History of the Popes

I.–The Papacy at the Reformation

The papacy was intimately allied with the Roman Empire, with the empire of Charlemagne, and with the German or Holy Roman Empire revived by Otto. In this last the ecclesiastical element was of paramount importance, but the emperor was the supreme authority. From that authority Gregory VII. resolved to free the pontificate, through the claim that no appointment by a layman to ecclesiastical office was valid; while the pope stood forth as universal bishop, a crowned high-priest. To this supremacy the French first offered effectual resistance, issuing in the captivity of Avignon. Germany followed suit, and the schism of the church was closed by the secular princes at Constance and Basle. The papacy was restored in form, but not to its old supremacy.


The pontificates of Sixtus IV. and the egregious Alexander VI. were followed by the militant Julius II., who aimed, with some success, at making the pope a secular territorial potentate. But the intellectual movement challenged the papal claim, the direct challenge emanating from Germany and Luther. But this was at the moment when the empire was joined with Spain under Charles V. The Diet of Worms pointed to an accord between emperor and pope, when Leo X. died unexpectedly. His successor, Adrian, a Netherlander and an admirable man, sought vainly to inaugurate reform of the Church from within, but in brief time made way for Clement VII.

Hitherto, the new pope’s interests had all been on the Spanish side, at least as against France; everything had been increasing the Spanish power in Italy, but Clement aimed at freedom from foreign domination. The discovery of his designs brought about the Decree of Spires, which gave Protestantism a legal recognition in the empire, and also the capture and sack of Rome by Frundsberg’s soldiery. Charles’s ascendancy in Italy and over the papacy was secured. Clement, now almost at his beck, would have persuaded him to apply coercion to the German Protestants; but this did not suit the emperor, whose solution for existing difficulties was the summoning of a general council, which Clement was quite determined to evade. Moreover, matters were made worse for the papacy when England broke away from the papal obedience over the affair of Katharine of Aragon.

Paul III., Clement’s immediate successor, began with an effort after regeneration by appointing several cardinals of the Contarini type, associates of the Oratory of Divine Love, many of whom stood, in part at least, on common ground with avowed Protestants, notably on the dogma of justification by faith. He appears seriously to have desired a reconciliation with the Protestants; and matters looked promising when a conference was held at Ratisbon, where Contarini himself represented the pope.

Terms of union were even agreed on, but, being referred to Luther on one side and Paul on the other, were rejected by both, after which there was no hope of the cleavage being bridged. The regeneration of the Church would have to be from within.


II.–Sixteenth Century Popes

The interest of this period lies mainly in the antagonism between the imperative demand for internal reform of the Church and the policy which had become ingrained in the heads of the Church. For the popes, these political aspirations stood first and reform second. Alexander Farnese (Paul III.) was pope from 1534 to 1549. He was already sixty-seven when he succeeded Clement. Policy and enlightenment combined at first to make him advance Contarini and his allies, and to hope for reconciliation with the Protestants. Policy turned him against acceptance of the Ratisbon proposals, as making Germany too united. Then he urged the emperor against the Protestants, but when the success of Charles was too complete he was ill-pleased. He withdrew the Council from Trent to Bologna, to remove it from imperial influences which threatened the pope’s personal supremacy. So far as he was concerned, reformation had dropped into the background.

Julius III. was of no account; Marcellus, an excellent and earnest man, might have done much had he not died in three weeks. His election, and that of his successor, Caraffa, as Paul IV., both pointed to a real intention of reform. Caraffa had all his life been a passionate advocate of moral reform, but even he was swept away by the political conditions and his hatred of Spain, which was an obsession. Professed detestation of Spain was a sure way to his favour, which, his kinsfolk recognising, they won his confidence only to their own ultimate destruction when he discovered that he had been deceived. Half his reign was worse than wasted in a futile contest with Spain; when it was done, he turned rigorously to energetic disciplinary reforms, but death stayed his hand.

A very different man was Pius IV., the pontiff under whom the Council of Trent was brought to a close. Far from rigid himself, he still could not, if he would, have altogether deserted the paths of reform. But most conspicuously he was inaugurator of a new policy, not asserting claims to supremacy, but seeking to induce the Catholic powers to work hand in hand with the papacy–Spain and the German Empire being now parted under the two branches of the House of Hapsburg. In this policy he was most ably assisted by the diplomatic tact of Cardinal Moroni, who succeeded in bringing France, Spain, and the empire into a general acceptance of the positions finally laid down by the Council of Trent, whereby the pope’s ecclesiastical authority was not impaired, but rather strengthened.

On his death, he was succeeded by one of the more rigid school, Pius V. (1563-1572). This pope continued to maintain the monastic austerity of his own life; his personal virtue and piety were admirable; but, being incapable of conceiving that anything could be right except on the exact lines of his own practice, he was both extremely severe and extremely intolerant; especially he was, in harmony with Philip of Spain, a determined persecutor.

But to his idealism was largely due that league which, directed against the Turk, issued in one of the most memorable checks to the Ottoman arms, the battle of Lepanto.

Gregory XIII. succeeded him immediately before the massacre of St. Bartholomew. It was rather the pressure of his surroundings than his personal character that gave his pontificate a spiritual aspect. An honourable care in the appointment of bishops and for ecclesiastical education were its marks on this side. He introduced the Gregorian Calendar. He was a zealous promoter of war, open and covert, with Protestantism, especially with Elizabeth; his financial arrangements were effective and ingenious. But he failed to obtain control over the robber bands which infested the Papal States.

Their suppression was carried out with unexampled severity by Sixtus V. Sixtus was learned and prudent, and of remarkable self-control; he is also charged with being crafty and malignant. Not very accurately, he is commonly regarded as the author of much which was actually due to his predecessors; but his administration is very remarkable. Rigorous to the verge of cruelty in the enforcement of his laws, they were themselves commonly mild and conciliatory. He was energetic in encouraging agriculture and manufactures. Nepotism, the old ingrained vice of the popes, had been practised by none of his three immediate predecessors, though he is often credited with its abolition. His financial methods were successful immediately, but really accumulated burdens which became portentously heavy.

The treatment of public buildings in Rome by Sixtus V., his destruction of antiquities there, and his curious attempts to convert some of the latter into Christian monuments, mark the change from the semi-paganism of the times of Leo X. Similarly, the ecclesiastical spirit of the time opposed free inquiry. Giordano Bruno was burnt. The same movement is visible in the change from Ariosto to Tasso. Religion had resumed her empire. The quite excellent side of these changes is displayed in such beautiful characters as Cardinal Borromeo and Filippo Neri.


III.–The Counter Reformation: First Stage

Ever since the Council of Trent closed in 1563, the Church had been determined on making a re-conquest of the Protestant portion of Christendom. In the Spanish and Italian peninsulas, Protestantism never obtained a footing; everywhere else it had established itself in one of the two forms into which it was divided–the Lutheran and the Calvinistic. In Germany it greatly predominated among the populations, mainly in the Lutheran form. In France, where Catholicism predominated, the Huguenots were Calvinist. Calvinism prevailed throughout Scandinavia, in the Northern Netherlands, in Scotland, and–differently arrayed–in England.

In Germany, the Augsburg declaration, which made the religion of each prince the religion also of his dominions, the arrangement was favourable to a Catholic recovery; since princes were more likely to be drawn back to the fold than populations, as happened notably in the case of Albert of Bavaria, who re-imposed Catholicism on a country whose sympathies were Protestant. In Germany, also, much was done by the wide establishment of Jesuit schools, whither the excellence of the education attracted Protestants as well as Catholics. The great ecclesiastical principalities were also practically secured for Catholicism.

The Netherlands were under the dominion of Philip of Spain, the most rigorous supporter of orthodoxy, who gave the Inquisition free play. His severities induced revolt, which Alva was sent to suppress, acting avowedly by terrorist methods. In France the Huguenots had received legal recognition, and were headed by a powerful section of the nobility; the Catholic section, with which Paris in particular was entirely in sympathy, were dominant, but not at all securely so–a state of rivalry which culminated in the massacre of St. Bartholomew, while Alva was in the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, these events stirred the Protestants both in France and in the Netherlands to a renewed and desperate resistance. On the other hand, some of the German Catholic princes displayed a degree of tolerance which permitted extensions of Protestantism within their realms. In England, the government was uncompromisingly Protestant. Then the pope and Philip tried intervention by fostering rebellion in Catholic Ireland and by the Jesuit mission of Parsons and Campion in England, but the only effect was to make the Protestantism of the government the more implacable.

A change in Philip’s methods in the Netherlands separated the northern Protestant provinces from the Catholic Walloons. The assassination of William of Orange decided the rulers of some of the northern German states who had been in two minds. The accession of Rudolf II. of Austria had a decisive effect in South Germany. When the failure of the house of Valois made the Huguenot Henry of Navarre heir to the French throne, the Catholic League, supported by the pope, determined to prevent his succession, while the reigning king, Henry III., Catholic though he was, was bitterly opposed to the Guises.

The immediate effect was the compulsory submission of the king to the Guises and the League, followed by the assassination, first of Guise and then of the king, at the moment when the Catholic aggression had taken shape in the Spanish Armada, and received a check more overwhelming than Philip was ready to recognise.

In certain fundamental points, the papacy was now re-asserting Hildebrandine claims–the right of controlling succession to temporal thrones. It is an error to regard it as essentially a supporter of monarchy; it was the accident of the position which commonly brought it into alliance with monarchies. In the Netherlands, it was by its support of the constitutional demands of the Walloon nobles that the south was saved for Catholicism. It asserted the duty of peoples to refuse allegiance to princes who departed from Catholicism, and it was Protestant monarchism which replied by asserting the divine right of kings; the Jesuits actually derived the power of the princes from the people. Thus a separate Catholic party arose, which, maintaining the divine appointment of princes, restricted the intervention of the church to spiritual affairs, and in France supported Navarre’s claim to the throne; while, on the other hand, Philip and the Spaniards, strongly interested in preventing his succession, were ready to maintain, even against a fluctuating pope, that heresy was a permanent bar to succession, not to be removed even by recantation.

Sixtus V. found himself unable to decide. The rapid demise of three popes in succession after him (1590-1591) led to the election of Clement VIII. in January 1592, a man of ability and piety. He mistrusted the genuineness of the offer which Henry had for some time been making of returning to the bosom of the church, and was not inclined to alienate Spain. There was danger that the French Catholics would maintain their point, and even sever themselves from Rome. The acceptance of Henry would once more establish France as a Catholic power, and relieve the papacy of its dependence on Spain. At the end of 1595 Clement resolved to receive Henry into the church, and he reaped the fruits in the support which Henry promptly gave him in his claim to resume Ferrara into the Papal States. In his latter years, he and his right-hand man and kinsman, Cardinal Aldobrandini, found themselves relying on French support to counteract the Spanish influences which were now opposed to Clement’s own sway.

On Clement’s death another four weeks’ papacy intervened before the election of Paul V., a rigorous legalist who cared neither for Spain nor France, but for whatever he regarded as the rights of the Church, as to which he had most exaggerated ideas. These very soon brought him in conflict with Venice, a republic which firmly maintained the supremacy of the authority of the State, rejecting the secular authority of the Church. To the pope’s surprise, excommunication was of no effect; the Jesuits found that if they held by the pope there was no room for them in Venice, and they came out in a body. The governments of France and Spain disregarded the popular voice which would have set them at war–France for Venice, Spain for the pope–and virtually imposed peace; on the whole, though not completely, in favour of Venice.

But the conflict had impeded and even threatened to subvert that unity, secular and ecclesiastical, which was the logical aim of the whole of the papal policy.


IV.–The Counter Reformation: Second Stage

Meanwhile, the Protestantism which had threatened to prevail in Poland had been checked under King Stephen, and under Sigismund III. Catholicism had been securely re-established, though Protestantism was not crushed. But this prince, succeeding to the Swedish crown, was completely defeated in his efforts to obtain a footing for Catholicism, to which his success would have given an enormous impulse throughout the north.

In Germany, the ecclesiastical princes, with the skilled aid of the Jesuits, thoroughly re-established Catholicism in their own realms, in accordance with the legally recognised principle cujus regio ejus religïo. The young Austrian archduke, Ferdinand of Carinthia, a pupil of the Jesuits, was equally determined in the suppression of Protestantism within his territories. The “Estates” resisted, refusing supplies; but the imminent danger from the Turks forced them to yield the point; while Ferdinand rested on his belief that the Almighty would not protect people from the heathen while they remained heretical; and so he gave suppression of heresy precedence over war with the Turk.

The Emperor Rudolph, in his latter years, pursued a like policy in Bohemia and Hungary. The aggressiveness of the Catholic movement drove the Protestant princes to form a union for self-defence, and within the hereditary Hapsburg dominions the Protestant landholders asserted their constitutional rights in opposition. Throughout the empire a deadlock was threatening. In Switzerland the balance of parties was recognised; the principal question was, which party would become dominant in the Grisons.

There was far more unity in Catholicism than in Protestantism, with its cleavage of Lutherans and Calvinists, and numerous subdivisions of the latter. The Church at this moment stood with monarchism, and the Catholic princes were able men; half Protestantism was inclined to republicanism, and the princes were not able men. The Catholic powers, except France, which was half Protestant, were ranged against the Protestants; the Protestant powers were not ranged against the Catholics. The contest began when the Calvinist Elector Palatine accepted the crown of Bohemia, against the title of Ferdinand of Carinthia and Austria, who about the same time became emperor.

The early period of the Thirty Years’ War thus opened was wholly favourable to the Catholics. The defeat of the Elector Palatine led to the Catholicising of Bohemia and Hungary; and also, partly through papal influence, to the transfer of the Palatinate itself to Bavaria, carrying the definite preponderance of the Catholics in the central imperial council. At the same time Catholicism acquired a marked predominance in France, partly through the defections of Huguenot nobles; was obviously gaining ground in the Netherlands; and was being treated with much more leniency by the government in England. And, besides all this, in every part of the globe the propaganda instituted under Gregory XV. and the Jesuit missions was spreading Catholic doctrine far and wide.

But the two great branches of the house of Hapsburg, the Spanish and the German, were actively arrayed on the same side; and the menace of Hapsburg supremacy was alarming. About the time when Urban VIII. succeeded Gregory (1623), French policy, guided by Richelieu, was becoming definitely anti-Spanish, and organised a huge assault on the Hapsburgs, in conjunction with Protestants, though in France the Huguenots were quite subordinated. This done, Richelieu found it politic to retire from the new combination, whereby a powerful impulse was given to Catholicism.

But Richelieu wished when free to combat the Hapsburgs, and Pope Urban favoured France, magnified himself as a temporal prince, and was anxious to check the Hapsburg or Austro-Spanish ascendancy. The opportunity for alliance with France came, over the incidents connected with the succession of the French Duc de Nevers to Mantua, just when Richelieu had obtained complete predominance over the Huguenots. Papal antagonism to the emperor was becoming obvious, while the emperor regarded himself as the true champion of the Faith, without much respect to the pope.

In this crisis the Catholic anti-imperialists turned to the only Protestant force which was not a beaten one–Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Dissatisfaction primarily with the absolutism at which the emperor and Wallenstein were aiming brought several of the hitherto imperialist allies over, and Ferdinand at the Diet of Ratisbon was forced to a change of attitude. The victories of Gustavus brought new complications; Catholicism altogether was threatened. The long course of the struggle which ensued need not be followed. The peace of Westphalia, which ended it, proved that it was impossible for either combatant to effect a complete conquest; it set a decisive limit to the Catholic expansion, and to direct religious aggression. The great spiritual contest had completed its operation

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