In 1798, French troops entered Rome and imprisoned Pope Pius VI. His imprisonment effectively abolished Pius’s temporal power which the popes preceding him had held since the 8th century. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Online with World History during that time.
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The Catholic Church During the French Revolution
France had three distinct social classes under the Ancien Régime. High-ranking members of the Roman Catholic clergy occupied the First Estate, while the Second Estate was composed of members of the nobility. The Third Estate was occupied by 80 percent of France’s population. This included the bourgeoisie (middle class), peasants, city laborers, artisans, and low-ranking clergy.
The First and Second Estates had rights and privileges not enjoyed by the Third Estate. The bourgeoisie, being considerably well-off, resented the privileges enjoyed by the first two Estates and clamored for equality. The peasants had long bore the brunt of supporting the First and Second Estates. To the Church, the peasants owed tithes and various levies (such as grain and other farm products). To the State, on the other hand, the peasants owed the taille (head tax) and other similar burdensome taxes.
The inequity under the Ancien Régime, high food prices during the late 1780s, government debts, and King Louis XVI’s inability to require the nobility to pay their share of taxes became the kindling for the explosion of the French Revolution. In mid-1789, France’s Third Estate successfully staged the French Revolution and reduced the power of the monarchy. On August 26, 1789, the National Assembly finally approved the Declaration of Rights of Man which served as the foundation of a “liberal and egalitarian” France.
Once the elation of the Revolution died down, the French leaders had to confront nagging issues that a simple change in the form of government could not address. One of the first issues the government had to confront was the existence of France’s debts and how the government could pay them off. The First Estate inadvertently provided the government an easy way to solve France’s financial problems.
After the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, France’s leaders grappled with the existence of the First Estate and its role in an “egalitarian” nation. The philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, with their scathing criticisms, slowly chipped away at the power and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church. The lavish lifestyle many members of the First Estate indulged in also made them an easy target for hostility.
The new Revolutionary government believed that the Roman Catholic Church had no place in this new society unless the First Estate be brought to heel. On the practical side, however, the new leaders believed that the wealth of Church could be seized and sold off to pay for country’s debt. In 1790, the National Assembly addressed the issue by creating the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Constitution sought to reorganize the Church by reducing the number of dioceses and bishops. Church properties were confiscated by the state, while the collection of tithes was abolished. The government then assumed the responsibility of paying the clergymen, maintaining churches, and providing relief for the poor.
The clerics who toed the line and took the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were absorbed into the reorganized church. Those who refused to take the oath were persecuted and were sometimes driven from France. Years later, the French Republic (in an act of rejection of the Catholic Church) would get rid of the Gregorian calendar and replace it with its own Revolutionary Calendar. Outraged, Pope Pius VI promptly protested to the National Assembly when news of the reorganization reached him in Rome. He then anathematized the French government and clerics who took the oath. This was just the beginning of the end of Pope Pius VI’s temporal power.
The Rise of Napoleon, the French Directory, and the End of Pope Pius VI’s Temporal Power
In 1792, France declared war on Austria and Prussia, plunging the country into conflict with most of its neighbors for the next twenty years. After declaring France a Republic, the country’s new rulers voted for the dissolution of the monarchy. They then executed King Louis XVI, his family, and many members of the nobility. So began the Reign of Terror which gripped the country between the summer of 1793 and 1794. Spain, Portugal, Britain, Sardinia, and Naples soon joined the First Coalition against a hawkish France.
It was during this time that Napoleon Bonaparte, a young and brilliant Corsican officer in the French army, would rise and lead the country into victory after victory. First hailed as a hero during the battle with the Spanish and British troops at Toulon in 1793, he steadily rose through the ranks and became a brigadier general by the end of 1793. He temporarily fell out of favor, but was restored in 1795 by Paul Barras after his successful defense of the National Convention. He was promoted to Commander of the Interior and became the commander of the French army in Italy.
In 1796, Napoleon led his army into Turin after defeating the army of Piedmont. King Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia (also Duke of Savoy) was forced to sue for peace. He was later compelled to cede Savoy and Nice to France. The French army under Napoleon managed to defeat the Italian troops (including the pope’s own troops) to occupy Milan, Ancona, and Loreto. The invaders were besieging the duchy of Mantua when the Pope Pius VI, as well as the dukes of Modena and Parma, sued for peace. Napoleon soon brought the papal territory of Bologna and Ferrara into French domination. By 1797, Napoleon had subdued Mantua. Members of the First Coalition soon sued for peace, and on the 17th of October 1797, the representatives of France and the First Coalition signed the Treaty of Campo Formio.
The peace of Campo Formio, however, did not last long. The Directory was eager to get rid of the pope and transform the Papal States into a republic, but its members first needed a compelling reason to do so. A pretext presented itself when a riot broke out in Rome in December 1797, killing brigadier-general Leonard Duphot in the process.
General Louis Berthier and his troops were tasked by the Directory to invade Rome on February 10, 1798, and declare the creation of a new Roman Republic. He announced the deposition of Pope Pius VI and demanded that the pope renounce his temporal power. When the pope refused, General Berthier took him prisoner and escorted him from the Vatican to Siena. He was later taken to Certosa, but the French army relocated him to Valence in Drôme when a war in Tuscany became imminent. He died in Valence on August 29, 1799.
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.
Sellers, Ian. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Walsh, John. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 9: War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval, 1793-1830. Edited by C.W. Crawley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
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