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from issue no. 12 - 2005

Reforming Benedicts

Out of the conclaves dominated by the secular powers in the eighteenth century two “independents” emerged: Benedict XIII and Benedict XIV. Unalike in so many ways, it was not only the name they had in common, but also a sincere attempt at reform

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Opening illustration to the edition of the Acts of the Roman Synod of 1725 printed in Rome in that same year at the Rocchi Bernabò press

Opening illustration to the edition of the Acts of the Roman Synod of 1725 printed in Rome in that same year at the Rocchi Bernabò press

One has to wait for the eighteenth century before seeing the name Benedict reoccur in the list of the popes. Perhaps because the last ones to chose it, between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were two antipopes.
It was chosen again, at the moment of his election to the papal throne in May 1724, by Cardinal Pietro Francesco Orsini or, according to his name in religion, the Dominican Fra Vincenzo Maria Orsini. Who as pope took the name Benedict in reference to the blessed Dominican Pope Benedict XI (1303-1304). Identifying with the humble successor of Boniface VIII in the early fourteenth century – and not to Pius V, for example, a Dominican pope of more recent times proclaimed saint a few years earlier in 1712 – Benedict XIII, to those who had ears to hear, was already offering the characteristic feature of his pontificate, as we shall see.
Born of a noble and highly religious Apulian family (his mother, left a widow in 1658, was later to take the Dominican habit), he made his profession as a Dominican in February 1669 when little more than nineteen. To the great distress of his family at that moment who were preparing a marriage worthy of the heir to the Duke of Gravina for him. But they didn’t lose their grip and righted things by arranging the marriage of their second son to the niece of the reigning pope, Clement X Altieri, at the same time getting Fra Vincenzo Maria nominated cardinal, to his grave distress, a few months after his priestly ordination in 1672.
It could have been the start of a typical ecclesiastic career in the fashion of the ancien régime. And to some extent so it was. In that period there was no cardinal who didn’t emerge from the combine between throne and altar. Who can rid himself of the historical period in which it is given him to live? And yet, writes Luigi Fiorani in the Dizionario storico del Papato, «his personal path and his rise only in part follow the pattern of the career of a prelate of rank» (DSP, I, p. 163).
His pontificate also had features that scarcely match a schema, even though, if read according to some criteria, it wasn’t so different from other typical “weak” pontificates of the modern era. He, a seventy-five year old Italian, zealous, i.e. belonging to the group of cardinals who wanted to show themselves concerned only for the good of the Church, was elected unanimously precisely because the secular powers of the time, reflected in the conclave, after more than two months dispute, came in the end to agreement on a candidate considered politically inoffensive. All the better when, in the case of Orsini, his neutrality was not tactical but sprang from genuine religious depth. A few days after Benedict’s election Cardinal Cienfuegos wrote to the emperor: «The forecast being made of the Pope’s rule comes down to believing him strict in ecclesiastical matters, and that where it is a question of those he can give some trouble even to crowns. Furthermore his intentions are altogether righteous and his life canonizes him as saint» (quoted by Pastor, Storia dei papi, XV, p. 502, note 2).
Historical judgment lays the stress mainly on Benedict XIII’s religious zeal. Whether interpreted as simple praise, to the point of denying his more or less deliberate (we shall come back to it) politico-diplomatic incapacity, or whether attributing his politico-diplomatic incapacity, in no very veiled way, to his zeal. If in the file devoted to him as “servant of God” in the Supplement to the Bibliotheca Sanctorum (in the wake, as is easy to see, of the monumental “defensive memorial” that G. B. Vignato devoted to him between 1952 and 1976) one reads that «it was his reputation as “saint” that won the unanimous [naively italicized in the text] consent of the cardinals» (p. 159), Pastor, while reiterating that «there can be no doubt that he was one of the most devout and humble popes», concludes his treatment with a phrase of condemnation: «Being an excellent religious is not enough to make a capable pope» (XV, p. 638). Of which one might ask – forgive my boldness – whether the more than one hundred and fifty pages in the thoroughly documented analysis that Pastor dedicates to Benedict XIII (we’ve read them all), are not here more the case for the prosecution rather than a real essay at historical understanding.
Bust of Benedict XIII, Pietro Bracci, baptistery of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Bust of Benedict XIII, Pietro Bracci, baptistery of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Both the ones and the others, however, and even the intermediate tiers-parti historians, in safeguarding the sanctity of the pope, attribute the responsibility for his limits as ruler to the extremely corrupt advisors from Benevento with whom the pope surrounded himself, and in particular to Niccolò Coscia, already his secretary in Benevento, created cardinal in June 1725 and then the factotum of his pontificate. «A man of extremely base feelings», says Pastor with judicial emphasis, «he abused the position of trust given him by Benedict XIII in the most shameless way» (XV, p. 507). In this case, furthermore, the historians are agreed in their judgment and it coincides with the real sentence of condemnation that Coscia underwent after the death of Benedict XIII. His manoeuvres seem even to have influenced the international relations of the Holy See as regarded the concordat negotiations with the emperor on Sicily and with Savoys on the Kingdom of Sardinia.
To understand the reasons for the decisive influence of Coscia and the men from Benevento, one has to remember that even as pope Benedict XIII kept up a privileged tie with the archdiocese of Benevento, where he had spent 38 years dedicating to it, not without personal gratification, his best energies. There he had experienced the intercession of Saint Philip Neri, his favorite saint, to whom he attributed his survival in the earthquake that caused widespread death in 1688. There he had organized an intense reform of the ecclesiastical structure, making all of fifteen pastoral visits. There he had initiated fiscal and social programs. Benevento was not, in fact, only an important archiepiscopal See, it was part of the Papal States, an enclave of it, almost a post litteram Avignon within the Kingdom of Naples; and the archbishop naturally had the task of civil government.
«It would be difficult to overestimate the work of reform carried out for almost forty years by Orsini in the province of Benevento…, evidence that he was not so wanting in experience of administrative and political matters and so exclusively given to ascetic practices as was always later thought», writes G. De Caro in the perceptive entry of the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani devoted to Benedict XIII (DBI, VIII, p. 385). So probably it was not out of sheer «foolishness» (Pastor, XV, p. 638) that he trusted the men from Benevento. The pope thought that by relying on “his men”, whom he knew well, he would have more freedom of action for the «new policy that he was meditating» (DBI, VIII, p. 394).
In fact, not merely at the level of ecclesiastical discipline (enough to consider the Rome Synod celebrated in 1725, the first since the time of Innocent III!), not only on the social plane (enough to think of the startling procession in Rome of freed slaves during the Jubilee of that year and in literal obedience to its meaning, to which Guido Miglietta has recently drawn attention, or of the initiative, similar to that already tried in Benevento, of the easing of credit and of corresponding defiscalization), he had the courage to take a step backwards or forwards, whichever suits, in terms of his immediate predecessors. Even in the minefield of the so-called Chinese rite (allowing converts in the Celestial Empire to celebrate the traditional rites of their stock) and of the querelle on grace (the aftermath of which could still be felt in France), he worked for reconciliation. Almost in imitation, centuries afterwards, of the work of his distant predecessor Benedict XI, in a brief of November 1724 Benedict XIII sought to bring back into unity the French dissidents by conceding that «the doctrine of grace efficacious in itself and of predestination to glory without anticipation of merit was an ancient doctrine conforming to Holy Writ, pontifical decrees and the teachings of Saint Augustine and of Saint Thomas» (DBI, VIII, p. 390).
But it was precisely “his men” who rowed the other way. On the one hand, the Curia, and notably the zealous, i.e. the wing that the pope had originally belonged to, in agreement with the Most Christian and Most Catholic powers, rejected «the doctrinal openings attempted by Benedict XIII» (DBI, VIII, p. 389), even with such knavery as interpolation into the dogmatic texts of the Synod of the 1725. The knaves from Benevento, on the other hand, wrecked the innovative attempt at fiscal policy by pocketing the proceeds along with their accomplices. And they didn’t stop there.
Perhaps it was precisely in this “short-sightedness”, in part deliberate, whereby he trusted, or was forced to trust, too blindly, in those close to him, and too sharply suspected, or was forced to suspect, those at a distance, that the actual weakness of Benedict XIII lay. «Orsini showed himself inflexible towards outside attack, real or presumed», it says in a passage marginal to the entry in the DBI (VIII, p. 386) that may, however, turn out to be central to the interpretation not only of Benedict’s pontificate. Because it makes one reflect on how, in the second millennium, Augustine’s two citizenships are mistakenly reduced ever more to “being one of ours” and “being one of them” heedless of the dynamism of grace. And this by precisely those who have maybe sought to live faithful to the Tradition. It is no accident that at the peak of his pontificate Benedict XIII extended to the whole Church the cult of Saint Gregory VII, thereby deepening the furrow, stirring up a true and proper diplomatic uproar. Giving much more than «some trouble for crowns», as the Cardinal with the explosive name Cienfuegos had predicted.
But all this much ado about nothing prompts one to look for the true signature of Benedict XIII’s pontificate (while waiting for the more thorough research that everyone demands to furnish a more complete portrait of him) in various facts and dates that no one, it seems, has stressed. One cannot help pointing out, in fact that beginning with his death, the date of 22 February accompanied Benedict XIII always almost as an omen, and was indeed the date of his death, on the vigil of the feast of the Saint Peter’s Chair in 1730. In fact on that same day (on which, in the year 1700, his mother died, to whom her son’s destiny had been foretold while she was pregnant!) he had been created cardinal, and earlier still had been ordained deacon. Even if he remained such only for the space of two days, as was the usage then, Benedict, whose baptismal name was Pietro Francesco, could have no other destiny that that of being all his life, and even after, a pope “deacon”, a servant (of the servants) of God. It is the title that Tradition assigned and that accompanies for now his memory.

Portrait of Benedict XIV, 
Pierre Subleyras, 1740-41, Musée du Château, Versailles

Portrait of Benedict XIV, Pierre Subleyras, 1740-41, Musée du Château, Versailles

If there’s a pope who is studied, and widely known, it is instead Benedict XIV. That fact will rid me of the need to go on at length and enable my twenty-five readers, if they haven’t grown fewer in the meantime, to go and reread what Cardinal Bertone wrote in these columns (cf 30Days, May 2005, pp. 66-69): ubi maior ...
Benedict XIV did not immediately follow Benedict XIII, but succeeded, ten years after his death, Clement XII (1730-1740), who had been a pope still more ancien… régime (he was elected as seventy-eight) and in certain ways more weak (truly blind for almost all his pontificate) than Benedict XIII.
Benedict XIV was a pope who appeared so different from him and from other predecessors and successors, that a myth has developed around him analogous but much more lasting than that attached to Pius IX, which, as we know, faded very rapidly. Based on the playful bonhomie of Pope Lambertini, on his moderation and on his wholesome openness to modernity, already spread by writing rich in anecdotes, contemporary with him or shortly after his death, the myth was refreshed in the twentieth century by the play Cardinal Lambertini, acted in a well-known Italian television adaptation by that great master of stagecraft, the late Gino Cervi.
But history is not myth. All the popes, whatever praise or blame that men have heaped on them, willingly or unwillingly act out the saying according to which they cannot go where they would or fasten their clothes by themselves. Starting from their election. Especially when, as in the case of Benedict XIV, elected unexpectedly at the end of the longest and most wearisome conclave in the modern era. His name emerged only after six months: all his legal and pastoral experience was insufficient to give credence to his candidacy until the conclave, that «throughout the whole of the eighteenth century reflected shifting political balances » (writes Alberto Melloni in his recent Il conclave), reached stalemate because of too much balancing.
Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini called himself Benedict, the historians tell us, because Benedict XIII had created him cardinal. No other reason has surfaced. Indeed, Mario Rosa notes that Benedict XIV aimed in everything to set aside all traces of his homonymous predecessor «except as regards the religious striving that, with all the limits of a weak reign, dominated by cavalier groups of money-makers, was nevertheless a real feature of the debatable pontificate of Pope Orsini» (DSP, 1, p. 169). Apart from the fact that already that is no small thing, as we have seen, and that furthermore Benedict XIV got rid of Coscia (something on which we should perhaps reflect more), various other links can be established between the two popes. Paying attention, in the case of the Benedict XIV also, to certain dates – to which Tarcisio Bertone rightly drew attention in a fine book of 1977, The governance of the Church in the thinking of Benedict XIV. By so doing one discovers, for example, that he became deacon and priest very late, at almost fifty, precisely on the heels of the election of Benedict XIII, by whom he was then ordained bishop on 16 July 1724. To become, during that pontificate, the esteemed «doctor» called to play an important role in the negotiations with the House of Savoy and with the emperor Charles VI. But he was at work even behind the scenes of the diocesan synod of 1725, from which he drew material and inspiration for De synodo diocesana, perhaps the more authoritative and most achieved of his works.
Benedict XIV is linked to Benedict XIII also by a certain isolation, deriving in both from the religious striving with which they lived their pontificates.
That said, however, there’s no doubt that the pontificate of Benedict XIV marked a decisive shift in the history of the papacy, not only of the eighteenth century. Because Benedict XIV saw the danger of isolation. Benedict XIV did not sacrifice princes to principles.
Thus on the one hand, in the various concordats with Catholic rulers, they themselves «infected with the spirit of absolutism and the anticlerical Enlightenment» (Pastor, XVI, pp. 460-461), he ceded all that could be ceded, accepting de facto «the secondary and passive role on the chequerboard of European politics» (DBI, VIII, p. 398) that the papacy had to adopt from the mid seventeenth century. On the other he favored the emerging Kingdom of Prussia of Friedrich II, willing for the first time since the Reformation to deal directly with representatives of a Protestant ruler whose kingly title, as he wrote in 1746, he recognized «so as not to endanger the many poor people whose necks are bared to the axe». And, thirdly, in actual fact what he chose was not neutrality but a «particularly favorable attitude to France», as Tarcisio Bertone writes (p. 25), documenting it by the innumerable letters to Cardinal Pierre Guérin de Tencin, the minister of the French crown, a true “pen-friend” with whom the pope kept up a correspondence of incredible trust and amplitude, collected in three volumes by Emilia Morelli after a thirty-year effort.
When, however in the querelle of the century, that on French soil itself which set Jansenists against anti-Jansenists, he was asked for a declaration of principle for reasons of state, he was capable of making a tough reply in June 1746 even to his friend Tencin: «In your letter you say you have a particular aversion to the sect of the Jansenists. We protest that We also have it, and We assure you that in the class of mannerly men that are in Rome there is the same aversion: but here it is thought that the accusation of Jansenism should not be blindly laid in those matters where it does not come in». In short, just as «there is no evidence in the documents that we know», writes Morelli, for an aversion to the Jesuits, whose missionary ardour he especially esteemed, so it is mistaken to attribute Jansenist sympathies to Benedict XIV. He simply gave no credence to those «overmany patents of Jansenist [that] are levelled even at those who wholeheartedly condemn the propositions of Jansen and all the other condemned» (from a letter again addressed to Tencin by the pope in 1748).
Friedrich II of Prussia

Friedrich II of Prussia

At the beginning of last century the accusation of philo-modernism was to be analogously spread sometimes as a poison that struck even many sincere churchmen, guilty only of a lack of mental and emotional torpor. One victim of it was Pope John XXIII, who in certain aspects resembled Benedict XIV and whose tone in the act of opening of the Vatican Council II seemed to re-evoke his farsightedness.
Even Paul VI, at the conclusion of Vatican II, in the motu proprio with which he reformed the Holy Office, was to take up a disposition of Benedict XIV (never more respected since the eighteenth century) whereby, in conformity with law, it was granted that any Catholic author whose work had been put on the Index would be given a hearing. Wisely applied in very recent years, this disposition has encouraged the doing of justice.
On the other hand, in the way of certain of his very distant predecessors of the name Benedict who had learned right and justice by studying and working assiduously in the bosom of the Church of Rome, Benedict XIV also became Roman, dwelling in the shadow of St Peter’s from 1688 to 1724, first as a student then going through all the grades and offices of the Curia. So much so that when he became archbishop of his native Bologna in 1731, «since the circumstances of his native city had become somewhat strange to him, he did not immediately make any provisions but sought at first to learn exactly about everything» (Pastor, XVI, p. 23). And once having found out – this, too, is remarkable – he gave notice that he did not intend «to make innovations, but restore what was erstwhile established by the sacred laws and practiced in this our diocese, adding thereto some moderation and some sign of all greater equity» (from Raccolta di notificazioni published in Rome in 1742, I, p. 5).
He was to do the same after that parenthesis, in Rome, to which he would belong for ever after being brought back unexpectedly as pope.

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