A discontinuous “continuum”
The second episode in the review of the popes who have borne the name Benedict brings us to the figure of Benedict XI, the successor of Boniface VIII, and to Benedict XII, the third of the so-called Avignon popes. In appendix, the two anti-popes Benedict XIII and Benedict XIV
by Lorenzo Cappelletti
No pope of the name Benedict reigned in the 12th and 13th centuries, the period in which the Gregorian Reform bore its fruit, a reform that had its origins precisely in the antagonism of the reformers towards “two Benedicts”: Benedict IX, whose resistance was so tenacious as to give rise to his untoward triple pontificate between 1032 and 1048, and then towards Benedict X, deposed by Nicholas II in 1059. We dealt with both in the previous number of 30Days.
Bust of Boniface VIII from his chapel, Sala San Giovanni, Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano, Vatican City
It would seem that Benedict XI took his name not in discontinuity but in homage to Boniface VIII (Benedetto Caetani), to whom he was faithful in life and in death. Yet his pontificate, within the limits of possibility and the all too brief span of eight months, showed a certain discontinuity with that of his predecessor, marked already, according to the authoritative studies of Gerhart Ladner, by the simple form of the tiara he wore as against the monumental triple crown of Boniface. It matters little that the discontinuity was the result of impotence rather than of deliberate strategy. The Church is or is not of the Lord? It is the idealism old and new, of right and left, that likes to make distinctions in the history of the papacy, as if they were dialectical phases, between strong and weak figures: «the faith and indomitable willpower» (G.Falco, La Santa Romana Repubblica, 346) of Boniface, on the one hand; on the other, the inadequacy and incapacity of Benedict XI, leitmotiv of the entry devoted to him in the recent Encyclopaedia of the Popes. An entry identical, even in its heading, to the one that appeared in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani 35 years ago (a poor advert for the Treccani publishing house! Especially in consideration of the numerous recent studies by Vito Sibilio, Carlo Longo and others).
In reality the discontinuity in the pontificate of Benedict XI is as marked as his loyalty to Boniface was unchanging. At bottom, being less forceful than his predecessor, Benedict not only preserved his memory but also preserved the apostolic succession. The posthumous condemnation of Boniface by a Council, fiercely demanded by the councillors of the French king, would in fact have meant the annulment of Boniface’s decrees, and that was to be avoided in any case.
Benedict XI, born Niccolò di Boccassio, son of a notary of Treviso, became a Dominican in 1257, entering the monastery of his native city, and then followed the normal course both as teacher and as superior within the Ordo praedicatorum, which, together with «his tendency to heal great quarrels» (as one reads in the Bibliotheca sanctorum, for it should not be forgotten that Benedict XI, unique among the popes who have borne the name, was proclaimed blessed), was his best credential at the moment of his election as Master General of the Order in May 1296. The extremely bitter quarrel of the Colonna – heirs, one might say, of the ancient claim of Roman families to the papacy – was raging at that moment against Boniface VIII. An efficacious claim because it was about to be backed by the new one made by the king of France, Philip IV the Fair.
Niccolò di Boccassio, in the general chapter of the 1297, decisively ranked his Order on the side of the legitimacy of Pope Boniface that was under question in the struggle. His elevation to cardinal the following year and then, in 1300, further promotion to Dean of the Sacred College rewarded his loyalty. Loyalty that led him not only to act as legate on various peace missions, but to share personally in the whole drama of Boniface’s last days, from the insult of Anagni to the return and death of the Pope in Rome in October 1303. The wrongdoing took place «palam... in nostris etiam oculis», Benedict XI was to write in the Bull of condemnation of the material perpetrators, amomg whom Sciarra Colonna and Guillaume de Nogaret.
Above, Benedict XI, detail of the funeral monument, school of Arnolfo di Cambio, church of San Domenico, Perugia
In effect Benedict withdrew the excommunication on Philip the Fair and the interdiction on various cities in France, granting forgiveness to all, except to those who had been directly involved in the attack at Anagni, who were summoned to appear before him, on pain of the solemn promulgation of the excommunication (but the Pope died suddenly and so not even they were hit by proceedings). He also freed from the excommunication the two Colonna cardinals, Giacomo and Pietro, though keeping them out of the College of Cardinals. And Iacopone da Todi from prison.
To understand the reach of these acts of clemency one needs to consider that the over extended use, not least for political and fiscal motives, of excommunication and interdiction – which meant depriving not only individuals but whole cities and provinces of the sacraments – had and would constitute in the early modern period one of the gravest and most objective causes of scandal. And so it was not just a diplomatic ruse on Benedict’s part when he justified his magnanimity with pastoral concern in a letter of the 2 April 1304 to Philip the Fair.
But despite all his diplomatic and pastoral precaution already by the following month Benedict was forced to leave Rome, once again become dangerous for him, and flee to Perugia from where he was never to return. He died in fact on 7 July of a sudden attack of dysentery attributed to figs. Poisoned? «The suddenness of his death gave rise to the usual gossip that attributed it to the poison of the cardinals or even of Nogaret», the entry in the Enciclopedia dei papi says brusquely, perhaps because it had to be rushed out for the Great Jubilee. But, going merely by what certain cardinals had plotted with Nogaret and continued to plot, might it not be worthwhile elevating the gossip at least to the rank of hypothesis? Vox populi...
So it was with Benedict XI that the popes and the Curia left Rome to make return only after five dozen years. He was the first “Avignon” pope. But as for that, the territory of Avignon (as one always forgets) was no more and no less pontifical than Anagni or Segni. And furthermore, the time spent out of Rome by the popes in the two previous centuries was already longer than that spent in the city. Meaning that the «Babylonian captivity» in Avignon lamented by Petrarch needs to be scaled down. Twentieth-century scholarship has made that clear.
Benedict XII (1334-1342) is the other fourteenth-century pope to take the name Benedict. A choice that in his case seems again mainly in reference to the holy patriarch of western monastic life. Benedict XII was in fact a Cistercian. But it can’t be excluded that he also meant a reference to Benedict XI. In effect the two popes had in common both their monastic vows and austerity of life. But not only that. They also shared personal loyalty to – along with the need to distance themselves from - immediate predecessors who had been involved in such crucial struggles with royal and imperial power (by then no longer distinct except for nationality) as to force them to affirmations and reaction as bitter as those they aimed to combat. If Boniface VIII, the predecessor of Benedict XI, had engaged in a struggle with no quarter with Philip the Fair, John XXII (1316-1334) had found himself facing the attack, in certain ways more decisive from both the doctrinal and disciplinary points of view, of Ludwig the Bavarian who had managed to get himself crowned emperor in Rome by an anti-pope elected specifically for the purpose and described by that epithet for the first time in history
Both sovereigns and popes fought with all the means available, including troops of writers and escorts of treatises. Those of an ecclesiological kind came into official being in the period: «While great Scholasticism had not composed separate treatises on ecclesiology, suddenly, in the space of a few years, quite a number appeared with similar titles. Meaningful titles, speaking essentially of the powers, of the two powers, and of the their difficult relations». So says Yves Congar, in L’Eglise de saint Augustin à l’époque moderne (reprinted 1997, 270-271).
The climate of the period was in effect determined by contrasting power claims in which any grouping, even the most legitimate, was destined to serve a “particular”. The more globality was theorized the more facts intervened to belie it. No longer the pope but a Frenchman to be opposed by an Italian, no longer the emperor but a German to be opposed by an Anjou. From families to parties, from nations to churchmen, all were caught up in the struggle: Colonnas against Caetanis, Guelphs against Ghibellines, French against English, secular clergy against regulars. It was not only Dante in the Monarchia (on the Index, let us remember, until 1921 when an encyclical by another Benedict, the In praeclara of Benedict XV, lifted the ban) who pleaded the need and the necessary autonomy of imperial power. More or less at the same time illustrious jurists such as Bartolo da Sassoferrato were complaining that ferocious tyrannies had arisen out of the prostration of the Empire: «Cum imperium fuit in statu et in tranquillitate totus mundus fuit in pace et in tranquillitate ut tempore Octaviani Augusti et cum imperium fuit prostratum insurrexerunt dirae tyrannides» (De tyranno). And when the politics of the world enter crisis, the freedom of the Church suffers. It was out of that pain and not for anything else, or if you like out of that love, that men like Dante and Bartolo intervened. «Dante’s fundamental idea is not the justification of secular power. The idea is that the fight against cupiditas entails the duality of the remedies», wrote Augusto Del Noce in one of his many unpublished writings still waiting to see the light.
His choice as pope was rapid, after only a few days in conclave, and that, too, reminds one of Benedict XI. «It seems that the choice was a surprise: the new Pope had no experience of political matters, but his theological competence, his pastoral activity, his austerity were prompt to produce a serious effort at doctrinal, moral and administrative rectitude… From his first secret consistory he invited the cardinals who had elected him to help him “make fruitful the vineyard of the Lord”» (from the entry in the Dizionario Biografico degl Italiani, signed by Bernard Guillemain who, along with Guillaume Mollat, is perhaps the greatest scholar of the Avignon papacy).
One can be certain that he did not mean fruitful in the financial terms of the Avignon Curia, whose revenues indeed declined. At the start of his pontificate, in fact, he revoked “expectant graces” (the assigning of a benefice not yet vacant) and commends (the assigning of the sole income from a benefice to those who would not be performing the corresponding office); he limited the taxes demanded for pastoral visits and set up an inquiry into the bribes demanded by Curia officials. But above all he strove to put order into the life of the secular clergy, sending back to their respective churches the crowd of churchmen hanging around Avignon in expectation of preferment, and that of the new religious orders which, along with their fervor, were also bringing disturbance into the bosom of Christendom, often acting as religious legitimization for one or another faction or simply as anarchical element.
A great many, however, put up such unbeatable resistance that they rendered the pope’s attempt partly futile. Against the spirit of the times, though impalpable (but Saint Paul is there to remind us of how much the powers of the air may weigh upon us, put down indeed by the Lord yet burdening our lives), there is sometimes no bulwark that will hold. In Italy, for example, while the schism in which the many nobles who joined Ludwig the Bavarian had been healed, but behind the formal recognition of their power over their respective lands, then ready to become a host of lordships armed one against the other and all against the pope. In Bologna in particular, which was to be the first bridge for the return to Rome from Avignon, it was precisely the man who had led the anti-papal rebellion who was recognized by the pope as «administrator of the rights and goods of the Church», writes Guillemain. The somewhat bitter conclusion of the entry in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani: «In actual fact the work of Pope Benedict modified neither the State of the Church nor the course of European politics».
Dante dreams of being attacked by the three wild beasts, (The Inferno,1), detail of the fresco by Joseph Anton Koch, 1825-1826, Stanze di Dante, Casino Massimo, Rome
But Pope Benedict XII gained his most lasting success in the theological sphere. «The most important document in the ecclesiastical magisterium about intermediate eschatology is without doubt the constitution Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII» (C. Pozo, The theology of the beyond). Centuries afterwards, in whatever treatise of eschatology, one can find a like assessment. That is no small thing, given the presumption that often marks theologians.
One needs to start from way back to understand how and why the intervention of Benedict XII was decisive on the question.
His predecessor had let himself go in hazardous lucubrations, claiming in a series of sermons that souls will not know perfect bliss except at the moment of the last judgment, when they are reunited with their bodies. It was a thesis that John XXII claimed was backed by the authority of Saint Bernard. Benedict XII, while still cardinal, not only rescued Saint Bernard’s orthodoxy by providing an interpretation of his writings that did him justice, but also that of John XXII by reducing his thesis to pure personal opinion on a question not yet formally defined. In the meantime, while he was preparing the dogmatic definition that since then has been the authority on the matter (cf Denzinger-Hünermann 1000-1002), he lovingly corrected the pope till the latter changed his mind as he was dying. The words that Umberto Eco in The name of the rose puts into the mouth of John XXII are those that he in effect uttered, according to the testimony of Benedict himself, but the atmosphere in which he situates them is a debt paid to the conventional interpretation of that period, indeed… a credit gained.
There is more. In the De statu animarum, a great treatise in six books that came out once he was made pope, Benedict dealt – as a Thomist theologian, but at same time mindful of the teaching that Saint Bernard had drawn from the Fathers, in particular Augustine – with the whole question, among other things giving a glimpse of a possible way, without betraying either Thomas or Augustine, to a proper understanding of how one may speak of a progress in the intensity of the beatific vision between the particular judgment and the last judgment. Nowadays, when even some famous writers affirm an absolute coincidence of the two moments to the point of erasing the very meaning of last judgment, it might be wise to emphasize Benedict’s teaching, as already suggested by Father Henri de Lubac (Catholicism, 81-92).
and Benedict XIV anti-popes
But let us get back to the history.
Between the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth we come across two more Benedicts. The Aragonese Pedro de Luna, the anti-pope who at the close of the fourteenth century took the name of Benedict XIII in the Avignon or Clementist line of the Great Western Schism, deserves lengthy treatment both for the complexity of his personality and for the problems involved in his election (the most recent monograph devoted to him in 2002 once again asks Benedicto XIII ¿Antipapa o papa?). Here instead we must limit ourselves to a brief note so as not to lose even the last of the twenty-five readers who have struggled this far.
Made cardinal by Gregory XI in 1375, before his definitive return from Avignon, he worked to bring into obedience to Clement VII – who had been elected in 1378 as alternative to the Roman successor of Gregory XI – all the Iberian realms. He then himself succeeded Clement VII in 1394 and insisted on reigning even after the deposition he underwent in 1417 at the Council of Constance, that had resolved the co-presence not only of Benedict XIII and the Roman pope, but also of a third pope who had come along in the meantime, deposing the latter also and encouraging the Roman pope to abdicate.
The claim of Benedict XIII, as said, remained intact up to his death in 1423 in the castle of Peñiscola where he had retired, a claim based less on political backing and legal reasoning than on the indomitable character of the man himself. He was the last real anti-pope, even if two others came after him. One of whom, Benedict XIV, was anti-pope of the anti-pope, because secretly elected by one of the four cardinals who backed Pedro de Luna in opposition to the candidate of the other three. The end of the Empire deprived the anti-popes of all credibility if not that of poor Don Quixotes with a single squire. The Church was not in fact to experience others except the ephemeral Felix V (1439-1449), reckoned absolutely the last anti-pope. A fact that gives rise to the illusion that in the modern period the foe patrols only outside the Church.
Of the legitimate Benedict XIII and Benedict XIV we shall speak in the next episode.