Savonarola vs. Alexander VI
An historical precedent
The fact that public heresy is absolutely incompatible with holding office in the Catholic Church has been argued elsewhere by this author. In fact, it is the constant tradition of Holy Church, taught explicitly by numerous popes, Doctors, theologians, saints, and accepted by General Councils. It is also expressly legislated in the Code of Canon Law, in the section on resignations. Canon 188, section 4 states that he who publicly defects from the faith resigns his office by the very fact, and this resignation is accepted by operation of law without the need for any declaration.
We should, therefore, expect to find evidence in history of its application to concrete cases. In fact, we find a number. The case of Savonarola and others versus Alexander VI is one such precedent. Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Fifteenth-Century Dominican, famous for his zeal for the salvation of souls, and for his opposition to the gross immorality of many of the members of both the clergy and laity of his time. He was also a very competent theologian and philosopher, referred to by many as brilliant. Unfortunately for him, his preaching against vice was too effective for the comfort of many in positions of authority in Holy Church, and he came into open conflict not only with members of the Roman Curia, but with Pope Alexander VI. Alexander VI, a Borgia, generally competes with one or two others for the title of "Most Immoral Pope" in Church Histories. Eventually the friar was convicted of heresy in rather confused circumstances, hanged and then burnt. There seems to be no dispute that his death was contrived for political purposes, and that the charges of heresy were unjust. Even the historian Kirsch, whose account in The Catholic Encyclopedia is thoroughly hostile to Savonarola, affirms that he was not a heretic, and notes that the notary falsified the records of the trial.
Savonarola went further than simply accusing the Pope of vice - he accused the Pope of heresy. While it was a commonplace among knowledgeable Catholics that Alexander had purchased the papacy, it was not said so openly that he was actually a heretic in his personal theology. Savonarola not only made this claim in private correspondence with Cardinal della Rovere, but was agitating to have a council called at which he could prove his claim, and have Alexander deposed.
The following is from a life of the Dominican: "Many good and experienced Catholics maintained the opinion that Alexander's election was null and void, having been obtained, as all knew, by simony, and that the only way to put an end to the numerous scandals of which he was the cause, would be to summon a council to depose him. The leader of this party was the pugnacious Cardinal of St. Piero in Vincoli, afterwards Pope Julius II. (Footnote 2 ref. - The footnote reads, in part, as follows : 'Padre Marchese, "Storia di San Marco," p. 225 and fol. : [Latin quotation from Marchese omitted]. The said Cardinal, on being made Pope, issued a Bull (14th of January, 1505) in confirmation of the Lateran Council, declaring Alexander's election null, and incapable of convalidation, even by the subsequent homage of the Cardinals
") [Contrary to Villari's impression, this Bull seems not to have been in confirmation of the Lateran Council, which did not open until 1512, but rather in confirmation of the promise he had made before his election to call a General Council for the reform of the Church. The Lateran Council, when it finally came, was the fulfilment of this promise - hence the wording of the footnote, I presume. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this Bull. It sounds very similar in principle to Cum Ex Apostolatus, which was also issued in the Sixteenth Century, but with the purpose of ensuring a suspected heretic Cardinal was not elected pope at a subsequent conclave. Cum Ex Apostolatus also taught that if a heretic was elected pope the election would be absolutely impossible to convalidate by the subsequent homage of even the entire Church.]
"He [Della Rovere] styled the Borgia [Alexander VI] an infidel and a heretic, and was constantly in waiting on King Charles [of France], doing his utmost to induce him to assemble a council, and achieve the reform of the Church.
The first time the French passed through Rome, no less than eighteen cardinals joined Della Rovere in pressing the King to procure the desired reform." Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola by Professor Pasquale Villari, trans. by Linda Villari - T. Fisher Unwin, London, circa 1910 (my copy is inscribed by hand "1910" on inside cover), pp. 392,393.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Alexander VI mentions Villari as a source, and appears to grant him considerable credibility. The author of the article is Mgr. James Loughlin of Philadelphia. The article on Savonarola, by Mgr. J.P. Kirsch of the University of Fribourg, the celebrated historian, also gives Villari as a source in the bibliography at the end of that article. However it should be noted that Villari reads as a partisan of liberalism, and this is confirmed by his dedication of the work to "Gladstone, Champion of Italian Freedom." Given that this book was written not long after the uniting of Italy under Freemasonic hegemony, one can hardly be sympathetic with this reference! Additionally, it is clear that our hero is loved by Villari chiefly because of his supposed promotion of "democracy" against the "tyranny" of the Medici. A more obvious theme for a Freemason could hardly be devised.
At any rate, Villari doesn't hesitate to mention that della Rovere "styled the Borgia an infidel and a heretic", which of course is the only ground upon which a Catholic could expect to see a properly elected pope "deposed." Undoubtedly the future Pope Julius II knew this. The Catholic Encyclopedia, on the other hand, omits mention of heresy, preferring to mention only the question of simony in the election (another possible cause of invalidation, but not the only one at issue). From other sources, however, we know that Villari's account is correct. Savonarola and the cardinals were seeking to overthrow Alexander VI on account of the latter's heresy, and Savonarola made the point in correspondence to della Rovere and to various Catholic Princes that if they could only achieve the gathering of a council for the judgement of Alexander, then he (Savonarola) would prove the pope's heresy publicly.
Cardinal Journet, in his The Church Of The Word Incarnate (Vol. 1, p. 484, trans. A. H. C. Downes, Sheed & Ward 1955) offers the following information about these letters of Savonarola: 'In a study in the "Revue Thomiste" (1900, p. 631, "Lettres de Savonarole aux princes chretiens pour la reunion d'un concile"), P. Hurtaud, O.P., has entered a powerful plea in the case - still open - of the "Piagnoni". He makes reference to the explanation of Roman theologians prior to Cajetan, according to which a Pope who fell into heresy would be deposed "ipso facto": the Council concerned would have only to put on record the fact of heresy and notify the Church that the Pope involved had forfeited his primacy. Savonarola, he says, regarded Alexander VI as having lost his faith. "The Lord, moved to anger by this intolerable corruption, has, for some time past, allowed the Church to be without a pastor. For I bear witness in the name of God that this Alexander VI is in no way Pope and cannot be. For quite apart from the execrable crime of simony, by which he got possession of the [papal] tiara through a sacrilegious bargaining, and by which every day he puts up to auction and knocks down to the highest bidder ecclesiastical benefices, and quite apart from his other vices - well-known to all - which I will pass over in silence, this I declare in the first place and affirm it with all certitude, that the man is not a Christian, he does not even believe any longer that there is a God; he goes beyond the final limits of infidelity and impiety" (Letter to the Emperor). [Footnote : These were neither new nor isolated accusations. cf. Schnitzer, "Savonarola", Italian translation by E. Rutili, Milan, 1931, vol. ii, p. 303.]
'Basing our argument on the doctrinal authorities which Cajetan was soon to invoke, we should say that Savonarola wished to collect together the Council, not because, like the Gallicans, he placed a Council above the Pope (the Letters to the Princes are legally and doctrinally unimpeachable), but so that the Council, before which he would prove his accusation, should declare the heresy of Alexander VI in his status as a private individual. P. Hurtaud concludes: "Savonarola's acts and words - and most of his words are acts - should be examined in detail. Each of his words should be carefully weighed and none of the circumstances of his actions should be lost sight of. For the friar is a master of doctrine; he does not only know it but he lives it too. In his conduct nothing is left to chance or the mood of the moment. He has a theological or legal principle as the motive power in each one of his decisions. He should not be judged by general laws, for his guides are principles of an exceptional order - though I do not mean by this that he placed himself above or outside the common law. The rules he invokes are admitted by the best Doctors of the Church; there is nothing exceptional in them save the circumstances which make them lawful, and condition their application."'
From The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), Vol. 1, p. 291, Alexander VI, Pope, we have the following : "The policy of Alexander was dictated not only by a laudable desire to maintain the peace of Italy, but also because he was aware that a strong faction of his cardinals, with the resolute della Rovere at their head, was promoting the invasion of Charles as a means towards deposing him on the twofold charge of simony and immorality. In September, 1494, the French crossed the Alps; on the last day of that year they made their entry into Rome, needing no other weapon in their march through the peninsula, as Alexander wittily remarked (Commines vii, 15), than the chalk with which they marked out the lodgings of the troops. The barons of the Pope deserted him one after the other. Colonna and Savelli were traitors from the beginning, but he felt most keenly the defection of Virginio Orsini, the commander of his army. Many a saintlier pope than Alexander VI would have made the fatal mistake of yielding to brute force and surrendering unconditionally to the conqueror of Italy; the most heroic of the popes could not have sustained the stability of the Holy See at this crucial moment with greater firmness. From the crumbling ramparts of St. Angelo, the defences of which were still incomplete, he looked calmly into the mouth of the French cannon; with equal intrepidity he faced the cabal of della Rovere's cardinals, clamorous for his deposition. At the end of a fortnight it was Charles who capitulated. He acknowledged Alexander as true Pope, greatly to the disgust of della Rovere, and "did his filial obedience", says Commines, "with all imaginable humility"; but he could not extort from the Pontiff an acknowledgment of his claims to Naples."
What does this tell us? Firstly, it demonstrates the fact that cardinals, including a future pope, were not afraid to try and unseat a pope, on the grounds of heresy and/or simony. Secondly, there is no suggestion by later authors (that I'm aware of) that this was unCatholic behaviour. Thirdly, della Rovere himself, after his accession to the Chair of Peter, confirmed the principle upon which he had acted as a cardinal, by the most solemn document a pope can issue - a bull. Fourthly, even in the period when Holy Church was at her most vulnerable, suffering from terrible levels of immorality among the clergy and laity, heresy was considered so serious that it constituted grounds upon which even a pope could be judged. This is in accordance with the teaching of the great Thirteenth Century pontiff, Innocent III, as expressed in a sermon as follows: "The faith is necessary for me to such an extent that, having God as my only judge in all other sins, I could however be judged by the Church for the sins which I might commit in matters of faith." Finally, it needs to be emphasised that Savonarola is singularly famous for the very fact that he wished to bring about the deposition of Alexander VI, and yet numerous popes and saints have been devoted to him. The Apostle of Rome Saint Philip Neri, for example, used to pray to Savonarola, and attributed miracles to his intercession. It is difficult, nay impossible, to imagine that so many saints and popes could have praised a man who was famous for being wrong, and in so grave a matter!
While it is true that Alexander never ceased to be pope, and it would be at least rash to assert otherwise, this is not necessarily because he was not a heretic, as some authors maintain. To understand what actually happened a little more theology is necessary. Heresy can be either internal or external. That is, one may doubt or deny a dogma merely internally, without expressing it, or one may announce one's heresy to others. While some authors maintain that all heresy makes one a non-Catholic, the common opinion is that only externally manifested heresy causes the loss of membership in Holy Church. And it is the loss of membership in Holy Church which is responsible for the automatic loss of offices in the case of manifest heretics. In addition to this, there is another distinction drawn by theologians, between "manifest" and "public." The common opinion is that only "public" heresy actually deprives one of the status of Catholic; "manifest" is a term which may apply to a case in which somebody admits their heresy privately, to one or two discreet individuals. Evidently, in a perfect and visible society, offices cannot be said to be lost by merely manifest heresy, if "manifest" is to be understood in this way. [Note : different authors use these terms in different ways - our concern is with the meaning, not the terms.] Heresy, for it to deprive a person of membership in Holy Church, and consequently any offices they hold, must be "public." For the sake of completeness, it is worth mentioning that "notorious" is again distinct from "public." "Public" facts are known, or capable of being known, to many. "Notorious" describes things which are actually known, or could be easily known, by all.
Applying these considerations to the case at issue, then: we see that indeed Alexander VI could well have been a heretic internally, and that he may have manifested this to a select number of persons, and that this could have been brought to the notice of Savonarola. There is no doubt that some doctrinal failure came to Savonarola's notice. But for Alexander to lose the papacy he would have to cease being a Catholic, and this is why Savonarola was agitating for a council to be called at which he could make his case. Once the case was made publicly, then Alexander would cease to be a Catholic and thus pope. In other words, Savonarola was most certainly right in his theology; and he was possibly right in his assertion that Alexander was a heretic. There seem to be absolutely no grounds for asserting that Savonarola was actually wrong in any way at all, unless we count excessive zeal for the honour of Christ's Church as an error.
Would that more suffered from this fault! The greatest tragedy of our era, and the most obvious cause of the further tragedies, is the failure of the clergy to act at the great moments of crisis in 1958 (when Roncalli emerged "victorious" from the conclave) and again in 1965 (when Vatican II was "promulgated" by Montini). Another great opportunity for action occurred in 1969 with the appearance of the Abomination of Desolation itself, the New "Mass." It was the express command of the Blessed Virgin that the third part of the Secret of Fatima be revealed by 1960, at the latest. In 1957 Sister Lucy confided to Father Fuentes, "The Most Holy Virgin has told me that the devil is about to engage in a decisive battle against the Virgin ... and that he knows what most offends God, and what will make him gain the most souls in the shortest possible time. He does everything to gain souls consecrated to God, for in this manner, he will succeed in leaving the souls of the faithful abandoned by their leaders, thereby the more easily will he seize them."
History knows no examples of such almost unanimous negligence, weakness, and faithlessness as that presented by the clergy of our age. Faced with somebody (Alexander VI) who was but a pale reflection in evil-mindedness of the servants of Satan who have despoiled the See of Peter in recent decades, no fewer than eighteen cardinals rose to the cause of defending Holy Church. And during the depths of the Arian crisis, the Roman clergy deposed Pope Liberius on the basis that he had compromised with the Arians, even though it was clear that he was not actually one of them. Where were men such as these when the Immaculate Spouse of Christ needed them to come to her defence in 1958?
And more importantly, where are they now?
December 13th 1998
Gaudete Sunday and Feast of St. Lucy
Revised December 22nd 1998
Feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini