.

Pius’s strong opposition to almost everything related to the revolution set a course that the Church followed for well over a century. It was only in the mid-20th century that popes and theologians distinguished more carefully between the valuable contributions of Enlightenment ideas and the violent and often unjust means employed during the revolution to support them.


In an effort to expand the revolution’s sway, French troops, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Italy in 1796. A peace treaty was reached, but in 1798, the French army invaded Rome and demanded that Pius VI renounce his temporal power. The pope refused, and on Feb. 20, 1798, he was captured and taken prisoner. Now 80 years old, he was transferred from city to city, poorly treated by his captors and in poor health.

In July 1799, he was moved to a fortress in Valence, France, and died there on Aug. 29.

“Few other events contributed more than the capture of Pope Pius VI to the sort of siege mentality of the Church against the world that developed and, in some ways, lasted until the Second Vatican Council,” Bellitto said.

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Pius’s body was returned to Rome in 1802, but his heart was removed and encased in a marble monument in Valence’s Saint-Appollinaire Cathedral, where it remains today. His tomb is in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

Pilgrims who visit his tomb in Rome, or the one with his heart in Valence, may still be reminded — if they know his story — of the commitment that one’s faith, even over one’s country, demands.

Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.