Dante

by B. P.
The Collegiate School, 1997


This paper concerns Dante's views on the ideal role of the church and Pope, compared with the role they played in reality. Dante believed that the church should guide its followers to heaven with faith in God and a strong sense of spirituality. Through Dante's experiences in politics dealing with the Pope, the king of France, and the political factions in Florence, Dante came to see that the church and papacy were being corrupted by the greed which was inherent in the temporal powers they were trying to attain. Dante's views were prompted by the disastrous effects on both the prestige and mission of the papacy and the church, as well as the entire political situation in Italy, caused by the pope at that time, Boniface VlIl.

Dante was born in Florence into a Guelph family and lived from 1265 to 1321. At the time, Florence was divided politically between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs were the supporters of the church and papacy and were mostly aristocrats and nobles trying to keep things the way they were, instead of moving ahead into the Renaissance. The Ghibellines were mostly supporters of the emperor and were the rising merchant class who were trying to gain power. Dante, although born into a Guelph family, later in his life became more neutral, and in his writing De Monarchia he favored unifying under one prince. He realized that the church and papacy were being corrupted and believed they should only be concerned with spiritual affairs. Boniface was one of the main reasons why he came to believe this. Boniface, before he became Pope, was known to be a formidable canon lawyer, and even a good cardinal, keeping himself out of the divisions in the colledge of cardinals, but when he saw the opportunity for power he went after it. [1]

Dante did not believe that the church and the Pope were inherently corrupt. He was a devout Christian and believed that the position of the Pope and the institution of the church were divinely inspired, but corrupted by men. Dante believed that if the church and Pope worked as they should, they could perform a very important role in society. He thought that if they worked correctly they could lead the people away from their doubts and into faith in God, using their own behavior as an example. According to one interpretation of the Purgatorio, Dante shows the church as having a good purpose. He says that the good of the church is in the rituals and sacraments, the things which do not have to do with money or greed. The interpreter also notes that Dante does not give human form to represent the principles, contrary to what he does in the Inferno, but leaves the principles alone. [2] I think Dante leaves the ideas alone, without human form, because it would in some ways corrupt the ideas if they were represented by man, who is naturally corrupt. This also shows that Dante believes very much in the principles of the church, and that the people within it have good intentions, but that in practice they go astray, because of the natural flaws of man. This leads Dante to believe that the only solution to keeping the church and papacy as pure as possible is to keep the church out oftemporal affairs and only concerned with spiritual matters.

I think that Dante's solution to the problem of corruption in the church would be to have the entire church be constructed like the monasteries. I think he would have wanted that because in the ecclesiastical churches there is a strict hierarchy. The hierarchy as we see in history very often leads to competition and fights for power This structure would naturally corrupt the church because the churchmen would focus on promotion instead of faith and spirituality. We see competition corrupting the church very clearly in a story about Boniface. Boniface was a cardinal and very much wanted to be Pope. The problem was that Celestine was the Pope at the time. What Boniface was said to have done is place a tube on the ceiling of Celestine's bed chamber and speak into it for three nights, pretending to be God, and telling him to give up his position as Pope. Celestine did so, and Boniface became Pope. Boniface then sent Celestine to a mission in the middle of nowhere, in case Celestine changed his mind. [3]

Other reasons why Dante would have wanted the church to be in the form of a monastery were because monks renounced worldly goods, not permitting themselves luxuries, and because the focus of the monasteries was out in the wilderness, away from the cities and power. The ecclesiastical church was also very much focused on power, between its powerful and entrenched hierarchy and the constant ambitions of the Pope to take power from the emperor. The monasteries were not focused on power at all. They did not have much of a hierarchy, and their monks were often employed by kings because of their honesty and impartiality. Dante would have wanted the church to be like the monasteries at the end of his life, because they almost always sided with the kings for protection, rather than the pope, although they did this, in part, for practical reasons of safety and necessary levels of financial support. Overall, I think that Dante would have thought that the monasteries practiced a much purer form of Christianity, and I think he would have preferred them over the ecclesiastical church.

Dante, although he believed that the church, in theory, would perform a very important role in society, and would be a force for good in times of chaos, believed that in practice it did not perform that role correctly and many times was the force that caused chaos throughout history. We know that Dante believed this because his Inferno is full of churchmen and Popes. Also Dante very much emphasizes the rising of corruption in the church, and I think that this is one of the messages he is trying to send most by writing the Inferno. In the sixth circle, the circle of the Heretics, Dante places a cardinal and the tomb of Pope Anastasius. In Longfellow's footnotes it says that Dante probably was relying on a false account of Anastasius' position. Even so, it shows how Dante would put anybody, however supposedly holy, in Hell for doing bad things. Dante may have especially wanted to put corrupt churchmen and Popes in Hell to try to encourage the men of the church in the future to change. He also wouldn't feel concerned about putting these people in Hell, because although it is risks seeming sac religious, it shows one of Dante's main differences from conventional Christians. Dante feels that only God is divine, and does not to seem to give much respect to men of the church, because they frequently are corrupt.

In Canto 19, the circle of the simonists, people who try to gain money through church office, sell church positions, or buy their way into church office, Dante also places Pope Nicholas. He puts Pope Nicholas in this part of Hell because Nicholas allegedly accepted money from conspirators to assent to an uprising against Charles of Lanjou. I think Dante singled him out especially, because he seems to think that the worst thing that you can do is to betray someone. He thinks this because he thinks that it breaks down the moral fiber of society, and if you can't trust the people in your community, it makes you not trust anybody, and wrecks society. Dante is especially harsh on this because after his exile Dante had to rely on the lords and landholders on his journeys to give him shelter, and not harm him. He had to put his life in their hands, and that was a lot to entrust a stranger with. I think another reason Dante is especially harsh on the traitors, is because of Boniface's treachery when Dante went to his court, and Boniface delayed Dante's return to Florence with disastrous consequences for Dante. Dante also, after his exile, gives the impression that there are many other popes in this circle. He also places Pope Boniface in this circle, by using Nicholas' prophetic abilities to say that Boniface is going to end up there. Dante also castigates Boniface in Canto 27, where Guido da Montefeltro is in the hell for fraudulent counseling because of Boniface. Guido says that Boniface was asking him for advice how to better destroy his enemies, and Guido did not want to tell him, because he thought it would be wrong. Boniface then absolved him of whatever sin he was about to commit, so Guido told him that "long promises and very brief fulfillments/ will bring a victory to your high throne"(XXVII 1 10-1 1 1). This shows how very corrupt Boniface was, doing bad things and justifying them, because he was interfering in temporal affairs in the name of the church. Boniface was accused by a number of nobles of "heresies and blasphemies, of fornification, simony, idolatry, demonworship, war-mongering, sodomy,assassination, violation of the confessional, political intrigue, embezzlement of Crusade funds, and of saying he would rather be a dog or an ass than a Frenchman." 5 This is hardly an example to set as the leader of the Christian world. Not only does Dante place numerous churchmen in Hell, he does not place that many in Heaven, and the few he places there are the churchmen of old, and reformed saints [4], before the church tried to gain political power. The churchmen he puts there are people like Francis of Assisi, who renounced worldly goods and luxuries.

In Purgatorio Jacopo della Lana tells us that the keys(Saint Peter's Keys which represent the Papacy)represent the power to loose and bind, which is held by ministers of the church in the world. [5] I think this shows us how the church's principles in the beginning were right, but when the power was put into men's hands it was corrupted. I think this explains how when Peter was Pope he was a good one, and taught the pure Christian thought. Unlike the corrupted, and self-serving Christian thought, many of the newer Popes were teaching, which all were designed to gain the Pope power, money and more influence. The power to bind, I think, means that the papacy could be used to bring people together, and have a united Christian kingdom such as Dante expresses in De Monarchia. Dante explains that the world should be unified politically and religiously, because when things are unified they are most like God, because god is the embodiment of oneness. I think the power to loose means that the papacy also has the power to completely disunity things, and create factions, dividing in an attempt to conquer, as Dante sees Boniface doing all around him. This shows how the church has been corrupted and become disunified.

I think that Dante places so many churchmen in Hell for several reasons. The first one is to give a warning to all the people in the church. He wants it to be a wake up call for all the corrupted churchmen and popes to come. Another reason he does this is to villify all the churchmen that in any way wronged him, like Boniface did. He does this very ingeniously, especially with Boniface, by placing him in Hell by using the sinner's prophetic powers. The last reason he might have done this was because he actually believed that he was given a dream vision, but even if he did, he probably changed the emphasis towards condemning Boniface and other corrupt churchmen.

Dante's belief that when the Church involved itself in temporal affairs it became corrupted led him to the idea of a separate church and state. Dante had many experiences with the church in politics. He saw that the pope became power hungry and would take bribes and use trickery(like Boniface) and other such bad things which the Pope should not do. He also saw that the churchmen became greedy, and would engage in simony. He believed that God created two powers: the temporal power which the emperor should have, and the religious power which the Pope should have. [6] Dante believes that both of these leaders are supreme in their own realms. Dante also believes that God does not want the Pope trying to gain temporal power, and this may have been one of his motivations for writing the book. This idea of a separate church and state is a very important idea that shaped history drastically. It did not come into effect until later in history, but it very much effected the way our founding fathers formed our country. Our founding fathers took this idea and put it into practice, and it had many good effects. First, it allows for a large amount of freedom of religion, one thing that many countries had not established well, and still have not yet established . It also reduced the conflict between temporal leaders and religious leaders, a conflict that was the driving force of much of the strife and-chaos in Europe for many centuries. Second, it made it harder for the church to gain temporal power, so the church is not able to involve itself in politics as much, because as it lost it's temporal power it lost the power to tax. Because of this it became less corrupted and became more able to go back to the purer Christianity that was around in the beginning. This is a very important concept which Dante came to and it shaped our history very powerfully.