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Good Words 1860
1515 versus 1860


In the course of some researches, made for the prosecution of my "History of the Reformation," I have come upon a fact which appears calculated to resolve a question now much controverted amongst the politicians of the day. The question is this, Can the temporal jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical sovereign be lawfully withdrawn from him? and under what circumstances may it be done? I have found a decision made on this subject by the College of Cardinals in the year 1515, and approved of by the then Pope, Leo X. Perhaps the readers of "Good Words" will think with me that this judgment of the Sacred College deserves to be noticed.

There were, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, a great many bishops who exercised at the same time temporal and spiritual sovereignty over their states. All these ecclesiastical states (with the exception of that of Rome) have since ceased to exist. It is unnecessary to enumerate them. We may, however, instance the archbishopric of Salzburg, which has been secularised. Bavaria and Austria—which are, without doubt, sincerely attached to Rome—have had, and continue to have, reasons which they doubtless consider excellent, for taking them, and for keeping possession of them.

The ecclesiastical principality which occupied the attention of the Romish court in 1515 was the bishopric of Geneva. It was the first which, in modern times, drew public attention to the point in question.

The bishops of Geneva had, for several centuries, exercised feudal sovereignty over the city and its rural dependencies; but the Dukes of Savoy coveted possession of that town, which was surrounded by their possessions; for at that time Savoy comprehended almost the whole of the valley of the Leman, including the present Canton de Vaud, and the Pays de Gix.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Duke, Charles III., uncle to Francis I. of France, and brother-in-law to the Emperor, Charles V., had, like his predecessors, a great desire to subject Geneva, which was "in his country, without being of his country," writes one of the most remarkable writers of the time, Bonivard, Prior of St Victor, the well-known prisoner of Chillon. (''Chroniques," ii. 250.) The Duke's advisers urged him to possess himself of it. Claude de Seyssel, in particular, pressed the matter upon him,—counsellor and historian to Louis XII., and afterwards Archbishop of Turin, a great diplomatist, a great monarchist, and, as Bonivard says, "a great despiser of republican government. He whispered every day into the ears of the Duke that, if he should allow Geneva to remain free in the midst of his states, it would one day cause their ruin." (Bonivard, ch. ii. 251.)

The following, therefore, was the plan formed by Charles:—He determined that the See of Geneva should be put into the hands of a prelate devoted to Savoy, making the condition that, when in possession of it, he should resign the temporal sovereignty into the hands of his patron.

There was then living at the court of Turin an ecclesiastic called John the Bastard, son of Francis of Savoy, Bishop of Geneva, afterwards Bishop of Angois, and of a young woman, "communis generis of the latter town," say the chroniclers. It was on this man, of feeble health, of mean appearance, deformed, dissipated, encumbered with debt, that the Duke's choice fell. "Cousin," said he, "I promote you to a bishopric, if, in return, you cede to me its temporalities." The bargain was concluded. "He sold us not in the sheaf, but in the blade," says Bonivard. "He gave us away before we were his!"

In 1513 a vacancy occurred in the bishopric. The court of Turin strained every nerve to secure the appointment. There are, in the archives of Geneva, several documents relating to this negotiation. One of them is a letter from the Cardinal de St Vital, of the 4th of February; another from the Cardinal de Flisco, of the 1st of March; a third from the Queen of Naples, of the 20th of April— all promising the Duke of Savoy their aid in getting the See of Geneva for his cousin.

A circumstance favoured the project of Charles. Leo X. had just then obtained the tiara, and he coveted for his family an alliance with the ancient house of Savoy. He asked for his brother, Julian the Magnificent, lieutenant-general of the Roman armies, the hand of the young Princess Philiberta, sister to the Duke, and to Louisa of Savoy, aunt of Francis I. To obtain the Duke's consent to the marriage, the Pope made him many promises. "Leo X., Sabaudianum ducem ad affinitatam ineundam muttis pollicitis invitavit," as we see in the fine collection of the Monwmenta Historiae Patrice, made by order of Charles Albert, (''Scriptorum," i. 814.) The Duke, who was burning with the desire to establish at Geneva a bishop of his own nomination, agreed to the marriage. A manuscript in the public library of Berne, which contains important information on the history of Geneva, says, and its statements are corroborated by other documents,—"John of Savoy swore to give up to the Duke the temporal jurisdiction of the city; and the Pope swore that he would oblige Geneva to consent, in order to avert from itself the thunders of the Vatican." From the first moment of his episcopate, the Bishop of Geneva only viewed himself in the light of an humble dependent on his powerful cousin. The Duke had imposed a comptroller on him, who collected his revenues, and transmitted them to Turin; and the poor prelate, in his grief, exclaimed, ''I have nothing but my mitre and my crozier; everything else is the Duke's !"

The marriage of Philiberta of Savoy, who, in 1513, was only fourteen years of age, had been postponed; in 1515 it was celebrated with great pomp. "The Duke," says a Roman Catholic historian, Monsieur Levrier, Lieutenant du Baillage Royal de Meullent, "took advantage of this event to obtain divers favours, and, amongst others, a bull which confirmed the cession to him of the temporal jurisdiction." ("Chroniques des Comtes de Genevois," ii. 110.)

Leo X. could not conclude the matter without consulting the cardinals. He brought the matter before them; but the princes of the Church were not to be so easily managed as the Pope. After due consideration, they decided "that it is not allowed to a prelate to renounce his temporal jurisdiction, nor is it allowed to a Pope to sanction such a renunciation, except when subjects have conspired against the Prelate, and that he is not sufficiently powerful to punish them." These are the words used by the distinguished antiquarian, Spon, of Lyons, in his "History of Geneva," i. 261. We find the same in the MSS. of Savyon, lately printed, and in other MS. chronicles of the sixteenth century.

The cardinals thought it necessary to define the matter even more explicitly. Other cases of a similar nature might occur, and it was necessary to state distinctly what were the principles of the Church in these matters. "The College of Cardinals declares that alienation from the temporal jurisdiction of the Church cannot be effected, except under the following circumstances:—

1st, That the Subjects ARE IN REBELLION AGAINST THEIR PRINCE; 2d, That the prince is not powerful enough to punish them; 3d, That he should get something more valuable in exchange." "The affair was debated at length," says Monsieur Levrier, "and, after long and serious discussion, the bull was revoked, and has never been executed." ("Chro-niques des Comtes de Genevois," ii. 110.)

The resolution of the Sacred College was a great disappointment to Savoy. It, however, left one door open for entering into possession of Geneva— the possible revolt of the bishop's subjects; and from that time the duke made every effort to incite the Genevese to rebellion. "Rob them right and left"—"Ab hoc et ab hac"—said he to his cousin, Once or twice Charles thought that matters were ripe, and that he could prove to the cardinals that the Genevese were rebellious, and that they required a "stronger shepherd than a bishop to bring them into the range of duty." He, however, did not succeed; he could not bring about the rebellion that he so ardently desired. It required' a more powerful impulse, and the great political and religious transformations of the sixteenth century in Geneva, to dispossess the bishop of his powers, secular and spiritual. I shall, the Lord permitting, narrate those facts more at length in the sixth volume of my ''History of the Reformation;" but I have thought it might be interesting at the present moment to draw attention to the subject.

The good sense which marked the decision of the College of Cardinals was acknowledged by many; it was felt that, when a prince cannot maintain peace in his own dominions, another order of things becomes necessary; that a state of revolt is contrary to common sense, to public order, to the prosperity of nations, and to the will of God. What is a king who does not, who cannot rule?

I need not make any direct application of the facts I have mentioned. The principle established in 1515 is not that of traditional sovereignty, (Divine right,) a principle long sustained by politicians; nor is it the principle of national sovereignty, which appears not to have taken its place in public opinion. It is the principle of order. If a people can be brought to order by its sovereign, it should be done, declare the Cardinals, even if the national will be against him; but should the prince be powerless, the court of Rome, when called to decide between the right of the prince and order, declares itself for order. There is perhaps more of religion in this decision than some modern Roman Catholics may imagine. There are certain epochs in history when human powers fail. Why is this? It is because a greater power, that of God, wills to intervene, and give a new impulse to the destinies of nations.

The present circumstances of the Romagna are precisely those which render its emancipation both possible and lawful, according to the rule laid down. It remains to be seen whether the College of Cardinals in 1860 will bear out the decisions of the College in 1515; or whether the court of Rome in the nineteenth century will oppose itself to the court of Rome in the sixteenth. Infallibility is one of its leading doctrines. Will it be consistent, and adhere to the decisions made by itself three centuries ago? Whatever be its course, it is clear that an honest application of its own verdict in 1515 to the present circumstances, affords the only rational, the only catholic solution of the great question which now engages the attention of Europe,

Merle D'Aubigne.

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