The Role of the Church

by D. P.
The Collegiate School, 1997


During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the singlemost powerful institution in all of Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. The Church affected almost every facet of life: political, cultural, social, and economic. Dante Alighieri, the writer of the Divine Comedy, was not exempt from its influence. Throughout his life, he came into conflict with the Church and, in particular, Pope Boniface VIII. Dante saw the Church as a corrupt institution wrongfully involved in temporal and political affairs. The Church had staryed from its original purpose as a spiritual and ethical organ. Dante had a strong belief in the separation of Church and state, with each filling its role in God's divine plan, and thus advocated a powerful Holy Roman Emperor. The Church was supoosed to be God's spiritual and ethical arm, while the Empire executed God's political and temporal will on earth. Instead, the Church had become corrupt and had lost sight of its original spiritual purpose. Dante's involvement in the political affairs of Italy, and in particular Florence, helped to shape this negative view of the Church. Dantw was in almost continula conflict with the Pope and other Church figures. In the Inferno, Dante not only levels specific attacks on his political enemies, but also transcends the personal to make a convincing argument against the contemporary Catholic Church as an institution. Through the skillful use of numerous literary techniques, Dante is able to express his views on the role of the Church more effectively. It was the experience of Dante's life, however, that shaped the author's view.

 Part I

 Dante, or Durante, Alighieri was born in Florence during the spring of 1265 into a family of "ancient urban nobility" (Britanica, 481). The roots of his family can be traced back to ancient Florence as a Roman city. Dante's family was not extremely wealthy, and concentrated its holdings in the city of Florence, as opposed to the landed elite of the city. Dante's grandfather and father were both moneylenders (a fact he was not particularly proud of), and participated in the economic life of Florence (Britanica, 481). During the mid to late thirteenth century, the city of Florence was wracked by factionist conflict between the Guelph and Ghibelline parties. It was in this turbulent political environment that Dante was raised (Britanica, 481).

 The origins of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict are obscure. One apocryphal account, given by the fourteenth century Italian writer Giovanni Fiorentino, explains the conflict wioth a story about two men, Guelfo and Ghibellino, who were the best of friends (Longfellow). However, there arose a difference of opinion as to the superiority of one of their dogs. This erupted into a terrible argument, turning the best of friends into the worst of enemies. Fiorentino writes:
 
 

This unlucky division between them still increasing, they on either side collected parties of their followers, in order more effectually to annoy each other.  Soon extending its malignant influence over the neighboring lords and barons of Germany, who divided, according to their motives, either with the Guelph or Ghibelline, it not only produced many serious affrays, but several persons fell victims to its rage. (Longfellow)

Whether or not the actual cause of conflict is true, the development of large factions is a fact. The Guelphs and Ghibellines became rival parties fighting for power. The next passage in Fiorentino's account becomes especially imporatnt in dante's future relationship with the Church:

 Ghibellino, finding himself hard pressed by his enemy, and unable longer to keep the field against him, resolved to apply for assistance to frederick the First, the reigning Emperor. Upon this, Guelfo, perceiving that his adversary sought the alliance of this monarch, applied on his side to Pope Honorius II., who being at variance with the former, and hearing how the affair stood, immediately joined the cause of the Guelfs, the Emperor having already embraced the Ghibellines. It is thus the apostolic see beacme connected with the former, and the empire with the latter faction...
(Longfellow)

 The Guelphs were supported by the Pope, and the Ghibellines by the empire. Dante himself was a Guelf. It is imporartnt to note, however, that Dante's family, while officially Guelf, participated only minimally in Guelf affairs. Neither Dante's father nor his grandfather appear on the lists of people suffering hardship (as Guelf allies) during the period of Ghibelline rule in Florence between 1260 and 1266 (Britanica, 481). Further evidence of the Alighieri's lack of support of the Guelf cause is that after the Guelf defeat at Montaperti in 1260, Dante's father was not among those sent into exile by the Ghibelline's (Brittanica, 481). Clearly, Dante's family does not have a long history of active involvement in Guelf politics, and therefore Dante's family also lacked a strong connection to the Papacy. In 1266, Charles I of Anjou, a papal supporter, defeated Manfred, "the imperial claimant", at the Battle of Benvenuto. In the wake of this crushing Ghibelline defeat, the Guelfs reasserted control over Florence. the city fell under papal control, yet social strife continued, as the Guelfs themselves began to divide into factions (Britanica, 481).

 It was at this point that Dante entered the Florentine political scene. In 1297, in an attempt to break the powerful anti-papal families of Tuscany, Pope Boniface VIII initiated a new set of conflicts within Florence by supporting the Black Guelfs (headed by the pro-poe, landed, Donati family of magnate origin), against the more moderate and urban White Guelfs (led by the Cerchi, a family of merchants and bankers) (Britanica, 483). Because of the close ties between the Pope and the Donati family, the fighting developed into a much larger conflict between the urban commune of Florence and the papacy. Dante supported the cause of the White Guelfs and condemned the Pope as power hungry and arrogant; the episode with Guido da montefeltro in the Inferno is directly related to this issue. The White Guelfs wrre able to oust the Blacks, and in 1300 Boniface sent Cardinal Matteo D'Acquasparta to Florence under the guise of seeking reconcilliation with the Whites. but secretly with the intention of aiding the Blacks. The Pope's trickery was eventually revealed by an investigation of the Cardinal by the priorate, of which Dante was a member. dante was elected as one of the six priors who ruled Florence, a post he held from June 15 to August 14 in 1300. To show impartiality the priors were exiled leaders of both the White and Black factions. However, during the succeeding priorate, of which dante was no longer a member, extremist White Guelfs recalled their exiled followers in an attempt to regain complete control over Florence. At the same time, the Blacks were again reorganizing with Papal support. Florence was again on the brink of civil war (Britanica, 483).

 Dante believed the Pope to be the instigator of the new hostilities. He became the laeder of a large group of Moderate Whites, and on september 13th, 20th, and 28th, 1301, he advocated the giving of full power to the priorate in an attempt to stave off war. On October 4th, Charles of valois (the brother of the French King Philip IV), along with the Pope, assembled outside of Florence at the headquarters of the Black Guelfs. The White Guelfs, in the face of such awesome opposition, attemnpted to reach a compromise with the Pope. dante was one of the ambassadors sent by the Whites to negotiate. It was the last he ever saw of Florence. The Pope refused to compromise, and on November 1, 1301, Charles entered Florence and won the support of the more extreme Blacks. the Blacks quickly took over Florence and began to persecute the whites. White Guelf leaders were accused of Ghibelline inclinations and of being pro-imperialist, which many of them, including Dante, were. Dante, being a leader of the Whites, was immediately accused of barratry, fined 5000 small florins (at the time a tremendous sum), and was exiled from Tuscany for two years. He was also accused of opposing Charles de Valois and of opposing papal authority. Dante was at the time still negotiating with the Pope and was unable, therefore, to pay his fine. As a consequence of this, he was sentenced to death on March 10, 1301 (Britanica, 483).

 Dante now began his life in exile. Along with other White and Ghibelline exiles, Dante attempted to obtain aid from pro-Ghibelline families. The objective aws to eventually encounter Florence by force. In June, 1302, Dante negotiated with the wealthy Ubaldini family, promising to reimburse them for damages resulting from an attack on Florence, in return for military aid. War appeared to be on the way. However, with the death of Boniface in 1303, and the succession of Benedict XI top the papacy, the exiles opted instead to negotiate for a peaceful return to Florence. The Pope responded by sending Cardinal Nicolo de Prato to mediate. The Blacks, fearful of losing power, destroyed the negotiations and forced the Cardinal to leave Florence. Upon Benedict's death in 1304, the Whites and Ghibellines decided to attack Florence. Their defeat at La Lastra on July 20, 1304 "ended all hope for the exiles, " including Dante (Britanica, 483).

 The Florentine conflicts show Dante's growing animosity towards the Church. He was continually on the side of the anti-papal, pro-imperial White Guelfs. Dante viewed the Church, in particular Boniface, as the root cause of the White-Black conflict. Because of his greed and hunger for power, Boniface had caused the split "to ease the favor of his arrogance" as he did by destroying the city of Penestrino (Canto XXVII, 1.97). Dante was al;so a firt-hand observer to the underhanded dealings of the Pope in his negotiations with cardinal D'Aquasparta. Finally, when Dante attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Pope, the Pope refused to compromise. Charles was sent into Florence and Dante was exiles. Dante blamed the Pope for the bloodshed of the Black victory, and probably had a gigantic grudge against Boniface for engineering his exile. Dante was never able to see his homeland again, and for that, he blamed the Church.

 Further evidence of Dante's anti-clerical sentiment can be found by looking at his views on the imperial state. When Dante learned of the election of Henry of Luxemborg as the German King (1308), he was overjoyed. Dante "had become convinced that those events and the ensuing disorder had occurred only because there wasw no Holy Roman emperor" (Britanica, 484) Dante delighted, then, in the crowning of Henry as Emperor in Rome. He urged Henry VII to crush Florence, which opposed the new King. While in exile, Dante wrote a letter to the inhabitants of Florence detailing their forthcoming defeat at the hands of the Emperor:

 What help will it be to have built your ring of ramparts and fortified yourself with bulwarks and battlements, when there swoops upon you the eagle in the field of gold...What indeed, when you stand dumbfounded, you most miserable of men, before the Emperor at your doors to check the delirium of Italy.
(Letter, 105)

 The "eagle in the field of gold" was the seal of the Holy Roman Empire. Dante is clearly advocating a reassertment of Imperial authority. In the above passage he glorifies the role of the Emperor as a bringer of order to the "delirium of Italy." Dante's desire for a strong Holy Roman emperor to rule at least Italy is an indication of his belief that the Church should stay out of political affairs. It is the purpose of the Emperor to run government, not the Catholic Church.

 Following Henry's arrival, Dante began to focus much of his writing on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Modern state. Dante believed that the imperial authority came directly from God, and was in no way associated with the Pope. He writes:

 ...the everlasting King...has entrusted to the Holy Roman Empire, as defined by God, to govern the world and take care of "Human affairs." By extension, Dante concluded that the purpose of the Church was a spiritual organ, and not a political power: "For Dante, imperial authority, as that of the pope, issued directly from God, so that direct power in temporal things aws denied to the Church, the spiritual organ" (Britanica, 484). The empire was responsible for man's earthly well being, while the Church could take care of the afterlife. These clearly drawn lines of responsibility were the results of Dante's political experiences. Throughout his life, Dante had witnessed the corruption and immorality which he had blamed on the Church. The Divine Comedy, Dante's last great work, is a further expression of his thoughts on the Church. The Divine Comedy is the culmination of Dante's life experiences; it is the highest and most complete expression of his ideas and opinions. In the Inferno, Dante avoids simply ranting and raving about Boniface or the problems with the Church. Instead he uses numerous literary techniques and expresses his views through an allegorical trip through hell. In the Inferno, Dante skillfully gives us his interpretation on the correct role of the Catholic Church.

 Part II

 Perhaps Dante's most common topic of discussion, or target, in the Inferno is the organized Catholic Church. Dante levels a nearly continuous attack on the Church, and in particular the pontiffs. Dante, as discussed in Part I, clearly believes Boniface to be corrupt and immoral. As discussed later on in Part II of this essay, dante expands this condemnation to include most, if not all Popes. The Popes, who are supposed to be God's vicar on earth, are the cause of war and conflict, from which Christian blood is shed. Boniface in particular is responsible for Dante's own exile and grief, a fact that we know he does not forget. However, Dante's attack on the Church goes far beyond his own personal involvements. In the Inferno, Dante accuses the popes of abusing their power through the acts of simony and corruption, as well as indulgence in earthly pleasures. Dante believes that the Church should avoid involvement in the temporal affairs of man, and stick to the spiritual. Dante's argument is made more compelling through the use of various literary techniques. The use of metaphors, dialogue, characters, and the trip through hell itself all strengthen Dante's claims.

 Dante makes sure to wreak vengeance on Boniface in the Inferno. In Canto XXVII, Dante and Vergil encounter Guido da Montefeltro in the Eighth pouch of the Eighth Circle of hell (Malebolge), the Fraudulent Counselors. Guido was a powerful Ghibelline leader in Florence, who underwent a conversion of sorts, changed his ways, and entered the Franciscan order: "I was a man of arms, then wore the cord" (Canto XXVII, 67). Dante asks Guido who he is, and why he is in hell. Guido tells Dante that he was corrupted by Boniface, who needed advice on how best to destroy papal opposition at Penestrino. Guido refused at first, fearful of committing sin. However, Boniface promised to absolve Guido in advance:
 

He [Boniface] asked me to give counsel.  I was silent. his words had seemed to me delirious. And then he said: 'Your heart must not mistrust: I now absolve you in advance-teach me to batter Penestrino to the ground. You surely know that I possess the power to lock and unlock Heaven; for the keys  my predecessor did not prize are two. (Canto XXVII, 98-105)

Dante is clearly attacking the arrogance and corruption of Boniface. Boniface has pretended to usurp the power of God's judgement. Boniface is also committing a form of simony: he is granting absolution in return for advance. He is, in effect, selling absolution. Ironically, Boniface cannot absolve Guido, who ends up in the Ring of the Fraudulent Counselors. Thus, Boniface himself is a fraudulent counselor. This passage also displays the desire for power of Boniface. After all, this is a Pope that wants to "batter Penestrino to the ground." These are not words that one would expect to hear from a man of God. the Pope is ruthless, even bloodthirsty. The Pope, and the Church in general, is supposed to stand for paece: "Love your enemy..." Boniface is rejecting a fundamental tenant of Christian belief. The actual events that occurred at Penestrino are interesting as well. Boniface told the inhabitants of the town that if they gave up their resistance, he would grant them all amnesty. When they did so, Boniface promptly destroyed the town (Notes, 383, 67). Boniface is being compared to a ruthless, conquering, tyrant.

 Dante's attack on Boniface in this passage is strengthened by the use of dialogue and allusion to actual people and events. The reader can raed the actual abhorrent words of Boniface. Rather than being told in a summary what Boniface said, we are given quotations of actual dialogue from which we can make our own conclusion. In this case, of course, there is only one opinion that the reader can come away with: horror and disgust. This indirect method of horror and attack instantly adds credibility and conviction to Dante's assault. Dante's use of actual people and events in this passage also increases its effect. Guido, an actual person, is telling us what occurred. This is far more powerful than having Dabte describe Boniface's actions. Dante is distancing himself from the attack, making it look less like a personal vendetta by the author. rather than lecturing on Boniface's terrible behavior, Dante is using the testimony of another character to assault the Pope. The use of the actual occurrences at Penestrino serves as evidence fo Dante-the-Poet's conclusions. The condemnation of Boniface is backed up by the events at Penestrino, just as the topic of a paragraph is supported by the following examples of specific evidence. The magnitude of the attack on Boniface in the above passage is instantly increased by Dante's use of literary tricks and techniques. Dante has scored a powerful blow in his personal vendetta against Boniface.

 In Canto XIX, Dante first launches another personal attack, and then widens the scope of his ideas to a more general and far-reaching level. The entire Third Pouch of the Eighth Circle is devoted to simonists. Simony is the religious equivalent to barratry, the very crime Dante was accused of. Simony is the selling of Church offices or indulgences, a common Medieval form of Church corruption. In this Third Pouch, each simonist is held headfirst in a rock with only their feet protruding. Their feet are constantly burned by a neverending flame. One flame, however, burns stronger than the others. Upon inquiry, Dante learns that this is the flame of the Pope, the chief-simonist. Dante approaches the Pope, who later turns out to be Pope Nicholas III, Boniface's predecessor. When Dante asks him to speak, the Pope responds:
 

Are you already standing, already standing there, o Boniface? The book has lied to me by several years. Are you so quickly sated with the riches for which you did not fear to take by guile the Lovely Lady, then to violate her? (Canto XIX, 11.5257)

The Inferno, although completed in 1308, takes place in 1300. Boniface did not die until 1303. Nicholas, like all damned souls, has the power to see the future, not the present. Nicholas has foreseen the death of Boniface, and he has also observed Boniface's life. Thus, he knows that Boniface will be sent to hell. The discrepancy of three years from 1300-1303 explains Nicholas' comment, "The book has lied to me by several years." As we learn later, each corrupt Pope, upon his death, replaces the prior one in the spot that Nicholas now occupies while the previos Pope is pushed down into the rock, stacked upon each earlier corrupt Pope. Thus, when Nicholas asks if Dante is Boniface, what Dante is really doing is taking a swipe at Boniface, saying that he is condemned to hell. Dante is vindicating his own life by saying that his enemy was a damned sinner. It is interesting that Dante is wrongfully thought to be Boniface, when looked at in context to Dante's life. Boniface was a simonist. Simony, as I explained above, is the religious equivalent to barratry. Dante, as mentioned in Part I, was accused of barratry by the Black Guelfs and exiled from Florence. The fact that he is wrongfully called by Nicholas simonist, the religious equivalent to barratry, suggests that the original accusation of barratry in Dante's real life is also wrong. Thus, through this apparently innocent mistake, Dante is clearing his name.

 In the above quotation, Dante again uses literary tricks to strengthen his attack on Boniface. The fact that Dante has Nicholas inform the reader by mistake that Boniface, who just happens to be the author's enemy, is going to hell is a brilliant example of literary maneuvering. rather than Dante telling us straight out that Boniface is going to hell, the reader is given a more crafty hint to that end. Once again, "this accident" distances Dante's past personal history of animosity towards Boniface from the actual condemnation of Boniface as a hell-bound sinner. Dante is strengthening his argument by in effect saying, "I didn't say it, it was Nicholas." Nicholas, as opposed to Dante, has no bias against Boniface. The reader is inclined to believe an objective character who happens to be able to see the future. Nicholas, like Guido da Montefeltro, is corroborating dante's negative opinion of Boniface. Thus, the author is adding more weight to his personal assault on boniface.

 Dante expands his personal attack on Boniface into a larger condemnation of the Church and the Papacy. First, he does this by indicating the sheer number of Popes condemned to this punishment in hell. Nicholas says:
 

Below my head there is the place of those who took the way of simony before me; and they are stuffed within the clefts of stone. I, too, shall yield my place and fall below... (Canto XIX, 11.7376)

Nicholas' description and explanation of each Pope's temporary punishment and replacement indicates that many, if not most, pontiffs have found themselves in the Third Pouch of the Eighth Circle of hell.

 Perhaps the most striking example of Dante's outrage at the corruption and indulgence of the organized Catholic Church can be found in the long speech he gives at the end of Canto XIX. Dante begins by attacking the greed and materialism of the Church:
 

Then tell me how, how much gold did our Lord ask that Saint Peter give to him before he placed the keys within his care? Surely the only thing he asked was "follow me." And Peter and the others never asked for gold or silver when they asked Matthias to take the place of the transgressing soul. (Canto XIX, 11.9096)

This is a blunt attack on the prevalent values of the contemporary Church. Dante is comparing the desire for money as a motivating force in the Church, to its original values of faith and morality. the Church has strayed from its original purpose. Dante continues his assault:
 
 

Stay as you are, for you are rightly punished; and guard with care the money got by evil that made you so audacious against Charles. (Canto XIX, 11.971000)

Despite the theme of greed, Dante brings in by allusion the idea of the Church infringing on the state. Charles of Anjou (1226-1285) was the king of Naples and Sicily. Pope Nicholas, allegedly, for a large sum of money, supported a conspiracy against Charles which materialized in the successful uprisings of Sicilian Vespers (Note, 373, 98-99). These uprisings eventually removed Charles from power. Dante is again referring to an actual event. The reader can recognize the vespers, which then serve as evidence supporting Dante's attack on the Church. Dante is condemning the interference of the Church in political affairs where it doesn't belong. In this case the political maneuvering of the Pope resulted in a violent uprising. The Church, according to dante, should act solely as a spiritual organ and sower of harmony, not as a ruthless political machine causing discord and violence.
 

...your avarice afflicts the world: it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked. You, shepherds, the Evangelist had noticed when he saw her who sits upon the waters and realized she fornicates with kings, she who was born with seven heads and had the power and support of the ten horns, as long as virtue was her husband's pleasure. (Canto XIX, 11.104111)

Here, the Church is being compared to a whore. The seven heads represent the seven sacraments, while the horns symbolize the ten commandments (Notes, 373, 109-110). The whore upon the water is the Church corrupted by the materialistic and secular interests of the Popes. The use of this metaphor, like the other previously mentioned literary devices, helps to add force to Dante's statement. The image of a whore engaging in lewd sexual acts is a powerful and disturbing image, especially when used in comparison with a supposedly sacred and pure institution like the Church. It attracts attention to the point Dante is trying to make about the role of the Catholic Church. The fact that the whore "fornicates with kings" is a clear indication of the temporal and political involvements of the Church that Dante so detests. Dante concludes his speech with a final blast at the Popes:
 

You've made yourselves a god of gold and silver; how are you different from idolaters,  save that they worship one and a hundred? Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born and not from your conversion the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father! (Canto XIX, 11.112117)

A metaphor is again being used here. The Pope is being compared to a pagan idolater who worships God in specific form. A central concept of Christianity is the belief in one, omnipotent, unrepresentable God. This idea dates back as far as the story of Abraham in the Old Testament; the worship of idols is forbidden by God. Thus, when Dante accuses Nicholas, who as the pope is supposed to be the most upright of Christians, of being an idolater, he is really accusing him of being a traitor to Christianity and a traitor to God. Even worse is the fact that the God whom the Popes worship is money. The Church, then, has become materialistic.

 The portion concerning Constantine is also valuable. Constantine, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, after having a sudden religious revelation which converted him to Christianity, granted the Church its current position of dominance. Dante is saying, then, that the conversion to Christianity was correct, and that, by extension, Christianity is indeed the true religion of God. The mistake that Constantine made was instead the granting to the Church and to the Pope its immense power and money ("dower"). The Church has been tainted and corrupted by money, and the pursuit of material gain. It has lost sight of its purpose as a spiritual institution, and has become corrupted by political entanglements. The Church is no longer an instrument of God; insteda, it has become a symbol of earthly sin. Worst of all, the Popes have broken a trust they have made with the lay people, and with God. Instead of fulfilling their responsibilities to the people and to God as a spiritual intermediary, the Popes and the Church are corrupt and materialistic. They are raping religion and faith.

 Dante's interaction with the Church in real life was extensive and hostile. In his eyes, the Church was responsible for the strife that inflicted his home, Florence, and for his own exile. The Church, supposedly a symbol of love and peace, had been the cause of the violence and bloodshed that the author experienced throughout his life. In the Divine Comedy, Dante gets the opportunity to strike back in the best way he knows how, with words. The Inferno, with its attacks on Boniface and Dante's attempts at vindication, clearly shows the relationship with Dante's writings and Dante's past. Yey Dante is able to remove himself from his own personal conflicts towards the greater issue of the role of the Church in the society. In the Inferno, he attacks the corruption, amterialism and political involvements of the popes. The Church has strayed from its original purpose as a religious institution in charge of man's spiritual well-being. Dante makes his point with power. The use of numerous literary devices adds to the strength and effectiveness of his arguments. The entire idea of a journey through hell presents the author with an opportunity to pass his own Divine judgement. Even in hell, however, Dante's life experiences clearly affect his literature. Dante the man clearly influences Dante the writer to produce a set of ideas concerning the role of the Catholic Church in European society.

 Bibliography and Endnotes

 1) Alighieri, Dante; Inferno (translation and notes by Allen Mandelbaum); Bantam Books; New York; 1980; all endnote references to the story itself are made in the text by canto and line number, all endnote references in the text will be expressed parenthetically with the abbreviation "Note" followed by page and line number.

 2) Longfellow; Dante Data Base; Dartmouth College; all endnote references will be indicated in the text by the word "Longfellow" expressed parenthetically.

 3) The New Encyclopedia Britanica, volume five; William Benton, Publisher; Chicago; 1981; all endnote references will be indicated in the text by the word "Britanica" expressed parenthetically followed by the page number.

 4) Alighieri, Dante; Letter VI (to Florence); handout; all endnote references will be indicated in the text by the word "Letter" followed by the page number.