Wednesday, February 20, 2013

7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy (#3)

Alexander VI, Poster Child of Bad Popes
Bad popes, good popes, mediocre popes: we've seen them all. And kind of shrugged off most of them as just not that interesting. But the fascination continues with the more notorious occupants of the Chair of Peter. That TV series on the Borgias didn't help, given that one of their own is generally acknowledged as the worst of the bunch.

Popes are men of their times... and the bad popes tell us something about the Church's ever-changing relationship to society. In the early middle ages, influential Roman families controlled the election of the Pope (unless a northern king from, say, Germany, came down and put his own candidate on Peter's Chair). Meanwhile the Vikings were devastating the monasteries that could have been training grounds for scholarly and virtuous bishops (and, possibly, popes). The lack of leadership from within opened the way to exploitation by the powerful, and this continued off and on through the Renaissance. (A series of popes, including the most notorious, came from just two Italian families, the Medici and the Borgia.) The Church became a career path like any other; the Pope a “prince” like any other with lands to defend and commerce to be conducted. Yet despite the financial and moral corruption of some of the successors of St. Peter, none of them ever promulgated false teachings or attempted to rewrite the moral laws they themselves flouted in their personal lives! 

In one of the most challenging eras in Church history, with European leaders in ever-changing alliances and wars (and body counts to match), with Martin Luther's righteous challenges as yet unanswered, two of the less admirable popes succeeded one another. Clement VII (a Medici) was more interested in continental politics than in the city of Rome, which was sacked on his watch. His successor was Paul III, born Alexander Farnese. Through his sister, Farnese had ties to the most infamous of Renaissance popes, the Borgia Alexander VI (the married Julia was the pope's mistress). Farnese himself was a family man who appointed two teenaged grandsons as Cardinals (he had separated from his own mistress, the mother of his four children, before he was ordained to the priesthood--and, to be fair, was not a wicked man).

The young St. Ignatius Loyola
discovering the call of Christ.
Any other institution would have been completely run to the ground, but the Holy Spirit not only has protected the Church from error and from the depredations of her own unworthy leaders, God has been continually raising up SAINTS, the real powerhouses in the Church, to point out the path of the Gospel: “Do not conform to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind!” (Rom. 12:4).

During this same period, some of the greatest saints in history made their mark: Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Peter Favre, Philip Neri, John of the Cross, Cajetan, Thomas More, John Fisher, Peter of Alcantera, Francis Borgia (great-grandson of Pope Alexander). Could it be that the weaker and more worldly the Pope, the greater the saints of the age?

Most of the 8-10 generally recognized "bad popes" reigned between 880-1550. As Protestantism made the pope irrelevant to swaths of northern Europe and nation-states began to arise, the climate that had allowed for bad popes gradually changed. We haven't seen their like since.

When a pope is saintly, it could be believed that he – and he alone – is responsible for the spread of the Gospel. But no one can be tempted to shift all the responsibility for the cause of the Gospel on men who are obviously unfaithful to it! Then it becomes clear that the work of evangelization truly rests on the shoulders of each and every member of the Church. (Could the bad popes have been somehow good for the Church, after all?)

This is the third in a series of 7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy.
#2 is The Bishop of Rome is the Pope, Not Vice-Versa
#1 is It Was Jesus' Idea to Build His Church on Peter

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