Pope Gregory XVI: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the life and legacy of Pope Gregory XVI. We will examine his important accomplishments and we will place his papacy in historical context.

Who Was Pope Gregory XVI?

Each American president is different and has brought different values to the White House and to the U.S. government, and each president is remembered for different things. In the same way, each Catholic Pope has been different and has brought different themes and values to the Catholic Church. Some have been notoriously corrupt, while others have been pious and humble leaders. In this lesson we will learn about the life and legacy of Pope Gregory XVI. So who was he and what was he all about?

Pope Gregory XVI was the head of the Catholic Church between 1831-1846. His reign coincided with what has been called the 'Age of Metternich' (we'll discuss this shortly), and Gregory XVI was a staunch conservative who opposed democracy throughout Europe. Democracy wasn't the only thing he opposed, however: he also opposed modernization in general (we'll also talk about this in more detail soon). Gregory XVI sought to spread the power of the Catholic Church through global missionary activity. He was relatively unpopular in his day, mostly because of his traditionalism. That is the thing you need to remember about him: he was staunchly conservative and opposed liberalism. Now let's dig deeper.

Pope Gregory XVI

Early Life and Post-Revolutionary Europe

Pope Gregory XVI was born Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari in Venice, Italy in 1765. Raised in the Catholic tradition, as a young man he joined the order of Camaldolese, which was part of the Benedictine monastic sect. The Benedictine sect, or more properly the order of Saint Benedict, consisted of devout monks who dedicated their lives to the precepts laid out by St. Benedict, who lived during the 6th century. St. Benedict is famous for his writing the Rule of Saint Benedict, which provided guidelines on monastic practice.

Bartolomeo Cappellari was ordained a priest in 1787. He began teaching theology and made an impression on high Catholic authorities. In 1805, he was appointed abbot (head) of the Monastery of San Gregorio in Rome.

Now here is where we get into the fun stuff. In order to understand Gregory XVI it is essential we understand European history, particularly Post-Revolutionary Europe. The French Revolution broke out in 1789 and lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799. The French Revolution was horribly bloody affair and was vehemently anti-religious in nature, and Catholics were appalled by this atheistic reign of terror. The French Revolution was a liberal movement - it represented social equality regardless of class, sex, race, or family background. However, the Revolution spun out of control, and in the end resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people.

The French Revolution aimed to secure equality, but turned into a horribly bloody catastrophe.

Napoleon brought stability to France in 1799, but after his exile in 1814, France reverted to a more conservative government (the Bourbon Monarchy). In fact, between 1815-1848 conservatism reigned throughout most of Europe. This time period is often called the 'Age of Metternich,' after the influential Austrian diplomat Klemons von Metternich, who played a key role in promoting a 'conservative order' in Post-Napoleonic Europe. Basically, Europeans had seen the death and destruction wrought by revolution and Napoleon's conquest, and came to view liberalism and democracy as dangerous ideals.

Among the most ardent adherents to conservatism and fiercest opponents of democracy was Gregory XVI. Having lived through the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon, Gregory XVI viewed revolution and democracy as dangerous, and became committed to suppressing these expressions of liberalism.

The Reign of Pope Gregory XVI

Cappellari was made a cardinal in 1825, then chosen to succeed Pope Pius VIII in 1831. His election to the position of Pope was made possible due to a deadlock between two other leading candidates. Because Cappellari had been the abbot of the Monastery of San Gregorio, he chose the regnal name 'Gregory XVI.'

Gregory XVI opposed technological and industrial developments. He sought to persuade the conservative monarchs of Europe that innovations like the railroad and electric lighting would only increase the power of the middle class (the bourgeoisie), and thereby erode conservatism. He feared modernization would lead to democracy. In the Papal States, Gregory XVI banned railroads, deeming them 'roads to hell.'

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