In 1984 — the year not the book, but it was fitting — and five years before she died, Barbara Tuchman published a book called The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. In one part of the book she looked at the destructive work of a series of a half-dozen popes, work destructive of the papacy, work that brought into being the protestant secession from the Catholic church. This was offered as an example of folly, of rulers acting against the interest of their own institution. It was also an example of what we so casually label “the imperial presidency.” That is, in these popes we watched the mad and cumulative concentration of power and normalization of abuses that Tuchman almost certainly was aware she was living through again — along with the debasement of an institution previously imagined to embody certain principles and integrity.
Does history repeat itself?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Sixtus IV, Pope from 1471 to 1484 / Richard Nixon, President 1969-1974
“Sixtus introduced the period of unabashed, unconcealed, relentless pursuit of personal gain and power politics. . . . Antagonism slowly gathered around Sixtus. . . . [H]e exhibited the worst qualities of the Renaissance prince in his feuds and machinations, conducting wars on Venice and Ferrara. . . . The most scandalous of his dealings was involvement in and possible instigation of the Pazzi plot to murder the Medici brothers. . . . The internal health of the Church did not interest Sixtus.”
Innocent VII, Pope from 1484 to 1492 / Jimmy Carter, President 1977-1981
“Amiable, indecisive, subject to stronger-minded associates, Sixtus’ successor was a contrast to him in every way except in equally damaging the pontificate, in this case by omission and weakness of character.”
Alexander VI, Pope from 1492 to 1503 / Ronald Reagan, President 1981-1989
“[T]hough cultivated and even charming, he was thoroughly cynical and utterly amoral. . . . To celebrate the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, in 1492, the year of his election, he staged not a Te Deum of thanksgiving but a bullfight in the Piazza of St. Peter’s with five bulls killed. . . . So many had been Alexander’s offenses that his contemporaries’ judgments tend to be extreme, but Burchard, his Master of Ceremonies, was neither antagonist nor apologist. The impression from his toneless diary of Alexander’s Papacy is of continuous violence, murders in churches, bodies in the Tiber, fighting of factions, burnings and lootings, arrests, tortures and executions, combined with scandal, frivolities and continuous ceremony. . . . Certain revisionists have taken a fancy to the Borgia Pope and worked hard to rehabilitate him by intricate arguments . . . . The revision fails to account for one thing: the hatred, disgust and fear that Alexander had engendered.”
Pius III, Pope from 1503 to 1503 / Bush Sr, President 1989-1993
He also happened.
Julius II, Pope from 1503 to 1513 / Bill Clinton, President 1993-2001
“Years of belligerence, conquests, losses, and violent disputes engaged him. . . . Art and war absorbed papal interest and resources to the neglect of internal reform. . . . In reference books he can be found designated as ‘true founder of the Papal State’. . . . That the cost had been to bathe his country in blood and violence and that all the temporal gains could not prevent the authority of the Church from cracking at the core within ten years are not reckoned in these estimates.”
Leo X, Pope from 1513 to 1521 / George W. Bush, President 2001-2009
“‘God has given us the Papacy — Let us enjoy it.’ . . . the new Pope was a hedonist . . . with as little concern for cost as if the source of funds were some self-filling magic cornucopia. The popes’ wars also earned Erasmus’ scorn . . . . ‘As if the Church had any enemies more pestilential than impious pontiffs. . . . The monarchy of the Pope at Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom.’ . . . Machiavelli found proof of decadence in the fact that ‘the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious they are.’ . . . The abuse that precipitated the ultimate break was the commercialization of indulgences. . . . [T]he Pope was unaware of the issues and incapable of understanding the protest that had been developing for the century and a half. . . . Leo hardly noticed the fracas in Germany except as a heresy to be suppressed like any other. . . . Leo left the Papacy and the Church in the ‘lowest possible repute.’ . . . . A lampoon suggested that if the Pope had lived longer, he would have sold Rome too, and then Christ, and then himself.”
Clement VII, Pope from 1523 to 1534 / Barack Obama, President since 2009
“The new Clement’s reign proved to be a pyramid of catastrophes. Protestantism continued its advance. . . . Supreme office, like sudden disaster, often reveals the man, and revealed Clement as less adequate than expected. Knowledgeable and effective as a subordinate, Guicciardini writes, he fell victim when in charge to timidity, perplexity, and habitual irresolution. . . . By 1527, hardly a part of Italy had escaped violence to life and land, plunder, destruction, misery, and famines. Clement’s misjudgments having prepared the way, Rome itself was now to be engulfed by war.”
“The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was the primary folly. . . . When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed, and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement. The succession from Pope to Pope multiplied the harm. Each of the six handed on his conception of the Papacy unchanged. . . . St. Peter’s See was the ultimate pork barrel. Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.”