A Lesson for Our Political Leaders from Church History

By Reed Benson

There is an almost palpable spirit of discontent across the land regarding the leadership in Washington DC—not simply with the Obama administration, although he has succeeded in raising the angst in the hinterlands to a new high, but with nearly everything that has spewed from Washington in the last several decades. Each election brings a wave of hope, only to be dashed once more on the rugged rocks of political expediency. Seemingly good men go to the capital city only to be swallowed in a vortex of corruption, ineptitude, and self-promotion. The minority that does manage to maintain its moral direction must fight the dead weight of bureaucratic agencies in the faint hope that virtue can be restored.

What will become of us? Will the craven leaders ensconced in our capital city destroy the nation that they purportedly claim to love and hold dear? The future is unknown, but the past is not. An astute leader should be able to learn from history. A sobering lesson can be drawn from the history of another massive governmental institution, one whose failure cracked the western world in two, unleashed a century of war, and from which the West has never recovered.

The institution that failed was the Papacy, and the time was the late Renaissance. For over a thousand years, from Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313 until Martin Luther’s challenge in 1517, the Roman Catholic Church utterly dominated both the religious and political landscape of Europe. Throughout that period, few monarchs dared challenge the power of the Pope, the head of the church, and according to the faithful, Christ’s vicar on earth. He interpreted Scripture, established doctrine, raised and commanded armies, chastised kings, taxed the people, dispensed favors, built monuments, decided boundaries between empires, and dictated terms of peace. The Papacy, with its numerous bureaucratic agencies such as the College of Cardinals, the Curia, the Apostolic Chamber of Lawyers, the Academy of Rome, and the offices of the Vatican Library, controlled the religious, legal, intellectual, and cultural standards of Europe. In short, it overshadowed every aspect of life in Western Civilization.

For much of this thousand-year era, the Papacy governed the church rather well. Piety was encouraged, moral standards were enforced, the Muslim threat was rolled back, and fiscal discipline was maintained. But the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a series of crises for the Papacy from which it emerged in the late 1400s in poor condition. The central problem in this late Renaissance period was moral and fiscal corruption. Petty self-interest, outrageous licentiousness, breathtaking nepotism, and a total disregard for financial realities were the order of the day for the Renaissance popes. Three rich families—the Borgias, the de Medicis, and the della Roveres—treated the Papacy as a prize from which they could extract yet further wealth. Between 1471 and 1534, a critical sixty-year period, six powerful popes reigned. At least three of the six were intelligent and charismatic men who should have seen the disaster looming and could have averted it. But they did not.

Three attitudes prevailed during this period: obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, and an illusion of invulnerable status. All six Renaissance popes displayed these qualities in abundance. American presidents, members of Congress, media moguls, and other Washington insiders should check themselves for these same qualities.

Had the Renaissance popes been attentive, there were many indicators of deep discontent among the formerly faithful. John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers had tried to bypass the corrupt Roman Catholic clergy of England. For their audacity, they were hunted, harried, and hanged. In Bohemia, Jan Huss had raised a movement to cleanse the church. He was burned. In Florence, not far from Rome, Savonarola thundered against the debauchery of the popes. After initial success, he was arrested, tortured, and executed. And these are only three well-known incidents that epitomized the calls for moral and theological reform! Scores of other examples could be cited.

The first of these six powerful popes, Sistux IV, a della Rovere, kicked off his election in 1471 with a series of stunning appointments to high office: his six nephews. This became his modus operandi as he went on to pack the College of Cardinals with thirty-four appointments, which had been previously limited to only twenty-four. Ignoring the landing of the Turks on the southern tip of Italy, he contented himself by entrenching his power and enjoying the wealth of the papacy with lavish parties and sumptuous banquets. Sixtus is best remembered for his attempted elimination of rivals to the della Roveres when he arranged the attempted murder of the two most prominent members of the de Medici family while they were celebrating communion in a church service. One survived to go on and eventually seek revenge.

The second was Innocent VIII, elected as pontiff in 1484 when neither the Borgias nor the della Roveres could buy enough votes to get their candidate elected. They thus effectively blocked each other. Innocent VIII was a mediocre man, not expected to live long. However, he did survive long enough to raise his illegitimate son to extraordinary wealth. Additionally, he played host to the brother of the Ottoman sultan. Favoring this Muslim, known simply as Djem, became a priority to Innocent, and he relished in showing him off to the kings of Europe as a novelty and a symbol of his cosmopolitan outlook.

The next pope was a Borgia, Alexander VI. Brilliant and unprincipled, his long sought after elevation to the Papacy in 1492 caused a rival de Medici to famously advise, "Flee, we are in the hands of a wolf!" He went on to scandalize Rome, a city already inured to excess. His many mistresses and seven children were the focus of his reign; securing them positions of wealth and power dominated his relationship with the monarchs and leading families of Europe. A new papal palace he built was compared to the Golden House of Nero that had once stood not far away. Alexander’s tenure was marked by a steady deterioration into debauchery; he hosted banquets with naked courtesans that culminated in drunken orgies. At his death, which was suspected to be from poison, the citizens of Rome rejoiced, for even in that worldly city Alexander was despised for his depravity.

The fourth in this string of unwise popes relished in a different type of vice. This was Julius II, another della Rovere who gained the papal tiara in 1503. Fancying himself as a great warrior, he used the wealth of the Papacy not for pleasure, but to hire mercenary troops that he personally led into battle in an attempt to regain territories once ruled directly by the Pope. In this he enjoyed some success, but the financial drain was enormous. However, Julius is perhaps best remembered for something quite different: he was a patron of the arts. He coerced the greatest artist of the period, Michelangelo, to labor in his causes, and apparently no cause was greater to Julius than the memorialization of himself. Highly intelligent and educated, Julius was hot-tempered, intensely determined, and egotistical. He knew that reformation of the church was critically important; he truly intended to make it a top priority after his wars were won and his own artistic legacy assured. But alas, illness claimed him, and the best hope of voluntary reformation of the Roman Catholic Church died with him in 1513.

"God has given us the Papacy—now let us enjoy it." So wrote the new de Medici pope Leo X. This celebratory attitude began with a bang at his coronation with thousands of artists, musicians, cooks, and other servants hired at the cost of one-seventh of the papal reserve. From then on, the extravagance only increased. To keep up with the enormous expenses Leo racked up, several thousand honorary offices were created and sold. Hunting, hawking, fishing, musical programs, poetic readings, ballets, risque’ comedies, and pageants of all kinds were to his taste, all with a vast retinue of papal courtiers participating and hoping for a favor. The most famous abuse of power was Leo’s selling of papal indulgences, certificates granting forgiveness of sin. He had earmarked profits from these for the grand rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. This outrageous practice is what stimulated Martin Luther’s protest in 1517. But as the fracas in Germany spread, Leo hardly noticed, so unaware was he of his constituent’s needs outside of Rome. By the time of his death in 1521, the Protestant secession was well underway, but Leo still did not grasp that the church that had stood undivided for twelve centuries was cracking under the weight of its own corruption.

The last of these six disappointing popes was Clement VII. By the time of his death in 1534, the Papacy and the city of Rome had reached its nadir. Another de Medici, Clement, at least perceived the serious nature of the threat that was unfolding. But he was utterly unable to respond appropriately. Timid, irresolute, and morose, his solution was to play the kings of Europe off against each other to gain the favor of first one, then the other. This, of course, failed miserably, with the final result of a Spanish-German army sacking the city of Rome. Lutheran German soldiers delighted in parodying Catholic rites and plundering the Vatican treasures. Once imprisoned, Leo was forced to accept humiliating terms to persuade the invaders to leave the city. The Papacy survived, but at a terrific cost. It was left to Clement’s successor, Paul III, to convene the Council of Trent and get serious about the now-too-late reforms for the church.

So, are today’s Washington insiders attentive to the lessons that can be learned? Or are they on a pathway to repeat the folly of the papal government that destroyed the unity of Western Civilization? If we examine the past sixty years of Washington powerbrokers, how do they measure up with regard to the three great failures of the past?

First, obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents: with only rare exceptions, Washington insiders give every indication of being unaware that common Americans are truly angry. They assume such hostile sentiment is confined to fringe elements in society and that it will pass quickly. They do not have any sense of the issues facing common Americans outside the Washington Beltway, Manhattan, and Hollywood. When they are confronted with tough questions, banal platitudes are the only responses they offer.

Second, primacy of self-aggrandizement: just like the Renaissance popes, Washington insiders are focused intently on developing lasting political dynasties. The Kennedys, the Bushes and the Gores: one generation after the next holds positions of high influence. Observing senators and congressmen who hold the same office for twenty, thirty, and even forty years, building their personal wealth with every passing year, one can see that self-aggrandizement is the top priority. Many examples could be cited, but a recent one that involved Representative Charles Rangel will suffice. After decades in Congress and years as the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (which is in charge of writing tax law), Rangel was convicted of failing to pay all of his taxes, filing misleading disclosure forms, improperly accepting vacations from corporations, and soliciting illegal donations for a monument to himself. As an expert on the tax code, Rangel’s failures represent the apogee of hypocrisy.

Third, an illusion of invulnerable status: the general disdain for the common man has solidified Washington and media powerbrokers with a sense that they are irreplaceable. Only they—Rhodes scholars, Ivy Leaguers, properly pedigreed in liberal doctrinaire—can possibly run this nation. In a recent candid moment, Katie Couric slipped and said she was going to visit "the great unwashed middle of the country." Her subsequent journey took her to New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. That is the middle of the country? Oh, and thank you for coming down off your pedestal, Katie, to touch momentarily the leprous "unwashed" masses, gracing us with your regal presence! From Obama on down, the self-absorbed arrogance of our political elite blinds them to reality.

So, in what condition will the breathtaking mismanagement and venal corruption leave our nation? Disconnected from the problems of common Americans, absorbed in their own imagined greatness, our national leadership is blind to the forces that propel us forward. Awash in folly like the Renaissance popes, they are likely to offer nothing of usefulness to our society. Fasten your seatbelt, for if history is any guide and if present trends remain in place, the road ahead will be rough.


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