Under my byline

Popes vs Church

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 27 March 2010


It is incredible today that the word “Borgia” should be associated with the word “pope” — one a byword for cruelty, slyness and depravity, and the other supposed to signify at once humility and authority, apart from spirituality. But there was a Borgia pope, Alexander VI, from 1492 to 1503. This pope had children (so have a few others), of whom two were the infamous Cesare and the thrice-married Lucrezia.

Some of the unpleasant things said about the Borgias (such as the rumours of incest) can be discounted as slander spread by noble rivals, but others are unquestionably true. One of the true stories concerns a party thrown in the Vatican by Cesare Borgia in October 1501, which his father and sister attended. It is now famous as the Ballet of the Chestnuts. A record of this event was written by the papal master of ceremonies Johann Burchard. I couldn’t find a translation of the Latin original, but happily the search took me to an old favourite, a book called The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) by the late American popular historian Barbara W Tuchman.

Tuchman deals with this event with as much restraint as she can muster. “Soberly recorded by Burchard,” she writes,

fifty courtesans danced after dinner with the guests, “at first clothed, then naked.” Chestnuts were then scattered among candelabra placed on the floor, “which the courtesans, crawling on hands and knees among the candelabra, picked up, while the Pope, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia looked on.” Coupling of guests and courtesans followed, with prizes in the form of fine silken tunics and cloaks offered “for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans.”

Now, to be fair, among the Renaissance popes, the Ballet of the Chestnuts was only the worst moment in a history of excess. These popes came from the noble ruling families of Italy, were not trained priests, saw themselves as temporal rulers and engaged in tortuous political dealmaking between the various powers on the Italian peninsula — Naples, Genoa, Milan, Venice, Florence, and outside meddlers like France, Austria and Spain. One pope, Julius II of the Florentine Medici family (and Michelangelo’s patron), actually took to the battlefield at the head of his army.

Tuchman’s argument is broader than the awfulness of some popes. Her book surveys four turning points of history in which, as she puts it, ruling elites actively pursued policies contrary to their own enlightened self-interest. She starts with the Trojan Horse and ends with the Vietnam War. In each case she describes, the judgement of failure was applied not by modern historians but by contemporaries — which means that better and wiser choices were both available and known of at the time. That is why the word “folly” applies. In the case of the Renaissance popes, partly because they did not change one whit in the face of growing disaffection both within the Church and among lay believers, events were pushed to the extremity of a total schism — the Protestant Reformation — and a century and more of war for the whole continent.

It’s easy to apply such uncomplicated historical argument to things being done in our own present, from Iraq and Afghanistan to democratic governance in India. Governments have always had a short-term historical vision.

But to see the awful drama of folly start again in Rome is sad. The Catholic Church has lasted longer than most human institutions and knows plenty about handling dissent and contradiction. It has a long and deep institutional memory. Yet in the past few weeks evidence has emerged that the Church hierarchy has acted against its own interest for decades. In too many cases, senior churchmen seem to have held the Church’s dignity and authority above justice for young churchgoers who were abused by priests. The doubts and anger raised over this one issue have pulled other older and far trickier questions under the spotlight again — such as those of clerical celibacy, the exclusion of women and the opacity of Church administration. Benedict XVI has historic choices to make, and perhaps he can learn from his predecessors’ mistakes.


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