The Advent of the Modern Papacy: from the Renaissance to Modern Times

Features Mgr John Broadbent29 November 2012 In the last 100 years or so, we have been fortunate in having some outstanding popes. It was not so when, last month, we…


Mgr John Broadbent
29 November 2012

The Advent of the Modern Papacy: from the Renaissance to Modern Times Archdiocese of WellingtonIn the last 100 years or so, we have been fortunate in having some outstanding popes.

It was not so when, last month, we finished with Pope Leo X (1513-1521), who excommunicated Martin Luther in 1520, followed by Luther’s heretic burning of a papal bull in public.

Descent into debt
Leo was a Medici prince from Florence who loved books, music, art, hunting and the theatre. In trying to make Rome again the cultural centre of the western world, he even pawned his palace furniture and silver and gold plates, but his debts pushed him into more serious measures.

He renewed the sale of indulgences and arranged a highly lucrative deal with the Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mains, for having the indulgence for building the new St Peters in his diocese.

It was badly preached, which sent Luther into orbit, who said while still a Catholic, ‘If only the Pope knew what was going on…’ Most ecumenists today say if Leo X had handled things properly, the Lutheran breakaway need not have occurred.

Leo’s successor might still have saved the day.

The only Dutchman to become pope, Adrian VI was unanimously elected in January 1522. In his 18-month reign, he tried to tighten the belt of papal extravagance and was no friend of the Curia. This ‘northern barbarian’ gave no handouts to the cardinals and was not a patron of the arts as had been the renaissance popes. He died in 1523, during the intense heat of the Roman summer; many Dutch and Belgians today believe he was poisoned.

The Last Judgment
A cousin of Leo X was elected, taking the name of Clement VII. He backed the wrong political side and the Catholic emperor Charles V invaded Rome in 1527, with mainly Lutheran soldiers who had little respect for opulent Rome. He made many mistakes, delaying and alienating Henry VIII in his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and refusing to call a General Council as the emperor wanted.

It is a relief to know he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel!

Clement died young and was succeeded by Paul III (1534-49). This member of the Farnese family was the first Roman pope for 103 years; crowds greeted him warmly.
Paul’s early life did not betoken a good papacy. He was not ordained as a priest until 1519, even though he had been a Bishop of Parma. He held off his ordination in order to continue his promiscuous lifestyle, fathering four illegitimate children by his noble Roman mistress.

When elected, Paul joined the reform party among the cardinals, a group which included Cardinal Reginald Pole (Henry VIII’s cousin).

Many cardinals feared a General Council after the previous century’s Council of Constance, which they saw as having been taken over by the laity and were concerned that if could happen again.

The Reform Party saw the utter necessity of a General Council as most of north-western Europe was becoming protestant by the day. But Paul III went ahead and called the ecumenical Council of Trent, in 1545.

The Council of Trent continued under Julius III (1550-1555) and Marcellus II, who reigned only 21 days. Paul IV (1555-59) never believed in the Council so it did not function in his reign. He tried, and failed, to reform the church himself.

Pius IV (1559-65) reconvened the Council, which closed in 1563. He was succeeded by St Pius V, a strict Dominican Friar ex-inquisitor. A stern man was an advantage at this point. He began implementing the Decrees of the Council.

Turning things around
Paul III and St Pius V were totally different characters, but they succeeded in gradually turning the papacy around, especially from the depths of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. From now on, most popes, although sometimes mediocre, were essentially good men and concentrated on building up a more beautiful Rome and stronger, more affluent papal states.

Most noteworthy of them was Gregory XIII (1572-1585) whose reformed calendar was eventually adopted by most western European nations. Popes still went on appointing nephews, some only teenagers, as cardinals, into the 17th century.

Innocent X condemned Jansenism, a heresy with an appealing strictness that spread to some seminaries. Many young Irishmen forced to study in France, where Jansenism was particularly popular, were infected with it and took it home, from where it ultimately spread to English-speaking colonies such as Australia and New Zealand.

The Jansenists were shrewd when Innocent X condemned the heresy and told the Pope they agreed with all that he said in his condemnation, but they were not to be found in Jansen’s writings.

King Louis XIV of France forbade the papal bulls to be published in France, condemning Jansenism rather then entering into the dispute.

Blessed Innocent XI (1676-89) led an ascetic life but fought with Louis XIV of France, and backed John Sobieski, the Polish king who turned the Turks back from invading Europe at Vienna.

He was beatified by Pius XII in 1950. Clement XI (1700-1721) was unfortunately ill advised and suppressed the Chinese rites which proved disastrous to the church in China.

A friend of Voltaire
Benedict XIV (1740-58) was one of the outstanding popes of this period. He promoted improved clerical training, strict laws on bishops living in their dioceses, and on their pastoral visitation. Many non-Catholics respected his scholarship and he was a friend of Voltaire.

In the middle and late 18th century, the Jesuits began to be disliked for their intrusion into power, especially political power and were suppressed in several Catholic countries. Pope Clement XIV (1769-74) was pressured to suppress them in the whole church, which he did in 1773.

The next Pope, Pius VI (1775-98), condemned the French Revolution and in turn France invaded the Papal states, in 1796. The Pope had to concede portions of the Papal states and died a prisoner of the French in 1799.

Many thought Pius VI was the ‘last Pope’.

But the cardinals met in Venice and chose a Benedictine cardinal as Pius VII in 1800. He eventually came to terms with Napoleon, who in 1802 reunited the split French church.
Napoleon called the Pope to crown him Emperor in 1804 and when the time came during mass, snatched the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself and Josephine.
For a while the Pope and Napoleon got on but the Emperor arrested the Pope in 1808, keeping him a virtual prisoner until Napoleon’s downfall.

Leo XII (1823-29), Pius VIII (1829-30) and Gregory XVI (1831-46) followed. The last was the pope who sent the Marists and Bishop Pompallier to New Zealand in 1838.

Bd Pius IX (1846-78) was the longest reigning pope in history until Bd John Paul II (1968-2005) just beat him on years. Pius called Vatican I, which declared Papal Infallibility a necessary church doctrine.

Modern times
The modern papacy really started with Leo XIII (1878-1903). He encouraged frequent reading of scripture, and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarun laid the structure for the church’s social doctrine.

St Pius X (1903-14) lowered the age for children receiving communion. Benedict XV (1914-22) was a pope who tried to avert some of the worst disasters in World War I and struggled to get a just peace. Pius XI (1922-39) arranged the political independence of Vatican City with Mussolini.

Pius XII (1939-58) was from an aristocratic Roman family and acted in public with great leadership. Unfortunately, while he sheltered many Jews in Vatican City and helped others, he made the controversial decision when he learnt of the German death camps not to publically condemn Hitler. In his conscience he felt Hitler could turn on Catholics in Germany and elsewhere and he kept quiet.

Bd John XXIII (1958-63) was a lovable pope who launched Vatican II. Paul VI (1963-78) was Secretary of State for two popes and did his best to implement Vatican II. His Humanae Vitae, on sexual morals, provoked worldwide criticism.

John Paul I, another lovable Italian, sadly lasted only 30 days.

Bd John Paul II (1978-2005), a strong Polish pope and the first non-Italian since Adrian VI (1522-23), was very popular worldwide.

Still gloriously reigning, from 2005, is Benedict XVI.

Image: Bishops Charles Drennan and Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North, Colin Campbell of Dunedin, Pat Dunn of Auckland, Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, Bishops Barry Jones of Christchurch and Denis Browne of Hamilton with Pope Benedict XVI during their ad limina in December, 2011.