Atoning for the sins of our Fathers

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The election of Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the 266th Pope on March 13 was greeted as somewhat of a surprise from Church watchers as well as from lay followers of the Church, as he was the first pope from Latin America. Assuming the name of Pope Francis to emphasize his humble origin and his allegiance to the poor, the new pope has shown that he is willing to undertake the difficult challenge of reforming the Catholic Church, which is the largest organization with the membership of 1.2 billion people worldwide. It is a daunting task, considering that the Church of Rome is run by an inflexible—and corrupt, as it is often accused to be—bureaucracy. Moreover, while the Pope is supposed to be the champion of Christian faith and values, those who occupy the seat have not always been the kinds of individuals we would look up as model Christians. As a matter of fact, among Pope Francis’ predecessors are the Popes who have committed all kinds of sins that will shame anyone, Christian or not.

The Church of Rome as a powerful institution had its beginning in 313, when Constantine the Great gave a document known as the Edict of Constantine to Sylvester I (pope: 314-45), granting him and his successors at the Roman See spiritual superiority over other religions as well as temporal dominion over Rome and the entire Western empire. This is the origin of the official title of the Pope as the “bishop of Rome, vicar of Jesus Christ, successor of St. Peter, prince of the apostles, supreme pontiff of the universal church, patriarch of the West, primate of Italy, archbishop and metropolitan of the Roman province, sovereign of the state of Vatican city”. The document turned out to be a fake, but the forgery was not revealed until the 15th century. By that time—in fact, by the end of the tenth century—the authority of the Church, known as the Papal Infallibility, was firmly established in the Western world.

We had to wait until the Reformation in the 16th century before the Papal Infallibility came to be seriously challenged by Martin Luther (1483-1546). Besides the theological issue concerning salvation, Luther did not like the idea of Papal Infallibility in view of all the atrocities and corruptions being perpetuated by the Church, like military campaigns and the selling of “indulgences”. He also saw the Church as exploiting its status as an international banking house by supporting a small number of artists. Then, there was a series of outrageous and shameful popes who were simply unfit to occupy the seat. Pius II (pope: 1458-64) made a journey to Scotland, to the court of James V, and had a stillborn baby with a Scottish girl. He set an example for later popes by making one of his nephews a Cardinal. Sixtus IV (pope: 1471-84) built the Sistine Chapel, but made seven of his nephews Cardinals, one of whom would become a Pope, Julius II. He is also known to have dispatched, though failed, an assassin to kill Lorenzo Medici. Alexander VI (pope: 1492-1503), the father of Caesar Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia, is known to have fathered three more children after becoming Pope. He was often seen in public with his mistress. Julius II (pope: 1503-13), who followed Alexander VI, was the first to employ Michelangelo and Raphael. He brought in Swiss guards for the Vatican whose uniform was designed by Michelangelo. Since Julius II spent so much time in military campaigns to expand papacy, he was known as the war pope, and was made an object of satire by Erasmus (1466-1536) in his Julius Excluded. Clement VII (pope: 1523-34), who was an illegitimate son of a Medici, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment.

In addition to the outrageous and shameful Popes who occupied the seat of the supreme pontiff of the universal church, the most important challenge facing the Church of Rome today would be how to reconcile the Christian views of the world, which have been made clear over the centuries to be untenable by the development and acceptance of the scientific views of the world. As a matter of fact, the Church of Rome has not had good relationships with scientists, not only negating their findings but also threatening them, in some cases, with its power of excommunication, even torture. The case involving Galileo (1564-1642) is probably the best known among the mistreatment of scientists by the Church of Rome.

Galileo’s trouble with the Church started in 1610 when he published a book titled Sidereus Nuncius in which he reported his discovery of the four satellites of Jupiter. The discovery was enough to convince Galileo that Copernicus (1473-1543) was right, and Galileo went on to advocate the Copernican view in public. In response, the Church of Rome called Galileo to come to Rome, sending him a letter prohibiting the Copernican view to be held, let alone preached. In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was regarded as an intellectual, was elected Pope and took upon the title of Pope Urban VIII (pope: 1623-44). Galileo went to Rome in 1624 and had long talks with Urban VIII, hoping that the prohibition to advocate the Copernican view would be lifted by this enlightened Pope. But the Pope was not ready to compromise the Church’s position and insisted that nobody be allowed to question the divine power and wisdom of the Church. When, in 1632, Galileo published his book, The Dialogue on the Great World Systems, Urban VIII was outraged and ordered Galileo to appear before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The trial itself began in 1633 with ten judges presiding, of which one was the Pope’s brother and another his nephew. At the end of the trial, the verdict was reached to order Galileo to retract his view, showing him the instruments of torture if they had to be used. However, the threat of torture was enough for Galileo to accept the verdict. Galileo signed the formal statement retracting his Copernican view. Galileo was confined for the rest of his life in his villa in Arcetri outside of Florence under strict house arrest until his death in 1642. Galileo was vindicated, belatedly in 1992, when Pope John Paul II (pope: 1978-2005) acknowledged the injustice the Church inflicted on him, with words of apology.

Needless to say, it takes more than an act of atonement by a single conscientious pope to rectify the injustices committed by his predecessors and ease the tension, even antagonism, between the Church of Rome and the scientific community. While he was not subject to persecution by the Church of Rome, Charles Darwin (1809-82) was another scientist whose view of the world came into conflict with that of the Church. The conflict has, in fact, escalated into an open confrontation between “evolutionists” and “creationists” regarding how the subject of evolution ought to be taught in American schools.

Except to those die-hard fundamentalist Christians, it is clear that the Church can no longer contend with modern cosmology and biology regarding such issues as the origin, and the evolution, of the universe and all the creatures in it. What should the Church of Rome do, then? The only way it can maintain its relevance as an institution in the twenty-first century would be to limit itself to its role as the defender of the original teaching of Jesus as a paradigmatic figure in the history of thought, which is what the new Pope seems to be suggesting to do with his words and acts since his election. There is no question that Jesus, the son of Mary, was an exceptional human being with an exceptional insight into human nature. Indeed, Jesus’ message about the importance of cultivating the purity of our heart, in stead of accumulating material wealth in the world, if we are to find our way into the kingdom of heaven that lies within us is as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered by him.