February 12, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: Three less than saintly popes

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

Pope Sixtus IV was elected pope in 1471. Like other popes in that era, he used the papacy to enrich his family. He made two of his nephews cardinals when they were quite young. He also allowed his family to get him embroiled in Italian politics and scandals.

The most disreputable of these affairs was the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, in which the murder of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici of Florence was planned with the pope’s knowledge, if not consent. Lorenzo (known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”) was wounded, and Giulano was killed. The conspiracy failed, but it precipitated a war started by Sixtus against Florence, and later against Venice.

Pope Sixtus, however, was also known as the pope who transformed Rome from a medieval into a Renaissance city. The greatest sculptors and painters were drawn to Rome. He founded the Sistine choir, established the Vatican archives, erected churches and improved Church music.

On the other hand, Pope Sixtus is also the pope who approved the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition for dealing with Jewish and Moorish converts accused of heresy. It became infamous for its cruelty, and the way it served the Spanish crown instead of the Church.

Sixtus IV was pope for 13 years. When he died in 1484, his nephew, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, managed to get a man he could dominate elected pope—Innocent VIII. His court, like Sixtus IV’s, was as loose as that of any of the secular kings. He spent lavishly and, in order to afford it, created many curial and other offices that he sold to the highest bidder. He lost control over the Papal States and, when he died in 1492, there was unprecedented violence.

Then came a great rivalry between Cardinal Rovere and Cardinal Rodrigio Borgia, both of them nephews of previous popes. Borgia had been made cardinal and vice-chancellor of the Holy See by Pope Callistus III, and he held that post under the next four popes, amassing vast wealth.

Cardinal Borgia also fathered a number of children, but his favorites were those born to Vannozza Catanei—Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Goffredo.

At the conclave after Pope Innocent VIII’s death, Cardinal Rovere was the favorite. But Cardinal Borgia managed to emerge victorious through bribery and promises to the other cardinals. He took the name Pope Alexander VI.

Cardinal Rovere fled to France where he convinced King Charles VIII to invade Italy to depose Pope Alexander. But the pope allied himself with other forces and eventually Charles withdrew back to France.

Pope Alexander VI took care of his children. He made Cesare, only 18, a bishop of several dioceses, including wealthy Valencia, Spain. A year later, he made Cesare a cardinal along with the brother of his current mistress. For Juan, he carved out the duchy of Benevento from the Papal States.

For Lucrezia, he arranged one magnificent marriage after another. Besides that, when he was absent from Rome, Lucrezia was left in charge of official business, acting virtually as regent.

Next week: The return of Cardinal Rovere. †

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