The bishop who lost his way: Tuscany in the 1780s

Pius X (1903-1914) is best known for promoting frequent communion, seen by some at the time as making a sacred thing unduly common and therefore less highly regarded.

This problem seems not to have risen until after Vatican 2, when communion became not only frequent but standard for mass-goers and everyone went — as I noted in a National Catholic Reporter essay in the 1970s, calling attention to an unsung achievement of the council, namely that it had abolished mortal sin.

In any case, this change of his and another, to teach catechism in the vernacular (!), are pretty tame stuff by today’s standards.

Let us, however, put a hold once more on this tenth Pius and his works, looking back a mere hundred or so years before him to the synod of Pistoia, a diocese in Tuscany, in 1786.

Liturgy was dying on the vine. Jansenists had made worship barely approachable with hard-nose demands on worshipers. Quietists had made it irrelevant with their insistence on a God-to-individual hot line as more than adequate.

Gallicanism (French-ism) was chopping away at the idea and practice of a universal liturgy, in fact universal lots of things, promoting church as federation of independent entities and the papacy as a first among equals, if that.

The issue or issues came to a head with this Pistoia synod, called by the local bishop at behest of the grand duke, Peter Leopold — later Emperor Leopold II — who pressed all 18 bishops in his duchy to do it, of whom three did. One was the Pistoia man, Scipio de’ Ricci, who was buying into some highly questionable ideas and causes whose time had come and gone. Bishop de’ Ricci was to regret this sorely.

To each bishop the duke, seeking to limit what some considered the “overweening” church power, had sent fifty-seven “points of view of His Royal Highness” (himself) on doctrine, discipline, and liturgy and said each should hold a synod every two years “to restore to the bishops [themselves] their native rights abusively usurped by the Roman Court.”

He was stirring the revolutionary pot, revving up a supposed discontent — ineffectively, he was to discover. Promoting his points of view and giving a finger to the pope were things all but one of the 18 wanted no part of.

The Pistoia synod made its points, however, approving these items about church authority:

* Church authority came entirely from church members.

* Therefore bishops were on their own. They needed not make an oath of obedience to the pope before their consecration. Same went for priests.

* Excommunications had only external effect. None were reserved to the pope.

* Civil rulers could decide divorce cases, dispensing from marriage vows as they saw fit.
Two others:
* Each parish church should have only one altar; liturgy should be in the vernacular, only one Mass should be celebrated on Sundays.

* Religious orders should all amalgamate, with a common habit and no perpetual vows.

The pope of course would have none of it. He gathered four fellow bishops and some theologians to examine the offending enactments. They would have none of it either, unsurprisingly, and condemned the synod, calling most of its propositions completely out of line.

Which indeed they were, considering how they upended the centuries-old structure of a centuries-old organization which for all its fault its adherents for the most part loved still.

Notice, however, the part about vernacular masses among the anarchic deviations and the emasculating, you might say, of religious orders, also centuries-old and competing in their own way with both papal and secular power, adding their mix to the central structure.

In due time, as we know, vernacular worship became the order (New Order, or Novus Ordo) of the day.

As for religious orders, with varying support from popes, they have managed over the decades to keep calm and carry on.

In 1794, eight years after the Pistoia fiasco, the pope made it official with his bull “Auctorem Fidei,” condemning this diocese-rights doctrine.

The duke had left Tuscany, succeeding his brother as emperor in 1790, and Bishop De’ Ricci, bereft of his support, had to resign. He subsequently submitted to the pope and retired to a monastery.

Do not put your trust in Princes, the Psalmist had told him, but he apparently wasn’t listening.

Sic transit gloria episcoporum. That is, bishops should look before they leap (as should we all.)


  1. Jim Bowman says:

    Reblogged this on Blithe Spirit and commented:

    More of book in progress . . .


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