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Clerical Celibacy??? Renaissance Popes

Sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are TV's plat du jour. It seems be be beyond the aging, bowed Pope, who refuses to discuss clerical celibacy. Collective memories can live for centuries, and here we seem to have a case. With shrewd timing, the History Channel ran a program about the 16th century Vatican. Usually the History Channel appeals to the American taste by running stories with lots of shooting. This program made the 16th century clergy seem like Sex Pistols. One French bishop was said to have fathered 65 children. It was, however, a serious documentary, with academic commentators, one from Stanford. One said that it was taken for granted that every Cardinal had a mistress.

The central figure is Pope Alexander VI, really a Spaniard named Rodrigo de Borja, after an old town in Aragon I once visited. It was italianized to Borgia. He was Pope from 1492 to 1503. It was he who, as a good Spaniard, blessed the plan to divide the world between Spain and Portugal, both under Philip II, an early example of globalization. However, the documentary did not mention that, being concerned with his scandalous lifestyle, which Girolamo Savanarola denounced. Pope Alexander excommunicated him and then had him executed as a heretic. Some heresy! His ambition for Spain to control of the world was paralleled by his own ambition to control Italy, using as instruments his daughter Lucrecia Borgia and his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia, perhaps the most ruthless of Renaissance princes, who was apparently the model for Machiavelli's Prince. Lucrezia was married three times for state reasons, the second to Alfonso of Naples, who was assassinated in Rome, probably on orders from Alexander VI. The documentary was full of juicy details, such as his watching his daughter have intercourse.

These scandals inspired the Reformation, and the Pope became the Whore of Rome. In Florence cathedral in 1935 I attended a service at which the preacher thundered against the heretic Luther, who had seduced a nun! (She had become his wife). The thunderer did not mention Alexander VI. The vision or Rome as the abode of the Anti-Christ inspired anti-popery in the US as late as the 19th century and even until the election of President Kennedy. It still inspires Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland, whose antipope rhetoric seems to us so outmoded. All these memories are in the subconscious of the Pope and the Cardinals meeting in Rome. They are frightened of the dogs of sex.

Ronald Hilton - 4/24/02