In 1774 the Jesuits in White Russia (Poland, Lithuania etc) found themselves in something of a limbo. Catherine had refused to promulgate the Papal Brief of Suppression, and told the Jesuits to carry on what they were doing so well – running colleges. Dominus ac Redemptor had arrived in Poland in mid September the year before. Under Catherine’s instructions all copies of the brief had been collected and handed into the governor of Mogilev. Leading the Jesuits at the time was the Lithuanian Stanislaw Czerniiewcz – and he realised they were walking a tightrope. To disobey Catherine’s instructions to ignore the brief would displease her and could place the Catholics in Russia in jeopardy. To obey Catherine and ignore the brief could be interpreted as disobedience to the Pope, even though for the brief to be active it needed to promulgated at the local level.
Realising that Czerniewicz was in a tight spot – Catherine issued an ukase (edict) on January 13th 1774 (today 237 years ago) – telling the Jesuits to alter nothing. This was all well and good, but they were still troubled in conscience and called in the canon lawyers. Cardinal Garampi, the papal nuncio to Poland, was the first they turned to. Garampi played a cute game – on the one hand they were obliged to obey the brief as its contents were widely known, however as positive law does not oblige the impossible to be done they could carry on.
Czerniewicz let Pius VI know that as the brief had not been promulgated the Jesuits were still bound in conscience to observe their vows and follow the Constitutions. However as the Jesuits were still uneasy, they asked through Cardinal Rezzonico for the pope to indicate whether he was displeased with this interpretation of canon law. Two years later – to the day (Jan 13 1776) - according to historian Walter Banghert, the pope replied enigmatically ‘May the result of your prayers, as I forsee and you desire, be a happy one’. The Pope it seems was also walking a tightrope, hoping that the Jesuits would hang in there without infuriating the Bourbon ambassadors.