“Tell me, Martin,” he said. “Weren’t some of the popes — of course, not our present man, or his predecessor, but some of the old popes — not exactly … you know… up to the knocker?”
There was a silence. Mr. Cunningham said
“O, of course, there were some bad lots… But the astonishing thing is this. Not one of them, not the biggest drunkard, not the most… out-and-out ruffian, not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine. Now isn’t that an astonishing thing?”
“That is,” said Mr. Kernan.
–James Joyce, “Grace”
Pope Alexander VI has gotten some bad press over the years; if the name doesn’t ring a bell (and the task of keeping the popes straight makes the welter of English Henrys and Edwards look like child’s play), then his maiden name, Borgia, might be more familiar. But John Julius Norwich, in Absolute Monarchs (his history of the Papacy) asks us to take a more balanced view:
To survive with its independence intact, [the Papacy] desperately needed adequate finance, firm administration, and astute diplomacy, and these Alexander was able to provide in full measure, however questionable his means of doing so. He proved it in only the second year of his pontificate, when he persuaded Charles VIII to leave Rome, thus saving himself and his successors from being nothing more than satraps of the French. For this alone, he deserves the gratitude of posterity. The fact that he has not received it is due largely to his private life….
Norwich himself gives a lively account of Al6’s ‘questionable’ tactics. He raised to industrial efficiency the practice of selling indulgences (remission of sins for a fee) and offices, from bishoprics to cardinals’ red hats; when he ran out of offices to sell, he made up new ones, stuffing the Curia with important-sounding officials who had no actual job. It would be unfair to suggest that he would have betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—only a rube like Judas would let a valuable item like JC go so cheap.
He did give out some goodies for free…to his children, especially his favorite son Cesare (well, Giovanni was his favorite until one day he was dredged out of the Tiber with his throat cut—it seems the Borgias weren’t the only ones in town who knew how to play rough). Cesare and Al turned the various communities of central Italy known as the Papal States into a Borgia family empire by murdering their current rulers and confiscating their property.
His Holiness’ private life was also touchingly centered on his kids, who were more numerous than is really suitable for a Catholic priest. For example, an entry in the diary of Cesare’s party planner records an evening attended by the whole fam, where first prostitutes danced with the servants, then chestnuts were spread on the floor and the girls had to crawl around naked and pick them up, and finally prizes were awarded to the guests who could screw the most prostitutes. The lifestyle helps explain why Al6 needed to be such a good fundraiser. Somehow, given the nature of Al’s position, it seems odd to say that these things are just his private life, as who should say, “Reb saunders was a great Orthodox rabbi; he loved to spend his Saturdays munching pork rinds and bowing before the statue of Ba’al in the basement.”
This, then, is what we’re supposed to be grateful for: that Al6 helped turn the Vatican into a smoothly-running Death Star of exploitation, and ensured that its profits would flow, not to Frenchmen, but to the Catalan Borgias and to warring Italian clans such as the Barberini, Chigi, and Pamphilj. I confess that I am not feeling it.
Surely many readers of Norwich’s colorful, if inevitably rather repetitive, account ask themselves whether the Papacy is a good idea. But the author, despite claiming to be an agnostic, never questions his belief that a good Pope is a powerful Pope. After detailing centuries of bigotry and abuse, he remains shocked at modern anti-clericalism, claiming that the resentful French and Italians “should know better.” He also seems puzzled by the idea of the separation of church and state, which he recognizes as an American obsession. What is going on here? Partly, I think, it is an upper-crustian’s rock-solid faith that those who have power and wealth deserve to have more, and partly it is the storyteller’s tendency to identify with his subject. Someone writing a history of Pepsico would presumably take it for granted that corporate success and profit are a good thing.
Even viewed in this corporate light, Al6 is a very problematic figure. He fended off a takeover bid, to be sure, and generated short-term windfalls for top management, but devoted little or no effort to ensuring that customers got a quality product, and his disrespect for the company’s core values did serious and lasting damage to the Catholic brand. Perhaps he and the other Renaissance Popes thought along the lines of the famous SNL commercial: “We’re the phone company. We don’t care; we don’t have to.” If so, they were wrong. It was only a few years after Alexander’s death that Luther nailed his theses to the wall, starting that ultimately took a giant bite out of the Church’s market share. The Church’s response, introducing the new Tridentine product now with Baroque flavor crystals, revived enthusiasm among its core customer base but only served to alienate those who were tempted by the unglamorous but sensible Protestant competition.
Norwich ends his book with the assertion that if St. Peter were to return, he would be proud of the institution that exists today.I’m not sure that he would recognize it as having anything to do with the underground movement he belonged to. Actually, I think his most salient reactions would be, first, shock that Jesus hasn’t returned yet, and second, dismay that Berlusconi is still in power.