Election of a Pleasure-Loving Pope: February 15, 1775

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


The conclave that met to elect Pope Clement XIV’s successor in 1774 stretched on for four months. Once again, Spain, France, and Portugal pressured the cardinals to elect a pope who would not give the kings much trouble. Among the cardinals the monarchs opposed (because he was friendly toward the Jesuits) was Cardinal Giovanni Angelico Braschi. But Braschi was able to gain the support of the anti-Jesuits in the conclave by tacitly agreeing not to reinstate the Jesuits. And he received the support of those who favored the Jesuits because they thought him a friend of the Jesuits. Thus on February 15, 1775, Braschi was elected pope and took the name of Pius VI.


Giovanni Angelico Braschi (Pope Pius VI)

Pope Pius VI was something of a throwback to the Renaissance. Unlike the last pope named Pius (St. Pius V), Pius VI was not an ascetic. He loved pompous ceremonies and elaborate processions. Because he was a strikingly handsome man, women would cry out Come sei bello! (“How handsome you are!”) as he and his entourage passed through the streets of Rome. A patron of the arts, Pius VI purchased beautiful paintings and sculpture for his collection in the Vatican. He carried out civic works in Rome—draining marshes and restoring the ancient Roman road, the Via Appia, for use as a thoroughfare. None of this displeased the people of Rome; as lovers of pageantry, they welcomed a pope who could put on a good show.


Unfortunately, other characteristics of the Renaissance could be found in Rome during Pius VI’s reign. The clergy surrounding the pope were more interested in gaining new offices for themselves and their favorites than they were in serving the Church. The pope himself practiced nepotism, seeking places for his relatives in the Church’s government. Though in many ways he was a good man, Pius VI did not have the spiritual character to lead the Church through the dark times that she was passing into.


Still, this pope did not entirely neglect his duties as the shepherd and teacher of the Church. He permitted the Jesuits in Silesia and Russia to continue their work and even admit new members. It was Pius VI who traveled to Vienna to urge Emperor Josef II not to carry out his reforms of the Church; and in 1783, Pius threatened to excommunicate the emperor when he appointed a bishop to the archdiocese of Milan without the pope’s permission. But, fearing that Josef might take the Church in his lands into schism, Pius in the end granted him the right to nominate bishops in the Habsburg domains of Milan and Mantua.


In 1786, Pius VI came into conflict with another member of the Habsburg family— the emperor’s brother, Leopold II, the duke of Tuscany in Italy. An “enlightened” despot like his brother, Leopold wanted to establish a church that would be independent of Rome and subject only to himself. To aid him in his program of “reform,” Leopold had the help of Scipio Ricci, the bishop of Pistoia and Prato, who was also a zealous Jansenist and Gallican.


Emperor Josef II (right) with his brother, Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, 1769

Faced with Josef II’s Church reform in Austria and another reform by King Fernando IV of Naples, Pope Pius VI was powerless to stop Leopold in Tuscany. But after Leopold became Holy Roman emperor in 1790, the people of Tuscany rose up against Bishop Ricci; and the new Habsburg duke, Ferdinand III, deposed him. In 1794, after the fall of Ricci, Pius condemned the reforms Bishop Ricci had attempted to make in Tuscany.


By 1794, however, Pius VI was engaged in another struggle, this time not against “enlightened” despots, but against a revolution that, like a great and destructive flood, threatened to sweep away the Church and all Christendom. This would be the pope’s main fight for the remainder of his reign. It would give the pleasure-loving pontiff the opportunity to imitate the sufferings of the first of the popes. Pius VI was about to relive in his own flesh the prophecy Christ made to St. Peter: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).


A Cry for Mercy in an Age of Rebellion


Joseph Martin Kraus, a composer from Franconia in Germany, composed this setting for the Requiem Mass in D minor in 1775, when he was only 19. The music reflects the passionate ethos of the German Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Drive”) literary and musical movement.




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