Dante and the Vatican

By Joseph Shaw

I was recently surprised to learn that Pope Francis has issued an Apostolic Letter to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy: Candor lucis aeternae. What exactly flows from the Papal pen depends, naturally enough, on the collaborators selected for the particular purpose, and on this occasion we find a document with a rather different tone than that of other Papal emanations of recent months.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is not comic in the normal English sense: the literal translation of the Italian title is misleading. It is an extended exploration of the supernatural world: hell, purgatory, and heaven. Dante’s vision of hell, in the Inferno, is the best-known, in part because in the English-speaking world purgatory was too Catholic as a concept, and of course Dante’s heaven is full of Catholic saints. Indeed, even this is a deeply Catholic work. The presence of a copy of the Divine Comedy in the family home, like the presence of a rosary, was in 16th century England taken as evidence of Catholic sympathies, and helped to ensure the perpetual imprisonment of the female relatives of a Catholic martyr, St Robert Belson, who was himself executed for guiding priests through Oxfordshire in 1589.

This preference for Dante’s description of hell may have suited the gloomy outlook of an England recovering from such extremes of Protestant zeal, but it still has a great deal to teach us. Among its most vivid images are those concerning the fate of faithless Popes. Pope Francis – or his ghost writer – does not shy away from the topic.

“The Apostle [Peter], following a bitter invective against Boniface VIII, tells the poet:

‘And thou, my son, who by thy mortal weight
Shalt down return again, open thy mouth;
What I conceal not, do not thou conceal’ (Par. XXVII, 64-66).

“Dante’s prophetic mission thus entailed denouncing and criticizing those believers – whether Popes or the ordinary faithful – who betray Christ and turn the Church into a means for advancing their own interests while ignoring the spirit of the Beatitudes and the duty of charity towards the defenceless and poor, and instead idolizing power and riches:

‘For whatsoever hath the Church in keeping
Is for the folk that ask it in God’s name
Not for one’s kindred or for something worse’ (Par. XXII, 82-84).”

Dante is one of a number of great Catholics who have criticised Popes in the strongest terms. A certain embarrassment on this score may explain the ambivalence of the Church towards some of them: attempts were made even after his death to convict the fire-brand friar Savoranola, fierce critic of the Renaissance Popes, of heresy, and surely the 13th century reforming Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, would have been canonised long since were it not for his conflict with the Pope of his own day. St Catherine of Siena has fared better: this remarkable woman’s criticism of Popes for not returning from Avignon to Rome was perhaps redeemed, in official eyes, by her support for the ones who finally made it back, even the very imperfect Urban VI.

There is in truth nothing Catholic about refusing to recognise the limitations, and even the abuses, of Popes. The intimacy of the relationship between the Papacy and the city of Rome has made the Romans particularly cool-headed in their respect for this august Office. The further away one is, the more it is possible to view the Popes with rose-tinted spectacles. An overly optimistic perspective does not protect one from the danger of disloyalty: it merely sets one up for disappointment. Sede vacantism, the idea that the person claiming to be Pope is not the real Pope and that there is no real Pope, springs not from exaggerated cynicism about them but from the idea that they must be angelic. If you think that a Pope, to be Pope, must be perfect, it is a small step to conclude that, since he is not, he can’t be Pope after all.

At the same time we must not become too enamoured of the mental image of Popes in hell, or indeed of the famous remark of St Athanasius, that “the floor to hell is paved with the skulls of priests”. All of us have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), and if the responsibilities of office can be a spiritual danger, we should pray for office-holders all the more. At the same time, we must find ways of dealing with superiors of all kinds – in our families, in our places of work, in civil society, and in the Church – who fall short. This may mean suffering in silence, or it may mean open opposition, but doesn’t mean that the authority they bear is unreal, or would not need to be wielded by someone.