The Conti are a storied family of Roman nobility who gave many illustrious sons to the service of the Church, including no fewer than five popes and a saint. Indeed it was the most recent of this line, Innocent XIII (Michelangelo dei Conti), who had the honor of beatifying his own family member, the thirteenth-century Franciscan, Andrea dei Conti.
Michelangelo dei Conti was well aware of this tradition of service to the Church, and from an early age prepared himself to undertake a life of dedication to ecclesiastical administration. He was successively appointed governor of several cities in the papal states, achieving such distinction that he was taken into the papal diplomatic corps. This venerable body is the oldest of its kind in existence, and the activities of its members are key to extending the influence of the Church worldwide, providing reports about the local churches back to Rome and handling delicate negotiations with secular powers.
In 1695 Michelangelo was appointed as nuncio to Switzerland and consecrated an Archbishop. Acquitting himself creditably among the religious and cultural tangles of the Swiss confederation, three years later he was selected as nuncio to the court of Portugal, then the head of a worldwide empire and one that was critical for the mission field.
During his tenure he began to conceive suspicions about the Jesuit order, in particular their missionary techniques and theological positions. While in Lisbon he became a patron of science and a developed a warm relationship with the royal family. Because of this strong and successful friendship he remained as nuncio for an unusually long period, becoming a cardinal in 1706 and staying on in Lisbon until 1710.
Following this he served as the ordinary of several Italian dioceses, though he had to resign because of illness in 1719.
With the death of Clement XI in 1721, Michelangelo returned to Rome in order to participate in the conclave. The college was extremely divided into factions, principally between the Roman cardinals and those representing the Catholic secular powers. No side was able to marshal enough votes, and many popular candidates found themselves excluded by France and Austria.
This controversial ius exclusivae (not abolished until 1903) has been much maligned as an example of inappropriate lay interference in Church business, however it was considered critical for proper relations between the papacy and the Catholic states.
Indeed this “right” helped to maintain the balance of power in Europe, and often resulted in the exclusion of merely political cardinals, often indirectly enabling the selection of men of prudence and holiness. As the conclave dragged on the electors began to look deeper and, on the seventy-fifth ballot, 8 May 1721, the choice fell on the experienced administrator and diplomat, Michelangelo dei Conti. He was generally liked and known for his competence and tact, and his diplomatic skill in maintaining the regard of all the powers was impressive. His election was aided by the state of his health, as he was not expected to have a long pontificate.
Hearing about his impending elevation, the Jesuits tried to obtain an exclusion from the King of Spain, but they were too late to prevent his election.
Michelangelo selected the name Innocent XIII, in honor of his ancestor, the great Lothario dei Conti, known as Innocent III. He made excellent appointments throughout his administration, though he did give the unworthy first minister of France, Dubois, a cardinal’s hat. In all his actions he sought peace with the Catholic powers, in order to advance the Church’s mission in Europe and beyond. He was known as a stickler for protocol and had a very grave demeanor, seeking to preserve the honor of the papacy.
His short tenure was particularly troubled by the ongoing Jansenist crisis, a group of puritans more Calvinist in sensibility than Catholic.
Hearing of his animosity towards the Jesuits — their most hated opponents — the Jansensists hoped for a rapprochement from the new pope. On that score they were sorely disappointed, as Innocent insisted on strict obedience to the bull Unigentius which condemned Jansenism as heretical in no uncertain terms. An unfortunate result of this was the schismatic consecration of a Bishop of Utrecht in 1724, the remote origins of what was to become known as the Old Catholic Church. On the other hand the pope was very generous in assisting eastern Christians to return to papal obedience, guaranteeing their rights and liberties according to their own traditions.
The matter of the Chinese rites also came to a head during his reign. These rites, among other things, sought to domesticate the worship of Confucius and one’s ancestors to a Catholic interpretation similar to saintly veneration. Anti-Jesuit feeling had been building since the end of the 17th century, sentiments which were in part shared by the Pope. They were considered by many to be too accommodating to pagan practices in their missions.
The Society of Jesus had, by that time, assembled a long list of adversaries. Missionaries from the other orders distrusted their methods (and were also jealous at their successes). The Jansensists hated them as the enemies of their tenets, while the Gallicans detested them as Roman agents. Innocent reacted so severely against the Chinese Rites that it led not only to their suppression, but to a persecution of Christianity in China, and the effective end of the Jesuits’ Asian missions.
This tilled much of the ground that would later lead to the suppression of the Order in 1773.
Innocent XIII died after suffering many illnesses on 7 March 1724. It was widely lamented that he did not live longer, for he was a friend to the poor, and his efficient administration ensured stable and equitable distribution of grain that alleviated much poverty. He stamped out the remnants of nepotism, while continuing to give honor to his family. His severity led to problems in the future, but it maintained the strength of the papal office enabling it to withstand the buffets of both heresy and excessive lay interference.
He left one lasting gift to the Church by extending the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus universally in the Church’s calendar. It was perhaps a small consolation to the Society of Jesus, who themselves were so devoted to that Name.
Donald S. Prudlo is Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.
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