We here take a quick look at the moral questions raised by Pope Julius II’s outrageous conduct.

Show Notes

We have seen that Julius II was hugely important for the flourishing of art in the Roman Renaissance. He commissioned the Funeral Monument with the Moses statue that stands in San Pietro in Vincoli, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the famous frescoes by Raphael in the Vatican, including The School of Athens. He also began the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica. I’d like to use this Mini Pod to suggest that his career can also help us to raise some good questions.

Castle of Julius II Ostia Antica (Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0)

I had just left the United States for the first time in my life and arrived in Rome. It was 1988, and faculty and students of the University of Dallas Rome Program were going to visit Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome. The Director of the Program asked me if I would say a few words about Julius II, for he built a fort at that location, which is very much worth a visit. The request was perfectly reasonable, except that I knew absolutely nothing about him and very little about the papacy as an institution; and this was before the internet and before the university built the library its beautiful Rome Campus has now.

I went ahead as best I could and prepared a few words based largely on a short book generally thought to have been written by the humanist scholar and friend of Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam. The book is called, Julius Excluded from Heaven, and it is a satirical dialogue in which the pope tries to force and finagle his way past St. Peter and pass through the pearly gates to enjoy a life of eternal bliss in heaven. He tries bribes, military force, and excommunication, and, when cross examined, he offers poor defenses of his many sins, some sexual, others involving corrupt ways of raising money, and others entailing violence. St. Peter stands his ground, and the pope is repulsed.

So my remarks were a summary of the argument that Julius was a bad pope, for he failed to live up to the high moral standards of the Church he purported to serve. As soon as I finished, a priest in the group stood up and demanded to offer a rebuttal. I must have turned bright red, and my embarrassment grew as I came to see he had a point.

The point he had was to explain Julius’s political actions in their context. Julius was a king as well as a pope, and his domain was falling apart. To keep it intact, he personally led troops against Perugia and Bologna and joined an alliance to keep Venice in check. The Church might be a spiritual institution, but if it were led by men whose only virtue was moral purity, it would not be able to defend itself against the political and military threats it faced during the Renaissance and much of its life. I had not even considered this argument, much less refuted it, so the group was treated to the ironic spectacle of seeing a priest make an amoral argument to get the better of a young professor of politics.

This was over three decades ago, and I don’t remember the details, but I suspect I was confident I could attack Julius on moral grounds in part because my audience of students mostly accepted them. Not only was Julius not a good Christian, he also was immoral in ways even most non-Christians would find outrageous. He sold indulgences, which preyed on the credulity of simple people with limited resources, even more than the lottery does. He practiced simony, which is the practice of giving important jobs to people who pay to get them, and who then use these jobs to enrich themselves. I’m not embarrassed that I emphasized the gulf between Julius and morality as we generally conceive it, but I should have looked more closely into the pressures Julius faced. He certainly knew that his actions did not meet the standards of Christian or ordinary moral views, but he would have said that the circumstances he faced did not allow him to rule in an upright manner. This might be a mere rationalization, but it’s impossible to prove wrong unless we first take it seriously.

The general difficulty is similar to that of the common condemnation of Ancient Rome for having acquired a vast empire. It’s most easily done if we do it on general terms, like this: Empire is bad. Rome had an empire. Thus Rome was bad. This simple syllogism saves us the challenge of wondering why Rome had an empire, and what the world would have been like if it had never come into being. Haste in condemning the past can be satisfying, as my condemnation of Julius was for a moment, but it makes it impossible to learn from it.

It turns out that there is another way I might have found fault with Julius. I made a moral argument against him, but I could have accepted the amoral position of my critic and still claimed that Julius did not follow it closely enough. This is precisely what Machiavelli does. In his revolutionary little book, The Prince, Machiavelli refers to Pope Julius seven times and praises him for several instances of good political judgment, but in his very last reference, in chapter 25, he charges that Julius always acted with the same impetuosity, not with the deepest understanding of the circumstances. In the end, notwithstanding his conquest of Perugia and Bologna, and his celebrations of these great achievements—including having Michelangelo cast that huge bronze statue of him—Machiavelli argues that Julius’s successes did not rest on solid foundations.  He acted impetuously, not prudently, and while impetuosity sometimes pays off, it sometimes costs you everything. According to Machiavelli, if Julius had lived longer, his impetuosity would have gotten him into trouble.

So however this may be, I was wrong to condemn Pope Julius without at least considering the circumstances in which he found himself, whether or not they would have justified his actions. My mistake raises two big questions. One is whether we have the right to condemn the past. We are born and bred to think we know what is right and wrong, but perhaps the study of history only becomes useful if we allow it to test our convictions and not just show them. The other question, closely related, is how far we should go down the road of saying that political necessity excuses everything done prudently in its behalf.

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