IT IS part of the wordless wisdom of the peasant that soil nearing exhaustion from abundant bearing may be restored by letting it lie fallow for a season, plowed, perhaps, but not sown. Italy, after the consuming fertility of the Renaissance, rested. Her incredible vitality subsided to a quieter pace, as if gathering strength for new achievements to come. So we must not expect from the Italy of this and the succeeding age—between Bernini and Bonaparte—such fruits as poured from her horn of plenty in her golden centuries. We visit her again, satisfied if now and then, in cities echoing with history, we can hear minor voices attesting un-extinguished life.
She was, of course, still Catholic; this is part of her soul, and could hardly be taken from her without violating her spirit. The poor were abused by the rich, who naturally controlled the governments and made the laws. The rich explained that if the poor were better paid they would become disorderly and insolent. The women, except in the flowering of their beauty, were exploited by the men and the race. Under these conditions the lower classes and the then weaker sex found solace in the ministrations of the Church. Their faith in the divine justice upheld them against the inhumanity of man; the sins of their hot tongues and pagan flesh were readily pardoned by the lenient priests and amiable monks whom they fed so hopefully; their burdened days were gratefully interrupted by the lazy festivals of their protective saints. Those saints and the compassionate Virgin Mother, by intercession at the throne of God, would save them from the horrors of hell; the indulgences distributed by the Church would shorten their stay in purgatory; sooner or later they would be admitted to a Paradise—even more beautiful than Italy—where there would be no landlords, no taxes, no tithes, no toil, no war, no grief, and no pain.
So they bore with patience, humor, and song the exactions of their omnipresent clergy, who absorbed at least a third of the nation’s revenues. They loved their churches as isles of peace in the war of life. They saw with pride, not resentment, the splendor of St. Peter’s and the Vatican; these were the product of their pennies and their artisans; they belonged to the poor even more than to the rich; and they were not too grand for the tomb of the first Apostle, or for the home of the head of Christendom, the Servant of the Servants of God. If that Holy Father punished attacks upon the Church, it was only to prevent fools from destroying the moral edifice built upon religious belief, only to preserve the faith that made a heroic poem from the prose of toil.
The Italian Inquisition was relatively human in this age. Its most famous victim was a Spanish priest, Miguel de Molinos, born in Saragossa, domiciled in Rome. In 1675 he published a Guida spirituale, which argued that though devotion to Jesus and the Church was a help toward the highest religious state, yet the worshiper who had given himself to direct communion with God might safely ignore all priestly intermediation and all churchly ritual. In a further tract Molinos opined that a devotee confident in his freedom from mortal sin might rightly receive the Eucharist without previously confessing to a priest. Molinos’ Guide proved especially attractive to women; hundreds of them—including Princess Borghese and Queen Christina—sought his counsel and sent him gifts. Many nuns took to the new quietism, discarded their rosaries, and wrapt themselves in a proud liaison with God. Several Italian bishops, complaining of a movement that minimized church services and contributions, appealed to Innocent XI to suppress it. 1Jesuits and Franciscans attacked Molinos as putting an almost Protestant emphasis upon faith above “works.” The Pope for a time protected him, but in 1685 the Roman Inquisition arrested him, and soon thereafter almost a hundred of his followers. He had amassed four thousand gold crowns ($50,000?) by levying a small charge for his epistolary advice; we may judge the number of correspondents from the cost, twenty-three ducats ($287.50?), of the postage on letters received by him on the single day of his arrest. 2
After examining the prisoners the Inquisition drew up a series of accusations: chiefly that Molinos had justified the breaking of crucifixes and religious images as impeding the quiet of union with God; that he had discouraged persons from taking religious vows or entering religious orders; and that he had led his disciples to believe that nothing done by them after attaining divine union could be a sin. Perhaps under stress of imprisonment, torture, or fear, he confessed to excusing the destruction of images, and to dissuading from monastic vows persons whom he thought unfit; he admitted that for many years he had practiced “the most indecent acts with two women”; he “had not deemed this sinful, but a purification of the soul”; and thereby “he enjoyed a closer union with God.” 3 The Inquisition condemned sixty-eight propositions found in Molinos’ books, letters, or confessions, and on September 3, 1687, it indicted him in a public auto-da-fé. A great crowd attended, and demanded that he be burned; but the Inquisition contented itself with ordering his confinement for life. He died in prison in 1697.
Our sympathies may go more readily to those Alpine “heretics” whom Milton mourned in his sonnet “On the Late Massacher in Piedmont.” In the valleys hiding between Savoyard Piedmont and French Dauphiné dwelt the Vaudois, descendants of the Waldenses who had preceded and survived the Reformation, and who had preserved their Protestant faith through a hundred fluctuations of law and government. In 1655 Duke Charles Emmanuel II of Savoy joined Louis XIV in organizing an army to force the conversion of these Vaudois. The resultant slaughter aroused the indignation of Cromwell, who secured from Mazarin an order ending the persecution. But after the deaths of the Protector and the Cardinal the oppression was renewed, and when the Edict of Nantes was revoked the French state resumed its effort to exterminate Protestantism from the province. The Vaudois laid down their arms on a promise of amnesty; then, unarmed, three thousand of them, including women, children, and old men, were massacred (1686). The still unconverted survivors were allowed to migrate to the environs of Geneva. A later Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus, finding himself, in the kaleidoscope of politics, allied not with France but against her, invited the Vaudois to return to their valleys (1696). They came, fought in his service, and thereafter were allowed to worship the Unknown in their own trusting way.
The poor were as poor in the Papal States as elsewhere in Italy. The Curia, or papal court, like any government, taxed its subjects to the point of diminishing returns, and never had funds enough for its purposes and personnel. Cardinal Sacchetti warned Pope Alexander VII (1663) that the tax collectors were impoverishing the population to the verge of despair. “The people, having no more silver or copper or linen or furniture to satisfy the rapacity of the commissioners, will be next obliged to sell themselves to meet the burdens laid upon them by the Camera” (the legislative chamber of the Curia). 4 The Cardinal complained of venality in the papal judiciary, of verdicts bought and sold, of suits prolonged for years, of violence and tyranny experienced by losers who dared to appeal from a lower to a higher official. These “oppressions,” said Sacchetti, “exceed those inflicted upon the Israelites in Egypt. People not conquered by the sword, but subjected to the Holy See, . . . are more inhumanly treated than the slaves in Syria or Africa. Who can witness these things without tears of sorrow?” 5 Amid the poverty of the masses several noble families related to popes or cardinals received rich gifts from the revenues of the Church.
The popes of this period were neither ascetics like Pius V nor statesmen like Sixtus V; they were usually good men too weak to overcome the human vices around them, or to keep an eye upon the thousand loopholes and crannies that let corruption pass or hide in the administration of the Church. Perhaps no institution so vast in its scope and tasks can be kept clear of the faults inherent in the nature of man. Innocent X (1644–55), “blameless of life and upright in principle,” 6 labored to moderate taxation, to check the exploitation of papal revenues by greedy nobles, and to maintain order and justice in his states. As pictured by Velazquez he has every semblance of a powerful character, but he allowed others to govern for him, and let Olimpia Maidalchini, his ambitious and acquisitive sister-in-law, influence his appointments and policies. Cardinals and envoys humbled themselves before her, and she became scandalously wealthy on their gifts; but when Innocent died she professed herself too poor to pay for his funeral. 7
In the conclave that chose his successor a cardinal is said to have exclaimed, “This time we must seek an honest man.” 8 They found him in Fabio Chigi, who became Alexander VII (1655–67). He did his best to cleanse the papal administration of venality and delay; he banished his esurient nephews to Siena; he reduced the public debt. But the corruption around him was too extensive and pervasive to be overcome. He yielded, let his nephews return to Rome, and gave them lucrative posts; one of them soon amassed a fortune. 9 Power passed from Alexander’s tired hands to the cardinals, who claimed more and more authority in the government of the Church. An aristocracy of families boasting cardinals replaced the absolute monarchy that the Council of Trent had confirmed to the popes.
Clement IX (1667–69) renewed the struggle against nepotism. He allowed his relatives some modest privileges, but he turned his back upon petitioners for place. Hundreds had come from his native Pistoia, confident that he would raise them to affluence; he refused them; they lampooned him; we perceive again that the nature of man is the same in the oppressor and the oppressed, and that the people are the chief source of the evils that surround them. The new Pope was a man of peace and justice. Whereas his predecessor, at the urging of Louis XIV, had issued a troublemaking bull against the Jansenists, Clement effected a truce in that quarrel within the Church. It was a misfortune that he died after only two years of rule.
Clement X (1670–76) was eighty at his accession; he left matters to the cardinals (as they had planned), but he concluded his pontificate without reproach. Innocent XI (1676–89), says the Protestant Ranke, was a man “remarkable for humility, . . . most gentle and placid in disposition,” conscientious in morals and resolute in reforms. 10 He discontinued the “college” of apostolic notaries, “of which,” says a Catholic historian, “the appointments were regularly bought and sold.” 11 He abolished many useless offices, privileges, and exemptions, balanced the papal budget for the first time in many years, and established such a reputation for fiscal integrity that the Curia was now able to borrow money at three per cent. He was “a virtuous man,” wrote Voltaire, “a wise pontiff, a poor theologian, a courageous, resolute, and magnificent prince.” 12 He tried in vain to moderate the precipitation of James II in Catholicizing England. He condemned the violence used by Louis XIV against the Huguenots; men “must be led to the temple,” he said, “not dragged into it.” 13 He had no reason to love the proud King who claimed over the Church in France almost as full authority as that which Henry VIII had asserted in England. To reduce crime in Rome Innocent XI annulled the right of asylum previously accorded to the residences of ambassadors; Louis insisted on retaining that right for his envoys, and even for the streets adjacent to the French embassy, and in 1687 his ambassador entered Rome with a regiment of cavalry to enforce the royal claim. The Pope censured the ambassador, and laid an interdict upon the Church of St. Louis, where the ambassador worshiped in Rome. Louis appealed to a general council, imprisoned the papal nuncio in France, and seized the territory of Avignon, which had belonged to the papacy since 1348. Hence Innocent XI looked with equanimity upon the expedition of Protestant William III of Orange to unseat Catholic James II and bring England into a coalition against France. He co-operated with the efforts of Leibniz to reunite Catholicism and Protestantism; he sanctioned concessions which were pronounced satisfactory in the uiversities of Protestant Germany; an Englishman called him “a Protestant pope.” 14
Innocent XI died before he could see the triumph of his aims; but during the pontificates of Alexander VIII (1689–91) and Innocent XII (1691–1700) the French ambassador relinquished the right of asylum, Avignon was returned to the papacy, the French clergy transferred its allegiance from king to pope, and the Grand Alliance restored the balance of power against aggressive France. In the War of the Spanish Succession Clement XI (1700–21) found himself caught between the violent divisions of Europe; he threw his influence hesitantly now upon one side, now upon the other; in the end the kings divided the spoils—even Sicily and Sardinia, technically papal fiefs—without consulting him. In like manner the Treaty of Westphalia had ignored the protests of Innocent X. The intensification of nationalism involved the weakening of the papacy, and shared with the growth of science in promoting secularism and lessening the role of religion in European life.