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Book Review: ‘To Kidnap A Pope’ Recounts How Napoleon Normalized Religious Freedom

Napoleon’s argument for religious freedom would outlast his empire and become a norm across Europe.

The greatest test in the history of the modern Catholic Church began at 2 a.m. on July 6, 1809. That’s when French troops swarmed the Quirinal Palace in Rome. The midnight arrest of Pope Pius VII at the hands of troops under the ultimate command of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was a watershed event in history, argues Ambrogio A. Caiani in his book “To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII.” 

Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800, 1801-1802, Musee de l’Histoire de France, Versailles, France. The midnight arrest of Pope Pius VII at the hands of troops under the ultimate command of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was a watershed event in history, argues Ambrogio A. (VCG WILSON/CORBIS VIA GETTYIMAGES)

Caiani points out that the operation that netted the pope used swarm tactics that Napoleon himself would have approved of, yet while Napoleon was a master of battlefields, the pope proved to be an evenly matched political opponent. The two tussled over a fundamental question, one that still haunts European politics — should the state or the church exercise supreme authority? 

At first glance, the two men had much in common. Both were of Italian heritage. Napoleon was born in Corsica to a local noble family only a few years after its capture by France. Pope Pius VII was born in Cesena, just 9 miles from the Adriatic Sea in what was then part of the Papal States. 

The pope’s carefully controlled captivity, first in Italy and later in France, would last five years. Incredibly, it was the second time in less than a decade that a pope had been kidnapped. His immediate predecessor, Pope Pius VI, had died in captivity at the hands of the French Revolutionary state. Yet, this affront to the Catholic Church had not involved Napoleon. The general of the age was transiting the Mediterranean on his return to France after his campaigns in Egypt and Palestine when Pope Pius VI died. 

Napoleon reached center stage following the Coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799. Once in power, Napoleon sought to ameliorate the effects of the French civil war. Those who supported the revolution pitted themselves against both royalist and Catholic forces in the Vendée wars, a series of farmer and peasant uprisings partly over the right to practice the Catholic faith. Napoleon sympathized with the peasants in the Vendée region and sought to reconcile the principles of the French Revolution with the Catholic Church.

Lesser men would have found reconciliation impossible, but Napoleon had a respectful, if unorthodox, view of religion. Napoleon boldly committed himself to reconciliation with the church — on his terms. Napoleon would tap Etienne-Alexandre Bernier, a former royalist rebel, as his chief negotiator with the papacy in historic negotiations. 

The resulting document, the Concordant of 1801, saw many rights restored to the church. Priests were made employees of a state they swore allegiance to, and the Vatican’s oversight was enshrined, but the fate of priests who had married during the French Revolution would be a lingering concern of the Catholic Church for decades. 

While Bernier’s political views were flexible, Napoleon’s own religious views were pragmatic and at times Unitarian. 

“It is in making myself Catholic that I have finished the wars of Vendée; in making myself Muslim, I won the heart of Egypt. If I had to govern a nation of Jews, I should re-establish the Temple of Solomon,” he once said. 

General Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) crossing the Ligurian Apennines on 5 April 1796 during the Revolutionary Wars in Italy. An engraving by Pollet from an original painting by Ary Scheffer. Napoleon believed that the church should be subordinate to the state. (HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTYIMAGES) 

Above all, Napoleon believed that the church should be subordinate to the state. Thus, we should not be surprised that following the rapprochement, he declared that St. Neopolus — an obscure (and, Caiani suggests, possibly fictitious) early Christian martyr — would be celebrated each Aug. 15. For most Catholics, this was the date of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and also, by coincidence, Napoleon’s birthday. 

The Concordant agreement was to long outlast Napoleon. Until France’s laïcité law separating church and state would come into effect in 1905, the Concordant was effectively the last word on church-state relations. Napoleon arranged similar agreements with Protestant and Jewish groups in his empire.  

Pius VII even attended and anointed Napoleon at his coronation as the emperor in 1804. Pontiffs traditionally crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. At the height of the ceremony, Napoleon took the crown from his hands and placed it on his own head. Some writers have seen this move as a snub.  

However, it is Caiani’s argument that Napoleon’s wish to give the ceremony a religious character was largely sincere. Napoleon would take as a personal slight the various cardinals and other figures who refused to attend. 

The pope was made a prisoner of Napoleon and spent much of his imprisonment in Savona. Later, after Napoleon seized the Papal States, he brought the pope to Fontainebleau near Paris. That seizure in 1809 was meant to further break the pope’s spirit, the author argues.  

Yet even isolated from the Vatican and at times having only limited access to the outside world, the pope refused to crack. Indeed, a spirited Catholic resistance to Napoleon in the Catholic Church organized a number of secret societies to undermine Napoleon — what today we would consider civil disobedience.

Caiani skillfully switches between a more academic tone and a journalistic one. This serious work of scholarship, which is the result of hours spent in archives, can occasionally read like a thriller — especially when telling how the pope nearly died during his relocation from Italy to the outskirts of Paris.

At Fontainebleau, the pope and Napoleon again locked horns — this time in person. Yet, the pope largely refused to break down even as rumors spread that Napoleon had struck the pope. The pope himself graciously denied the rumor, saying only that Napoleon had grabbed his shirt during a heated exchange. 

Napoleon was surprised about the pope’s intransigence, as both Protestants and Jews had agreed to abide by Napoleon’s vision, which placed the state at the center of things. Indeed, under Napoleon, many of the deprivations Jews had faced were abolished, and Jews across Italy were permitted to leave the ghettos. 

As a result of the Congress of Châtillon, Napoleon agreed to free the pope. Soon their roles would be reversed, with Napoleon a prisoner on Elba and later St. Helan, and the pope back in control of the Papal States. Caiani argues that the church, not surprisingly, was left embittered, and the church experienced reentrenchment. The Jews were forced to return to the ghettos in Rome, which would remain open until 1870 — the last in Europe until the practice was reintroduced by the Nazis.

Prior to the French Revolution, the Papal States included territory in both France and much of Northern Italy. The whole episode’s history likely influenced another French emperor, Napoleon III, who helped shepherd the unification of Italy that destroyed the Papal States in 1870, when Italy was unified. It would be almost half a century before the Vatican would again gain some form of sovereignty, which would include only a small sliver of modern Rome, a far cry from those who wanted the Vatican to have at least a tiny portion of coastal territory as well. 

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) as Emperor Napoleon 1 of France reviewing the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard on 1 June 1811 in Paris, France. An engraving by Augustin Burdet from an original painting by Auguste Raffet. Napoleon’s argument for religious freedom would outlast his empire and become a norm across Europe (HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTYIMAGES)

The pen proving mightier than the sword is the theme of the book. However, the same could be said for Napoleon’s most controversial religious view — that of religious equality. Napoleon’s argument for religious freedom would outlast his empire and become a norm across Europe. 

Indeed, the episode sketched in the book is important for any interested in understanding the roots of church-state conflict in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. 

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.

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