Bl. Innocent XI


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(21 Sept. 1676–12 Aug. 1689)

After a two-month conclave Benedetto Odescalchi was unanimously chosen to succeed Clement X, Louis XIV of France (1643–1715) having agreed to withdraw his threatened veto. Born at Como on 19 May 1611, he came of a rich banking family, and was himself apprenticed at 15 to its bank at Genoa after studying with the Jesuits at Como. Influenced by a friendly cardinal, he then read law at Rome and Naples, taking his doctorate in 1639, entered the papal service under Urban VIII, and became successively protonotary, president of the apostolic chamber, governor of Macerata, and financial commissary in the Marches. Innocent X made him cardinal deacon of SS. Cosma e Damiano on 6 March 1645, legate of Ferrara in 1648 at a time of acute famine, and bishop of Novara in 1650: he was ordained priest and then bishop only after his nomination to the see. In these offices he earned a reputation for conscientious and charitable administration as well as austere piety; as bishop he spent his income on the poor. Resigning his see in 1654 on grounds of ill health—it was bestowed on his Benedictine brother—he lived quietly in Rome, absorbed in curial business. Surprised and abashed by his election, he would only accept it when the cardinals agreed to subscribe a fourteen-point programme of reform which he had proposed during the conclave.

Frugal in his personal life, Innocent at once set himself to sweep away moral and administrative abuses. Entirely free from nepotism himself, he sought to persuade the cardinals to outlaw it, but in vain. By reducing offices and stipends and by drastic economies, he restored the papal finances. He called for evangelical preaching and catechizing, the strict observance of monastic vows, the rigorous selection of priests and bishops, and frequent communion. His measures to control public decency, e.g. his prohibition of carnivals, were largely ineffective and met with ridicule. With his moral earnestness he had Jansenist leanings and was critical of the Jesuits; on 2 Mar. 1679, without naming the probabilism prevalent in Jesuit circles, he condemned 65 laxist propositions savouring of it. When the Jesuit Tirso González de Santalla, of Salamanca, turned against probabilism, Innocent endorsed (1680) his system of probabiliorism, i.e. the view that in cases of doubt about the licitness of an action the opinion which seems more probable should be followed, and in 1687 procured his election as general of the order. On the other hand, although previously sympathetic to the Spanish Quietist Miguel de Molinos (c. 1640–97), author of a Spiritual Guide which inculcated complete passivity and minimized human effort, he was manoeuvred by the Jesuit-dominated Holy Office into permitting his arrest in 1685 and then denouncing his extremer views in the bull Coelestis pastor on 19 Nov. 1687: he had at one time considered making him a cardinal.

Innocent's inflexible resistance to encroachments on the church's rights led him into continuous conflict with Louis XIV's absolutist pretensions. Clement X had made no rejoinder to Louis's decrees of 1673 and 1675 extending the right of regalia (i.e. the king's right to administer both the temporalities and the spiritualities of vacant sees) to his entire realm, and, construing his silence as acquiescence, almost all the French clergy submitted. When two bishops protested, Innocent rejected the extension; whereupon an assembly of French clergy, at Louis's instigation, adopted (19 Mar. 1682) the four so-called Gallican Articles denying the pope any authority in temporal affairs or over kings, asserting the superior authority of general councils, and reaffirming the ancient liberties of the Gallican church. In reply Innocent rejected the Articles (11 Apr. 1682) and refused to ratify the appointments of bishops who had subscribed them; by Jan. 1688 35 bishoprics were vacant in France. Louis hoped that his attacks on the Huguenots, culminating in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes on 18 Oct. 1685, would induce the pope to be cooperative, but while approving the revocation Innocent suspected the motives behind it and deplored the violent methods of the persecution unleashed on the Protestants. The deadlock was intensified in 1687 when Innocent, having ended the rights of asylum enjoyed, and abused, by embassies in Rome, refused to receive the new and defiant French ambassador; and again in 1688, when he rejected Louis's nominee for the archbishopric and electorship of Cologne and appointed Emperor Leopold I's (1658–1705). In Jan. 1688 he secretly informed Louis that he and his ministers were excommunicate; in Sept. the king occupied the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin. Open schism was avoided only by the intervention of Fénelon (1651–1715), later archbishop of Cambrai, and the advent of William of Orange to the English throne.


Subjects: Christianity.

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