Sunday, March 31, 2024

This Day in Catholic History (Birth of Pius IV: Compromise Conclave Choice, Arts Patron and Counter-Reformation Pontiff)


Mar. 31, 1499— Gian Angelo Medici, who as Pope Pius IV brought to a successful conclusion a council that would guide Church doctrine and practices for the next four centuries, exerted a moderating influence on policy, and served as a patron of Renaissance artists, was born to an impoverished family in Milan, Italy.

Mark that place of birth—this branch of the Medicis did not partake of the activities of the flamboyant Florentine family who, as mercantile princes, cut a wide swath through Renaissance commerce and the arts. The papacy had three successors to Saint Peter (Leo X, Clement VII, and Leo XI) who came from the latter portion of the clan—and their accomplishments were dubious (the first two) when not minimal (the third).

The obliviousness of Pius’ 16th-century predecessors had left the Church vulnerable to the challenges of Martin Luther and other key figures of the Protestant Reformation. As historian Barbara Tuchman noted in The March of Folly:

“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 a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.”

The history of these popes reminds me at times of Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, complete with tangled family relations, power struggles, revenge, and even violence. It reached a particular depth with the reign of Pius' immediate predecessor, Paul IV, who not only waged war on Spain himself but appointed to high church offices two nephews who (without his knowledge) looted their coffers, engaged in philandering, and even ordered the  assassination of an alleged lover of one of their wives.

In terms of his own background, Gian Angelo Medici might not have seemed a particularly holy man. But by comparison with Paul, he was quite an upgrade. 

His initial instincts led him towards the law, where he excelled, but his brother persuaded him to take up holy orders.

He then worked successively as a governor in the Papal States, Commissioner of the papal military forces in Hungary and Transylvania, and vice–legate to Bologna before being named a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1549.

A decade later, Medici emerged the victor in the conclave called to name Paul IV’s successor. I had always thought that the 1924 Democratic National Convention—the one requiring 104 ballots over 16 days to produce a Presidential nominee—was the most preposterously long contest I’d ever heard of for high office.

But it took four months—once the doors of the Vatican’s Sala Regia were locked— before Medici received the gift of the papacy. 

The College of Cardinals was supposed to be sequestered, but that didn’t stop the French and Spanish factions from furious politicking. With riots following the death of Paul in Rome, considerable money was spent on security measures to keep the population in check.

One of the 47 electors died in this tense period, while two others became ill and had to be taken away. (See Katharine Fellows’s review of Mary Hollingsworth’s Conclave 1559 in the November 2021 issue of History Today for more background on this.)

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that, after Medici emerged as the compromise choice acceptable to the factions and he took the name of Pius IV, he instituted measures to ensure that no such electoral madness occurred again.

As far as popes go, Pius was more pragmatist than zealot. He was no stranger to sins that beset other Renaissance popes, including lack of chastity (three illegitimate children before his election as pope on Christmas Day 1559) and nepotism.

But in the case of the latter defect, it could have been far worse as far as Pius was concerned. If you’re Artie from The Larry Sanders Show or J. B. Biggley of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, you pick a relative manifestly unfit for his duties.

But Pius not only passed over any of his progeny for Church offices, but among the nephews he did favor, one was Carlo (Charles) Borromeo, as remarkable for his administrative ability as for concern for his flock.

In other words, the worldly pontiff selected one of the most important and beloved saints in the 2,000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church. (See my blog post from 15 years ago on how Borromeo—by this time, an archbishop—survived an assassination attempt.)

In addition to charging Borromeo with governing the Papal States, Pius named him Secretary of State, where he supervised the Council of Trent. Though this ecumenical council had been called originally back in 1545, it had only proceeded in stops and starts, and had not convened at all since 1552.

With Pius reconvening members in 1562 and Borromeo working with enormous energy, the third period adjourned in December 1563. By this time, nearly a half century since Luther had challenged Church authority with his 95 Theses, Pius and the council members had given up any hope of bringing the Protestants back into the fold.

However, Pius was able to prevent more members lost to the new European sects by reforming Church practices and governance in some cases while reaffirming fundamental doctrine in others, including through:

*The first catechism for the Church;

*Limiting the practice of indulgences (the abuse that had launched Luther’s original protest) without completely forbidding their use;

*Reaffirming the number of sacraments as seven and salvation coming through faith and good works;

*Formally defining as dogma the concept of purgatory while warning against "unnecessary speculations concerning the nature and duration of purgatorial punishments";

*Rejecting calls that the Church modify its ban on clerical celibacy;

*Defining the relative authority of bishops and the pope.

By leaving implementation of the decrees in the hands of the pope, the council also boosted the primacy of the pope in Church affairs.

The Council of Trent kick-started the Counter-Reformation, resulting in a Catholic Church culture that was more:

*Emotional, often marked by tearful contrition, pathos in depicting martyrdom, and emphasizing the transitory nature of life on tombstones;

*Puritanical, with even Michelangelo’s nude figures on “The Last Judgment” covered with fig leaves (but, as I explained in this prior post, such proscriptions defanged fanatics who, alarmed by "lascivious" and "pagan" subjects proscribed, allowing religious imagery to continue flourishing);

*Mystical, particularly with reference to saints;

*Devotional, including in more frequent reception of the Eucharist.

As with so much of Church history, reform and reaction alternated under the Renaissance popes. In contrast to Paul IV, for instance, Pius avoided harshness and persecution.

Though Queen Elizabeth of England was favoring Protestantism, Pius did not excommunicate her. The worst excesses of the Index of Forbidden Books and the Inquisition were curtailed, though not completely abandoned. He moderated, and in some cases eliminated, restrictions on Jews that had been implemented under Paul. Non-believers could move around more freely than they could under Paul.

Like other Renaissance popes, Pius genuinely believed in the power of art to further the Church’s mission. He gave Michelangelo one of his last commissions: turning a large hall of Diocletian's Baths into the church of S. Maria degli Angeli.

Pius died at age 66 in 1565, serving only five years—less than the seven-year average for pontiffs. But it was long enough to re-energize a Church rocked by tumult and corruption.

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