Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 15

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 15
A despatch


‘Rome, this 12th of January 1829.
Monsieur le Comte,
I saw the Pope on the 2nd of this month; he was so good as to detain me for an hour and a half in private.
I must give you an account of the conversation I had with His Holiness.
Firstly it was a discussion about France. The Pope began be praising the King most sincerely. “At no time.’ he said, ‘has the Royal Family of France shown so complete a range of qualities and virtues. Calm has been re-established among the clergy; the bishops have capitulated.”
“– That submission,” I replied “is due in part to the insight and moderation of Your Holiness.”
“– I have given advice,” the Pope replied “that appeared reasonable to me. Spirituality is not compromised by the decrees; the bishops would perhaps have been better not to write their first letter; but having declared non possumus: we cannot, it was difficult to retract. They were trying to display the least possible contradiction between their actions and their language at the moment of their collusion: one must pardon them. They are pious men, very attached to the King and the monarchy; they have their weaknesses like other men.”
All that, Monsieur le Comte, was said in very clear and effective French.
After thanking the Holy Father for the confidence he had shown in me, I spoke with esteem of the Cardinal-Secretary of State:
“I chose him,” he said to me, “because he is travelled, because he understands the general affairs of Europe, and because he seemed to me to have the kind of ability that his role demands. He has only written, in regard to your decrees, what I thought and what I would have recommended him to write.
“– Dare I communicate to His Holiness,” I replied, “my opinion regarding the religious situation in France?”
“– That would give me great pleasure,” the Pope responded.
I suppress several compliments that His Holiness was pleased to address to me.
“I consider then,” Most Holy Father, “that the evil originally arose from the Clergy’s contempt: instead of supporting new institutions, or at least being silent about them, they have allowed words of criticism, to put it no stronger, to escape, in their instructions and speeches. Impiety, which only knows how to reproach your Ministers, has seized on their words and made a weapon of them; it has cried that Catholicism is incompatible with the establishment of public freedom, that there is a war to the death between the Charter and the priesthood. By alternative means, our ecclesiastics might have obtained all they could have wished from the nation. There are great depths of religiosity in France, and a visible inclination to forget our former differences at the foot of the altar; but there is also a real attachment to the institutions established by the descendants of Saint Louis. The degree of influence the Clergy would have, if it displayed itself as simultaneously a friend of the King and of the Charter, is incalculable. I have never stopped preaching that policy in my writings and my speeches; but the passions of the moment did not grant me a hearing and took me for an enemy.
The Pope listened to me with the greatest attention.
“I follow your thinking,” the Pope said, after a moment’s silence. “Jesus Christ did not pronounce on the form government should take. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s was all he said: obey the established authorities. The Catholic religion has prospered under republics as it has under monarchies; it has made immense progress in the United States; it reigns alone in the Spanish Americas.”
These words are quite remarkable, Monsieur le Comte, at the very moment when the Court of Rome is strongly inclined to grant recognition to bishops nominated by Bolivar.
The Pope resumed: “You see the crowds of foreign Protestants in Rome: their presence is good for the country; but it is also good in another way; the English come here with the strangest notions about the Pope and the Papacy, regarding fanaticism in the Clergy, and the slavery of the people of this country: they only have to be here a couple of months to change their views. They see I am merely a bishop like any other bishop, that the clergy of Rome is neither ignorant nor an oppressor, and that all in all my subjects are not treated like animals.”
Encouraged by this heartfelt effusion and seeking to widen the scope of the conversation, I said to the Sovereign Pontiff: “Does not Your Holiness consider this a favourable moment for the strengthening of Catholic unity, and the reconciliation of dissident sects, by minor concessions in the rules? Prejudice against the Court of Rome is weakening everywhere, and in a yet fervent century, the work of reunion has already been attempted by Leibnitz and Bossuet.”
“– That is a great matter,” the Pope said; “but I must await the moment fixed by Providence. I agree that prejudice is weakening: the sectarian divisions in Germany have engendered weariness in those sects. In Saxony, where I lived for three years, I was the first to establish a hospital for foundlings and obtain agreement for it to be run by Catholics. Then objections were raised against me by the Protestants; today those same Protestants are the first to applaud the establishment and endow it. The number of Catholics in Great Britain has increased; it is true that there are many foreigners there.”
The Pope being silent for a moment, I profited from it by introducing the question of the Catholics in Ireland.
“If emancipation takes place,” I said, “the Catholic religion in Britain will expand still further.”
“– That is true from one perspective,” His Holiness replied, “but from another there are obstacles. The Irish Catholics are very fervent and very intemperate. Has not O’Connell, otherwise a man of merit, said in a speech that a Concordat has been proposed between the Holy See and the British Government? There is nothing in it; that assertion, which I cannot publicly contradict, has given me a great deal of pain. Thus to bring about reunion with the dissidents, things must mature, and God Himself will complete His work. Popes can only wait.”
That is not my opinion, Monsieur le Comte: but since I was charged with making the Holy Father’s opinion known to the King, I was not called upon to contest it.
“– What are your newspapers saying?” the Pope resumed, with a sort of levity. They chatter a lot! Those of Holland even more; but they tell me that an hour after having read their articles, no one in your country thinks of them again.”
“ – That is quite true, Most Holy Father: you see how the Gazette de France attacks me (since I know Your Holiness reads all the papers, not forgetting the Courrier); yet the Sovereign Pontiff treats me with extreme kindness; there is therefore room to believe that the Gazette has no great impact on him.” The Pope smiled and nodded. “Well, Most Holy Father, there are others like Your Holiness! If the newspapers say truly, the good they have spoken remains; if falsely, it is as if they had not spoken at all. The Pope must wait for the speeches during the session; the extreme right will maintain that Monsieur le Cardinal Bernetti is not a priest, and that his letters regarding the decrees are not articles of faith; the extreme left will declare that we have no need to take orders from Rome. The majority will applaud, in deference to the King’s Council, and will praise Your Holiness’ spirit of wisdom and peace.”
This little dissertation appeared to delight the Holy Father, happy to gain some insight into the workings of our constitutional machinery. Finally, Monsieur le Comte, thinking that the King and his Council would very much like to know the Pope’s thoughts regarding current events in the East, I repeated various news items from the papers, not being authorised to communicate to the Holy See what you told me positively in your despatch of the 18th of December regarding the recall of our expedition from the Morea.
The Pope did not hesitate to reply to me; he seemed to be alarmed at military discipline being imparted imprudently to the Turks. Here are his actual words:
“If the Turks are already capable of resisting Russia what will their power be when they have obtained a glorious peace? Who can stop them, after four or five years quietly perfecting their new tactics, from descending on Italy?”
I confess to you, Monsieur le Comte, that in discovering these ideas and anxieties in the mind of the Sovereign most likely to feel the repercussions of the enormous error that has been committed, I congratulate myself on having demonstrated to you in greater detail, in my Note on affairs in the East, the same ideas and anxieties.
“We need firm resolution,” the Pope added, “on the part of the Allied powers to put an end to the evils with which the future is menaced. France and England still have time to prevent it; but if a new campaign begins, it may set Europe alight, and it will be too late to extinguish it.”
“– All the more accurate a reflection,” I replied, “since if Europe is divided, God forbid, fifty thousand Frenchmen in Italy will call all in question.”
The Pope did not reply; it merely seemed to me that the idea of seeing the French in Italy did not inspire him with fear. Everywhere they are weary of the Court of Vienna’s inquisition, its intrigues, its endless encroachment and its little plots for uniting, in confederation against France, nations which detest the Austrian yoke.
Such, Monsieur le Comte, is the summary of my lengthy conversation with His Holiness. I am not sure if we have been in a position to understand private Papal sentiments any more deeply than this, or if a Prince who governs the Christians of the world has previously expressed himself so clearly on such a range of subjects, and outside the narrow circuit of the usual diplomatic ties. There is common ground between the Sovereign Pontiff and myself, and it was easy to see that Leo XII, by the nature of his candour, and the direction of this private conversation, was not dissimulating and did not seek to deceive.
The Pope’s inclinations and desires are evidently in France’s favour: when he took up the keys of St Peter, he belonged to the zelanti (zealous) faction; now he seeks strength in moderation: that is what wielding power always teaches. For that reason, he is disliked by the Cardinalist faction he has quit. Not having found any men of talent in the secular clergy, he has chosen his principal counsellors from the regular clergy; from which it follows that the monks support him, while the prelates and the simple priests provide him with a kind of opposition. The latter, when I arrived in Rome, all had minds more or less infected by lies emanating from our congregation; now, they are infinitely more reasonable; all, in general, blame our clergy for taking up their shields. It is interesting to note that the Jesuits are as much enemies here as in France: they have as adversaries primarily the members and leaders of the other Orders. They have formulated a plan by means of which they would dominate exclusively public education in Rome. The Dominicans have foiled this plan. The Pope is not very popular because he governs well. His little army is composed of former soldiers of Bonaparte who present quite a military appearance and make fine policemen on the highroads. If material Rome has lost its picturesque aura, it has gained in propriety and salubriousness. His Holiness has had trees planted and the beggars and solitaries turned away: another subject of complaint from the populace. Leo XII is a hard worker; he sleeps little and barely eats at all. Only one of his youthful interests remains, that of hunting, an exercise essential to his health which, otherwise, seems strengthened. He fires a few rifle shots in the vast enclosure of the VaticanGardens. The zelanti have a great problem excusing this innocent distraction. They reproach the Pope for weakness and inconstancy in his affections.
The radical vice of the political constitution in this country is easy to grasp: elderly men always proclaim an elderly man like themselves as sovereign. This old man, having become master, in turn names old men as Cardinals. Within this vicious circle, supreme power is always thus enervated and on the brink of the grave. The Prince never occupies the throne long enough to execute the plans of improvement he has conceived. What is needed is for a Pope to have enough resolution to suddenly promote a number of younger Cardinals, in a manner that would assure a majority in the future election of a young Pontiff. But the rules of Sixtus V which grant hats to Palace officials, the influence of custom and habit, the interests of the people who receive rewards at every transfer of the coronet, the individual ambitions of the Cardinals who desire a short reign in order to multiply their chances of achieving the Papacy, and a thousand other obstacles too numerous to mention, stand in the way of a rejuvenation of the Sacred College.
The conclusion of this despatch, Monsieur le Comte, is that, given the current state of things, the King can count entirely on the Court of Rome.
As a warning concerning my manner of seeing and feeling, if I have any criticism of myself to make in this recital which I have the honour of sending you, it is to have weakened rather than exaggerated His Holiness’ expressions. My memory is very clear; I wrote down the conversation on leaving the Vatican, and my private secretary has merely copied my minute word for word. The latter, scribbled rapidly, was barely readable even by me. You would never have been able to decipher it.
I have the honour to be, etc.’

(Shortly after the date of this letter, Monsieur de La Ferronays, who was ill, left for Italy leaving the foreign affairs portfolio, in the hands of Monsieur Portalis, for the interim.)