Napoleon and the pope—what really happened in 1798?

The exile of Pope Pius VI in 1798 has been seen by Adventists as an event with prophetic significance. Cedric Ward analyzes Napoleon's role in that happening.

Cedric Ward, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Seventh-day Adventists have generally attached prophetic significance to the date February 15, 1798, when French troops entered Rome and their commander, General Berthier, deposed Pope Pius VI. This event has frequently been ascribed to the machinations of Napoleon and his republican and antipapal ardor. One historian, for example, wrote that on January 11, 1798, "a definite order was issued by the French government to its troops to march on Rome and occupy it. The army accordingly marched southwards under General Berthier, with orders from Bonaparte to expel the Pope and set up a republic in Rome." 1

Although Napoleon has usually received the blame (or the credit depending on the point of view) for the captivity of Pius VI and the attempt to destroy the papacy as an institution, the historical reality is much more complex, as we shall see.

The revolution that transformed France, during the 1790's, into a radical republic began with the meeting of the French States-General on May 5, 1789. The members of the States-General were neither anti-Catholic nor anticlerical. In fact, some 300 members (or about 25 percent) were clergymen, with parish priests predominating. Prior to the formal opening of the session the deputies walked in solemn procession carrying the sacred host to the Church of St. Louis, where they attended mass and listened to a two-hour sermon. "The re form of France, it was supposed, was to be carried out beneath the banner of the Catholic Church." 2

Unfortunately for the partisans of the papacy, the revolutionary movement rapidly moved in a more radical direction. On November 2, 1789, the National Assembly (the name assumed by the States-General when it began meeting as one body instead of as three separate estates) authorized the confiscation of church property throughout France. The following February most religious orders were terminated and monastic establishments dissolved. These actions prepared the way for the reorganization of the Gallican Church (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church in France) under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which became law on July 12, 1790.

Pius VI waited until early 1791 before condemning the new French ecclesiastical structure, although several features were obviously antipathetic to papal claims and traditional Church structure. First, the entire reorganization had been planned and promulgated without any reference to the papacy and with only minimal involvement of the French clergy—it was, as the name implied, a civil reorganization of the church. Second, the wholesale alteration of diocesan and parish boundaries had been based upon political, rather than ecclesiastical, need. Third, because bishops and priests were to become public officials, they would not only be paid by the state but would be elected to these positions by those in their diocese or parish who possessed the civil franchise (including Protestants, Jews, and nonbelievers). Fourth, as a means of stressing the in dependence of the Gallican Church, newly elected bishops were expressly forbidden to apply to the papacy for confirmation. Thus, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy ensured a direct confrontation with the papacy.

Within France the new law produced such intense debate that the National Assembly decided to quell the opposition decisively. On November 27, 1790, it passed a decree requiring all clergy to take an oath of support for the Civil Constitution. The unexpected, but not surprising, result was to split the Gallican Church. Those clergy who took the oath formed what came to be called the Civil Church and carried on their religious routine in almost deserted cathedrals and churches. The majority of the bishops and approximately half the priests refused the oath and, in spite of threats of punishment, continued to minister to faithful Catholics in secret. The attempted reform of the Church had served merely as a catalyst to galvanize opposition to the revolution.

The more radical revolutionaries who gained control of the French government following the execution of the king in 1793 determined to go even further and destroy organized Christianity entirely. On May 7, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre officially outlined a new religion of national patriotism. One month later, on June 8, the government, under his leadership, formally inaugurated the worship of the Supreme Being, intending this new form of worship to replace Catholicism throughout France. At the same time a widespread de-Christianization movement developed. Churches over a large area of France were closed, sold, or converted into "temples of reason." Anti-Catholic demonstrations were organized so that supporters of Catholicism would be reluctant to interfere. The government legalized and developed a simple procedure for divorce. Thus, the revolution that had begun in 1789 within a staunchly Roman Catholic nation had, by the mid-1790's, moved to destroy the Catholic Church and replace Christianity with a patriotic civic religion. 3

Roman Catholicism's response to the revolution in France rested with Pius VI (1775-1799), a compromise candidate (the conclave that elected him had lasted for five months) who was noted more for his vacillation than his decisiveness. Despite appeals from the ecclesiastical hierarchy and Louis XVI, Pius VI waited until early 1791 before condemning the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. By then it had been in operation for eight months, and the National Assembly re fused to,reconsider the ecclesiastical situation. The papacy thus aligned itself with those refractory clergy who had refused to take the oath of allegiance to the constitution. Because churchmen formed the nucleus of opposition to the revolutionary government in France, the papacy came to be identified as the center of a counterrevolutionary movement. In fact, the papacy quite openly supported the opponents of France during the War of the First Coalition.

The worst excesses of the revolution during the Reign of Terror (1793, 1794) were followed by the establishment of a new constitution and a new government, known as the Directory, which governed France from 1795 until 1799. On most issues the Directory exerted a moderating influence that reflected the bourgeois origins of its members and supporters, but not so of religion. As one recent historian has pointed out: "Far from reconciling their differences, the Directory and the traditional Catholic Church became, if anything, more intransigent in their relations with one another." 4 So serious did the Directory consider the continuing antagonism of the papacy that one of its principal aims came to be "the destruction of the papal authority, both spiritual and temporal," and it asked Napoleon, at that time commander of the Army of Italy, to "consider the idea of destroying Rome as a scourge in the hands of fanaticism." 5

The Directory believed that the abolition of the papacy would be advantageous to the new regime in France. "It would set the seal of success, in the new Europe, on their Revolution, ushering in unmistakably the reign of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. ... They also thought, in more practical terms, that the security of their own regime would best be advanced by eliminating its most obstinate opponent, an opponent who, however weak, could not be expected to rest until the independent spiritual authority in France had been reasserted." e Thus, if the Directory had its way, the institution of the papacy would last only until the triumph of French arms provided the opportunity for its abolition.

Napoleon Bonaparte was only twenty-six years old when he received the command of the Army of Italy. But he soon proved himself the most brilliant military commander in all Europe. Less spectacularly, but nonetheless surely, he began to reveal a hitherto unsuspected talent for political judgment. During his first Italian campaign, 1796, 1797, he had two opportunities to occupy Rome and destroy the papacy in accordance with his instructions.

The first opportunity occurred when he invaded the northern portion of the Papal States in the spring of 1796. The second opportunity occurred at the be ginning of 1797, when the papacy re fused to honor the armistice of Bologna, which had ended the previous campaign. Despite his knowledge that the Directors wanted the papacy destroyed, Napoleon "had no intention whatever of under taking such an enterprise." 7 The peace he imposed on the papacy at Tolentino in February of 1797 involved significant territorial losses and harsh financial terms, but it nonetheless preserved the concept of the Papal States and the spiritual integrity of the papacy. Napoleon was, in fact, implementing his own pol icy and ignoring the wishes of his superiors in France.8

Several factors prompted Napoleon to pursue an independent policy toward the papacy at this stage of his career. First, although his own religious ideas can best be described as vaguely deistic, as a child in Corsica he had lived within the traditional framework of Catholic belief and practice undisturbed by the skepticism of the enlightenment. Thus he appreciated, much more than the politicians in France, the place that Catholicism held among the populace of rural Europe. Second, his experience in Italy had confirmed his belief that Catholicism, far from being finished, was, in fact, the dominant force in European society. He feared that the destruction of the papacy would mean the end of the new political order that he was building in northern Italy. Finally, he knew that some of the revolutionaries in France believed that, so far as religion was concerned, the revolution had been a failure. General Clarke had told him toward the end of 1796 that "France has become once more Roman Catholic, and we may be on the point of needing the Pope himself in order to enlist clerical support for the Revolution, and thereby the sup port of those districts which the clergy again controls." 9 Napoleon realized that true stability could return to France and those areas of Europe unsettled by the revolutionary armies only by an agreement to reestablish Catholicism and the spiritual authority of the pope. Consequently, while he was in Italy, Napoleon was careful to protect traditional Catholic practices and the integrity of the pa pacy.

However, once the restraining independence of Napoleon had been re moved from the Italian political scene, the policy of the Directory ensured the rapid collapse of the Papal States and the abolition of the papacy as an institution. The Treaty of Campo-Formio, ending hostilities with Austria, was signed on October 17, 1797. The following month the Directory appointed Napoleon to command the Army of England, and early in December he handed over command of the Army of Italy to General Berthier, his former chief of staff, and proceeded to Paris. Thus, Napoleon neither was in Italy nor was commander of the Army of Italy when the critical decision was made to terminate the political power of the papacy and establish a re public.

The assassination of General Duphot by the papal police during a riot triggered this decision. The French ambassador in Rome, Napoleon's brother, Joseph, immediately asked for his passport and departed. The Directory used this incident as the pretext for action. In the words of Thiers, the Directory "regarded the Pope as the spiritual head of the party inimical to the revolution. It was strongly tempted to destroy the Pontiff.

... The revolutionary passions triumphed on this occasion, and the Directory ordered General Berthier, who commanded in Italy, to march upon Rome." 10 French forces reached the outskirts of Rome on February 9, 1798, and six days later they occupied the city itself without opposition. On February 20, Pius VI was carried into exile at the hands of the French, signaling the end of the long period of papal dominance in European affairs. This significant event "was intended by the enemies of the Church to represent the final triumph of the French Revolution over the Christianity of the West." 11

Why has Napoleon so frequently received the credit (or the blame—depending upon viewpoint) for an action undertaken at the direction of the French government in Paris?

First, Napoleon's brother, Joseph, was the French ambassador in Rome prior to the French occupation. He had received that appointment through Napoleon's influence, and his instructions reveal that Napoleon was prepared to go to considerable lengths to intimidate and coerce the papacy. On one occasion Napoleon even wrote that if Pius VI died, Joseph was to do everything in his power to prevent the election of a new pope. 12 Thus Napoleon's correspondence with his brother has appeared to be anti-Catholic, whereas in reality Napoleon was hoping to dominate—not destroy—the papacy, thus ensuring its cooperation with his grandiose plans to control France and then reorganize Europe. For this purpose he needed a pliable pope.

Second, the Directory has been considered a very weak and temporary government that Napoleon eventually re placed with his one-man rule. Therefore it is often assumed that Napoleon actually ran the government even before the coup d'etat that made him first consul. This is simply not correct. The Directory had definite policies of its own—especially in the area of religion. It did not have as much control over its officials—especially generals—as more stable governments do, but it did have the power of appointment and dismissal, and it made final decisions in regard to policy. Napoleon himself was conscious of the discrepancy between power and authority. When he heard of his appointment to command the Army of England he commented, "They have hastened to make me General of the Army of England in order to get me out of Italy, where I am master." 13 But he did not dispute the transfer.

Third, Napoleon drafted the instructions to General Berthier to occupy Rome. 14 The explanation for this interesting fact is not that Napoleon controlled the government, but that the directors, having made the decision, turned to Napoleon to draft the instructions because of his unrivaled knowledge of the diplomatic and military situation in the Italian peninsula. As Fournier explains, "It has been justly surmised that Napoleon himself had no intention of proceeding to such an extreme step as dispossessing the Pope. In this point probably the feeling in the Directory was too strong for him and for personal reasons he judged it unwise to resist." I5

The instructions contain very detailed military orders, as well as an explanation of possible diplomatic measures to counter any moves by Austria or Naples. Furthermore, the instructions implied that the quarrel was with the pope as head of the Papal States and not in his capacity as head of the Church. Al though the instructions spoke of the establishment of a Republic in Rome, Napoleon expressed the wish that the pope and his chief advisers might flee and thus avoid a showdown. Finally, the instructions, as drafted by Napoleon, give the impression that the fate of his Italian settlement (the Treaty of Campo-Formio ending the Italian campaign against Austria was less than three months old) meant more to him than any objective that could be achieved at Rome. Possibly this is why he agreed to draft the instructions.

Fourth, Napoleon had written to the Directory during his Italian campaign as if he shared the antipapal bias of the French government. For example, he defended his failure to overthrow the papacy in the Treaty of Tolentino (1797) by explaining to the Directory that "Rome, once stripped of Bologna, Ferrara, Romagna and thirty millions can no longer exist: that old machine will fall to pieces by itself." 16 This implies a definite antipapal bias. However, this picture must be balanced by the words he wrote at the same time to the pope: "My ambition is to be called the saviour, not the destroyer of the Holy See." 17 Napoleon's subsequent career would indicate that the latter remark, rather than the former, more nearly reflected his true opinion—except that he wanted to be the savior of Catholicism in his own way and on his own terms.

Fifth, during his later career as first consul, and then as emperor, Napoleon clashed with Pius VII, the successor to Pius VI, and had him exiled and kept as a prisoner for more than four years. A number of issues created friction be tween Napoleon and Pius VII. Napoleon's unwillingness to allow the papacy the temporal and spiritual independence that Pius VII considered necessary, combined with the reluctance of some members of the papal curia to come to terms with any government representing the French Revolution, blocked all at tempts at reconciliation. 18 This aspect of his later career has provided a legacy in which Napoleon appears much more antipapal than his earlier career had indicated him to be.

Perhaps Napoleon's real attitude is best reflected in a comment of his later years as he looked over his career: "My political method is to govern men as the majority of them want to be governed.That, I think, is to recognize the sovereignty of the people. It was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendee, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, by making myself an ultramontane that I won men's souls in Italy. If I were governing a people of the Jewish race I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon." 19

Napoleon certainly proved himself a pragmatic politician, particularly in the earlier stage of his career before power and license had corrupted his abilities. It is inconceivable that anyone with his grasp of the political implications of religious policy would have attempted to abolish the papacy. The French government, the Directory, made the decision to occupy Rome, and in drafting the instructions Napoleon merely acted as their agent. In doing so he took care to safeguard as far as possible the settlement he had so recently made in Italy and to leave open the possibility of reconciliation between the French government and the papacy. Thus the Directory, not Napoleon, must bear the responsibility for the attempt to abolish the papacy in 1798.


1 Ludwig Freiherr von Pastor, The History of the Popes, From the Close of the Middle Ages, Vol. XL, trans. E. F. Peeler (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 332.

2 E. E. Y. Hales, Revolution and Papacy, 1769-1846 (Garden City: Hanover House, 1960), p. 70.

3 An excellent summary of the religious policy of Robespierre is contained in Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (Englewood Cliffs: Prentic-Hall, Inc., 1964), pp. 286, 287.

4 Martin Lyons, France Under the Directory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 108.

5 Von Pastor, op. cit., p. 293.

6 Hales, op. cit., p. 102.

7 M. A. Thiers, The History of the French Revolution, Vol. IV, trans. Frederick Shobel (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1866), p. 106. Miot de Melito, an agent of the Directory who worked with Napoleon in Italy during this period, wrote: "I perceived that he had no intention of taking advantage of our victories to destroy the double power of the Holy See, and that, notwithstanding the sacrifices he was about to extract from the Papal Court, he was
careful to maintain the principle of its existence and anxious for its safety."—Quoted in R. B. Mowat, The Diplomacy of Napoleon (London: Edward Arnold and Co., 1924), p. 29.

8 August Fournier, Napoleon I: A Biography, vol. 1, trans. Annie Elizabeth Adams (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1912), p. 110. For Napoleon's development of an independent policy in Italy see J. B. Morton, Brumaire: The Rise of Bonaparte (London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd., 1948), pp. 100-105, 111-116.

9 Quoted in H. Daniel-Rops, The Church in an Age of Revolution, 1789-1870 (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1965), p. 45.

10 Thiers, op. cit., pp. 245, 246.

11 Von Pastor, op. cit., p. 354.

12 Correspondence de Napoleon 1" Publice Par Ordre de L'Empereur Napoleon III, Vol. Ill (Paris: Imprimerie Imperiale, 1859), p. 466.

13 Fournier, op. cit., p. 135.

14 Correspondence de Napoleon l er , pp. 626-631.

15 Fournier, op. cit., pp. 140, 141.

16 Vincent Cronin, Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1972), p. 126.

17 Ibid.

18 The details are contained in E. E. Y. Hales, The Emperor and the Pope: The Story of Napoleon and Pius VII (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961).

19 Hales, The Catholic Church in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1958), p. 56.


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Cedric Ward, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June 1979

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