After reading defenses of the Crusades, this account of the Renaissance papacy by Eamon Duffy caught my eye.
First the bad:
The Renaissance papacy evokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon’s Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone. Alexander VI (1492-1503) flaunted a young and nubile mistress in the Vatican, was widely believed to have made a habit of poisoning his cardinals so as to get his hand on their property, and he ruthlessly aggrandized his illegitimate sons and daughters a the Church’s expense. Julius II (1503-1513), inspired patron of Raphael, Bramante, Michelangelo and Leonardo, was a very dubious Father of all the Faithful, for he had fathered three daughters of his own while a cardinal, and he was a feocious and enthusiastic warrior, dressing in silver papal armour and leading his own troops through the breaches blown in the city walls of towns who resisted his authority. . . .
Papal audacity, indeed.
But just as the Crusades might qualify as a defensive omelet that required breaking eggs, so the excesses of the Renaissance popes were part of a package to restore the glories of Rome:
All this presents a luridly one-sided picture of the Renaissance popes. It takes no account of the massive task of reconstruction which confronted the papacy in the wake of the Great Schism. The popes of the later fifteenth century had to reinvent Rome. . . . Rome had no industries except pilgrimage, no function except as the Pope’s capital. The city and its churches were radically impoverished by the long absence of the popes in Avignon. . . . The Renaissance popes were determined to change all that, and set about planning new streets and raising buildings to perpetuate their own and their families’ names, buildings which would be worthy both of the centre of the Church and of the greatest of all earthly cities, the mother of Europe. The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Rome were the age of Humanism, a great age of renewed classical learning, the rediscovery of the principles of classical art, the flowering of creativity in painting, sculpture and architecture, and of a delight in life and beauty which represented not just lavish extravagance, but a renewed sense of the glory of creation. (Saints and Sinners, 133-34)
All better, then.
But who am I to judge since I benefited last summer from all that papal spending?
Even so, this period in papal history makes you wonder about Michael Sean Winter’s assessment of Vatican II, when the church went from being parochial to engaging the wider world:
Recognizing the dominant dualism of Christian spiritual history, which saw the world as bad or at least tainted and the Church as holy and undefiled, they Council Fathers could not turn their back on that history, but they needed to expand it. The authors write: “The dualistic opposition to the world, the patronizing diminishment of those who are called to marriage and family life, and the disparagement of those who serve in politics, art, education, technology, etc. (the works of the world), must be set aside as Church leaders seek to understand that God dwells precisely within the world both through the Church and in the creation itself. Service to the world is the mission of God for which Jesus was sent, and for which the Church was called and developed.” This expanded understanding of the theological significance of “the world” does not mean we cannot all recognize, and recoil from, a “worldly” cleric, nor get nervous when some neo-Gnostic confuses the natural and supernatural realms. But, this expanded understanding of the world mirrored the expanded ecclesiology of the Council, recognizing that it is baptism, not only ordination, that confers upon all the faithful, most of whom work in the world, the tasks the Jesus entrusted to the Church.
Is it just me or did the Renaissance popes look like they were fairly engaged with the affairs of the world? And might not a case be made that reform is still needed?