How the Renaissance Papacy contributed to the Reformation

The Catholic historian, A. Dufourcq, called the papacy of 1447 to 1527, la papauté princière, “the papacy of princes.”[1] This trenchant appellation conveys Fr. Maurice Sheehan’s meaning when he says “these popes were more men of culture or rulers than popes.”[2] Regardless of the scandalous particulars of their military extravagances, personal profligacy, or political intrigues, what is common to these popes is that “they had other interests, other things on their minds besides being pope.”[3] Therein lies the problem.

In explaining how the Renaissance Papacy was a cause of the Reformation, we should not fall into a monism, as if it were the only cause. It can be argued, however, that this cause has a centrality inasmuch as the various religious, intellectual, cultural, political, and moral phenomena which caused the Reformation could not be adequately dealt with while Christ’s Vicar was, mentally and morally, an “absentee landlord.” I advance the following as the particular reasons why these pontificates led to the Reformation: (1) God’s blessings were certainly diminished in punishment of the crimes of these popes. (2) The Bishops and lower clergy were given a bad example. (3) The faithful were scandalized. (4) The popes were distracted from their real duties.

After expanding on these four reasons, I will give a thumbnail of each of the Renaissance pontificates showing their conformity to the general model Dufourcq described.

(1) The bad morals in the Sovereign Pontiff surely diminished God’s grace from the Church at a time when it was particularly needed to reform the lives of worldly Christians. This point cannot be proven strictly through the science of history, but neither should it be neglected in the study of Church History, for it is grace which makes the Church strong and whatever will serve as an obex to grace in head and members will necessarily weaken the Mystical Body. To disregard the economy of grace here would be to fall into historicism, or at least a naturalistic view of history.

(2) The bad example the Supreme Pontiff gave to the bishops and lower clergy would make any chance of a general reform in the Church unlikely. As long as he himself was the criminal, no reform was possible without the pope’s own conversion. And such a reform was badly needed. If we look at the episcopacy and priesthood of the era, we see the scandals of sexual immorality, nonresidence, and the plurality of benefices with its attendant avarice. “Many of [the lower clergy] had women that they kept in their rectories by whom they had children, so they had families to support. Sometimes they were supported by their flock or their parish, at other times they were not.”[4]

Worse than the unchaste lives of clerics in the eyes of their contemporaries was the pastoral neglect manifest in the “nonresident” clergy, or “absentee clergy.” “Absentee clergy or nonresidents means simply that the priest, and we can take it a level higher, the bishops also, were not obliged to live in their parish or their diocese. They were obliged [to do so] but they didn’t, and the system then in force allowed them to do that.”[5]

Consequent upon a nonresident clergy was another evil, the “plurality of benefices.” This was the occupancy of more than one ecclesiastical office at a time by the same cleric, be he as humble as a subdeacon[6] or as mighty as an archbishop. This institution made for an avaricious clergy because with each office came its revenues. Such a state of affairs could only increase pastoral neglect: As one greedy cleric occupied an increasing number of offices, so many more of Christ’s faithful were without a shepherd. This goes for parishes, cathedral chapters, dioceses, archdioceses, and patriarchates, as well as abbeys and other religious houses. The scandal of gross avarice co-extensive with negligence to perform to the spiritual obligations accompanying these benefices was too much to expect the faithful to bear.

Fr. Sheehan argues that “nonresidence and all the evils that came in its train [were] much worse than the individual sins, no matter how gross, of a parish priest.” These evils would be addressed later by the Council of Trent; indeed, they would be at “the heart of the reforms for which Trent was called, the heart of the reform of the Church.” Their importance was such that, “If Trent had been unable to enforce [these reforms], then the Counter-Reformation would not have succeeded or would not have had the degree of success that it had.”[7]

(3) The follies of these Vicars of Christ gave serious scandal to Christ’s faithful and discouragement to the clergy and religious who were trying to advance the cause of the Church. The former were dissuaded from the practice of virtue and living the fuller life of grace; while the later were rendered virtually ineffective and frustrated in the face of the onslaught of vice. The sins of omission and commission of these popes were not merely private affairs. “[T]he people knew that things were not right, and the popular indignation or the popular discontent was there, and all it needed was for someone to strike a spark to give the people a chance to vent their indignation, primarily at the clergy, who were the prestige-enjoying class, at the pope himself, or at the bishops, or at the cardinals, or at the priests. The occasion for that was Martin Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five theses to the Church door at Wittenberg.”[8]

As for the frustration of the would-be reformers, perhaps Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola would not have gone to the excesses he did had it not been for the moral irregularities of Pope Alander VI. For such a zealous preacher, the temptation to conciliarism would have been great when faced with the very public example of a morally bankrupt pope and his curia.

(4) The mere distraction of the princely pontiffs from their spiritual charge was a major factor in the demise of popular catholicity. As long the hunt, the theater, military exploits, promotion of kin, care of bastard children, or political machinations were the order of the day, opportunities were missed, dangers left unchecked, strengths undeveloped, and weaknesses were augmented in the Church. In short, while the visible head of the Church on earth remained uncommitted to a vigorous program of prayer, penance, preaching, amendment of clerical life and the revival of popular devotion, the spread of evil would not be checked. These evils ultimately terminated in a massive loss of faith improperly called “The Reformation.”

Here is a brief sketch of each of each of the pontiffs we call “Renaissance Popes”:

Nicholas V (1447-55) – “He was learned; he was a very cultured man, and he was pious.”[9] He was the patron of scholars and humanists and was himself quite learned, having shown his worth at the Council of Florence. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (the future Pius II), said of him that “what he does not know is outside the range of human knowledge.”

Callistus III (1455-58) – A compromise candidate, he “was a very mortified man and a good man,”[10] but he was old and feeble when he ascended the Chair of Peter. This Spaniard was a Borja (Italian: Borgia) and created two of his nephews cardinals, one of whom was Rodrigo, the future Alexander VI. Callistus III rehabilitated Joan of Arc.

Pius II (1458-64) – In his youth he wrote an erotic novel and fathered an illegitimate child. He also belonged to the conciliarist party at Florence. He came to his senses before beginning his ecclesiastical career and seemed to adapt well to his various offices. He was a good pope in many ways, one truly interested in the cause of the Church.

Paul II (1464-71) – A worldly man created cardinal by his uncle, Eugene IV.

Sixtus IV (1471-84) – Here begins the real “papacy of princes.” Michelangelo’s patron, Francesco della Rovera, was one-time Minister General of the Franciscan Order. While he was known as a reformer in his Order, he was far from that in the papacy. His nepotism was shocking: five of his eleven clerical nephews became cardinals, and one the Bishop of Ferrara and Patriarch of Antioch. While he was known to be attentive to his clerical duties, Sixtus’ pontificate marks the beginning of the Roman curia’s profligate night life, his own cardinal-nephews being the instigators. These men were readily promoted. To one of them, Piero Riario, Sixtus gave six episcopal sees, five of which the young friar occupied at the same time, in addition to monastic benefices. His own loose living wore out this extravagant ecclesiastic and he died before the age of thirty. Sixtus was politically incompetent but insisted on focusing his energies in that realm, alternately allying himself with both sides in political disputes between Venice and Naples. He resorted to the abuse of spiritual weapons (interdict, excommunication) in these misadventures. An effort to overthrow the Florentine government – the dreadful Pazzi Conspiracy – also darkened Sixtus’ papacy. Though the pope did not approve the attempt to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici in that plot, he did very little to stop it. Philip Hughes notes the great loss of moral authority the papal office suffered at the hands of the spiritual bully tactics Sixtus employed against his rivals.

Innocent VIII (1484-92) – This compromise candidate’s election was secured by a Borgia-della Rovere alliance. These cardinals feared that Marco Barbo, a reform-minded cardinal would win. Innocent has the distinction of being the first pope to make no secret of his large family, who benefited greatly from his nepotism. One of his arguably good accomplishments was the appointment of Tomás de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor in Spain.

Alexander VI (1492-1503) – At least in the popular mind, this Borgia pope is the most lecherous pontiff of the era. The military exploits of his cruel son, Cesare, the marital vicissitudes of his daughter, Lucrezia, and the Pope’s personal feuds with the Orsini all marred his reign. His pontificate forms a bridge between the older era, when wars were localized between small states, and the modern era, when armed conflict aimed at international domination. The pivotal and politicized role of this Borgia papacy helped this development.

Pius III (1503) – He was Pius II’s nephew. During his twenty-six-day pontificate, he arrested Cesare Borgia and sought to reform the curia, but died of gout before any reforms happened. Some speculate that he was poisoned.

Julius II (1503-13) – The restless and violent Giuliano della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV, had been the most dangerous enemy of Alexander VI. As pope, he personally led the papal armies in battle. Erasmus reported his disgust at seeing the Vicar of Christ enter Bologna as a glorious conquering general. His crude language won Julius the base admiration of his soldiery. Like some of his predecessors, he resorted to using spiritual weapons against his enemies (chiefly France). His administration was in many ways very orderly, as is testified by the unusually placid conclave which followed his death. He is known to have adjured the cardinals at his deathbed not to engage in simony while choosing his successor.

Leo X (1513-21) – Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo, began his ecclesiastical career as the precocious eight-year-old Abbot of Monte Cassino. At sixteen he moved to Rome, having been made a Cardinal. While sexual immorality was not among his vices, the young pope was a pleasure seeker, and benevolently allowed the good order of Julius II’s reign to cede to the dissipation of the days of Sixtus IV, and Alexander VI. Besides loving pleasure and studiously avoiding all that was unpleasant, he was well known for his transparently duplicitous statecraft. He was almost murdered in the “Petrucci conspiracy,” which some historians take for a plot of the pope’s own doing to make money off the bails paid by the offenders. He is most well known for mishandling the whole affair of Martin Luther, which he tried to manage with sophomoric politics. On the good side, his pecuniary extravagance benefited many works of charity and he did eventually excommunicate Luther.


[1] Cited in Hughes, Philip, A History of the Church. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1947) Volume III p. 388.

[2] Rev. Maurice Sheehan, O.F.M.Cap., Class notes for Lecture 2: “Prelude-Causes, Attempts at Reform to 1537,” http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c01802.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Many of the cardinals of this era (e.g., Cesare Cardinal Borgia – as long as he remained a cardinal) were at this lowest of the Major Orders. Other clerics occupied offices considerably above their order, e.g., the nephew of Pius II, Francesco Piccolomini, who himself would become Pius III. He was Archbishop of Siena for forty-three years as a deacon. That there was a glut of such career clerics who lived off the Church’s revenues without benefiting the faithful by good lives or priestly ministrations was scandalous in itself.

[7] Rev. Maurice Sheehan, O.F.M.Cap., Class notes for Lecture 2: “Prelude-Causes, Attempts at Reform to 1537,” http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c01802.htm.

[8] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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