Volume > Issue > Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Viganò Testimony

Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Viganò Testimony


By Joshua Hren | November 2018
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. A longtime managing editor of Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books, he is the author of a collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico Press), and the forthcoming academic book Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade Books).

One of the surest ways to cover up corruption is to discolor the character and motives of the one who testifies against it. In Dante’s Inferno, we find the following sign affixed to the Gate of Hell: “SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT / I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE / PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.” Considering this passage, Nietzsche quipped that Dante “committed a crude blunder when, with a terror-inspiring ingenuity,” he insisted that love created Hell. Nietzsche contended that “the slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment [resentment] itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge” (On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, 1887). For Nietzsche, Dante’s daring contention that love created Hell perfectly betrays the “fact” that the Christian’s lofty language of love is merely a mask for the seething hatred that stirs his soul.

Spectating Hell, the weak — those who suffered injustice, whose abusers slipped through the scaffolding of earthly justice — find the ultimate fulfillment of their urge to avenge: the eternal punishment of those at whose hands they suffered. Accordingly, Dante’s Inferno is nothing more than a catalogue of his hatreds, an incarnation of his vindictive judgments. Accordingly, those who testify to the networks of organized sin within the Church, who testify to the cover-up of unnatural vices by a chain of clerical secrecy that links the humble parish priest to the Servant of Servants — these accusers are nothing more than revenge-seeking reactionaries ruled by ressentiment.

The figure whose condemnation most reverberates throughout the Divine Comedy is Pope Boniface VIII, who deviously procured the abdication of Pope Celestine V (the abdication prior to Benedict XVI’s) and whose connections and cunning won him the papal throne. We meet Boniface many times in Dante’s poem. In the Inferno, Pope Nicholas, upside down in an inverted baptismal font, mistakes Dante for the schemer and asks, “Are you there already, Boniface?” — implicating Boniface in the sin of simony, the buying and selling of Church offices. Later, in the lair of evil counselors, we learn that the lost shepherd “brought [a soul] back to all [his] earlier sins.” “May he rot in Hell!” the misled soul proclaims.

In the Paradiso, the saints who inhabit the eighth Heaven blush at Boniface’s wickedness, and even from the very peak of the Empyrean, Beatrice critiques the crooked heir of Peter’s throne.

But what if Dante’s anticipation of Boniface’s arrival in the circle of simony, his placement of the Pope amid the flames with which Boniface once threatened him, is in part poisoned by the poet’s ressentiment? Even if this explication is partially true, Dante’s allegations against Boniface ought to be taken seriously if we are to avoid an insubstantial invalidation by means of the ancient ad hominem fallacy. For instance, we can find in the 14th-century chronicler Giovanni Villani a papal portrait that has striking affinities with Dante’s:

[Boniface] was very proud and haughty and cruel to his foes and adversaries, and of a high stomach, and greatly feared by all…. He was magnanimous and generous to those who pleased him, and to all valorous men; very avid of worldly pomps according to his degree, and very covetous, not looking loosely nor keeping a strict conscience when it was a question of gain, in order to aggrandize the Church and his own family…. He was more worldly than befitted his dignity, and he did many things which were displeasing to God.

Importantly, Villani belonged to the Guelfs, a political party allied with Boniface, and thus the chronicler was likely free of Dante’s alleged ressentiment.

In Canto XV of the Inferno, in the circle of the sodomites, Dante asks the Florentine teacher Ser Brunetto Latini who else is housed in this section of Hell. Latini announces:

If you had any longing for such scum,
you might have seen that one
the Servant of Servants
sent from the Arno to the Bacchiglione
where he left his unnatural organ wrapped
in cerements.

As translator John Ciardi notes, Servus Servorum is “technically a correct papal title, but there is certainly a touch of irony in Dante’s application of it in this context.” Or more than a touch. A Nietzschean reading would lead us to explain away this sarcastic transvaluation of a papal title as one more instantiation of Dante’s revenge on the Pope who punished him. After all, as Dorothy L. Sayers explains, Boniface, fed up with the factions that opposed his temporal ambitions, manufactured “charges of fraud and corruption while in office, and of conspiracy” against him. At first, the Holy Father merely sent Dante into exile. Several months later, a papal decree promised that if the poet “should come into the hands of [Florence], such a one shall be burned with fire till he be dead.”

One of Dante’s accusations against Boniface involves two sins that have, in our times, burned through the broken bowels of the Church, searing the souls of the faithful and coating her spiritual and moral authority in char: clerical sodomy and deficient punishment of the same. In 1295 Pope Boniface VIII did something all too familiar to those of us who have been witness to the Church’s infernal clerical sex-abuse scandal. He transferred Bishop Andrea de’ Mozzi from the bishopric of Florence (on the Arno) to that of Vincenza (on the Bacchiglione). Reputedly, the kept-quiet reason for this transference was that de’ Mozzi’s brother Tommaso requested it. Bishop de’ Mozzi had become a spectacle on account of his “open secret” sodomy and his sheer stupidity, and the renowned jurist Tommaso wished to remove him from his sight — seemingly because his bishop brother was ruining the family reputation. Instead of applying medicinal discipline to the disordered prelate, the Pope simply relocated him. By calling Boniface Servus Servorum Dei, Dante uses the title employed in a papal bull. In linking Boniface’s insufficient response to clerical sodomy with the title a pope uses when making authoritative decrees, Dante seems to demonstrate the damage the former does to the latter — the way sins of papal governance invite depreciations of papal authority more broadly. The sarcasm is Dante’s, but the fault lies with Boniface.

Bishop de’ Mozzi’s Mal protest nervi is wrapped in cerements. Ciardi indicates that Dante is here engaged in some untranslatable word-play, but we have something like “the male organ…aroused to passion for unnatural purposes.” Nervi may also be translated as “nerves” and mal protest for “dissolute.” Some translators avoid the explicitly sexual connotations Ciardi draws out. Sayers, for instance, renders the line as “the body he’d unstrung and enervated.” But today we are all too attuned to the swirling whirl of euphemisms so many now use to cover over the current clerical crisis. These misdiagnoses and oversimplifications obscure the grotesque eroticism enervating the body of Christ and thus let the cause continue to corrupt.

De’ Mozzi died soon after Boniface transferred him. His organ, unnaturally aroused, was wrapped in funerary cerements. We must not wrap the organs aroused for unnatural purposes under the sheets of mere “clericalism.” We must give them a proper burial — not out of vindictiveness or even mere justice but as an act of love and mercy undertaken on behalf of the victims of abuse. We must not let the abusers’ unnatural arousals die only in death.

The superabundance of truths found in Dante’s Divine Comedy spill forth from the art of the poem itself. Preoccupation with authorial intention tends to obscure its artful revelations. Analogously, powerful prelates may continue to question the motives of those who testify against Pope Francis’s handling of the networks of sodomy that now enervate the Church. Every day, opinion makers try to reduce those who testify against Church corruption to resentful reactionaries working out their revenge. Let us entertain a scenario wherein former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was motivated to release his testimony by a Nietzschean will to reclaim power after his demotion (which I do not believe). A recent Wall Street Journal editorial has responded to the possibility of such malign motives with the journalistic maturity our present Servant of Servants requested in the wake of his own silence: Viganò’s “motives are irrelevant here, or at least they should be…. The question is whether the archbishop’s claims are true, and that should be fairly easy to determine” (Aug. 28). I would only take issue with the phrase fairly easy. Given the mysteries and secrecies that surround the pertinent documents like stale, foul incense, only the Pope — and no journalist — can achieve this.

The Gates of Hell shall never prevail against the Church. But until these and other accusations are addressed with due justice, too many churchmen will continue to unleash the unnatural fires of Hell on earth, scorching God’s creation with a merciless heat no climate change could conjure.


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