In almost 2,000 years of existence, have we expected too much from the Papacy? The answer of course is yes. The bizarre traditions, at least to an outsider, the extravagant clothes and hats, the mystical sermons and masses, spoken often in a cloud of incense, sadly does not make the head of the Catholic Church divine. And by not remembering this simple truth, is where we make the mistake when judging the history of the Church in Rome and its all too human lapses into corruption and skullduggery, not to mention the occasional tampering with history to prove a pertinent point or two! There are moments however in the history of the church when the Bishop of St. Peters took on the persona of a highway robber! Take Pope Boniface VIII who has a place not only in Papal history but a spot in Dantes inferno where the poet had him destined for hell. Who was charged by the French King, Philip IV in the 13th century with heresy, blasphemy, murder, sodomy, simony and sorcery. No doubt the Kings response to a little note sent to him in December 1301 in the form of a Papal Bull wherein Boniface VIII informed his subject, the king, that “God has set popes over kings and kingdoms!” Kilby has been exploring Rome for more than 20 years and has learnt that the history of the papacy is as much a history of the foibles of mankind as much as of faith. Indeed Rome itself has been the catalyst of a corruption within the church that ran parallel to the economic growth and political power of the city in the 14th century. This pattern continued throughout the fifteenth century. With the election of Pope Sixtus IV (della Rovere) in 1471, the Papacy began a plunge toward moral degradation while Rome itself ascended to the greatest splendor it had achieved since Roman times. Under Sixtus IV, nepotism reached new heights. Such ‘human’ failings exist around the world today and are often and tragically found in the leaders of some countries! Sixtus' 'nephews' (the papal nephew was a long-standing way of referring to the pope's illegitimate children) were granted influential posts and huge salaries. This pattern of behavior became the model for papal rule throughout the Renaissance, the so called Age of Light, undermining papal moral authority, but allowing the Papacy to grow strong politically and economically.
At the same time, Pope Sixtus IV initiated a major drive to redesign and rebuild Rome, widening the streets and destroying the crumbling ruins. He commissioned the construction of the famed Sistine Chapel and summoned many great Renaissance artists from other Italian states to work on rebuilding and redecorating Rome.
The already corrupt Papacy plunged to its lowest point during the reign of Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected to the papacy in 1492 after the death of the generally unnoteworthy Pope Innocent VIII, and who assumed the name Pope Alexander VI. Borgia, a Spaniard, had been at the center of Vatican affairs for 30 years as a Cardinal. When he became pope, myth and legend quickly rose up around his family. Alexander VI had four acknowledged children, three males and one female. Alexander VI was himself known as a corrupt pope bent on his family's political and material success, to an even greater extent than Sixtus IV had been. It was no secret that Alexander VI's oldest son Cesare, was a murderer, and had killed many of his political opponents. Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander VI's daughter, was married three times to aid the pope's efforts to create advantageous alliances with other families. Under Alexander VI, the Papacy continued to grow strong politically and economically, but the means by which it grew were much vilified throughout Italy.
The study of history opens a Pandora ’s Box of such breadth and scale that in Rome alone, one needs several lifetimes to peel back the layers to understand better the character of the Eternal City and its church. I think of the English poet and satirist, Alexander Pope who some 200 years ago wrote, ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ and remind myself that Rome deserves my understanding and not my judgment!