9 Feb. 1621–8July 1623)
Son of Count Pompeio, Alessandro Ludovisi was born at Bologna on 9 Jan. 1554, studied liberal arts at the Roman College under the Jesuits (1569–71), and graduated doctor of laws at Bologna in 1575. He then took holy orders, and the curia was quick to use his talents. He was given a series of increasingly responsible judicial posts, and took part in delicate diplomatic missions, e.g. to Poland and to Benevento. Nominated archbishop of Bologna in 1612, he negotiated peace between Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy (1580–1630) and Philip III of Spain (1598–1621) in 1616, receiving a cardinal's hat in recognition (cardinal priest of Sta Maria in Traspontina, 19 Sept.). Largely through lobbying by Cardinal Scipione Borghese Caffarelli, Paul V's nephew, he was elected by acclaim as his successor. Already 67 and frail in health, but beloved for his kindness, he needed an energetic collaborator and immediately found one in his 25-year-old nephew Ludovico Ludovisi, whom he made a cardinal the day after his coronation. This brilliant, fastidious young man had all the necessary drive, imaginative versatility, and cool courage, and the chief credit for Gregory's achievements belongs to him. In return his uncle heaped honours and riches on him; the latter he used to aggrandize himself and to build churches, villas, and art galleries, as well as to promote charities.
The first Jesuit-trained pope, Gregory, and Ludovico equally, strove not only to continue the inner renewal of the church but to regain ground it had lost. Two of his measures in the strictly church sphere were of exceptional significance. First, to meet widespread criticism of papal elections and the influences brought to bear on them, he reorganized their procedure in minutest detail, decreeing (Aeterni patris filius: 15 Nov. 1621, and Decet Romanum pontificem: 12 Mar. 1622) that, while acclaim should not be excluded, elections should normally take place after the closure of the conclave, and that voting should be by secret written ballot. The revised system, although it took centuries to eliminate outside political pressures entirely, has remained virtually unaltered. Secondly, in order to provide the church with a supreme central authority covering the whole mission field, he founded (6 Jan. 1622) the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith; on 22 June he signed the bull Inscrutabili divinae providentiae instituting it. Thirteen cardinals were assigned to it; its guiding idea was that, as universal shepherd of souls, the pope had an overriding responsibility for propagating the faith. It was to be the organ for coordinating missionary enterprise not only in heathen lands, hitherto supervised by Catholic sovereigns (whose lively resistance it now encountered), but also in countries which had become Protestant and had lost their hierarchies. It thus developed into the headquarters of the Counter-Reformation.
In the political world Gregory went over to the offensive: when sending Bishop Carlo Carafa as nuncio to the imperial court, he commissioned him to win over the emperor and the Catholic princes to active support of Catholic restoration. The objective of the papacy, as he saw it, was to promote and maintain unity among the Catholic powers. Thus to assist Emperor Ferdinand II (1619–37) and the Catholic League to exploit their victory over the Protestant elector Frederick V (1596–1632) near Prague on 8 Nov. 1620, he provided massive financial subsidies; while Carafa saw to it that Protestantism was crushed and Catholicism reimposed in Bohemia. Again through Carafa, aided by the Capuchin Hyacinth of Casale, he contrived that the dignity of Elector Palatine, vacated by Frederick V, was transferred (Feb. 1623) to Maximilian I of Bavaria (1573–1651). This he saw as a triumph for the church, for Catholicism now had a majority among the five Palatine electors. In return a grateful Maximilian presented him with the library of Heidelberg, with its precious manuscripts. Meanwhile he pressed Philip III of Spain to break the twelve years' truce in the Netherlands. In France he encouraged the anti-Calvinist policies of the government, and showed his satisfaction at its successes by erecting Paris (Oct. 1622) into a metropolitan see. In the strategic territory of the Valtellina, disputed between France and Spain, he got himself accepted as arbiter and occupied the territory with papal troops, thereby preventing war between the two powers and safeguarding the faith of the Catholic inhabitants. In England he was prepared to sanction a marriage (which in fact never took place) between Prince Charles, heir of James I and later Charles I, and the Infanta Maria of Spain in return for the promise of a substantial softening of the penal laws against James's Catholic subjects.