Carlo della Torre Rezzonico was born in Venice to an extremely wealthy family of merchants. His uncle was the patriarch of Venice. Rezzonico studied with the Jesuits in Bologna and graduated in 1713 from Padua with a law degree. He was twenty years of age. Later he was trained in diplomacy at the Accademia Ecclesiastica and entered the curial service in 1716. He served in several responsible posts and became a judge of the Rota for Venice in 1728. Clement XII named him cardinal deacon in 1737 and Benedict XIV named him bishop of Padua in 1743. In this office, Rezzonico modeled himself after St. Charles Borromeo (1538 – 1584), the great leader at the Council of Trent who strove to improve clerical standards. Rezzonico reconstructed the seminary at his own expense and held an important synod in 1746. He wrote a meaningful pastoral on priestly life. He was also the first bishop in fifty years to visit every parish in his diocese. His love for the poor was manifested through his generosity to them. When he left Padua, the home of St. Anthony, the people referred to Rezzonico as the saint as well.
Upon the death of Benedict XIV in 1758, a conclave lasting seven weeks debated the pros and cons of their candidates until a compromise was reached. Cardinal Rezzonico became Clement XIII. In contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XIV, a pope highly suspicious of the Jesuits, Clement was strongly pro-Jesuit. He was left with the issues unresolved during Benedict’s pontificate.
The new pope, a mild-mannered and well-intentioned man who had proved himself capable and zealous in all of his past appointments, proved to be timid and indecisive in his new role. He became dependent on his Secretary of State, the arrogant and domineering Cardinal Luigi Torrigeano who was also strongly pro-Jesuit. Clement was uncompromising in his stance on the rights of the Holy See in both temporal and spiritual matters.
Within two months of his election a scandal occurred in Portugal regarding the Jesuits. Joseph I of Portugal believed they were behind an assassination attempt and drove them from the country in 1759. When Clement protested, Portugal broke off relations with him. In 1764, France followed Portugal and banished them as well. In 1767, King Charles II of Spain had 6,000 Jesuits arrested and shipped to Italy because he believed they planned to depose him. Naples and Parma followed the example of King Charles. When the Jesuits tried to settle in Corsica, they were thrown out of there as well. In 1769, the European powers sent their ambassadors to the curia demanding that they either completely suppress the Jesuits or confirm the ban within their countries. Clement summoned a consistory and although appearing to capitulate, he had no intention of complying with their demands. Clement died the day before the consistory met. The situation was left to his successor, Pope Clement XIV.
This drama being played out across Europe called into question the temporal authority of the pope. When the Bourbon Duke of Parma, a duchy of the Holy See, followed the other European powers in expelling the Jesuits, Clement prohibited the clergy and laity from collaborating with him in any way upon threat of excommunication. The duke, personally threatened with excommunication, was told he was a mere vassal of the church, and lacked the authority to issue such a directive. Resentment arose among all the European sovereigns. They considered the pope too severe while ignoring their own transgressions. They wanted state churches that would face up to Rome.
Clement lost control of the temporal power of the Church, and the strong bonds based on Christian love woven by Benedict XIV in his eighteen-year pontificate vanished. The immediate issue was the problem of the Jesuits, but the bigger picture was a new Europe, so far removed from the reigns of the Renaissance popes and their temporal authority. Europe had lost its Christian and religious character. It had become anticlerical.
In 1764, Clement denounced Febronionism, the German equivalent to Gallicanism in France. The movement sought to confine the pope’s jurisdiction to spiritual matters. When he requested that German bishops outlaw the movement in their dioceses, they were slow to comply.
Clement was unsympathetic to the Enlightenment and had works by Helveticus and Rousseau placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. In an encyclical published in 1766 he passed a general condemnation of all publications not in line with Catholic dogma.
Among others, Clement canonized Jeanne de Chantal (1572 – 1641), the great friend of St. Francis de Sales. In 1765, in a political gesture, he authorized the mass and holy office of the Sacred Heart, a devotion dear to the Jesuits.
Clement was a strong supporter of scholarship and the arts. He completed the famous Trevi Fountain. However, he also dismayed artists when he ordered the provocative nudity of statues and paintings to be discreetly covered—including those in the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Clement is buried in St. Peter’s. His relatives commissioned the monument that shows him on his knees, absorbed in prayer.