Pope Francis’ Hidden Precedent: The Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs #tbt

Pope Francis after his election
Pope Francis after his election

While perusing Church history today in the hopes of editing an article, I came across one of those rare gems that helps to explain the current situation of the church.  As we all know, last April, Pope Francis appointed a group of eight cardinals to “advise him in the governance of the Universal Church.”  I joked about the impressive collection of cardinals here, noting that “it’s not as dramatic as refusing to live in the Papal apartments,” and “it’s not that exciting for news outlets, since the first official meeting won’t be until October (2013).”

I’d like to amend the record here, and claim that I was wrong.  Francis’ move was impressive and will prove to be the most significant hierarchical reconstruction of his pontificate.  The historical precedents are just that impressive.

In 1793, when the French Revolution was throwing Europe into disaster-mode, Pope Pius VI began the “Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Kingdom of France.”  Of course, General Napolean Bonaparte started taking power, and the congregation went into full-time mode just to keep up with the level of disaster.  Clearly, this did not work: Rome fell in 1798 and Pius VI died in French captivity in 1799. Whoops!

So, in 1801, newly elected Pope Pius VII stepped in and created the “Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs,” riffing off Pius VI’s attempt at a council of cardinals that could better deal with the “worldly affairs” like, you know, revolution.  Once again, this did not work: Napolean sacked Rome in 1808 and Pius VII was imprisoned until 1814 (when Napolean abdicated the throne and the Papal States were given back to the Roman Church).  Whoops, part 2.  However, this Pius did not die in prison, and came back with some bite (as my Jesuit friends should well know).

In 1814, Pius reinstated the Jesuits–a radical move at the time, since the Jesuits were ousted not 50 years earlier–while simultaneously reestablished the wartime congregation.  This time, he called it the Extraordinary Congregation in Charge of Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Catholic World…because who needs short names when long ones will do?  Anyhow, here’s the fun part.  The congregation of 1814 was made up of 8 cardinals, and acted much like the Pope’s cabinet for the better part of the 19th century.  Historian Owen Chadwick explains:

“To the Congregation of Extraordinary Affairs the Pope entrusted advice upon the relations between the see of Rome and the civil powers; the drafting of the agreements (Concordats) ‘to cancel the effects of revolution’; ordinary affairs in Latin America, in the former Portuguese empire in the east, in Russia and all countries with which Rome had no formal relations. Therefore it left no room for the old consistory of cardinals. This Congregation of eight cardinals began to act like a cabinet, and so continued until the reordering of the Curia in 1908.” (Popes and the European Revolution, 552-553)

In the wake of the 16th century Reformation, the Congregation of the Council was created to deal with heresies and enforce the doctrine of Trent.  In the wake of the French Revolution, the Congregation of Extraordinary Affairs was created to council the Pope and relate to a revolutionary world.  Two hundred years later, in the wake of a notoriously scandal-filled curia and the first pope to resign in 700 years, the first Jesuit Pope (thanks to Pius VII in 1814) created the “Group of Eight” to act as a cabinet and advise him “in the governance of the universal church.”

Clearly, Francis knows his history, although the Group of Eight should really have been given a cooler name. Nevertheless, history seems to show that this move will prove to be the most significant of his pontificate, as the Congregation of the Council was the most powerful Vatican Office from the 16th to the late 18th centuries, and the Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs essentially ruled the Vatican during the tumultuous 19th century.  How long will the supercardinals last?  What changes will they bring?

Should be a fun ride, that’s for sure. Archives ftw!


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