Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXX, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXX, chapter 2

Sine the Conclave is about to open, I will quickly sketch the history of that great mode of election, which has already operated for more than eighteen hundred years. How did the Papacy originate? How have the Popes been elected through the centuries?

At the time when liberty, equality and the Republic expired around the reign of Augustus, the universal tribune of the nations was born in Bethlehem, that great representative on earth of equality, liberty and the Republic, Christ, who having planted the Cross to serve as the boundary of the two worlds, after having been nailed to that Cross, and dying upon it, as the symbol, victim and redeemer of human suffering, transmitted his mantle to his foremost apostle. From Adam to Jesus Christ, it was a society that countenanced slavery, with inequality between men, and social inequality between men and women; from Jesus Christ’s to our time it has been a society of equality between men, with social equality of men and women, a society without slavery or at least the principle of slavery. The history of modern society begins at the foot of, and this side of, the Cross.

Peter, Bishop of Rome, initiated the Papacy: as tribune-dictators elected successively from among the people, and for the most part chosen from the most obscure social classes, the Popes took their temporal power from the democratic order, from that new society of brothers founded by Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter, the maker of ploughs and yokes, born of woman in respect of the flesh, and yet God and the son of God, as his works show.

The Popes have had a mission to maintain and defend the rights of man; the leaders of human opinion, they acquired, weak as they were, the power to dethrone kings with a word and an idea: as soldiers they had only ordinary men, heads covered with a hood and hands clasping a cross. The Papacy, marching at the head of civilisation, advanced towards the goal of society. Christian men, in every quarter of the globe, would obey a priest whose name was scarcely known to them, because that priest was the personification of a fundamental reality; in Europe he represented that political liberty almost everywhere destroyed; in the world of the Goths he was the defender of popular freedoms, as in the modern world he became the preserver of sciences, letters and the arts. People enrolled in his militias in the garb of mendicant brothers.

The quarrel between the Empire and the priesthood is the struggle between two social principles of the Middle Ages, power and liberty. The Popes, favouring the Guelphs, declared themselves for government by the people; the Emperors, adopting the Ghibellines, supported government by the nobility: precisely the roles that the Athenians and Spartans played in Greece. Also, when the Popes ranged themselves on the side of kings, when they became Ghibellines, they lost power, because they were divorced from their natural principle; and, for an opposite reason, though analogous, the monks saw their authority lessen when political freedom was directly returned to the people, because the people no longer needed to be substituted by the monks, their representatives.

Those thrones declared vacant and handed over to the first comer in the Middle Ages; those Emperors who knelt to beg the Pontiff’s forgiveness; those kingdoms placed under a ban; a whole nation deprived of religion by a magic word; those sovereigns struck by anathema, abandoned not only by their subjects, but also their relatives and servants; those princes avoided like lepers, exiled from the eternal race; the food they had tasted, the objects they had touched passed through the flames as tarnished things: all of that was the vigorous effect of popular sovereignty delegated to religion and exercised by it.

The longest-lived electoral process in the world is the system by which the power of the Pontiff has been transmitted by St Peter to the priest who wears the tiara today: from this priest one can go back, from Pope to Pope, to the saints who were with Christ; in the first link of the Pontifical chain a God resides. The bishops were elected by a general assembly of the faithful; from the time of Tertullian, the Bishop of Rome was made a bishop by other bishops. The clergy joining cause with the people worked together to bring about the election. As passions are met with everywhere, as they harm the finest institutions and the most virtuous characters, to the extent that Papal power increased it tended to bring benefits, and human rivalry then produced great disorder. In pagan Rome, similar troubles broke out during elections of the tribunes: one of the two Gracchi was hurled into the Tiber, the other stabbed to death by a slave, in a wood consecrated to the Furies. The nomination of Pope Damasus, in 366, produced bloodshed: a hundred and thirty seven people died in the Basilica Liberiana, today Santa Maria Maggiore.

Saint Gregory was considered to be elected as Pope by the clergy, the senate and the Roman people. Any Christian man could attain the tiara: Leo IV was promised the sovereign pontificate on the 10th of April 847 for defending Rome against the Saracens, and his ordination postponed until he had shown proof of his courage. Similarly in the creation of other bishops: Simplicius was elevated to the See of Bourges, layman though he was. Even today (something generally unknown) the Conclave’s choice could fall on a layman: be he married his wife would enter the religion, and take orders, on his becoming Pope.

The Greek and Latin Emperors wished to constrain the freedom of Papal election by popular vote; they sometimes usurped the right, and often required the election to be confirmed by them as a minimum: an ordinance of Louis the Debonair returned the election of the bishops its ancient freedom which was that it be attained, according to a treaty of the same date, by the unanimous consent of the clergy and the people.

The danger of an election proclaimed by the masses or dictated by the Emperor forced a change in the law. In Rome there were priests and deacons known as cardinals, their name given to them because they served at the cornua or corners of the altar, ad cornua altaris, or because the word cardinal was derived from the Latin cardo, a pivot or hinge. Pope Nicholas II, in a council held at Rome in 1059, decided that the Cardinals alone should elect the Pope and the clergy and the people ratify his election. A hundred and twenty years later, the third Lateran Council did away with the ratification by the clergy and the people and rendered the election valid if it gained a majority of two thirds of the votes in the assembly of Cardinals.

But the Council’s canon fixing neither the duration nor the form of the Electoral College the result was discord among the electors, and they lacked the means, within those fresh modifications of the law, to put an end to the disorder. In 1268, after the death of Clement IV, the Cardinals meeting in Viterbo could not agree, and the Holy See remained vacant for three years. The Podesta (Chief Magistrate) and the people of the town were obliged to shut the Cardinals in their palace, and even, they say, to remove the roof to force the electors to come to a decision. Gregory X emerged at last from the ballot, and in order to prevent such a problem in future, established from that time on the Conclave CUM CLAVE, under lock and key; he regulated the internal organisation of the Conclave close to the form in which it exists today: separate cells, a meeting room for the ballot, exterior windows to be blocked up, and the election proclaimed from one of these, on demolishing the plaster with which it is sealed, etc. The Council held at Lyons in 1274 confirmed and improved these arrangements. Yet one article of the rules has fallen into disuse: it said that if after three days of confinement no candidate had been chosen, for five days after this the Cardinals would have only a single dish at their meal, and for the days following would have only bread, wine and water until the sovereign Pontiff was elected.

Today the duration of the Conclave is no longer limited and a Spartan diet is no longer used to punish the Cardinals like penitent children. Their meals, placed in baskets and carried on trays, arrive before them accompanied by a lackey in livery; a steward follows the convoy, sword at his side, in the emblazoned coach, drawn by caparisoned horses, of one of the imprisoned cardinals. Arriving at the building where the Conclave is being held, the chickens are cut open, the pies drilled, the oranges quartered, and the bottles un-corked, for fear that some Pope might be inside. These ancient customs, some childish, others ridiculous, have their disadvantages. Is the repast sumptuous? Then the poor, dying of hunger, seeing it pass, compare it with their own and mutter. Is the dinner a light one? With a complementary natural reaction, the indigent mock the purple robes with contempt. They would do well to abolish this custom which is no longer current practice; Christianity is returning to its source; it is revisiting the age of Holy Communion and the Agape, and Christ alone should preside today at these feasts.

The intrigues within the Conclaves are notorious: some have had disastrous results. During the schism with the East various Popes and anti-Popes cursed and excommunicated one another, from the heights of the ruined walls of Rome. The schism seemed ready to be healed, when Pedro de Luna re-opened it, in 1394, by intrigue at the Conclave in Avignon. Alexander VI, in 1492, bought the votes of twenty two Cardinals who prostituted the tiara to him, leaving behind him the memory of Lucrezia. Sixtus V’s only intrigue in the Conclave was to make use of crutches, though when he was Pope his genius had no need of those aids. In a villa in Rome I have seen a portrait of his sister, a woman of the people, whom the terrible Pontiff, in all his plebeian pride, chose to have painted. ‘The noblest arms of our House,’ he told his sister, ‘are our rags.’

It was still an age when sovereigns dictated orders to the Sacred College. Philip II sent notes to the Conclave: ‘Su Magestad no quiere que N. sea Papa; quiere que N. le tenga: His Majesty does not wish N to be Pope, he wishes N to be such’. Following this period, intrigues within the Conclave were scarcely more than ripples without specific result. Duperron and d’Ossat nevertheless obtained the reconciliation of Henri IV with the Holy See, which was a great event. Duperron’s Embassies were somewhat inferior to D’Ossat’s Letters. Before them, Du Bellay had been involved with trying to prevent the schism with Henry VIII. Having obtained from that tyrant, before his separation from the Church, a promise that he would submit to the judgement of the Holy See, he arrived in Rome at the moment when the condemnation of Henry VIII was about to be pronounced. He obtained a delay in order to send a confidential agent to England; the reply was delayed by the state of the roads. The supporters of Charles V had sentence pronounced, and the bearer of Henry VIII’s instructions arrived two days later. A courier’s delay ensured England became Protestant, and changed the political landscape of Europe. The world’s destiny hangs on things no more weighty: too large a cup, emptied in Babylon, did for Alexander.

Later, Cardinal de Retz, came to Rome, at the time of Olimpia, and in the Conclave following the death of Innocent X, enrolled in the flying squadron, a name given to ten independent Cardinals; they brought with them Sacchetti, only good for having his portrait painted, to elect Alexander VII, savio col silenzio (wise and reticent), and who, having become Pope, turned out to be nothing special.

The President de Brosses recounts the death of Clement XII which he witnessed, and he saw the election of Benedict XIV – as I have seen the Pontiff, Leo XII, dead on his bier, abandoned: the Cardinal Camerlingo struck Clement XII on the forehead two or three times according to custom with a little hammer, calling him by his name, Lorenzo Corsini: ‘He did not respond’ says de Brosses, ‘and the Cardinal quoted: “That's what’s making your daughter mute.”’ And that is how in those days they treated serious matters: a dead Pope one taps on the head as if tapping at the gate of understanding, while calling the deceased and silent man by his name, might, it seems to me, inspire in a witness something other than a jest, even if it was written by Molière. What would the light-minded Magistrate from Dijon have said if Clement XII had replied from the depths of eternity: ‘What do you want with me?’

The President de Brosses sent his friend the Abbé Courtois a list of Cardinals attending the Conclave with a few words in honour of each:

‘Guadagni, a bigot, a hypocrite, lacks wit, lacks taste, a poor monk.
Aquaviva d’Aragon, a noble, somewhat heavily built, his wit is like his build.
Ottoboni, lacks morals, lacks credit, debauched and ruined, an amateur of the arts.
Alberoni, full of fire, agitated, restless, despised, lacks morals, lacks decency, lacks consideration, lacks judgement: according to him, a Cardinal is a wastrel dressed in red.’

The rest of the list is in keeping; the only wit here is cynicism.

A singular piece of buffoonery took place: de Brosses went to dinner with the English at the Porta San Pancrazio; they acted out the Papal election; Ashewd took off his wig and played the Cardinal-Dean; they chanted their oremus, and Cardinal Alberoni was elected by a ballot of the parties. The Protestant soldiers of the army of the Constable de Bourbon had once nominated Martin Luther for Pope, in the Church of St Peter. Today the English, who are at once Rome’s hurt and its salvation, respect the Catholic religion which has permitted them to inaugurate a chapel outside the Porta del Popolo. The government, and custom, will not accept any greater scandal.

As soon as a Cardinal is enclosed in Conclave, the first thing they do, he and his servants, is to scrape at the freshly plastered walls in the darkness, until they have made a little hole and then dangle strings from it by means of which messages can pass and re-pass between the inside and outside. In addition, Cardinal de Retz, whose opinion is not to be scorned, having spoken of the miseries of the Conclave he had participated in, finished his recital with these fine words:

‘In the time spent there together (in the Conclave) one always showed the same respect and civility as is seen in the chambers of kings; the same politeness as in the Court of Henri III; the same familiarity as in the colleges; the same modesty found in novices, and the same charity, at least on the surface, as could ever be displayed among brothers in perfect unity.’

I am struck, in ending this summary of a long history, by the serious manner with which it begins and the atmosphere of burlesque almost with which it ends; the greatness of the Son of God opens the scene which, diminishing by degrees, the further the Catholic religion is from its source, terminates in the pettiness of the sons of Adam. One scarcely discovers the ancient nobility of the cross except at the death of a Sovereign Pontiff: the Pope, free of family or friends, the body isolated on its bier, shows that the man counts for nothing as head of the Evangelical world. As a temporal Prince, honours are rendered to the dead Pope; as a man, his abandoned corpse is set down at the door of the church, where the sinner once did penance.