Having acquired a great reputation as a preacher, he became the friend and confidant of Pope Benedict XIV, and was created a cardinal by his successor. He was elected Pope on May 19, 1769, after a conclave extremely agitated by the intrigues and pretensions of the Catholic sovereigns, who were resolved to exclude every candidate favourable to the Jesuits.
Theiner has satisfactorily vindicated Ganganelli from the charge of having given a formal pledge on this subject. He may probably have leaned to the views of the Catholic powers, but if so his motive was widely different from the subservience which had induced his predecessor Clement V to gratify Philip the Fair by the suppression of the Knights Templar. The breach between the temporal and the spiritual authorities had become threatening, and the guiding principle of Clement's policy was undoubtedly the reconciliation of the European sovereigns, whose alienation threatened to produce the results which we have seen accomplished in our own times. By yielding the Papal claims to Parma, he obtained the restitution of Avignon and Benevento, and in general he succeeded in placing the relations of the spiritual and the temporal authorities on a satisfactory footing. Whether from scruple or policy he proceeded with great circumspection in the suppression of the Jesuits, the decree to this effect not being framed until November 1772, and not signed until July in the following year.
This memorable measure, which takes rank in history as the most remarkable, perhaps the only really substantial, concession ever made by a Pope to the spirit of his age, has covered Clement's memory with obloquy in his church. There cannot be any reasonable doubt of the integrity of his conduct, and the only question is whether he acted from a conviction of the pernicious character of the Society of Jesus or merely from a sense of expediency. In either case his action was abundantly justified, and to allege that though beneficial to the world it was detrimental to the church is merely to insist that the interests of the Papacy are not the interests of mankind. His work was hardly accomplished ere Clement, whose natural constitution was exceedingly vigorous, fell into a languishing sickness, generally and plausibly attributed to poison. No conclusive evidence of this, however, has been produced; and it is but just to remark that poison would more probably have been administered before the obnoxious measure had been taken than when it was already beyond recall.
Clement expired on September 22, 1774, execrated by the Ultramontane party, but regretted by his subjects for his excellent temporal administration.
No Pope has better merited the title of a virtuous man, or has given a more perfect example of integrity, unselfishness, and aversion to nepotism. Notwithstanding his monastic education, he approved himself a statesman, a scholar, an amateur of physical science, and an accomplished man of the world. As Leo X indicates the manner in which the Papacy might have been reconciled with the Renaissance had the Reformation never taken place, so Ganganelli exemplifies the type of Pope which the modern world might have learned to accept if the movement towards free thought could, as Voltaire wished, have been confined to the aristocracy of intellect. In both cases the requisite condition was unattainable; neither in the 16th nor in the 18th century has it been practicable to set bounds to the spirit of inquiry otherwise than by fire and sword, and Ganganelli's successors have been driven into assuming a position analogous to that of Paul IV and Pius V in the age of the Reformation. The estrangement between the secular and the spiritual authority which Ganganelli strove to avert is now irreparable, and his pontificate remains an exceptional episode in the general history of the Papacy, and a proof how little the logical sequence of events can be modified by the virtues and abilities of an individual.
The history of Clement's administration has been written in a spirit of the most violent detraction by Cretineau-Joly, and perhaps too unreservedly in the opposite spirit by Father Theiner, the custodian of the archives of the Vatican. Theiner calls attention to the disappearance of many documents which have apparently been abstracted by Clement's enemies. Clement's familiar correspondence has been frequently reprinted and is much admired for its elegance and urbanity.
Pope Clement XIII
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Pope Pius VI