"Innocent by name and nature too." Thus Robert Browning describes the last seventeenth-century pope in "The Ring and the Book." In saying this, Browning spoke not only as a poet but as a historian, for Innocent XII was indeed a man of deep piety. Elected as a compromise after a heated conclave had gone on for five months, Antonio Pignatelli accepted and chose the name Innocent XII.
Antonio Pignatelli was born at Spinazzola near Naples on March 13,1615. Educated by the Jesuits at the Roman College, Antonio early earned a striking reputation for goodness. After taking a degree in law, Antonio entered the papal service and under a succession of popes served brilliantly. Under Clement X, however, Antonio's career was checked. He was recalled from the nunciature at Vienna to be made bishop of Lecce. But the check was only temporary. Antonio went on to become a great cardinal- archbishop of Naples.
Innocent XII was seventy-six when elected, but he had a commanding appearance and excellent health. He accomplished much in his nine years' pontificate. First of all, he put through a reform which, though excellent, was acutely painful to papal finances. He abolished the purchase of offices. Then Innocent, completely free from nepotism himself, struck a great blow at this occupational failing of many popes. By a bull of 1692 Innocent made nepotism very difficult, a reform which increased papal prestige even with Protestants.
Innocent had some trouble with Jansenists both in France and Holland. He also had to condemn the quietism of Madame Guyon and a book by the noble archbishop of Cambrai, Fenelon.
Innocent XII reaped the fruit of the noble firmness of Innocent XI and the firm patience of Alexander VII in dealing with the arrogant Sun Monarch. Louis, now contending in arms with half Europe, felt the need of coming to an agreement with the Pope. After a deal of backing and filling, Louis finally in 1693 revoked his order enforcing the Four Articles of 1682 on the French clergy. This was a triumph for papal rights over royal absolutism.
Innocent showed moderation in his foreign policy. He did not protest when Ernest Augustus of Hanover became a ninth imperial elector. He gained a diplomatic triumph at the Peace of Ryswick when a clause safeguarded Catholic rights in restored territories. He welcomed the conversion of Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony and kingelect of Poland. He deplored the persecution in Ireland and begged funds for the distressed Irish.
Innocent XII approved of the fateful step by which Charles II of Spain passed over his Austrian kinsmen to choose Philip the grandson of Louis XIV as heir to his far-flung Spanish possessions.
Innocent XII died piously on September 27, 1700.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.