Pope Innocent XI
Pope Innocent XI, born as Benedetto Odescalchi, is widely regarded as the best Pope of the seventeenth century. “All contemporary reports are full of his praise; they describe him as an extraordinarily devout man, a stern defender of the Church’s immunity, a father to the poor, an enemy of nepotism and an advocate of ecclesiastical and secular reform.” Indeed, one modern commentator rates Pope Innocent XI among the fourteen best popes of all time (there have been two hundred and sixty-five Popes in the history of the Catholic church).
Pope Innocent XI was a healthy man who enjoyed walking for exercise. Perhaps because he enjoyed exercise, Innocent XI looked younger than his age. The most famous description of his appearance is as follows:
He was venerable and majestic in appearance, his stature a foot taller than the average Italian; his mien was tempered by a serious and lively gravity; robust constitution and phlegmatic temperament, inclined somewhat to melancholy, and highly suitable to the dignity of a Vicar of Christ, rendering the man prudent, pacific, and capable of great undertakings. His limbs were well arranged and composed, although his left arm had a little impediment; a wide forehead, a long face with bright eyes, a long aquiline nose, and his chin protruding outward slightly. Although he showed a modicum of austerity in his appearance, he was so benign and venerable, that at a single glance, he would gain the love and reverence of men.
Another description of a portrait of Benedetto Odescalchi focuses on his facial features:
[His face] [a]ppears long and drawn, his features distinguished, a very fine nose, the eyes intensely alert, the moustache turned up and ‘coquette,’ the mouth no less carefully done. No other part of a beard exists; his white neck firmly in place, his temperament seems delicate; in sum, the portrait does not reveal Odescalchi’s more than sixty-five years.
Birth and Life before the Papacy
Benedetto Odescalchi was born one
of seven children on May 19, 1611 in
parents, who were devout Christians, introduced him to religion at an early
age. Benedetto began his schooling at
the Jesuit college in
It is unclear why Benedetto decided
to move to
It was not
until the age of 29 that it became clear that Benedetto would devote his life
to the Catholic Church. Perhaps based on
his experience in the banking business, the Church’s first assignment for
Benedetto was tax collector in the papal territory of the
most important assignment before becoming Pope was as legate of
In his next
assignment for the church as bishop of
Following his stint in
One may admit that mere length of service commands attention, and that this entire phase of his [life] may well be appreciated as propaedeutic to the awesome responsibility as pontiff. Tax collector extraordinary, rising from an obscure governor of a remote and insignificant region to the dignity of a cardinal, papal legate at Ferrara, a priest and bishop at middle-age, and finally an influential member of the powerful Roman curia, each of these successive positions of trust and accountability matured him for the burdens of his pontificate.
Benedetto becomes Pope Innocent XI
Benedetto was a strong candidate
to become Pope following the death of Pope Clement IX in 1669. However, Benedetto did not yet feel qualified
for the position and his humility mitigated against his election. Moreover, Louis XIV, the powerful king of
Louis XIV and Innocent XI
Louis XIV, the king of France, and
Innocent XI were involved in a power struggle throughout Innocent’s
papacy. In fact, one commentator has
suggested that Innocent XI was Louis XIV’s greatest enemy. The origins of their struggle were Louis
XIV’s absolutist policies. Already the
most powerful king in
Louis XIV hoped his efforts to
Considering the climate of the time
it is not surprising that Pope Innocent initially supported Louis XIV’s
revocation of the edict of
It must be understood that although Innocent XI supported the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he did not support the religious persecution and forced conversion of the Huguenots. “[T]he confusion arising from the edict and the concern with Innocent’s reception may be dispelled. Toward that aim one should distinguish between the edict of revocation and the force used as an instrument of conversion. Innocent approved the former; he condemned the latter.” After Innocent learned of the compulsive methods being used against the Huguenots in 1686, he expressed his opposition by condemning conversion through coercion:
A report by the Venetian ambassador, Girolamo Venier, bearing on Innocent’s attitude on the question of the Huguenots, is of great importance. According to this document, Innocent openly and explicitly condemned Louis XIV’s despotism and his use of brute force; conversions, he observed, were not made by armed apostles; this was a new missionary method of which Christ our Lord had made no use.
James II and Pope Innocent XI
Despite the fact that some critics
have claimed Innocent possessed mediocre intellectual abilities,
his handling of the situation in
At the beginning of his reign as King of England, James II promised to maintain the Church of England and the State in accordance with the existing Constitution. This promise proved a lie. Like his good friend Louis XIV, James II believed in absolute monarchy and used his power as King to rule in an entirely unconstitutional fashion. Most Catholics, including most English Catholics, disapproved of James II’s absolutist tendencies:
[O]pinion on the
subject may be gathered from a contemporary document, [entitled] an Instruction
for a papal [diplomat] in
inspired Innocent XI to encourage James II to institute a policy of moderation
and prudence. The Pope hoped James II
would utilize political means to advance the cause of English Catholics. Unfortunately, James used his dispensing
power against the will of Parliament and the citizens of
Innocent XI’s conflicted desires
between promoting Catholicism and respecting the laws of
[Adda] was instructed not to appear from the first as an ecclesiastic and still less as a papal nuncio, for this would have led at once to a conflict with English law, and would have been interpreted as a challenge to an excited population. . . . [initially] James agreed with the Pope that . . . Adda should only appear as a distinguished foreigner who had come to study English life. On January 5th, 1686, the Cardinal Secretary of State impressed on Adda that on no account must he pose as a papal nuncio . . .
Adda’s friendship with James II combined with James II’s desire to spread Catholicim,
prompted James II to request that Adda be raised to the rank of nuncio. Pope Innocent XI felt compelled to raise Adda
to the rank of nuncio because James II had named Lord Castlemaine as the
English ambassador to
In James’ own interest the Pope also at first declined a . . . demand of the King, namely Adda’s elevation to the full rank of nuncio. For a hundred years, he explained, the English people had not seen a papal nuncio; in view of the excitement prevailing throughout the land, the presence of such a personage would raise a storm against the King, but as both Castlemaine and Adda kept reverting to the matter, Innocent XI announced towards the end of 1686 that the nomination of the nuncio would follow as soon as Castlemaine should have been publicly received as English ambassador.
of Castlemaine and Adda stirred negative sentiment against James II and likely
played a role in his eventual overthrow.
After the famous acquittal of the seven bishops, several English
noblemen invited William of Orange to take over as King of England. William arrived in
Some have alleged that Innocent and his aides conspired with William in his
plans for invading
Regardless of whether Pope Innocent XI knew of William’s plans, it is not
likely that Pope Innocent XI considered James II an enemy in the same sense
that he did Louis XIV. After James II
Innocent XI’s health suffered during the Glorious Revolution from repeated
attacks of gout. He died on August 12,
1689, less than one year after the Glorious Revolution put an end to Catholic
hopes for the restoration of Catholicism in
The relationship between Pope
Innocent XI and William of
Two Italian historians, Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, re-examined Pope
Innocent XI’s relationship with William of Orange in a book entitled Imprimatur,
which was published in 2002. Although the book does not purport to be of
scholarly value, its appendix includes citations to documents only recently
released to the public that provide a certain amount of credibility to the
author’s story. The documents cited were
kept in the cellar of a palace belonging to the Odescalchi family. According to the book, these documents
indicate that the
In a recent interview Francesco Sorti confirmed that he believed Pope
Innocent XI knew about William of Orange’s plans to invade
[I]t [is] very likely the Pope went on supporting
William because Rome disapproved of James’ aggressively Catholic policies, and
saw him as too close to Louis XIV of France, who clashed with Rome. . . . The
While the novel presents a
compelling case, historians are skeptical of the authors’ interpretation of the
Odescalchi family documents. These
historians question why the
documents relied on by the authors of Imprimatur are not the only indication that Pope Innocent XI and
William may have had a closer relationship than most historians have
suggested. A painting completed by
William of Orange’s court artist Pieter van der Muelen provides another
indication of their relationship. The old
MPs cheered when they heard of its acquisition. But those cheers gave way to
bewilderment when the canvas was unveiled. There in the foreground is a figure which
looks like [William of
Art experts dispute whether the painting is the work of
Pieter van der Meulen and whether the subject really is King William of
After the painting was restored, it was decided that it should not be exposed to the public. The picture’s precise location inside the Northern Ireland Parliament buildings was unknown from 1936 to 1975. From 1975 to 1983 the painting was in the Belfast Public Record Office. It is currently located in the speaker’s office in the Northern Ireland Parliament buildings. Because of its significance, there have been demands that the painting be displayed in a more public location.
Bill Speck, Religion’s Role in the Glorious Revolution, 38 Hist. Today 30 (1988).
Freiherr Von Pastor Ludwig, The History of the Popes, Volume XXXII (Dom Ernest Graf ed., Lund Humphries 1957) (1940).
J.N.D. Kelly, The
John C. Rule,
J.P. Kenyon, The Birth of the Old Pretender, 8 Hist. Today 418 (1963).
Louis O’Brien, The Huguenot Policy of Louis XIV and Pope Innocent XI, in The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 17, 29 (Peter Guilday & Leo Francis Stock & George Boniface Stratemeier eds., The Catholic University of America 1932).
Mark Devenport, King Billy painting a 'mixed blessing', BBC News Northern Ireland, Aug. 18, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/5263210.stm (last visited Dec. 5, 2007).
Maurice Ashley, Is there a case for James II?, 8 Hist. Today 347 (1963).
Menna Prestwich, Review Article: The Revocation of the Edict
Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes (HarperCollins 1997).
Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984).
 See J.N.D. Kelly, The
 Freiherr Von Pastor Ludwig, The History of the Popes, Volume XXXII, 4 (Dom Ernest Graf ed., Lund Humphries 1957) (1940).
 Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes 433 (HarperCollins 1997). Mr. McBrien describes Pope Innocent XI’s life as follows:
He imposed severe reductions in the papal budget and called for evangelical preaching and catechesis, the strict observance of monastic vows, careful selection of priests and bishops, and frequent reception of Holy Communion. His attempts to persuade the cardinals to outlaw nepotism ended in failure, however, and his prohibition of carnivals was ridiculed an ignored by the people. So ascetical was he in his life, that many suspected him of Jansenist leanings (that is, a too rigid approach to the moral life).
 Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity 67 (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984) (quoting Lippi, Vita di Papa Innocenzo XI, p. 188).
 Id. (quoting Michaud, Louis XIV et Innocent XI, 1:50).
 Michelle Tauber, A Wedding to Remember, People, Dec. 4, 2006, at 90 (“. . . guests--seated inside a converted 15th-century armory in Italy's majestic Odescalchi Castle. . .”).
 Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity 18 (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984).
 Id. at 25 (quoting Guiseppe Colombo, Notizie Biografiche e Lettere di Papa, Innocenzo XI (Turin: Giuseppe, 1878), pp. 5-6).
 Id. at 32 (quoting Guiseppe Colombo, Notizie Biografiche e Lettere di Papa, Innocenzo XI, pp. 6-7).
 A letter from Louis XIV disclosed his approval of Benedetto’s election:
Thus, in the event that the conclave proceeded as usual, upon the arrival of the courier I deem it well that you make known to the cardinals supporting the king’s stand that virtue, piety, and so many other qualities worthy of a successor to St. Peter have persuaded me in favor of Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, that I am satisfied with the deference that the larger part of the Sacred College has shown in wishing to await my sentiments, before declaring themselves in his favor, and that, as the form itself had wronged me at the last conclave, for a person, for whom I had moreover so much esteem, I willingly give my approval today that it be repaired . . .
Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity 61 (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984).
 See John C.
 Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity 134 (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984).
 Freiherr Von Pastor Ludwig, The History of the Popes, Volume XXXII, 341 (Dom Ernest Graf ed., Lund Humphries 1957) (1940).
 Raymond J. Maras, Innocent XI: Pope of Christian Unity 68 (Cyriac K. Pullapilly & George H. Williams eds., Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 1984) (“The critics have . . . noted Innocent’s mediocre intellectual quality. One must admit that his stark simplicity contradicts the finished formation of the sophisticated intellectual.”).
 J.N.D. Kelly, The
 Freiherr Von Pastor Ludwig, The History of the Popes, Volume XXXII 501 (Dom Ernest Graf ed., Lund Humphries 1957) (1940).
 J.N.D. Kelly, The
 Mark Devenport, King Billy painting a 'mixed blessing', BBC News Northern Ireland, Aug. 18, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/5263210.stm (last visited Dec. 5, 2007).