Martin reorganized the Curia to more effective functioning, but could find no way to finance it except by imitating the secular governments of the age and selling offices and services. Since the Church had survived for a century without reform, but could hardly survive a week without money, he concluded that money was more urgently needed than reform. In 1430, a year before Martin’s death, a German envoy to Rome sent his prince a letter that almost sounded the theme and tocsin of the Reformation:

Greed reigns supreme in the Roman court, and day by day finds new devices .... for extorting money from Germany.... Hence much outcry and heartburnings.... Many questions in regard to the papacy will arise, or else obedience will at last be entirely renounced, to escape from these outrageous exactions by the Italians; and this latter course, as I perceive, would be acceptable to many countries.13

Martin’s successor faced the accumulated problems of the Apostolic See from the background of a devout Franciscan friar ill equipped for statesmanship. The papacy had to govern states as well as the Church; the popes had to be men of affairs with at least one foot in the world, and could rarely afford to be saints. Eugenius IV might have been a saint had not his troubles embittered his spirit. In the first year of his pontificate the Council of Basel proposed again to assert the supremacy of general councils over the popes. It assumed one after another traditionally papal function: it issued indulgences and dispensations, appointed to benefices, and required annates to be sent to itself instead of to the pope. Eugenius ordered it to dissolve; instead it declared him deposed, and named Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, as Antipope Felix V (1439). The Papal Schism was renewed.

To complete the apparent defeat of the papacy, Charles VII of France convened an assembly of French prelates, nobles, and lawyers, which proclaimed the superior authority of general councils and issued the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438): ecclesiastical offices were henceforth to be filled through election by the local clergy, but the king might make “recommendations”; appeals to the papal Curia were forbidden except after exhausting all judicial avenues in France; and annates were no longer to be sent to the pope. In effect the Sanction established an independent Gallican Church and made the king its master. A year later a diet at Mainz adopted resolutions aiming at a similar national church in Germany. Bohemia had already separated itself from the papacy. The whole edifice of the Roman Church seemed about to collapse.

Eugenius was rescued by the Turks. As the Ottomans came ever nearer to Constantinople, the Byzantine government decided that the Greek capital was worth a Roman Mass, and that a reunion of Greek with Latin Christianity was an indispensable prelude to winning military or financial aid from the West. Greek prelates and nobles came in picturesque panoply to Ferrara, then to Florence, to meet the Roman hierarchy summoned by the Pope (1438). After a year of argument an accord was reached that recognized the authority of the Roman pontiff over all Christendom; and on July 6, 1439, all the members of the conference, with the Greek emperor at their head, bent the knee before that same Eugenius who had seemed, so recently, the most despised and rejected of men. The concord was brief, for the Greek clergy and people repudiated it; but it restored the prestige of the papacy, and helped to bring the new schism, and the Council of Basel, to an end.

A succession of strong popes, enriched and exalted by the Italian Renaissance, now raised the papacy to such splendor as it had not known even in the proud days of Innocent III. Nicholas V earned the admiration of the humanists by devoting Church revenues to the patronage of scholarship and art. Calixtus III established that genial custom of nepotism—giving offices to relatives—which became a pillar of corruption in the Church. Pius II, brilliant as author and barren as pope, struggled to reform the Curia and the monasteries. He appointed a commission of prelates reputed for integrity and piety to study the shortcomings of the Church, and to this commission he made a frank confession:

Two things are particularly near my heart: the war with the Turks and the reform of the Roman court. The amendment of the whole state of ecclesiastical affairs, which I have determined to undertake, depends upon this court as its model. I purpose to begin by improving the morals of ecclesiastics here, and banishing all simony and other abuses.14

The committee made laudable recommendations, and Pius embodied them in a bull. But hardly anybody in Rome wanted reform; every second functionary or dignitary there profited from some form of venality. Apathy and passive resistance defeated Pius, while the abortive crusade that he undertook against the Turks absorbed his energy and his funds. Toward the end of his pontificate he addressed a final appeal to the cardinals:

People say that we live for pleasure, accumulate wealth, bear ourselves arrogantly, ride on fat mules and handsome palfrevs .... keep hounds for the chase, spend much on actors and parasites and nothing in defense of the faith. And there is some truth in their words: many among the cardinals and other officials of our court do lead this kind of life. If the truth be confessed, the luxury and pomp of our court is too great. And this is why we are so detested by the people that they will not listen to us, even when we say what is just and reasonable. What do you think is to be done in such a shameful state of things?... We must inquire by what means our predecessors won authority and consideration for the Church.... We must maintain that authority by the same means. Temperance, chastity, innocence, zeal for the faith... contempt of earth, the desire for martyrdom exalted the Roman Church, and made her the mistress of the world.15

Despite the labors of popes like Nicholas V and Pius II, and of sincere and accomplished ecclesiastics like Cardinals Giuliano Cesarini and Nicholas of Cusa, the faults of the papal court mounted as the fifteenth century neared its end.16 Paul II wore a papal tiara that outweighed a palace in its worth. Sixtus IV made his nephew a millionaire, entered avidly into the game of politics, blessed the cannon that fought his battles, and financed his wars by selling church offices to the highest bidders. Innocent VIII celebrated in the Vatican the marriages of his children. Alexander VI, like Luther and Calvin, thought clerical celibacy a mistake, and begot five or more children before subsiding into reasonable continence as a pope. His gay virility did not stick so sharply in the gullet of the time as we might suppose; a certain clandestine amorousness was then accepted as usual in the clergy; what offended Europe was that Alexander’s unscrupulous diplomacy, and the ruthless generalship of his son Caesar Borgia, rewon the Papal States for the papacy and added needed revenues and strength to the Apostolic See. In these policies and campaigns the Borgias used all those methods of stratagem and death which were soon to be formulated in Machiavelli’s Prince (1513) as indispensable to founding a powerful state or a united Italy. Pope Julius II out-Caesared Borgia in waging war against rapacious Venice and the invading French; he escaped whenever he could from the prison of the Vatican, led his army in person, and relished the rough life and speech of martial camps. Europe was shocked to see the papacy not only secularized but militarized; yet it could hardly withhold some admiration from a mighty warrior miscast as a pope; and some word went over the Alps about the services of Julius to art in his discriminating patronage of Raphael and Michelangelo. It was Julius who began the building of the new St. Peter’s, and first granted indulgences to those who contributed to its cost. It was in his pontificate that Luther came to Rome and saw for himself that “sink of iniquity” which had been Lorenzo de’ Medici’s name for the capital of Christendom. No ruler in Europe could any longer think of the papacy as a moral supergovernment binding all the nations into a Christian commonwealth; the papacy itself, as a secular state, had become nationalistic; all Europe, as the old faith waned, fell into national fragments acknowledging no supernational or international moral law, and doomed to five centuries of interchristian wars.

To judge these Renaissance popes fairly we must see them against the background of their time. Northern Europe could feel their faults, since it financed them; but only those who knew the exuberant Italy of the period between Nicholas V (1447–55) and Leo X (1513–21) could view them with understanding lenience. Though several of them were personally pious, most of them accepted the Renaissance conviction that the world, while still for so many a vale of tears and devilish snares, could also be a scene of beauty, intense living, and fleeting happiness; it did not seem scandalous to them that they enjoyed life and the papacy.

They had their virtues. They labored to redeem Rome from the ugliness and squalor into which it had fallen while the popes were at Avignon. They drained marshes (by comfortable proxy), paved streets, restored bridges and roads, improved the water supply, established the Vatican Library and the Capitoline Museum, enlarged the hospitals, distributed charity, built or repaired churches, embellished the city with palaces and gardens, reorganized the University of Rome, supported the humanists in resurrecting pagan literature, philosophy, and art, and gave employment to painters, sculptors, and architects whose works are now a treasured heritage of all mankind. They squandered millions; they used millions constructively. They spent too much on the new St. Peter’s, but hardly more in proportion than the kings of France would spend on Fontainebleau and Versailles and the châteaux of the Loire; and perhaps they thought of it as transforming scattered crumbs of evanescent wealth into a lasting splendor for the people and their God. Most of these popes in private lived simply, some (like Alexander VI) abstemiously, and resigned themselves to pomp and luxury only as required by public taste and discipline. They raised the papacy, which had so lately been scorned and destitute, to an impressive majesty of power.

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