Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Renaissance Popes: Introduction

 I've been watching and reading a number of things on the Renaissance, and the Renaissance papacy in particular, and thought that I would do a series on the Renaissance popes, that notorious and scandalous bunch, both to brush up on them and to discuss them a bit.  I think one finds that while they lived in a fairly corrupt time, and they were none of them very saintly, they were actually generally good at doing their job, at fulfilling the requirements of the office itself; in this, they contrast with post-Renaissance popes who, with very few exceptions, tend to be nice people and occasionally even saints but are often not very good at doing what popes are supposed to do. In some cases, as well, like that of Alexander VI, the most notorious of all (and one of my favorite popes), the scandalous stories are often exaggerated, due to the fact that their commitment to their office led to making a lot of enemies. In any case, my definition of 'Renaissance popes' will be the same as Wikipedia's, roughly from the Council of Constance (opened 1414) to the Council of Trent (ended 1563).

The popes that are covered are:

Martin V (1417-1431)
Eugene IV (1431-1447)
Nicholas V (1447-1455)
Callixtus III (1455-1458)
Pius II (1458-1464)
Paul II (1464-1471)
Sixtus IV (1471-1484)
Innocent VIII (1484-1492)
Alexander VI (1492-1503)
Pius III (1503)
Julius II (1503-1513)
Leo X (1513-1521)
Adrian VI (1522-1533)
Clement VII (1533-1534)
Paul III (1534-1549)
Julius III (1550-1555)
Marcellus II (1555)
Paul IV (1555-1559)
Pius IV (1559-1565)

To understand the popes in this period, one needs to understand the problems that they inherited, namely, the after-effects of the Western Schism and the Council of Constance.

I. The Western Schism

Beginning in 1309, the papacy was located not in Rome but in Avignon, France. The Avignon Papacy is in many ways the start of the modern papacy, both its strengths and its problems. Many of the things that are associated with papal governance and the Curia were invented by the Avignon Papacy, which was run by men who had a genius for centralizing, for bureaucracy, and for playing political games. But it was also a dependent position; the popes were in Avignon largely so that the French king could keep an eye on them, and people who weren't French felt this to be a little intolerable. And, of course, people were not particularly happy that the Bishop of Rome did not reside in Rome. Gregory XI began the process for returning to Rome in 1377, announced his plans publicly the next year, and then, to the great misfortune of everyone in the Western world, died shortly thereafter. The people of Rome rather violently insisted on the new pope being Roman and Gregory XI's plans being finalized. This turned out not to be quite possible, so the cardinals electing the pope compromised and elected Bartolomeo Prignano, who was at least Italian, and who had a good reputation as an administrator. He took the regnal name, Urban VI. Unfortunately, Urban VI was a reforming kind of pope, and I say 'unfortunately' because he made everybody's lives completely miserable over it. He was the worst kind of bully, the kind who is absolutely certain of his own righteousness and very quick to accuse everyone else of wickedness. So the cardinals decided they would give themselves a do-over and elected Robert of Geneva to the papacy; Robert took the name Clement VII, and being supported by the French, he would take over Avignon. Thus began the Western Schism, when the cardinals elected both the pope and the antipope.

The schism would split Europe, and the papal 'obedience' to which you belonged depended on where in Europe you lived. And it just kept going; each pope appointed his own College of Cardinals, who then would elect a successor. Everybody on both sides recognized that it was intolerable to have two popes. Everybody wanted it to stop. But it just kept going. People inevitably began to flail about to find some solution, any solution, and in this context arose a tempting, tempting solution: conciliarism. Normally to solve a big dispute you'd go to a pope; but which person was the pope was the problem here. How do you decide a dispute over who is pope? You have to go to a higher authority. What higher authority could there be than pope? An ecumenical council. Surely an ecumenical council will save us all. It seems such a sensible answer. But as with so many seemingly sensible answers to problems, there was a viper in the grass.

The thing of it is, and Christians learned this the hard way, a council solves nothing unless everyone agrees to meet together and then to accept its solution. This was not easily obtained. And in fact the appeal to councils made the problem worse. A council was called in Pisa in 1409, deposed both the Roman and the Avignon popes, and appointed their own pope. The geniuses took a situation with two popes and tried to fix it by making another pope. Surely a third pope would solve the problem! The second Pisan pope John XXIII  called yet another council, the Council of Constance, in 1414, to try yet again to solve the problem by council. The world lucked out. Pope Gregory XII of Rome was very serious about reunifying the Church, and he endorsed the Council of Constance. The Council would work out a compromise:

(1) All the popes should resign. Resigning would not be taken to imply that the pope's claim was not legitimate; nobody had to renounce anything or even agree about who was right.
(2) The Council would elect a single pope.

Gregory XII accepted this, and resigned. John XXIII was more reluctant, but he was facing independent problems of his own, and he resigned and then later formally submitted to make them go away. That left only the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, as a holdout. The Council elected Martin V to replace Gregory and John. An improvement -- we're now back to two popes instead of three. Benedict XIII stubbornly refused to resign, but now the tide of opinion turned, and he steadily lost support until he ended up holed up with just a few supporter in Peniscola Castle in Tortosa, in Spain (the last kingdom to recognize his claim). The papal obedience formerly of Avignon and now of Aragon schismed after his death; three of the four cardinals still supporting Benedict XIII elected Gil Sanchez Munoz y Carbon, who became Clement VIII. The fourth, Jean Carrier, claimed that the election was done in an illegal way and elected Bernard Garnier, who became Pope Benedict XIV. Cardinal Carrier and Benedict XIV (Garnier) carried on alone until the death of the latter; Carrier then conveniently elected himself pope, and confusingly also called himself Benedict XIV. Benedict XIV (Carrier), however, was captured by Clement VIII, and died in prison for the crime of impersonating a pope. But the problem seems to have made Clement VIII recognize that he was not really in a tenable position, and when the Spanish king asked him to recognize Martin V, he knew that it was pointless to hold out. He agreed, abdicated in 1429, and had his cardinals elect Martin V as pope; he went to Rome and made a penitential submission to Martin, who made him Bishop of Mallorca, an office he filled with honor until his death. At last the world had one pope again.

II. The Council of Constance

The Council of Constance is a key component of the end of the Western Schism. So, one might think, a council solved the problem after all. Well, not really. If you think about it, what actually solved the problem was that Pope Gregory XII was so devoted to the cause of reunifying the Church that he was willing to accept as legitimate a council called by an illegitimate pope and gave up an office to which he had every right. His willingness to do so gave everybody a face-saving excuse to recognize his successor as the pope, regardless of which pope they had supported originally. It gave John XXIII an incentive to resign, by letting him do so under conditions that would look nobler than the end of his papacy probably would have otherwise been. And it made Benedict XIII look immensely petty and selfish in his refusal to do so. Even Benedict XIII's strongest supporters, like St. Vincent Ferrer, began asking themselves what was wrong with this man who kept deliberately refusing to do what Gregory XII had shown could be done for the good of the Church. Pope Gregory XII ended the Western Schism -- not quite singlehandedly, but he was the hero who made it possible at all.

The Council Fathers, however, did not see it this way at all. They saw themselves as solving the problems of the Church, and, worse, in beginning the resolution of the Western Schism saw themselves as successful at it, and they saddled the Church with schemes that sounded good on paper but were absolutely unworkable and resulted in the Church dealing with problems of authority that only began to be solved in the nineteenth century with the First Vatican Council, but have not yet wholly been solved today. It is perhaps not entirely respectful to designate any ecumenical council as 'The Worst Ecumenical Council', but if any council is The Worst Ecumenical Council, the Council of Constance is it.

The council was weird from the beginning. It was called by the Pisan antipope John XXIII, at the urging of King Sigismund of the Romans and Hungary. Called by an antipope is not an auspicious beginning, and John XXIII was in a particularly weak position as the third pope in a field that was already overcrowded with two. John wanted to have it in Italy; Sigismund wanted to have it in Germany. It was held in Germany. When the council was opened in 1414, Sigismund showed up, and it was really his show, not John's. One result was that the council was arranged very oddly. Instead of a system of one bishop, one vote, the bishops voted in national blocs, on the model of some universities. Once they accepted this informally, there were always only a few votes -- the English vote, the French vote, the Italian vote, the German vote (which included most of central and eastern Europe), and, when they eventually showed up, the Spanish vote. There were always more Italian bishops than English bishops at the council, but they counted the same, despite the fact that no council had ever organized itself like that before. As if to highlight that John was not really presiding over this council, he ended up fleeing, disguised as a postman. This infuriated Sigismund; when Sigismund discovered that John had fled to Frederick IV, Sigismund declared Frederick an outlaw, with the result that the entire region of Austria was subject to tumultuous wars for years to come. John was eventually dragged back to the council, which put him on trial and convicted him for everything that would stick. He was thrown in prison.

In the Fifth Session, in April 1415 the council promulgated the decree, Haec sancta synodus, which is as conciliarist as its opening words and title makes it sound. It decreed that the council had authority directly from Christ and that everybody had to obey it.

However, Gregory XII's representatives only arrived at the Council that summer. They reached the Council and read his encyclical convoking the council. That is to say, another of the council's features is that it has two different beginnings, one in 1414 by the antipope John XXIII and another in 1415 by Pope Gregory XII. For this reason, Haec santa synodus is not today regarded as an authoritative pronouncement of an ecumenical council, because it was promulgated by the council before Gregory XII convoked the council. Nonetheless, it would cause confusion for some time. Gregory XII's representatives also noted that they were empowered to resign the papal throne on the pope's behalf, and asked whether the council wanted it immediately or later. The council accepted it then, and made Gregory XII Cardinal Bishop of Porto and Santa Ruffina. All well and good, but then the council refused to go on to elect a pope. After all, a pope would get in the way of reform. They waited two years to name Gregory XII's successor, while they promulgated whatever changes they wanted.

There are other features of the council that are notable. They condemned the doctrines of John Wyclif. They summoned John Hus to the council, offering him safe passage in a misleading way that made it sound like he would not be punished as long as he attended and accepted the decision of the council. He came and they put him on trial for heresy, found him guilty, and turned him over to a secular court to decide his sentence. He was burned at the stake. Jerome of Prague, one of Jan Hus's supporters, came to the council to help his friend. He was arrested, and after a long, drawn out farce of a trial, he was convicted of heresy and turned over to a secular court to decide his sentence. He was also burned at the stake. The council no doubt thought of itself as cleaning up the problems of the church. Instead, it made enemies of the Hussites. And although nobody knew it at the time, a point had been turned that would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation.

They also passed a decree that in the future there should be frequent general councils, the first to be held five years after the Council of Constance, the second seven years after that, and then every ten years after that. The full issues with this will be discussed in discussing Pope Martin V, but suffice it to say here that working out the issues that follow from an ecumenical council typically takes a hundred years or more; the notion that you can have an ecumenical council every ten years is delusional, just utterly insane. And, of course, you have to remember that a council of this sort takes years to organize and lasts for years. This was very deliberate; what the Council of Constance wanted to do was completely restructure the Church so that it would be governed by a sort of parliament with power directly from God. What should have been foreseen is that such a scheme would mean that bishops would constantly have to leave their sees to go to yet another council, where they would stay for years; it doesn't even make sense, but it was all part of the intoxication of conciliarism at the time, the excitement over this magical panacea that would solve any and every problem in the Church. And the council gave a long list of things that were to be reformed.

Finally, in 1417, a new pope was elected, Otto Colonna, who became Martin V. The council finished up by doing some administrative work in organizing dioceses for Lithuania. The council was dissolved in April 1418. But the problems created were not dissolved, and the would continue to haunt the Renaissance Papacy. The men who would try to solve them would not be saintly men. They would not always succeed. But they were suprisingly ingenious in what they came up with to try. The Council of Constance instituted an Age of Reform, and the Renaissance Papacy is a period of the Church in which the popes were above all things concerned with reforming the Church. But the thing about reform is that, however nice the idea may be, implementing it is sometimes a messy and destructive affair. It is not a paradox that the Age of Reform was an Age of Scandal; the one was the remarkably direct result of trying to implement the other.