The Popes and the Council



WE have left to the last the difficult task, for a non-Catholic, of understanding and impartially describing the reaction of the popes to the challenge of the Reformation.

It was at first a reaction of pained surprise. The popes of the Reformation period, with perhaps one exception, were good men, so far as statesmen are permitted so to be; not selfless or sinless, but basically decent, humane, and intelligent, and sincerely convinced that the Church was an institution not only magnificent in its achievements but still indispensable to the moral health and mental peace of European man. Granting that the human ministrants of the Church had fallen into serious abuses, were there not equivalent or worse defects in every secular administration? And if one should hesitate to over-throw civil government because of the greed of princes and the peculations of officials, should one hesitate any the less to subvert a Church that had been for a thousand years, through religion, education, literature, philosophy, and art, the nourishing mother of European civilization? What if some dogmas that had been found helpful in promoting morality and order seemed difficult of digestion by the historian or the philosopher—were the doctrines proposed by the Protestants so much more rational or credible as to warrant turning Europe upside down over the difference? In any case, religious doctrines were determined not by the logic of a few but by the needs of many; they were a frame of belief within which the common man, inclined by nature to a hundred unsocial actions, could be formed into a being sufficiently disciplined and self-controlled to make society and civilization possible. Let that frame be shattered, and another would have to be built, perhaps after centuries of moral and psychical disorder; for were not the Reformers agreed with the Church that a moral code would be ineffective unless supported by religious belief? As to the intellectual classes, were they any freer or happier under Protestant princes than under Catholic popes?* Had not art flowered under the leadership of the Church, and was it not withering under the hostility of reformers who wished to take from the people the images that fed the poetry and hope of their lives? What commanding reasons were there, to mature minds, for atomizing Christendom into countless sects, each vilifying and nullifying the others, and individually powerless against the instincts of men?

We cannot know that these were the sentiments of the Reformation popes, for the active leaders of men seldom publish their philosophies. But we may so imagine the mood of Leo X (1513-21), who found the papacy rocking under his feet so soon after he had been called to enjoy it. He was a man like many of us—guilty of sin and criminal negligence, but, all in all, forgivable. He was usually the kindest of men, feeding half the poets of Rome; yet he pursued the heretics of Brescia to the death, and tried to believe that disruptive ideas could be roasted out of mankind. He was as patient with Luther as could have been asked of a pope and a Medici; imagine the tables turned, and how Pope Martin would have blasted rebellious Leo from the earth! Leo mistook the Reformation as an unmannerly dispute among unsophisticated monks. And yet, early in 1517, at the very outset of his pontificate, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (nephew of the more famous Pico) had delivered before the Pope and the cardinals a remarkable address “painting in the darkest manner the corruption which had made its way into the Church,” and predicting that “if Leo .... refuses to heal the wounds, it is to be feared that God Himself will no longer apply a slow remedy, but will cut off and destroy the diseased members with fire and sword.”1 Despite this warning, Leo absorbed himself in maintaining, for the protection of the Papal States, a balance of power between France and the Empire; “he never gave a thought,” says a Catholic historian, “to reform on the grand scale which had become necessary.... The Roman Curia remained as worldly as ever.” 2

The best proof that reform could come only by a blow from without was the failure of Adrian VI (1522-23). Candidly admitting the abuses, and undertaking to reform them at the top, Adrian was ridiculed and reviled by the Romans as threatening their supply of transalpine gold; and after two years of contending against this unenlightened selfishness Adrian died of frustration.

The accumulated storm burst upon the head of Clement VII (1523-34) Intellectually and morally he was among the best popes, humane and generous, defending the hounded Jews, taking no part in the sexual or financial looseness that surrounded him, and continuing to the end of his troubled life to nourish with discriminating patronage the art and literature of Italy. Perhaps he was too well educated to be a successful administrator; his intellect was keen enough to see good reasons for every course in every crisis; his knowledge sapped his courage, and his vacillations alienated power after power. We cannot withhold all sympathy from a man so well intentioned; who saw Rome sacked under his eyes, and himself imprisoned by a mob and an emperor; who was prevented by that Emperor from seeking a reasonable peace with Henry VIII; who had to make the bitter choice between losing Henry and England or Charles and Germany; who, when he protested against the alliance of Francis with the Turks, was told by that Most Christian King that if the Pope protested further, France would divorce itself from the papacy. Never had a pope drunk the cup of office to such bitter dregs.

His errors were catastrophic. When he miscalculated the character and resources of Charles, and so invited the Sack of Rome, he dealt the prestige of the papacy a blow that emboldened northern Germany to renounce allegiance to Rome. When he crowned the man who had permitted that attack he lost the respect of even the Catholic world. He yielded to Charles partly through lack of material power to resist, partly because he feared that an alienated Emperor would call a general council of laity as well as clergy, would seize the reins of both ecclesiastical and secular authority, would complete the subjection of the Church to the rampant state, might even depose him as a bastard.3 If he had had the courage that his uncle Lorenzo de’ Medici had shown at Naples in 1479, Clement would have taken the initiative, and would have called a council that under his liberal leadership might have reformed the morals and doctrine of the Church, and saved the unity of Western Christendom.

His successor seemed at first sight to have all the requisites of both intellect and character. Born in. a rich and cultured family, instructed in the classics by Pomponius Laetus, maturing as a humanist among the Medici in Florence, favored by a pope whom his sister had entangled in her golden hair, made a cardinal at twenty-five (1493), proving his mettle in difficult diplomatic assignments, rising to unquestioned pre-eminence in the college of cardinals, and unanimously elected pope in 1534, Alessandro Farnese, as Paul III, was universally recognized as the right man for the highest office in the Christian world. The esteem in which he was held suffered little from his having begotten four children before his ordination as a priest (1519). Yet his character, like his career, showed uncertainty and contradictions, partly because he stood like a shaken pillar between the Renaissance that he loved and a Reformation that he could not understand or forgive. Frail in body, he survived fifteen years of political and domestic storms. Equipped with all the learning of his time, he regularly resorted to astrologers to determine the most favorable hour for a journey, a decision, even an audience.4 A man of strong feeling, and given now and then to bursts of anger, he was noted for his self-control. Cellini, whom he had to imprison, described him “as one who had no faith in God or aught beside”;5 this seems extreme; and certainly Paul had faith in himself until, in his final years, the behavior of his progeny weakened his will to live. He was punished where he had sinned; he restored the nepotism that had marked the Renaissance papacy, gave Piacenza and Parma to his son Pierluigi and Camerino to his grandson Ottavio, bestowed the red hat on his nephews, fourteen and seventeen years old, and promoted them despite their notorious immorality. He had character without morals, and intellect without wisdom.

He recognized the justice of the criticisms directed by the Reformers at the administration of the Church, and if ecclesiastical amendment had been the only obstacle to reconciliation he might have ended the Reformation. In 1535 he sent Pierpaolo Vergerio to sound out Protestant leaders about attending a general council, but he would not promise to allow any substantial change in the defined faith or in the authority of the popes. Vergerio returned from Germany worse than empty-handed, for he reported that Catholics there joined Protestants in doubting the Pope’s sincerity in proposing a council,6 and that Archduke Ferdinand complained that he could find no confessor who was not a fornicator, a drunkard, or an ignoramus.7 Paul tried again in 1536; he commissioned Peter van der Vorst to arrange terms with the Lutherans for a council, but Peter was rebuffed by the Elector of Saxony, and achieved nothing. Finally Paul made the culminating effort of the Church to reach an understanding with her critics: he sent to a conference at Ratisbon Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, a man of unquestioned sincerity in the Catholic movement for reform.

We cannot withhold sympathy from the old cardinal who braved the snows of Apennines and Alps in February and March 1541, eager to crown his life with the organization of religious peace. Everyone at Ratisbon was impressed by his modesty, simplicity, and good will. He mediated with saintly patience between the Catholic Eck, Pflug, and Gropper, and the Protestant Melanchthon, Bucer, and Pistorius. Agreement was reached on original sin, free will, baptism, confirmation, and holy orders, and on May 3 Contarini wrote joyfully to Cardinal Farnese: “God be praised! Yesterday the Catholic and Protestant theologians came to an agreement on the doctrine of justification.” But on the Eucharist no acceptable compromise could be found. The Protestants would not admit that a priest could transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; and the Catholics felt that to surrender transubstantiation would be to give up the very heart of the Mass and the Roman ritual. Contarini returned to Rome exhausted with failure and grief, only to be branded as a Lutheran by the rigidly orthodox followers of Cardinal Caraffa. Paul himself was not clear that he could accept the formulas that Contarini had signed; however, he gave him a friendly welcome, and appointed him papal legate at Bologna. There, five months after his arrival, Contarini died.

The politics of religion became ever more cloudy and confused. Paul wondered if reconciliation of the Protestants with the Church would give Charles V so united and peaceful a Germany that the Emperor would be free to turn south and connect his north and south Italian realms by appropriating the Papal States and ending the temporal power of the popes. Francis I, likewise dreading the pacification of Germany, charged Contarini with having shamefully surrendered to heretics, and he pledged his full support to Paul if the Pope would firmly reject peace with the Lutherans8—with whom Francis sought alliance. Paul seems to have decided that a religious understanding would be politically ruinous. In 1538, by brilliant diplomacy, he brought Charles and Francis to sign a truce at Nice; then, having made Charles secure in the west, he urged him to fall upon the Lutherans. When Charles neared victory (1546) Paul withdrew the papal contingent that he had sent to him, for again he trembled lest an Emperor with no Protestant problem in his rear would be tempted to subdue all Italy. The Pope became a pro-tempore Protestant, and viewed Lutheranism as a protector of the papacy—much as Suleiman had been a protector of Lutheranism. Meanwhile his other shield against Charles—Francis I—was allying himself with Turks who repeatedly threatened to invade Italy and attack Rome. Some vacillation may be forgiven to a pope so harassed and beset, armed with a handful of troops, and defended by a faith that only the weak seemed to cherish. We perceive how small a role religion played in these struggles for power when we hear the comment of Charles to the papal nuncio on learning that Paul was turning to France: the Pope, said the Emperor, had caught in old age an infection usually acquired in youth, the morbus gallicus, the French disease.9

Paul neither stopped Protestantism nor effected any substantial reforms, but he revitalized the papacy and restored it to grandeur and influence. He remained to the end a Renaissance pope. He encouraged and financed the work of Michelangelo and other artists, beautified Rome with new buildings, embellished the Vatican with the Sala Regia and the Cappella Paolina, took part in brilliant receptions, welcomed fair women to his table, received musicians, buffoons, female singers and dancers, at his court;10 even in his eighties this Farnese was no spoil-sport. Titian transmitted him to us in a series of powerful portraits. The best (in the Naples Museum) shows the seventy-five-year-old Pontiff still strong, his face furrowed with problems of state and family, but his head not yet bowed to time. Three years later Titian painted an almost prophetic picture (also in Naples) of Paul and his nephews Ottavio and Alessandro; the Pope, now bent and weary, seems to question Ottavio suspiciously. In 1547 Paul’s son Pierluigi was assassinated: in 1548 Ottavio rebelled against his father, and entered into an agreement with Paul’s enemies to make Parma an Imperial fief, The old Pope, defeated even by his children, surrendered himself to death (1549).

Julius III (1550-55) misnamed himself; there was nothing in him of the virility and power and grandiose aims of Julius II; rather, he resumed the easy ways of Leo X, and enjoyed the papacy with amiable prodigality, as if the Reformation had died with Luther. He hunted, kept court jesters, gambled for large sums, patronized bullfights, made a cardinal out of a page who took care of his monkey, and, all in all, gave Rome its last taste of Renaissance paganism in morals and art.11 Outside the Porta del Popolo he had Vignola and others build for him the pretty Villa di Papa Giulio (1553), and made it a center of artists, poets, and festivities. He accommodated himself peacefully to the policies of Charles V. He suffered inopportunely from gout, and tried to cure it by fasting; this papal epicurean seems to have died of abstemiousness,12 or, said others,13 of dissipation.

Pope Marcellus II was almost a saint. His moral life was blameless, his piety was profound, his appointments were exemplary, his efforts for Church reform were sincere; but he died on the twenty-second day of his pontificate (May 5, 1555).

As if to make clear that the Counter Reformation had reached the papacy, the cardinals now raised to power the soul and voice of the reform movement in the Church, the ascetic Giovanni Pietro Caraffa, who took the name of Paul IV (1555-59). Already seventy-nine, he was immovably fixed in his views, and dedicated himself to their implementation with a firmness of will and an intensity of passion hardly becoming a man of his years. “The Pope,” wrote the Florentine ambassador, “is a man of iron, and the very stones over which he walks emit sparks.”14 Born near Benevento, he carried the heat of southern Italy in his blood, and fire seemed ever burning in his deepsunken eyes. His temper was volcanic, and only the Spanish ambassador, backed by Alva’s legions, dared to cross him. Paul IV hated Spain for having mastered Italy; and as Julius II and Leo X had dreamed of expelling the French, so the first goal of this energetic octogenarian was to liberate Italy and the papacy from Spanish-Imperial domination. He denounced Charles V as a secret atheist,15 a lunatic son of a lunatic mother, a “cripple in body and soul”;16 he branded the Spanish people as Semitic scum,17 and vowed never to recognize Philip as Viceroy of Milan. In December 1555, he concluded a treaty with Henry II of France and Ercole II of Ferrara to drive all Spanish or Imperial forces from Italy. If victorious, the papacy was to acquire Siena, the French were to get Milan, and to hold Naples as a papal fief; and both Charles and Ferdinand were to be deposed for having accepted the Protestant terms at Augsburg.18

By one of those comedies that can be seen, from a safe distance, in the tragedies of history, Philip II, the most zealous supporter of the Church, found himself at war with the papacy. Reluctantly he ordered the Duke of Alva to lead his Neapolitan army into the Papal States. In a few weeks the Duke, with 10,000 seasoned troops, overwhelmed the weak forces of the Pope, took town after town, sacked Anagni, seized Ostia, and threatened Rome (November 1556). Paul sanctioned a treaty between France and Turkey, and his secretary of state, Cardinal Carlo Caraffa, appealed to Suleiman to attack Naples and Sicily.19 Henry II sent an army into Italy under Francis, Duke of Guise; it recaptured Ostia, and the Pope rejoiced; but the defeat of the French at Saint-Quentin compelled Guise to rush back to France with his men, and Alva, unresisted, advanced to the gates of Rome. The Romans moaned with terror, and wished their reckless Pontiff in his grave.20 Paul saw that further hostilities might repeat the terrible Sack of Rome, and might even drive Spain to secession from the Roman Church. On September 12, 1557, he signed a peace with Alva, who offered lenient terms, apologized for his victory, and kissed the foot of the conquered Pope.21 All captured papal territory was restored, but the Spanish domination of Naples, Milan, and the papacy was confirmed. So complete was this victory of the state over the Church that when Ferdinand took over the Imperial title from Charles V (1558), he was crowned by the electors, and no representative of the Pope was allowed any part in the ceremony. Thus ended the papal coronation of the Holy Roman Emperors; Charlemagne at last won his argument with Leo III.

Freed willy-nilly from the burdens of war, Paul IV gave the remainder of his pontificate to the ecclesiastical and moral reforms already recorded. He crowned them by tardily dismissing his licentious secretary, Cardinal Carlo Caraffa, and banishing from Rome two other nephews who had disgraced his pontificate. Nepotism, which for a century had flourished there, was at last evicted from the Vatican.

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