After the prima donnas and the great castrati, the dominant class in Italy was the clergy. In their distinctive cassocks and under their broad-rimmed hats they walked or rode in proud freedom across the Italian scene, knowing that they dispensed the most precious boon known to humanity—hope. Whereas in France there was in this century approximately one ecclesiastic for each two hundred souls, in Rome there was one for fifteen, in Bologna one for seventeen, in Naples and Turin one for twenty-eight.18 A contemporary Neapolitan, professedly orthodox, complained:
So greatly have the clergy increased in number that the princes must either take measures to restrict them, or allow them to engulf the whole of the state. Why is it necessary that the smallest Italian village should be controlled by fifty or sixty priests? … The great number of campaniles and convents shuts out the sun. There are cities with as many as twenty-five convents of friars or sisters of St. Dominic, seven colleges of Jesuits, as many of Theatines, about twenty or thirty monasteries of Franciscan friars, and a good fifty others of different religious orders of both the sexes, not to speak of four or five hundred churches and chapels.19
Perhaps these figures were exaggerated for argument. We hear of four hundred churches in Naples, 260 in Milan, 110 in Turin; these, however, included small chapels. The monks were relatively poor, but the secular clergy, as a whole, possessed more wealth than the nobility. In the kingdom of Naples the clergy received a third of the revenues. In the duchy of Parma one half, in Tuscany almost three quarters, of the soil belonged to the clergy. In Venice, in the eleven years from 1755 to 1765, new legacies added 3,300,-000 ducats’ worth of property to the Church.20 Some cardinals and bishops were among the richest men in Italy, but cardinals and bishops were primarily administrators and statesmen, only occasionally saints. Several of them, in the second half of the century, renounced their wealth and luxury, and led lives of voluntary poverty.
The Italian people, barring a few publicists or satirists, made no significant protest against the wealth of the clergy. They took pride in the splendor of their churches, monasteries, and prelates. Their contributions seemed a small price to pay for the order that religion brought to the family and the state. Every home had a crucifix, and an image of the Virgin; before these the family—parents, children, and servants—knelt in prayer each evening; what could replace the moral influence of those unifying prayers? The abstinence from meat on Fridays, and on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, was a wholesome discipline of desire—and was a boon to health and fishermen. The priests, who themselves knew the charms of women, were not too hard on sins of the flesh, and winked an eye at the laxities of Carnival. Even the prostitutes, on Saturdays, lit a candle before the Virgin, and deposited money for a Mass. De Brosses, attending a play in Verona, was astonished to see the performance stop when church bells rang the Angelus; all the actors knelt and prayed; an actress who had fallen in a dramatic faint rose to join in the prayer, and then fainted again.21 Seldom has a religion been so loved as Catholicism in Italy.
There was another side to the picture—censorship and Inquisition. The Church demanded that every Italian, at least once a year, perform his or her “Easter duty”—go to confession on Holy Saturday, and receive Communion on Easter morn. Failure to do this brought—in all but the largest cities-priestly reproof; failure of private reproof and exhortation brought public listing of the recusant’s name on the doors of the parish church; continued refusal brought excommunication and, in some towns, imprisonment.22 The Inquisition, however, had lost much of its power and bite. In the larger centers ecclesiastical surveillance could be evaded, censorship was reduced, and there was a silent spread of doubt and heresy in the intelligentsia, even in the clergy themselves—for some of these, despite papal bulls, were secret Jansenists.
While many priests and monks led easy lives, and were no strangers to sin, there were also many who were faithful to their vows, and kept the faith alive by devotion to their tasks. New religious foundations testified to the survival of the monastic impulse. St. Alfonso de’ Liguori, a lawyer of noble lineage, founded in 1732 the “Redemptorists”—i.e., the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer; and St. Paul of the Cross (Paolo Danei), who practiced the most severe asceticism, founded in 1737 the “Passionist Order”—i.e., the Clerks of the Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord.
The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) had in 1750 some 23,000 members, 3,622 of them in Italy, half of them priests.23 Their power was quite out of proportion to their number. As confessors to kings, queens, and prominent families they often influenced domestic and international politics, and they were sometimes the most urgent force—next to the populace itself—in the persecution of heresy. Yet they were the most liberal of the Catholic theologians; we have seen elsewhere how patiently they sought a compromise with the French Enlightenment. A similar flexibility marked their foreign missions. In China they converted “several hundred thousands” to Catholicism,24 but their intelligent concessions to ancestor worship, to Confucianism, and to Taoism shocked the missionaries of other orders; and these persuaded Pope Benedict XIV to check and reprove the Jesuits in the bull Ex quo singulari (1743). They remained nevertheless the most able and learned defenders of the Catholic faith against Protestantism and unbelief, and the most loyal supporters of the popes against the kings. In the conflicts of jurisdiction and power between the national states and the supernational Church, the kings saw in the Society of Jesus their subtlest and most persistent enemy. They resolved to destroy it. But the first act of this drama belongs to Portugal.