In his essay on the development of medieval literature, the renowned historian Christopher Dawson notes that although “Dante’s great poem represents the achievement of a final synthesis of the literary and religious traditions of the Middle Ages,” the Divine Comedy, finished in 1321, “also faithfully reflects the crisis of the later Middle Ages,” a crisis that stems from the fact that “the papacy itself had become compromised in his eyes by secularism.” A concrete image of this compromise was the 1309 move of the papal residence to Avignon, France—known by some as the Babylonian Captivity of the popes—which in turn led to the disastrous Great Western Schism, an event Dante did not live to see but would not have surprised him. In short, as the so-called Renaissance—at once a flowering of the High Middle Ages and a corruption of that civilization—was just beginning, the papacy ceased to be the moral center of Christendom. Dawson notes that “it is to the [Holy Roman] Empire rather than to the papacy that [Dante] looks for the realization of a universal Christian order,” but a such an Empire was already unrealizable in his time; later in the Divine Comedy Dante looks to “an apocalyptic figure,” begging for Christ the King to set things right. These wider political and historical issues help to account for Dante’s rather severe account of the papacy of his day. In recounting truly scandalous actions over the course of his epic, Dante not only shows that like everyone else, the pope has a soul to save or lose, but also provides a vision of the balance needed when discussing the unique position of the Vicar of Christ; of all of the popes mentioned in the poem, it is Dante’s presentation of his contemporary Boniface VIII in particular that demonstrates such a balance.
Dante certainly does not condemn Boniface alone; the poet’s criticism occurs over the course of a general rebuke of those clerics who were more concerned with material gain than the salvation of souls. The invective begins early in the Inferno with some unnamed souls in the circle of the Greedy: “The ones who have the bald spot on their heads / were priests and popes and cardinals, in whom / avarice is most likely to prevail.” Later, in Purgatory, the Pilgrim meets Pope Adrian V who says that “only when I became Shepherd of Rome / did I perceive the falseness of the world / . . . / until that time I was a wretched soul, / servant of Avarice.” This denunciation of popes and other clerics having been seduced by temporal power and wealth reaches a crescendo in the third part of the eighth circle of hell, the bolgia of those damned for simony. Since the poem is set in the year 1300—during the reign of Boniface VIII—the Pilgrim speaks to an earlier pope: Nicholas III, who died in 1280. The former Vicar of Christ is stuffed upside down—the inverted man being a symbol of Satan—in a circular hole that recalls golden coins. In a parody of baptism, which makes one a member of the church, Nicholas does not have water on his head but fire on his feet. Instead of the fire of the Holy Ghost sanctifying the human element of the Church in a Pentecostal image, hellfire burns the soles of the feet. Finally, some critics interpret line 98 to indicate that the Simonists have moneybags at their heads within the hole. As the Pilgrim speaks with Nicholas, the former pope punningly states that he was “so greedy to advance [his family members], that wealth / I pocketed in life, and here myself” and goes on to say that “Beneath my head are pushed down all the others / who came, sinning in simony, before me, / squeezed tightly in the fissure of the rock.” With the foresight given to the damned to add to their torment, Nicholas predicts that Boniface VIII will join him when he dies in 1303 and then after him Clement V—the reigning pope when Dante wrote the Inferno—”a lawless shepherd, one whose fouler deeds / make him a fitting cover for us both.” For Dante to put three popes from his own time in hell can be shocking to certain sensibilities, but the point is clear: not only is there no instant and automatic canonization for popes, but Dante also gives a more specific warning about those who are more interested in worldly power than the salvation of souls. These men “tear asunder” the Church; their “avarice brings grief upon the world, / crushing the good, exalting the depraved.” In other words, the action of these popes is scandalous in the truest sense; as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “scandal is a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another’s spiritual ruin.” In the case of Boniface, Dante goes on in Inferno 27 to show him actually inducing another to sin: the pope gives false absolution to Guido da Montefeltro to help plan the destruction of some political enemies. The result is Guido’s damnation, abetted by “the Prince of the New Pharisees.”
If Dante had only condemned various contemporary popes—in particular Boniface who was instrumental in the poet’s exile from Florence—there would not be that balance and nuance in his presentation of the papacy that makes his poem truly Catholic. It is true that in the Paradiso, St. Peter himself gets so angry in contemplating the reign of Boniface that he turns Heaven red and declares the See to be as it were morally vacant. Until his death, however, the pope is still the Vicar of Christ, and he remains a priest forever. To recall this point, in Purgatorio 20 Dante has Hugh Capet foretell the mistreatment of Boniface VIII at the hands of some of his French and Italian political enemies. As the historian Warren Carroll recounts, after breaking into the papal palace at Boniface’s hometown of Anagni in September 1303, the men seized the pontiff, probably manhandled him, and stole some treasure before the people of Anagni drove them off. The incident was distressing enough that Boniface died about a month later. Dante’s reaction is a famous thundering condemnation: “I see the fleur-de-lis enter [Anagni] / and in His vicar Christ made prisoner. / I see the gall and vinegar renewed; / I see Him being mocked a second time, / killed once again between the living thieves.” Dorothy Sayers, with her usual insightful commentary, draws together the two sides of Dante’s portrayal: “Nothing in Dante is more paradoxical or more magnificent than his treatment of Boniface VIII. Of all his enemies, personal and political, none is so hateful to him as Boniface...[but] to lay hands on him is to crucify Christ afresh. This balance of two equal and opposed indignations, both blazing, and mutually unmitigated, is a triumph of the passionate intellect unsurpassed in literature and scarcely paralleled.” The distinction is clear: any problems with the human element of the church—and examples of misguided and sinful clerics and laymen go back to the beginning of Christianity—does not destroy the Bride of Christ, who is forever the unam sanctam cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam, whose head is Christ.
It follows that scandals of this sort should not be regarded as having too little or too much importance. As Pope Benedict XV notes in his great encyclical on Dante, that while “a mind as devoted to the Church as was that of Dante could not but feel disgust” at clerical or even papal sins, “never did he fail in respect due to the Church and reverence for the ‘Supreme Keys.’” In our time of crisis, serious Catholics should keep such a balance as Dante’s in mind. Avoiding the Scylla of positivistic papolatry, along with the Charybdis of leaving the Church, is just one facet of today’s crisis. May Christ the King, through the Immaculate Heart, send worthy “laborers into His harvest” (Lk. 10:2).