The synod dominated by heretics and eccentrics with bad ideas

An artist's impression of the Synod of Pistoia (Wikimedia Commons)

How many people remember the Synod of Pistoia? If you have never heard about it, or forgotten all about it, here are two brief articles that call fill you in.

The Synod of Pistoia was the work of two men. One was the Bishop of Pistoia, Scipione de Ricci, and the other Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany (brother of Marie Antoinette, and later Leopold II of Austria). Leopold, like his brother Emperor Joseph, had advanced ideas about Church reform coupled with a passion for minutiae, and he found a kindred spirit in the Bishop. The Synod was called in 1786 with a view to “modernising” the Church.

Its decrees were very radical: for example, it proposed abolishing all religious orders bar the Benedictines; that no women should make religious vows before the age of forty; it also proposed doing away with relics, processions, and modifying the cult of the saints and their celebration; it was particularly critical of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

The sort of things it proposed were the fruit of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and many were later part of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in revolutionary France, which Marie Antoinette and her husband so vehemently opposed at great personal cost. In particular the Synod aimed to exalt the local bishops’ authority at the expense of the Pope’s. These ideas are often lumped together under the label of Josephinism.

The Synod of Pistoia is not very interesting of itself, for it represents just another attempt to bring the Church under state control and to subject it to what some would see as rationalisation or modernisation. These movements, however they are dressed up, occur roughly once a generation. However, what happened after the Synod was very interesting indeed.

Leopold called a convocation of clergy in his capital, Florence, with the idea that the decrees of the Synod should be imposed on the whole of Tuscany. But the clergy, by an overwhelming majority, refused to co-operate. That was in 1787. Some seven years later, the decrees of Pistoia were condemned by Papal Bull from Rome. That delivered the coup de grace. But far more significant was the fact that Bishop de Ricci had already fled Tuscany by that time, and resigned his see, thanks to popular discontent with his reforming ways. At one stage a riot occurred after a rumour went round that the Bishop was destroying holy relics.

So opposition to Pistoia came from the clergy, the People of God, and eventually, at the end, from the Holy See. Thus the decrees of the Synod ended up in the dustbin of history, which is why, dear reader, you have probably never heard of the Synod of Pistoia.

There is a useful historical parallel here, and a lesson to be learned. Top down reform does not work. The sort of ideas that the clergy oppose and the People of God oppose tend not to prosper. Really bad ideas, like those of Pistoia, tend to be buried rather rapidly. The Church is a family; in every family there are eccentric uncles and peculiar cousins like Leopold and Ricci, who, we all feel are best forgotten. Not a lot changes in the Church of God: as then, so now.