Hegel considered Dante’s „Commedia“ to be the „true artistic epic of the Christian Catholic Middle Ages”. But 700 years after the poet’s death, it is still controversial how Catholic the man was, who sent several pontiffs to hell. The Inquisition put his political treatise „Monarchia“ on the Index. Secular Italy claimed Dante as its holding. Only since the demise of the Papal States the popes honor him as the finest of all Catholic poets.
During Dante Alighieri’s life (1265-1321) there were fourteen popes. He probably met two of them, and he named nine in the Commedia. Five suffer horrible torments in his vision of eternal justice, four languish in the Purgatory.
Dante may have seen Celestine V in November 1294 as a member of a Florentine delegation. The saintly hermit Pietro da Morrone assumed the highest office at 85 after 27 months of sede vacante. Like so many, Dante hoped he could reform the Church „tam in capite quam in membris“ (in head and limbs). The „Angelic Pope“ took major encouragement from Franciscan spiritual leaders who expected the advent of the age of the Holy Spirit. But Celestine was weak and allowed the Neapolitan king Charles II of Anjou to manipulate him. On December 13, 1294, after only five months, he became the first pope to resign. In the „Commedia,“ he dwells in limbo, because he „did the great renunciation out of pusillanimity“ (Inf. 3, 59-60).
Dante realized that Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, a master in curial intrigues, advised him to give up because he wanted to become pope himself. Celestine fled, was seized on the run and delivered to Boniface VIII, who locked him up. He died in custody in 1296, near the papal residence of Anagni. In 1313 Pope Clement V. canonized him.
In 1300, the year in which Dante’s literary ego rose from the dark forest to the light of divine love, Boniface was still alive, which is why the poet reserved him a place among the Simonists. No sinner among the successors of the apostle Peter did he mention in the „Commedia“ as often as Boniface, and none did he paint in such gloomy colors.
Dante may have conferred with Boniface in October 1301 as a member of a Florentine mission in Rome. He could not return to Florence because the „Neri“, allied with the Pope, had meanwhile seized power and threatened him with death. Dante called Boniface „the prince of the new Pharisees“ (Inf. 27, 85). In the „Commedia“ Peter accuses him of having usurped the office: „He has made of my sepulcher a cesspool, full of blood and stench“ (Par. 27, 25f.). Under him the vineyard is decaying, Bonaventure complains (Par. 12, 87), he has forgotten about the poor. In Dante’s view, Boniface took the moral corruption of the Church, which began with the Donation of Constantine, to extremes. The papacy degenerated into a „whore“.
Dante did not challenge the validity of his election as pontiff, unlike the cardinals of the Colonna family, whose major fortress of Palestrina Boniface destroyed to the ground (Inf. 27, 100). Nor did he see in him, unlike the spiritualists influenced by Joachim of Fiore, the „Antichrist“ whose arrival would herald the dawn of the third age. His criticism was moral. „O good beginning, to what mean end hast thou fallen,“ he has Peter lament. He blames the popes, who would have departed from the path of virtue and betrayed the Church because they were obsessed by „cupiditas“ (greed). As Paul (1 Tim 6:10), Dante considered greed to be the „root of all evils“.
Dante’s gift was twofold, literary and political. Etienne Gilson paid tribute to his „authoritative role in the history of medieval political philosophy.“ Eric Voegelin considered him an even greater theorist than Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Like Niccolò Machiavelli two hundred years later, he gained practical political experience in Florence, rising to be a prior, a member of the highest municipal body. Virgil, his companion through the underworld, introduces him to Cato as one who seeks freedom („libertà va cercando,“ Purg. 1, 71). Dante regarded the sovereignty of Florence threatened above all by the ambition of the popes to annex Tuscany to the Papal States. He expected salvation from Henry VII, whose move across the Alps he welcomed as the dawn of an era of peace. But although cardinals crowned Henry emperor in Rome, he failed to bring Italy under his authority. He died of malaria in Buonconvento in 1313.
During these years, Dante collected the ideas that he would elaborate in his major political work, „Monarchia“, after the death of the emperor. The popes would have forgiven him if he only denounced the sins of their predecessors. But with „Monarchia“ he shook the ideological foundation of the medieval papacy. It was „necessary for every human creature“ to submit to the bishop of Rome, Boniface VIII decreed in his bull „Unam sanctam“ (1302). The one and only church had one body and one head, „not two heads like a freak“, and this head could only be the pope. In his hand were both swords, the spiritual and the temporal.
Unlike Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342), who subordinated the pope and the clergy to secular power (“Defensor pacis”, 1324), Dante argued in the „Monarchia“ with two powers that were likewise established by God. The pope retained the key to the heavenly kingdom, the emperor that to worldly happiness. Since both are subordinate and responsible to God, peace and harmony prevail, provided they do not rebel against their nature and the divine order. Their independence follows from their unity, which in turn strengthens their independence.
Dante’s political theory was profoundly Catholic and subversive at the same time. In 1329, a cardinal burned the „Monarchia“ in Bologna. In 1559, the Inquisition put it on the very first list of banned books, along with the works of Boccaccio and Machiavelli. It was not until three centuries later that they removed it from the index at the demand of Pope Leo XIII (1878 to 1903). Highly cultured, Leo XIII understood how important Dante’s arguments for the separation of spiritual and temporal power were to a Church in need to rethink its relations with the state. The end of the Papal States closed a long chapter in history, and what Dante foresaw had come to pass. In 1887, Leo XIII established the first Italian Dante Chair at the papal Istituto Leoniano. He stood by the Catholic Dante against the Dante of the secular-nationalist culture of the new Italian state.
Since then, all popes referred to the poet. Benedict XV (1914-1922) even dedicated an encyclical to him on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of his death („In praeclara summorum,“ 1921). The Church was a mother to him and had every reason to call him „her Alighieri“, the pope stated. And can we refute that in his life many things happened that could be rebuked to the clergy, and that sickened a soul as devoted to the Church as Dante’s?
On the eve of the solemn conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, on December 7, 1965, Paul VI published the apostolic exhortation „Altissimi cantus,“ which echoed the eulogies of Leo XIII and Benedict XV. He gave the Council Fathers a copy of the „Commedia“ as a parting gift, encouraging them with the words „Dante is ours!“
On May 17, 2003, when John Paul II accepted an honorary doctorate from the Sapienza University in Rome, founded by Boniface VIII in 1303, he quoted from Inf. 26, 199-120: „Fatti non foste a viver come bruti / Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza“ – „You are not created to live like animals, but for right deeds and knowledge“.