The Pope as a traitor? When Pius VII anointed Napoleon during the imperial coronation, the monarchists were outraged because the head of the church was blessing the French Revolution. But Pius was anything but compliant.

France commemorates Napoleon Bonaparte. The general and emperor, born August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, died 200 years ago, on May 5, 1821, in his exile on the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Corsica has turned the map of Europe upside down. His reign was also a turning point for Catholicism and the Church.

“I die in the Apostolic and Roman religions, in which I was born over 50 years ago.” This is what the will that Napoleon dictated on Saint Helena shortly before his death says. He had previously received the sacraments of death from two Italian fathers.

Nevertheless: Napoleon’s relationship to religion was largely tactical. Personally, he was not pious, but saw Catholicism as part of his life and as “the religion of my fathers”, as his biographers Günter Müchler and Adam Zamoyski point out. For him, religion was the glue of society and the protection against social unrest. From his perspective, the Christian belief in compensatory justice in heaven ensured that people on earth accepted great differences in property and poverty.

In this context, the reconciliation of society was on the agenda of Napoleon, who conquered power in a coup d’état in November 1799. After the turmoil of the revolution, the Church and the nobility had to be pacified and the radical left forces tamed.

He was therefore determined to make peace with the papacy and heal the schism that had sparked the revolution in the Church: the revolutionaries had expropriated Church property, created a strictly anti-Church counter-act and demanded an oath. of the revolutionary constitution of priests. and bishops – which has put thousands of people in prison or exile. The Pope, on the contrary, wanted France, “the eldest daughter of the Church”, to come back to her knees.

The Concordat was signed on July 15, 1801. In it, Napoleon recognized the Roman Catholic religion as the “religion of the great majority of the French” – but not as a state religion. The Vatican has waived compensation for the property of the expropriated church.

The state paid priests and bishops. They had to pledge allegiance to the government, Napoleon appointed the bishops, to whom the Pope then awarded the canonical investiture. In a sense, the Church has become a state institution.

Nonetheless, both sides achieved their most important goals. The fact that Napoleon brought Pope Pius VII to Paris for his coronation on December 2, 1804 and that the Pope anointed the sovereign shows how much he needed ecclesiastical legitimation.

However, the agreement lasted only a short time – until Napoleon demanded that the ports of the Papal States be used in his war against England. When the pope refused, the emperor ordered the occupation of Rome at the end of 1807. The papal state was united with France.

When Pius excommunicated the emperor, he was arrested and taken first to the Ligurian port city of Savona, then to Fontainebleau – as a prisoner who, however, knew how to turn his political powerlessness into a moral triumph. The Pope was released in early 1814. After Napoleon’s defeat, he returned home to Rome in a triumphal procession, where he canceled all the innovations and reforms of the revolution.

Napoleon’s policies also had lasting effects on churches in Germany. In the so-called Reichsdeputationshauptschluss of 1803, it was stipulated that secular princes should be compensated for their losses on the left bank of the Rhine in France.

This happened through the secularization of the ecclesiastical as well as the media coverage of the smaller secular rulers on the right side of the Rhine. In total, 2 electoral principalities, 9 imperial bishoprics and 44 imperial abbeys were dissolved – churches still receive compensation today.

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