Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Speaking of the papacy...


I've been reading a biography of Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford. Any biography of Lucrezia is by force also a biography of her father Rodrigo Borgia and her brother Cesare, both of who may or may not have had incestuous relations with Lucrezia. Rodrigo satisfied a lifelong ambition by becoming Pope Alexander VI, in 1492. He was (according to popular reports, including those of his enemies) avaricious, unscrupulous, murderous, power-mad, and licentious. During his papacy, the Vatican was reportedly a hotbed of plots, poison and prostitution. Bradford gives the reports credence.

True or not, a far cry from the present pope, Francis, who took his name not from a conquering hero, but from the humble saint of Assisi. By all accounts, he has given up he sable robes, red shoes, and Renaissance apartments. We can safely assume the poison and prostitutes, nepotism and simony, are gone too.

But other than the new pope's habits of humility, not much else has changed. The theology on offer is pretty much the same as in Alexander's time. When Alexander died, in 1503, twenty-five-year-old Copernicus was studying in Lucrezia's city of Ferrara, after periods in Bologna, Padua and Rome. The Scientific Revolution was in the air. Tradition and revelation would soon give way to empiricism as the royal road to truth. Since then, we have had six hundred years of scientific discovery, yet the Church clings to a magical view of the world that was already hoary in Alexander's time.

It is inconceivable that a Borgia could be elevated to the papacy today. Pope Francis personally eschews the pomp of the Renaissance Vatican, and for that he is much to be admired. It remains to be seen if he will sweep away even a bit of the pre-scientific myth and magic. Perhaps with the myth and magic gone there would be nothing left to support the pomp.