Biography – Pope Pius VIII – The Papal Library

Close Window

Pius VIII
1829-1830

Francesco Xaviero Castiglioni born 1761

After the death of Leo XII, on the 10th of February, 1829, Cardinal Galeffi proceeded with all the members of the apostolic chamber to the Vatican, and, after recognizing the body of the late pontiff, broke the fisherman's ring. On the evening of the same day Cardinal della SomagIia, dean of the Sacred College, assembled the cardinals, heads of orders–Cardinal Fesch, first of the cardinal-priests; Cardinal Cacciapiatte, first of the order of deacons at Rome. The novendiali began on the 16th of February, Cardinal Pacca, subdean, officiating the first day.

At their conclusion on the 23rd, thirty-seven cardinals entered into conclave in the Quirinal. At first Cardinal Pacca and Cardinal de Gregorio were proposed, but when Cardinal Albani arrived, accredited representative of Austria in the conclave, charged with the veto of the emperor, the votes centered on Cardinal Francesco Xaviero Castiglioni, who was elected on the 31st of March, and assumed the title of Pius VIII.

It will be naturally asked, says Cardinal Wiseman, what were the qualities which secured to him this rapid nomination. His short pontificate did not allow time for the display of any extraordinary powers; nor would it be fair, without evidence of them, to attribute them to him. But there was all the moral assurance, which a previous life could give, of his possessing the gifts necessary to make him more than an ordinary man in his high elevation.

Though born (November 20, 1761) of noble family, in the small city of Cingoli, he had come early to Rome to pursue his studies, and had distinguished himself in them so much that in 1800, when only thirty-nine years old, he had been raised to the episcopal dignity in the see of Montalto, near Ascoli. Here he had signalized himself by his apostolic zeal, and had consequently drawn upon his conduct the jealous eye of the French authorities. He was known to be stanch in his fidelity to the sovereign pontiff and to the rights of the Church; consequently he was denounced as dangerous, and honored by exile, first to Milan, and then to Mantua. We are told that those who had charge of him were astonished to find, in the supposed firebrand, one of the gentlest and meekest of human beings. In all this, however, there was much to recommend him to those who had met to elect a shepherd, and not a hireling, for Christ's flock.

But in this proof of his constancy there had been testimony borne to another, and if not a higher, at least a rarer, quality. This was ecclesiastical learning. Of his familiarity with other portions of this extensive literary field there will be occasion to speak later. But the branch of theological lore in which Cardinal Castiglioni had been most conspicuous was canon law. Some readers may not be willing to concede any great importance or dignity to such a proficiency, the value of which they may have had few opportunities of estimating. Canon law is, however, a system of ecclesiastical jurisprudence as complex and as complete as any other legislative and judicial code; and since it is in force at Rome, and has to be referred to even in transactions with other countries where ecclesiastical authority is more limited, a person soIidly grounded in it, and practically versed in its application, naturally possesses a valuable advantage in the conduct of affairs, especially those belonging to the highest spheres. We would not allow a foreigner the right to despise that peculiar learning which we think qualifies a lawyer for judicial eminence; especially if, from his ignorance of our unique legal principles and practice, he may not have qualified himself to judge of it. However, the attainments of Cardinal Castiglioni rose even higher than these. He had been originally the scholar of the first canonist of his day, and had become his assistant. The work which stands highest anong modern manuals on ecclesiastical law is Devoti's Institutes; and this was the joint work of that prelate and Castiglioni. Indeed, the most learned portions of it, the notes which enrich and explain it, were mainly the production off the pupil. Now it so happened that when the relations between Pius VII and the French emperor became intricate and unfriendly, and delicate questions arose of conflicting claims and jurisdictions, it was to the Bishop of Montalto that the pope had recourse, as his learned and trusty counsellor in such dangerous matters. He was found equal to the occasion. His answers and reports were firm, precise, and erudite; nor did he shrink from the responsibility of having given them. It was this freedom and in inflexibility which drew upon him the dislike of the occupying power in Italy. Surely such learning must receive its full value with those who have seen its fruits, when they are deliberating about providing a prudent steersman and a skillful captain for the bark of Peter, still travailed by past tempests, and closely threatened by fresh storms.

When the pope was restored to his own, Castiglioni's merits were fully acknowledged and rewarded. On the 8th of March, 1816, he was raised to the cardinalitial dignity, and named Bishop of Cesena, the pope's own native city. He was in course of time brought to Rome, and so became Bishop of Tusculum, or Frascati, one of the episcopal titles in the Sacred College. He was also named penitentiary, an office requiring great experience and prudence. He enjoyed the friendship of Consalvi as well as the confidence of their common master, and thus his ecclesiastical knowledge was brought most opportunely to assist the diplomatic experience and ability of the more secular minister. In fact, it might be said that they often worked in common, and even gave conjointly audience to foreign ministers in matters of a double interest. And such must often be transactions between the Holy See and Catholic powers.

Such were the qualifications which induced the fifty-one electors in conclave to unite their suffrages in the person of Cardinal Castiglioni.

The appearance of Pius VIII was not, perhaps, so prepossessing at first sight as that of his two predecessors. This was not from any want either of character or of amiability in his features. When you came to look into his countenance, it was found to be what the reader will think it in his portrait, noble and gentle. The outlines were large and dignified in their proportions, and the mouth and eyes full of sweetness. But an obstinate and chronic herpetic affection in the neck kept his head turned and bowed down, imparted an awkwardness, or want of elegance, to his movements, and prevented his countenance being fully and favorably viewed.

This, however, was not the worst; he seemed, and indeed was, in a state of constant pain, which produced an irritation that manifested itself sometimes in his tone and expression. Another effect of this suffering was that many of the functions of the Church were beyond his strength.

Being himself of a most delicate conscience, he was perhaps severe and stern in his principles, and in enforcing them. He was, for example, most scrupulous about any of his family taking advantage of his elevation to seek honors or high offices. On the very day of his election he wrote to his nephews a letter in which he communicated to them the welcome news of his having been raised, by Divine Providence, to the chair of Peter, and shed bitter tears over the responsibilities with which this dignity overburdened him. He solicited their prayers, commanded them to refrain from all pomp and pride, and added: "Let none of you, or of the family, move from your posts." During his pontificate it was proposed to bestow on the great Saint Bernard the title of Doctor of the Universal Church, in the same manner as it is held by Saint Augustine or Saint Jerome. It was said that some one engaged in the cause, by way of enlisting the pope's sympathies in it, remarked that Saint Bernard belonged to the same family, since the Châtillons in France and the Castiglioni in Italy were only different branches of the same illustrious house. This remark, whether in the pleadings or in conversation, sufficed to check the proceedings, as the pontiff, jealous of any possible partiality or bias on his part, and fearful of even a suspicion of such a motive having influenced him, ordered them to be suspended. They were afterwards resumed and brought to a happy conclusion under his pontificate.

In speaking of this pope's literary accomplishments, his superior knowledge of canon law was singled out. But this was by no means his exclusive pursuit. To mention one of a totally different class, he possessed a very rare acquaintance with numismatics. Biblical literature, however, was his favorite pursuit, and Cardinal Wiseman bears witness to his having made himself fully acquainted with its modem theories, and especially with German rationalistic systems.

Pius VIII confirmed Cardinal Pacca as datary, and appointed Cardinal de Gregorio grand penitentiary, and Cardinal Pedicini secretary of memorials. He took possession of Saint John Lateran on the 24th of May, the anniversary of the return of Pius VII to Rome in 1814.

Less than a month after his election, and before this last official act, it was announced to the pope that the sovereign of Great Britain had signed the bill of Catholic emancipation on the 23rd of April, 1829. This act removed a vast array of disability which had for centuries hung over the Catholic body, excluding them from all right of holding any office, civil or military, and even from exercising the right of franchise, practising law, or studying at the universities. On the exercises of religion the heavy hand of the law lay still more severely. For a Catholic to hear Mass, receive absolution, pronounce the vows of religion, or receive any brief or bull from Rome, was, in the eye of the law, a crime of the same character as an attempt on the life of the monarch, or a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The intense bigotry and ignorance in which the people had been grounded and kept had at last rendered it almost dangerous to sweep away the diabolical penal laws against the Catholics; but the government yielded to the agitation begun in Ireland, and entered the career of enlightenment and civilization.

The happy event was celebrated with all possible pomp by the colleges at Rome assigned to the education of young ecclesiastics from the British Isles, and which then numbered among their inmates Wiseman, whose elevation to the cardinalate in later years aroused the last outburst of insensate English bigotry.

On the 24th of May, 1829, Pius issued an encyclical in which he called attention to the efforts of the enemies of religion, the spirit of religious indifferentism, the efforts of Bible societies to prejudice the faith by the diffusion of corrupt and mutilated translations made to serve a purpose. Against all these and the wide-spreading secret societies he aroused the zeal of the bishops. He urged them to meet the danger by fresh exertions, by care in erecting and conducting seminaries and other institutions where learned and capable priests might be trained. He called them, also, in an especial manner, to contend for the sanctity of marriage, which modern society seemed determined to reduce to a mere voluntary union.

Pius at once continued the labors of his predecessor in erecting the Church of Saint Paul, and was enabled to raise means to hasten the completion of a work so ardently desired. One of the great columns intended to support the magnificent arch erected by the Empress Placidia was raised to its place in the venerated basilica early in the reign of this pope, and that relic of the former church preserved in all its beauty.

On the 18th of June he proclaimed the usual jubilee granted on the accession of a pope, and his letters apostolic breathe all the ecclesiastical spirit, learning, and piety which characterize his writings.

By a concordat with Holland, three bishops had been instituted at Ghent, Tournay, and Liège; but no nominations had as yet been made for the sees of Bruges, Bar-le-Duc, and Amsterdam. Cardinal Joseph Albani labored to have the whole matter arranged; but the government caused these bishops even to surrender the bulls which they had officially received through its hands, and it was not till a much later period that they were finally consecrated.

About this epoch arose, at Lyons, an association of poor persons in favor of the foreign missions, each member giving only half a dollar a year. This soon spread, with the blessing of God, and has for many years been, under the name of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, one of the great succors of the missionary struggling with the manifold forms of human error and indifference. In these missions Pius VIII took the deepest interest; and, no matter what the state of suffering in which he lay a habitual invalid, he rose, as if by an irresistible impulse, to give an audience and his blessing to the apostolic man departing on his sacred errand.

The Carbonari, a secret society established with a view to the unity of Italy and a republican government, was meanwhile spreading. The decrees of the pontiffs were disregarded, and new lodges, or vendettas, were established in various parts. In 1829 twenty-six persons were brought to trial for conspiracy, and Joseph Picilli de Madellone condemned to death, although Pius commuted his penalty to imprisonment.

But while religion was embarrassed with difficulties in the Old World, where the State assumed to control the nomination of bishops and their action–where revolutionary spirits, goaded on by infidelity, sought to overthrow every altar–the new Church of the United States filled the heart of the pontiff with joy and consolation. There religion was free. Prejudice, indeed, prevailed in a people nurtured for centuries in calumnies against the Church; but the Church was everywhere free to carry on her labors. Pius VII had created the first sees; Leo XII had added others. A new hierarchy had grown up beyond the Atlantic; and on 4th of October, 1829, there opened, in the cathedral at Baltimore, the first provincial council, unfettered by any governmental interference, but following all the regulations of Church.

The decrees adopted were transmitted to Rome, and there confirmed by the Holy See. Out of respect to the founder of their hierarchy, Archbishop Carroll, the acts of his synod of 1791, were incorporated in the acts of the council.

But while the pope was consoled with the freedom of Church in America, and its progress in the British realm, he was afflicted by the attempt of German Protestant powers to control Catholic matters according to their views. Did we not know that the gates of hell are ever endeavoring to prevail against the Church of Christ, we might ask, why will not these men, these Henry IV's, these s, these Jansenists, these Robespierres, these Napoleons, these Mazzinis, think as they please, and act as they please, and let Catholics, who wish to adhere to the old faith, practise it fully? The thing seems so simple. Why not let the Catholic practise his religion, as they allow the Jew or Calvinist to practise his? No attempt has been made to require the synagogue to reform the Talmud, or the Calvinist to adopt new formularies.

In 1821 a pragmatic was proclaimed in the name of the States of Würtemberg, Baden, the two Hesses, Nassau, and Frankfort. Protestants alone drew up this document, which was to regulate Catholic faith and worship, and had the simplicity to suppose that the Church would submit to such dictation. The burgomaster and council of the free city of Frankfort, on the 2nd of May, 1830, came forward with a document in thirty-nine articles, entitled Pragmatic, intended to adapt the faith and discipline of the Universal Church, the work of the learning and sanctity of eighteen centuries, to the requirements of the Protestant burgomaster and his council.

To such a system of tyranny the pope could not submit. His protest, first in a non-official form, was transmitted to several States which had subscribed with the Senate of Frankfort the tyrannical constitution, and explanations were received which for a time reassured the sovereign pontiff.

The question of mixed marriages in Germany also required attention. In reply to a letter of the Archbishop of Cologne and the bishops of Treves, Paderborn, and Münster, Pius VIII issued a bull dated March 25, 1830, and accompanied by instructions bearing date two days later, and signed by Cardinal Albani. Such is always the usage at Rome. General principles are laid down in the briefs, bulls, letters apostolic and encyclical; then instructions appear to the sense of these principles, suppose various cases, and offer a number of useful solutions, which pastors remote from Rome may take as a rule, and apply to circumstances not distinctly marked out.

Cardinal Wiseman, speaking of this celebrated letter says: "One cannot fail to be struck by the calm and apostolic dignity which pervades it in every part. It is known that it cost the gentle yet firm mind of Pius a conflict of emotions, which inflicted on him almost anguish. His office compelled him to reply; and the answer could not be any but a censure on the conduct of a powerful State with which he was perfectly at peace, and directions to thwart its measure and testify to the utmost 'abhorrence' for it. It was impossible for him to foresee the possible results of his decided conduct. His directions might be disobeyed, and the world might deride his innocuous blow, as though, like the feeble old Priam' s.  
'. . . telum imbelle sine ictu.'

"They might be carried out not in his spirit, and confusion and misunderstanding would arise. Or even they might be admirably obeyed, and yet lead to collisions and conflicts, to sufferings and violence, of which the blame would probably be cast upon himself. It was painful, therefore, in the extreme, to feel obliged to issue such a document; but, upon its face, no sign can be traced of the agitation and affliction of his soul. It is impassive and dignified throughout. There are blended in it two qualities, not often combined. Its enactments are as clear and as definite as any statute could make them, without wavering, flinching, or aught extenuating; at the same time, its entire tone is conciliatory, respectful, and even friendly. To the bishops he speaks as a father and a master; of their sovereign he undeviatingly writes as of a fellow-monarch, an ally, and a friend. His confidence in the royal justice, fairness, and tolerance is entire and unbounded. The character of Pius is breathed into every paragraph, his inflexibility of conscience, his strictness of principle, with his kindness of heart and gentleness of natural disposition. Moreover, the consummate canonist is discoverable to the more learned, and this, too, in the line of condescension and conciliation. His successor, in 1837, commenting on this brief, justly remarked that it 'pushed its indulgence so far that one might truly say it reached the very boundary line, which could not be passed without violation of duty.' Every one knows what a nicety in legal knowledge this requires. A well-remembered popular leader used boast that he trusted so confidently in his accurate acquaintance with law that he had no fear of ever overstepping its limits, or being caught in the snares which he knew beset his path. His foot was, however, at length entangled in its meshes, his confidence had betrayed him, and his energy was irreparably broken."

"Not so was it with Pius. What he had written, he had written in the fullness of a wisdom which holiness of life had matured, and an earnest sense of duty now doubly enlightened; not a word of it had to be recalled, modified, or compromised; and, though after a long struggle, it has remained an oracle and a law."

The Prussian minister, De Bunsen, acknowledged that, although the pontifical concessions did not go to the length, in all points, asked by his court, they were of extreme importance. After declaring that he accepted with gratitude the conciliating concessions offered by the court of Rome, he asked that the brief and instruction be handed to him to forward to Berlin. Four copies, one for each prelate, were accordingly prepared and delivered; but, after all this activity, there were silence and inaction for more than a year. The brief and instruction lay unacted upon, at Berlin, until 1831, and, consequently, till after the death of Pius VIII.

In 1830, Pius VIII, yielding to many solicitations, created cardinal the Duke de Rohan-Chabot, Archbishop of Besançon.

Notwithstanding some minor disputes between the Holy See and the Russian court, the Emperor Alexander had repaired at Rome the ancient Polish church of Saint Nicholas; and Nicholas ordered further improvements, and extended his care to the ancient Polish church, la Madonna del Pascolo.

In consequence of a supposed connection between the Bonapartes and the Carbonari, the Neapolitan government urged that the widow of Murat, the ex-King of Naples, should not be allowed to remain at Rome. She accordingly retired to Austria.

Although the protests of Pius VIII against the thirty-nine tyrannical Frankfort articles had seemed to have some weight, there now appeared a design of enforcing them rigorously. The affairs occurring in Europe were a warning alike to Catholic and Protestant powers, and Pius VIII resolved to address the Archbishop of Freiburg and the bishops of his province an urgent brief. The various princes were informed of it. They should have seen that it was not a time when the pontiffs could infringe on their just rights, but that their very existence was aimed at, by powers against which the Church ever raised her voice, the powers of infidelity and indifferentism.

In this letter Pius VIII took the broad ground that the free toleration of the Catholic faith had been publicly guaranteed in those States, and that no change of discipline could be enforced by the State, but that every new measure must be concerted between the government and the Holy See.

"To our venerable Brethren, the Archbishop of Freiburg the bishops of Mainz, Rothenburg, Limburg, and Fulda.

"Pius VIII.

"Venerable Brethren, health:

"An afflicting rumor had already reached my ears that the enemies of the Catholic Church were forming in the province of the Rhine some projects against sound doctrine and the constitution of the Church, and that their efforts, cunningly directed, called for numerous innovations, and were not without success. We could not at first credit these uncertain rumors, especially having learned nothing from you, to whom it belongs to inform us on so grave a matter, as also to watch efficaciously over the good of your dioceses, and remove not only errors, but also the danger and suspicion of error. It is with no less astonishment than grief that we have seen our hopes deceived in this respect, for what has reached us in a special manner has become public, and is confirmed by indisputable testimony, so that we had absolutely to convince ourselves that the Church could not tolerate the novelties introduced into the country, inasmuch as they rest on false and erroneous principles, opposed to the doctrines and laws of the Church, and that they tend openly to the ruin of souls."

"The holy spouse of Christ, the Spotless Lamb, is free by divine institution, and is not subjected to any human power, but it is reduced by these profane novelties to a shameful and wretched , when the lay power is permitted to confirm or reject councils, divide dioceses, select the candidates for the priesthood and those who should be promoted to ecclesiastical functions, when the direction of instruction and religious and moral discipline are assigned to them, when the very seminaries and all that touches the spiritual government of the Church is left to the pleasure of the laity, and the faithful are prevented from communicating freely with the head of the Church, although such communion is essential to the constitution of the Catholic Church, and cannot be prevented without depriving the faithful of necessary succor and imperiling their eternal salvation."

"It would be at least a consolation for us, if, following the duty of your charge, you had taken all care to instruct the faithful confided to you in regard to the manifold errors of these principles, and on the snares laid for them by these enterprises. It behooved you to do what the apostle Saint Paul so imposingly inculcates on