The Church might have sustained the supernatural sanctions provided by the Hebraic Scriptures and the Christian tradition, if her personnel had led lives of decency and devotion. But most of them accepted the bad as well as the good in the morals of the time, and reflected the antithetical facets of the laity. The parish priest was a simple ministrant, usually of slight education, but normally (pace the good Antonino) leading an exemplary life;4 ignored by the intelligentsia but welcomed by the people. Among the bishops and abbots there were some high livers, but many good men; and perhaps half the college of cardinals maintained a pious and Christian conduct that shamed the gay worldliness of their colleagues.5 All over Italy there were hospitals, orphan asylums, schools, almshouses, monti di pietà (loan offices), and other charitable institutions managed by the clergy. The Benedictine, Observantine, and Carthusian monks were honored for the relatively high moral level of their lives. Missionaries faced a thousand dangers to spread the faith in “heathen” lands and among the pagans of Christendom. Mystics hid themselves away from the violence of the times, and sought closer communion with God.
Amid this devotion there was so much laxity of morals among the clergy that a thousand testimonies could be adduced to prove it. The same Petrarch who remained faithful to Christianity to the end, and who drew a favorable picture of discipline and piety in the Carthusian monastery where his brother lived, repeatedly denounced the morals of the clergy in Avignon. From the novelle of Boccaccio in the fourteenth century, through those of Masuccio in the fifteenth, to those of Bandello in the sixteenth, the loose lives of the Italian clergy form a recurrent theme of Italian literature. Boccaccio speaks of “the lewd and filthy life of the clergy,” in sins “natural or sodomitical.”6 Masuccio described the monks and friars as “ministers of Satan,” addicted to fornication, homosexualism, avarice, simony, and impiety, and professed to have found a higher moral level in the army than in the clergy.7 Aretino, familiar with all filth, railed at the errors of printers as rivaling in number the sins of the clergy; “truly it would be easier to find Rome sober and chaste than a correct book.”8 Poggio almost exhausts his vocabulary of vituperation in exposing the immorality, hypocrisy, cupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of monks and priests;9 and Folengo’s Orlandino tells the same tale. Apparently the nuns, who today are angels and ministers of grace, shared in the revelry. They were especially lively in Venice, where monasteries and nunneries were sufficiently close to each other to allow their inmates, now and then, to share a bed; the archives of the Proveditori sopra monasteri contain twenty volumes of trials for the cohabitation of monks and nuns.10 Aretino speaks unquotably about the nuns of Venice.11 And Guicciardini, usually temperate, loses his poise in describing Rome: “Of the Court of Rome it is impossible to speak with sufficient severity, for it is a standing infamy, an example of all that is most vile and shameful in the world.”12
These testimonies seem exaggerated, and may be prejudiced. But hear St. Catherine of Siena:
On whatever side you turn—whether to the secular clergy of priests and bishops, or to the religious orders, or to prelates small or great, old or young,… you see nothing but offenses; and all stink in my nostrils with a stench of mortal sin. Narrow, greedy, and avaricious… they have abandoned the care of souls.… Making a god of their belly, eating and drinking in disorderly feast, they fall thence forthwith into filth, living in lasciviousness… feeding their children with the substance of the poor…. They flee from choir service as from poison.13
Here again we must discount something, since no saint can be trusted to speak of human conduct without indignation. But we may accept the summing up of a candid Catholic historian:
It is not surprising, when the highest ranks of the clergy were in such a state, that among the regular orders and secular priests vice and irregularities of all sorts should have become more and more common. The salt of the earth had lost its savor.… It was such priests as these that gave occasion to the more or less exaggerated descriptions of the clergy by Erasmus and Luther, who visited Rome during the reign of Julius II. But it is a mistake to suppose that the corruption of the clergy was worse in Rome than elsewhere; there is documentary evidence of the immorality of the priests in almost every town in the Italian peninsula. In many places—Venice, for instance—matters were far worse than in Rome. No wonder, as contemporary writers sadly testify, the influence of the clergy had declined, and that in many places hardly any respect was shown for the priesthood. Their immorality was so gross that suggestions in favor of allowing priests to marry began to be heard…. Many of the monasteries were in a deplorable condition. The three essential vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were in some convents almost entirely disregarded…. The discipline of many convents of nuns was equally lax.14
Less forgivable than irregularities of sex and festivities of diet were the activities of the Inquisition. But these remarkably declined in Italy during the fifteenth century. In 1440 Amadeo de’ Landi, a mathematician, was tried on a charge of materialism, but was acquitted. In 1478 Galeotto Marcio was condemned to death for writing that any man who lived a good life would go to heaven whatever his religion might be; but Pope Sixtus IV saved him.16 In 1497 the physician Gabriele da Salò was protected from the Inquisition by his patients, though he maintained that Christ was not God, but was the son of Joseph and Mary, conceived in the usual ridiculous way; that Christ’s body was not in the consecrated wafer; and that His miracles had been performed not by divine power but through the influence of the stars;17 so one myth drives out another. In 1500 Giorgio da Novara was burnt to death at Bologna, apparently for denying the divinity of Christ without having influential friends. In the same year the bishop of Aranda declared with impunity that there is neither heaven nor hell, and that indulgences were merely a means of raising funds.18 In 1510, when Ferdinand the Catholic tried to introduce the Inquisition into Naples, he met with such determined resistance from all classes of the population that he had to abandon the attempt.19
Amid the ecclesiastical decay there were several centers of wholesome reform. Pius II deposed a general of the Dominicans, and disciplined lax monasteries in Venice, Brescia, Florence, and Siena. In 1517 Sadoleto, Giberti, Caraffa, and other churchmen founded the Oratory of the Divine Love as a center for pious men who desired some refuge from the pagan worldliness of Rome. In 1523 Caraffa organized the order of Theatines, in which secular priests lived under monastic rules of chastity, obedience, and poverty. Cardinal Caraffa resigned all his benefices and distributed his property among the poor; so did Saint Gaetano, another founder of the Theatines. These devotees, many of them men of noble lineage and great wealth, astonished Rome by strict adherence to their self-imposed rules, and their fearless visits to victims of the plague. In 1533 Antonio Maria Zacearia established at Milan a similar community of priests, first called the Regular Clerics of St. Paul, but soon to be known as Barnabites from the church of St. Barnabas. Caraffa drew up a helpful program of reform for the clergy of Venice, and Giberti essayed similar reforms in the diocese of Verona (1528–31). Egidio Canisio reformed the Augustinian eremites, and Gregorio Cortese effected a similar betterment among the Benedictines at Padua.
The outstanding effort at monastic reform in this age was the foundation of the Capuchin Order. Matteo di Bassi, a friar of the Franciscan Observantines at Montefalcone, thought that he saw St. Francis in a vision, and that he heard him say: “I wish my rule to be observed to the letter, to the letter, to the letter.” Learning that St. Francis had worn a four-cornered pointed hood, he adopted that headdress. Going to Rome, he secured from Clement VII (1528) permission to establish a new branch of the Franciscans, distinguished by the cappuccio or cowl, and by firm adherance to the final rule of St. Francis. They dressed in the coarsest cloth, went barefoot throughout the year, lived on bread, vegetables, fruit, and water, kept rigorous fasts, dwelt in narrow cells in poor cottages made of wood and loam, and never journeyed except on foot. The new order was not numerous, but it gave a stirring example and stimulus to the more widespread self-reform that came to the monastic and mendicant orders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.20
Some of these reforms were undertaken in response to the Protestant Reformation. Many of them were of spontaneous generation, and indicated a saving vitality in Christianity and the Church.