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Books: Borgias Behaving Badly

March 29, 2011


The scandalous pontificate of Alexander VI represents a nadir of the papacy. Many might prefer that this notorious pope and his family disappear from historical reckoning, but the memory of the Borgias continues to be remarkably persistent.  Showtime will release a dramatic interpretation of Alexander VI and his intrigues this Sunday, April 3rd, testimony to the enduring cultural fascination for Borgias. News of this upcoming series might have stirred some consternation among the Catholic faithful. Alexander VI has been used for centuries as a source for the opposition to the claims of the Church in regards to the papacy. He has become a symbol of the potential abuses of power, particularly within the Church. But he can also be an expression of the Church’s ambivalence about its own culture, a sign that the reality of the Church is not that of a fantasy kingdom where all have been freed from proclivity towards sin, but of a fallen human condition that is often times bound and determined to struggle against Christ’s redemption rather than humbly accept his grace. At times, given the raw facts of the Church’s history, the faithful must walk a razor’s edge between credulity and cynicism. The truth will set us free, but that does not mean that the truth will be all that easy to take. In this regard, Alexander VI is a privileged example.

Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and Their Enemies is not a new book, but it is a helpful distillation of the facts in regards to Alexander VI and his family. Prior to his election to the papacy, Rodrigo Borgia was well known for his rapacious ambition. As the nephew of Pope Calixtus III, he had been named a Cardinal at the age of 25. In addition to his red hat he was in possession of numerous abbeys and dioceses. His qualifications for these offices had little to do with either moral virtue (he kept numerous mistresses, his favored lover being the mother of an unholy trinity of siblings named Cesare, Juan and Lucrezia) or academic accomplishment (his degree in Canon Law had been purchased from the University of Bologna). Rodrigo knew how to work the system to his favor. His numerous ecclesiastical benefices made him a wealthy and powerful man and Cardinal Borgia lived in a manner befitting a prince. But the difference between this Cardinal prince of the Church and the princes of the world was slim to say the least. 

Arguments continue as to precisely how Cardinal Borgia used his wealth and power to engineer his own election as pope after the death of Pope Innocent VIII. However, Alexander VI is included in the “official” roster of the popes, an indication that despite any alleged irregularities, the benefit of the doubt is given to the validity of his election. At its beginning, his pontificate was accepted gladly by many. Innocent VIII had proved to be an incapable administrator, and Alexander’s skill at getting things done did much to impress. However, it quickly became clear that the pope’s personal ambition for himself and his children was a far greater priority than advancing the Kingdom of God. His son Cesare succeeded his father as Archbishop of Valencia and was elevated to the College of Cardinals. Juan was married into Spanish nobility. Lucrezia would be the recipient of more than one arranged marriage, all of which were meant to consolidate the power and wealth of the Borgia family. Of all Alexander’s children, Cesare proved to be the most notorious. It became clear that the Holy Orders did not fit the young man’s temperment, but when one’s father is the pope, the obligations of the clerical state proved as easy to dispense with as Lucrezia’s marriages. With the priesthood set aside, Cesare could realize his own ambitions as a warrior prince. His will to power would be so well achieved that he would earn the praise of no one less than Nicolo Machievelli, becoming the paradigmatic expression of “The Prince.”

In addition to all of this, there were the intrigues- sex and violence were weapons in the hands of Alexander and his family, and these weapons were used to devastating effect. Alexander would not spare his son Juan when he clearly became an obstacle to the family’s ambitions. One of Lucrezia’s husbands would suffer the same fate as well. 

All this raises the question: what was Alexander thinking that being the pope was all about? In terms of his attitudes and behaviors, Alexander was no different than the kings and princes who ruled at the time. But lest this become an excuse for the Borgias behaving badly, remember, Rodrigo Borgia was not just a king or a prince, he was the pope- the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Peter. By all accounts, Alexander was not an irreligious man. He presided at Mass and the Sacraments, expressed personal devotion to the Mother of God and presented himself as the pope with the firm conviction that his office placed him in a relationship with the Lord that was unique in all the world. And yet, from his actions one wonders about the apparent disconnect between his religious fervor and state of his soul. 

Catholics might be reassured by the conclusions reached after the Donatist controversy, which assured the integrity of the Sacraments despite the moral character of the minister and cited a distinction between a person and the office that they hold, but it seems that while the fires of hell did not prevail against the Church, Pope Alexander and his family did much to fan the flames.

Alexander died in 1503. Few would mourn him. Cesare’s ambitions would be brought to utter ruin by his father’s death. Lucrezia would die many years later, remembered not as the conniving temptress of popular lore, but as the mother of many children and as a capable and pious duchess. For years, the Borgias richly decorated apartments, the center of one of the most scandalous periods in the Church’s history, would be locked and unused, their magnificent frescos hidden from view. Today, one can visit them in the Vatican Museums. The rooms serve as galleries for the Holy See’s collection of modern art. 

Other than being a persistent thorn in the side of the papacy did this infamous pope leave anything of value behind? Why did Providence permit such a man as Rodrigo Borgia access to the highest office in the Church? If there is a possible answer to this question, perhaps it can be discerned in the life of the pope’s great grandson, a man by the name of St. Francis Borgia.