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Pius VI

Pope from 1775. Born of noble parents, he was educated by the Jesuits. In 1740 he went to Rome as secretary to Cardinal Ruffo and became secretary to Benedict XIV and a canon of St. Peter’s in 1755, but was not ordained until 1758. In 1773 he was created a cardinal despite his opposition to the suppression of the Jesuit Order which took place the same year. As pope he contrived by delicate diplomatic efforts to secure the Jesuits’ resettlement in Prussia and Russia. His first years were taken up with domestic concerns, but soon he was threatened by an outbreak of national church movements similar to Gallicanism.* In the Holy Roman Empire, Febronianism* spread rapidly with the encouragement of the archbishop-electors, though at the Ems Congress* of 1786 their aims were cleverly frustrated by the pope, and the movement soon came to an end. In Tuscany the grand duke Leopold adopted a similar course which reached its height at the Synod of Pistoia* in 1786. By 1790, however, a clerical reaction was well under way. Most seriously, Josephinism in the Hapsburg Empire led to the pope’s journeying to Vienna in 1782 to plead with the reforming emperor, though the following year, after a threat of excommunication, Joseph returned the visit and Pius partially reasserted his authority. Finally when in 1786 Joseph extended his policies to the Spanish Netherlands, the devoutly Catholic inhabitants rose in a clerical-nationalist revolt, and the pope had the satisfaction of seeing princely reforming attempts defied by the people themselves. The French Revolution and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) led the pope to anathematize the revolutionaries and those clerics who accepted their reforms; this in turn led to the Papal States* being included in the first anti-French Coalition (1796), the invasion and occupation of a portion thereof, the humiliating Peace of Tolentino (1797), the seizure of Rome itself (1798), and the carrying off of the pope’s person by the French an his untimely death in the depths of an Alpine winter. It is sometimes asserted that under Pius VI the papacy reached its nadir, but the successes of the papal counter- revolution were considerable and public sympathy for his sufferings strengthened the institution in popular esteem.

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