Today in Catholic History – Clement XVI issues Cum Primum (On Civil Obedience) in response to uprising in Poland

On 9 June 1832, Pope Clement XVI issued his encyclical Cum Primum concerning the 1830-31 Polish uprising against Russian occupation.

Clement XVI condemned a rebellion against the “legitimate authority” by those operating “under the pretext of religion.” He urged the Polish Catholics to remain obedient to the Russian government in civil matters because “Your emperor will act kindly toward you; at no time will he deny his patronage for the good of the Catholic religion and he will always listen patiently to your requests.”

Many Polish Catholics felt this encyclical to be a betrayal, that Clement XVI had preferred to support the non-Catholic Russian Emperor over the Pole who had long defended the Catholic Church. Thus, the encyclical severely damaged relations between the Polish Catholics and the Vatican. Indeed some historians argue that a restoration of Polish Catholic faith in the Vatican did not return until the papacy of Pope John Paul II.

Gregory XVI did not condemn the Polish rebellion directly. Instead he offered general condemnation against any attack on “legitimate authority”. Clement XVI had witnessed first-hand the effects of revolution in 1831 in the Papal States. He had depended on the support and assistance of the Austrian Empire to restore his authority and had come to oppose all revolution wherever it took place.

Moreover, Clement XVI hoped that by trying to show that the Vatican supported Russian political authority, Tsar Nicholas I would permit the free exercise of the Catholic faith in Poland. Clement believed that Nicholas was in full control of Poland and calling for further resistance to Russia would be hopeless and only encourage further repression. The best policy would be to attempt to convince Nicholas of Polish loyalty in the hopes that he would not act against the Polish Church. This hope was not fulfilled and when Nicholas I continued to attack the Catholic Church in Poland, Clement XVI became much more critical of Russia saying in 1836 that “Catholicism has no more greater and more cruel foe than Nicholas I”.

See “Metternich, Pope Gregory XVI, and Revolutionary Poland, 1831-1842” by Alan J. Reinerman in The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp. 603-619 available here in .pdf format

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