With Charles II of Spain about to die childless, leaving his vast dominions behind him, it was only human that the great Catholic powers should strive to secure a friendly pope. The conclave of 1700 dragged on, lost in mazes of Bourbon and Hapsburg intrigue, until the news that Charles of Spain had at last died spurred the cardinals into a feverish search for a compromise. They elected Gian Francesco Albani but Albani refused to accept the burdensome honor, and it took several days and the combined arguments of four theologians to overcome his reluctance. He chose to be called Clement XI.
Gian Francesco Albani was born at Urbino on July 22, 1649. Educated at the Roman College, he became a distinguished scholar and a prominent member of Queen Christina's Academy. He made a number of translations from Greek into Latin. Not until he was twenty-eight did Gian Francesco enter the papal service, indeed he did not become a priest until a few months before his election. Secretary for briefs under Innocent XI, he was made a cardinal by Innocent XII. He was a strong right hand to Alexander VIII in his struggle with Louis XIV and to Innocent XII in his war on nepotism.
Clement XI was only fifty-one when elected, and his vigorous health, great talents, and sincere piety promised a long and successful pontificate. Clement's pontificate was indeed long, but it was not too successful. The age was turning irreligious. Bayle and Fontenelle were already writing, Voltaire and Rousseau were growing up. Clement worked hard, but even a capable pope can do only so much.
Clement's first problem was to guide the Church through the stormy War of the Spanish Succession. Although he tried to remain neutral, he was at heart an adherent of the Bourbons, and had advised Innocent XII to approve the will of Charles II leaving Spain to Philip of Anjou. When the Austrians invaded the Papal States, the Bourbons gave no aid, and Clement was compelled to halt the Austrians by acknowledging Charles of Hapsburg as king of Spain. Now, of course, Louis and grandson Philip grew indignant, but Clement could do nothing about it. The war ended at Utrecht and Rastatt with the Pope pretty much ignored.
Another vexing problem was that of the revived Jansenists. Under the leadership of Pasquier Quesnel, the Jansenists were becoming a source of great alarm. By his bulls "Vineam Domini" in 1705 and especially the famous "Unigenitus" in 1713, Clement XI struck a mighty blow at the cat-lived sectaries.
Clement XI also took measures against the Malabar and Chinese rites, but the vexed question dragged on. Keenly interested in missionary activity, this zealous Pope fostered numerous seminaries to provide workers for the foreign missions. He tried to win over Czar Peter the Great, but was not too severely disillusioned when Peter's interest in Roman Catholicism died out after his decisive victory at Poltava.
Clement XI died March 19,1721.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.