Born at Como, 16 May 1611; died at Rome, 11 August 1689. He was educated by the Jesuits at Como, and studied jurisprudence at Rome and Naples. Urban VIII appointed him successively prothonotary, president of the Apostolic Camera, commissary at Ancona, administrator of Macerata, and Governor of Picena. Innocent X made him Cardinal-Deacon of Santi Cosma e Damiano on 6 March 1645, and, somewhat later, Cardinal-Priest of Sant’ Onofrio. As cardinal he was beloved by all on account of his deep piety, charity, and unselfish devotion to duty. When he was sent as legate to Ferrara in order to assist the people stricken with a severe famine, the pope introduced him to the people of Ferrara as the “father of the poor”, “Mittimus patrem pauperum”. In 1650 he became Bishop of Novara, in which capacity he spent all the revenues of his see to relieve the poor and sick in his diocese. With the permission of the pope he resigned as Bishop of Novara in favour of his brother Giulio in 1656 and went to Rome, where he took a prominent part in the consultations of the various congregations of which he was a member.
He was a strong candidate for the papacy after the death of Clement IX on 9 December 1669, but the French Government rejected him. After the death of Clement X, King Louis XIV of France again intended to use his royal influence against the election of Odescalchi, but, seeing that the cardinals as well as the Roman people were of one mind in their desire to have Odescalchi as their pope, he reluctantly instructed the cardinals of the French party to acquiesce in his candidacy. After an interregnum of two months, Odescalchi was unanimously elected pope on 21 September 1676, and took the name of Innocent XI. Immediately upon his accession he turned all his efforts towards reducing the expenses of the Curia. He passed strict ordinances against nepotism among the cardinals. He lived very parsimoniously and exhorted the cardinals to do the same. In this manner he not only squared the annual deficit which at his accession had reached the sum of 170,000 scudi, but within a few years the papal income was even in excess of the expenditures.
The whole pontificate of Innocent XI is marked by a continuous struggle with the absolutism of King Louis XIV of France. As early as 1673 the king had by his own power extended the right of the régale over the provinces of Languedoc, Guyenne, Provence, and Dauphiné, where it had previously not been exercised, although the Council of Lyons in 1274 had forbidden under pain of excommunication to extend the régale beyond those districts where it was then in force. Bishops Pavillon of Alet and Caulet of Pamiers protested against this royal encroachment and in consequence they were persecuted by the king. All the efforts of Innocent XI to induce King Louis to respect the rights of the Church were useless. In 1682, Louis XIV convoked an Assembly of the French Clergy which, on 19 March, adopted the four famous articles, known as “Déclaration du clergé français”. Innocent annulled the four articles in his rescript of 11 April 1682, and refused his approbation to all future episcopal candidates who had taken part in the assembly. To appease the pope, Louis XIV began to pose as a zealot of Catholicism. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes and inaugurated a cruel persecution of the Protestants. Innocent XI expressed his displeasure at these drastic measures and continued to withhold his approbation from the episcopal candidates as he had done heretofore. He irritated the king still more by abolishing the much abused “right of asylum” in a decree dated 7 May 1685. By force of this right the foreign ambassadors at Rome had been able to harbour in their palaces and the immediate neighbourhood any criminal that was wanted by the papal court of justice. Innocent XI notified the new French ambassador, Marquis de Lavardin, that he would not be recognized as ambassador in Rome unless he renounced this right. But Louis XIV would not give it up. At the head of an armed force of about 800 men Lavardin entered Rome in November, 1687, and took forcible possession of his palace. Innocent XI treated him as excommunicated and placed under interdict the church of Saint Louis at Rome where he attended services on 24 December 1687.
The tension between the pope and the king was still increased by the pope’s procedure in filling the vacant archiepiscopal See of Cologne. The two candidates for the see were Cardinal Wilhelm Fürstenberg, then Bishop of Strasburg, and Joseph Clement, a brother of Max Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. The former was a willing tool in the hands of Louis XIV, and his appointment as Archbishop and Elector of Cologne would have implied French preponderance in north-western Germany. Joseph Clement was not only the candidate of Emperor Leopold I of Austria but of all European rulers, with the exception of the King of France and his servile supporter, King James II of England. At the election, which took place on 19 July, 1688, neither of the candidates received the required number of votes. The decision, therefore, fell to the pope, who designated Joseph Clement as Archbishop and Elector of Cologne. Louis XIV retaliated by taking possession of the papal territory of Avignon, imprisoning the papal nuncio and appealing to a general council. Nor did he conceal his intention to separate the French Church entirely from Rome. But the pope remained firm. The subsequent fall of James II of England destroyed French preponderance in Europe and soon after Innocent’s death the struggle between Louis XIV and the papacy was settled in favour of the Church. Innocent XI did not approve the imprudent manner in which James II attempted to restore Catholicism in England. He also repeatedly expressed his displeasure at the support which James II gave to the autocratic King Louis XIV in his measures hostile to the Church. It is, therefore, not surprising that Innocent XI had little sympathy for the Catholic King of England, and that he did not assist him in his hour of trial. There is, however, no ground for the accusation that Innocent XI was informed of the designs which William of Orange had upon England, much less that he supported him in the overthrow of James II. It was due to Innocent’s earnest and incessant exhortations that the German Estates and King John Sobieski of Poland in 1683 hastened to the relief of Vienna which was being besieged by the Turks. After the siege was raised, Innocent again spared no efforts to induce the Christian princes to lend a helping hand for the expulsion of the Turks from Hungary. He contributed millions of scudi to the Turkish war fund in Austria and Hungary and had the satisfaction of surviving the capture of Belgrade, 6 September 1688.
Innocent XI was no less intent on preserving the purity of faith and morals among the clergy and the faithful. He insisted on a thorough education and an exemplary life of the clergy, reformed the monasteries of Rome, passed strict ordinances concerning the modesty of dress among Roman ladies, put an end to the ever increasing passion for gambling by suppressing the gambling houses at Rome and by a decree of 12 February, 1679, encouraged frequent and even daily Communion. In his Bull “Sanctissimnus Dominus”, issued on 2 March, 1679, he condemned sixty-five propositions which favoured laxism in moral theology, and in a decree, dated 26 June, 1680, he defended the Probabiliorism of Thyrsus González, S.J. This decree gave rise to the controversy, whether Innocent XI intended it as a condemnation of Probabilism. The Redemptorist Francis Ter Haar, in his work: “Ben. Innocentii PP. XI de probabilismo decreti historia” (Tournai, 1904), holds that the decree is opposed to Probabilism, while August Lehmkuhl, S.J., in his treatise: “Probabilismus vindicatus” (Freiburg, 1906), 78-111, defends the opposite opinion. In a decree of 28 August, 1687, and in the Constitution “Cœlestis Pastor” of 19 November, 1687, Innocent XI condemned sixty-eight Quietistic propositions of Miguel de Molinos. Towards the Jansenists Innocent XI was lenient, though he by no means espoused their doctrines. The process of his beatification was introduced by Benedict XIV and continued by Clement XI and Clement XII, but French influence and the accusation of Jansenism caused it to be dropped. His “Epistolæ ad Principes” were published by Berthier, and his “Epistolæ ad Pontifices”, by Bonamico (Rome, 1891).