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Pope Pius VII

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Born at Cesena in the Pontifical States, 14 August, 1742; elected at Venice 14 March, 1800; died 20 August, 1823.

His father was Count Scipione Chiaramonti, and his mother, of the noble house of Ghini, was a lady of rare piety who in 1763 entered a convent of Carmelites at Fano. Here she foretold, in her son's hearing, as Pius VII himself later related, his elevation to the papacy and his protracted sufferings. Barnaba received his early education in the college for nobles at Ravenna. At the age of sixteen he entered the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria del Monte, near Cesena, where he was called Brother Gregory. After the completion of his philosophical and theological studies, he was appointed professor at Parma and at Rome in colleges of his order. He was teaching at the monastery of San Callisto in the latter city at the accession of Pius VI, who was a friend of the Chiaramonti family and subsequently appointed Barnaba abbot of his monastery. The appointment did not meet with the universal approbation of the inmates, and complaints were soon lodged with the papal authority against the new abbot. Investigation, however, proved the charges to be unfounded, and Pius VI soon raised him to further dignities. After conferring upon him successively the Bishoprics of Tivoli and Imola he created him cardinal 14 Feb., 1785. When in 1797 the French invaded northern Italy, Chiaramonti as Bishop of Imola addressed to his flock the wise and practical instruction to refrain from useless resistance to the overwhelming and threatening forces of the enemy. The town of Lugo refused to submit to the invaders and was delivered up to a pillage which had an end only when the prelate, who had counselled subjection, suppliantly cast himself on his knees before General Augereau. That Chiaramonti could adapt himself to new situations clearly appears from a Christmas homily delivered in 1797, in which he advocates submission to the Cisalpine Republic, as there is no opposition between a democratic form of government and the constitution of the Catholic Church. In spite of this attitude he was repeatedly accused of treasonable proceedings towards the republic, but always successfully vindicated his conduct.

According to an ordinance issued by Pius VI, 13 Nov., 1798, the city where the largest number of cardinals was to be found at the time of his death was to be the scene of the subsequent election. In conformity with these instructions the cardinals met in conclave, after his death (29 Aug., 1799), in the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio at Venice. The place was agreeable to the emperor, who bore the expense of the election. Thirty-four cardinals were in attendance on the opening day, 30 Nov., 1799; to these was added a few days later Cardinal Herzan, who acted simultaneously as imperial commissioner. It was not long before the election of Cardinal Bellisomi seemed assured. He was, however, unacceptable to the Austrian party, who favoured Cardinal Mattei. As neither candidate could secure a sufficient number of votes, a third name, that of Cardinal Gerdil, was proposed, but his election was vetoed by Austria. At last, after the conclave had lasted three months, some of the neutral cardinals, including Maury, suggested Chiaramonti as a suitable candidate and, with the tactful support of the secretary of the conclave, Ercole Consalvi, he was elected. The new pope was crowned as Pius VII on 21 March, 1800, at Venice. He then left this city in an Austrian vessel for Rome, where he made his solemn entry on 3 July, amid the universal joy of the populace. Of all-important consequence for his reign was the elevation on 11 Aug., 1800, of Ercole Consalvi, one of the greatest statesmen of the nineteenth century, to the college of cardinals and to the office of secretary of state. Consalvi retained to the end the confidence of the pope, although the conflict with Napoleon forced him out of office for several years.

With no country was Pius VII more concerned during his reign than with France, where the revolution had destroyed the old order in religion no less than in politics. Bonaparte, as first consul, signified his readiness to enter into negotiations tending to the settlement of the religious question. These advances led to the conclusion of the historic Concordat of 1801, which for over a hundred years governed the relations of the French Church with Rome (on this compact; the journey of Pius VII to Paris for the imperial coronation; his captivity and restoration, see CONCORDAT OF 1801, CONSALVI; and NAPOLEON I). After the fall of Napoleon a new concordat was negotiated between Pius VII and Louis XVIII. It provided for an additional number of French bishoprics and abrogated the Organic Articles. But liberal and Gallican opposition to it was so strong that it could never be carried out. One of its objects was later realized when in 1822 the circumscription Bull "Paternæ Caritatis" erected thirty new episcopal sees.

At the Peace of Lunéville in 1801, some German princes lost their hereditary rights and dominions through the cession of the left bank of the Rhine to France. When it became known that they contemplated compensating their loss by the secularization of ecclesiastical lands, Pius VII instructed Dalberg, Elector of Mainz, on 2 Oct., 1802, to use all his influence for the protection of the rights of the Church. Dalberg, however, displayed more ardour for his own advancement than zeal in the defence of religious interests, and the seizure of ecclesiastical property was permitted in 1803 by the Imperial Deputation at Ratisbon. The measure resulted in enormous loss for the Church, but the pope was powerless to resist its execution. The ecclesiastical reorganization of Germany now became a pressing need. Bavaria soon opened negotiations in view of a concordat and was shortly after followed by Würtemburg. But Rome would rather treat with the central imperial government than with individual states, and after the suppression of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Napoleon's aim was to obtain a uniform concordat for the whole Confederation of the Rhine. Subsequent events prevented any agreement before Napoleon's downfall. At the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) Consalvi in vain advocated the restoration of the former ecclesiastical organization. Soon after this event the individual German States separately entered into negotiations with Rome and the first concordat was concluded with Bavaria in 1817. In 1821 Pius VII promulgated in the Bull "De salute animarum" the agreement concluded with Prussia, and the same year another Bull, "Provida Solersque", made a fresh distribution of dioceses in the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine. An arrangement with Rome based on mutual concessions was likewise contemplated in England in regard to Irish ecclesiastical affairs, notably episcopal nominations (the veto). The papal administration favoured the project the more readily seeing that common resistance to Napoleon had brought the Holy See and the British Government more closely together, and that it still stood in need of the assistance of English might and diplomacy. But Irish opposition to the scheme was so determined that nothing could be done, and the Irish clergy remained free from all state control. Similar freedom prevailed in the growing Church of the United States, in which country Pius VII erected in 1808 the Dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, with Baltimore as the metropolitan see. To these dioceses were added those of Charleston and Richmond in 1820, and that of Cincinnati in 1821.

One of the most remarkable successes of his pontificate was the restoration of the Pontifical States, secured at the Congress of Vienna by the papal representative Consalvi. Only a small strip of land remained in the power of Austria, and this usurpation was protested. In the temporal administration of these states some of the features making for uniformity and efficiency introduced by the French were judiciously retained, the feudal rights of the nobility were abolished, and the ancient privileges of the municipalities suppressed. Considerable opposition developed against these measures, and the Carbonari even threatened rebellion; but Consalvi had their leaders prosecuted and on 13 Sept., 1821, Pius VII condemned their principles. Of a more serious nature was the revolution which in 1820 broke out in Spain and which, owing to its anticlerical character, gave great concern to the papacy. It restricted the authority of ecclesiastical courts (26 Sept., 1820); decreed (23 Oct.) the suppression of a large number of monasteries, and prohibited (14 April, 1821) the forwarding of financial contributions to Rome. It also secured the appointment of Canon Villanueva, a public advocate of the abolition of the papacy, as Spanish ambassador to Rome, and, upon the refusal of Pius VII to accept him, broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1823. This same year, however, the armed intervention of France suppressed the revolution and King Ferdinand VII repealed the anti-Catholic laws.

During the latter part of the reign of Pius VII, the prestige of the papacy was enhanced by the presence in Rome of several European rulers. The Emperor and Empress of Austria, accompanied by their daughter, made an official visit to the pope in 1819. The King of Naples visited Rome in 1821 and was followed in 1822 by the King of Prussia. The blind Charles Emmanuel IV of Savoy, and King Charles IV of Spain and his queen, permanently resided in the Eternal City. Far more glorious to Pius VII personally is the fact that, after the downfall of his persecutor Napoleon, he gladly offered a refuge in his capital to the members of the Bonaparte family. Princess Letitia, the deposed emperor's mother, lived there; likewise did his brothers Lucien and Louis and his uncle, Cardinal Fesch. So forgiving was Pius that upon hearing of the severe captivity in which the imperial prisoner was held at St. Helena, he requested Cardinal Consalvi to plead for leniency with the Prince-Regent of England. When he was informed of Napoleon's desire for the ministrations of a Catholic priest, he sent him the Abbé Vignali as chaplain.

Under Pius's reign Rome was also the favourite abode of artists. Among these it suffices to cite the illustrious names of the Venetian Canova, the Dane Thorwaldsen, the Austrian Führich, and the Germans Overbeck, Pforr, Schadow, and Cornelius. Pius VII added numerous manuscripts and printed volumes to the Vatican Library; reopened the English, Scottish, and German Colleges at Rome, and established new chairs in the Roman College. He reorganized the Congregation of the Propaganda, and condemned the Bible Societies. In 1805 he received at Florence the unconditional submission of Scipione Ricci, the former Bishop of Pistoia-Prato, who had refused obedience to Pius VI in his condemnation of the Synod of Pistoia. The suppressed Society of Jesus he re-established for Russia in 1801, for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1804; for America, England, and Ireland in 1813, and for the Universal Church on 7 August, 1814.

On 6 July, 1823, Pius VII fell in his apartment and fractured his thigh. He was obliged to take to his bed, never to rise again. During his illness the magnificent basilica of St. Paul Without the Walls was destroyed by fire, a calamity which was never revealed to him. The gentle but courageous pontiff breathed his last in the presence of his devoted Consalvi, who was soon to follow him to the grave.


The Bulls of Pius VII are partly in Bullarii Romani continuatio, ed. BARBERI, XI-XV (Rome, 1846-53); DROCHON, Mémoires du cardinal Consalvi (Paris, 1896); PACCA, tr. HEAD, Historical Memoirs of Cardinal Pacca (London, 1850); ARTAUD DE MONTOR, Histoire du Pape Pie VII (3rd ed., Paris, 1839); WISEMAN, Recollections of the Last Four Popes (Boston, 1858); ALLIES, The Life of Pope Pius VII (2nd ed., London, 1897); MACCAFFREY, History of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century (2nd ed., Dublin and St. Louis, 1910); ACTON, The Cambridge Modern History: vol. X, The Restoration (New York, 1907); SAMPSON, Pius VII and the French Revolution, in Amer. Cath. Quarterly Rev. (Philadelphia, Apr., 1908—). See also bibliographies to CONCORDAT OF 1801; CONSALVI, ERCOLE; NAPOLEON I (BONAPARTE).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1911). Pope Pius VII. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Pope Pius VII." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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