14.1 The Borgias – Wealth, Power, Influence, and the Highest Position in the Roman Catholic Church

“Sex…Power…Murder…Amen” is how the series, The Borgias, opens.

The reason that it is relevant here in the website on original Christianity and the developments since is that it sets the stage for the Reformation.  By most accounts, the dealings of the Borgias, some of whom were popes, were not abnormal to the times.  They may have been the most excessive, but they were very much just carrying on the tradition of Rome and the papacy in the times building up to the Reformation.

Showtime has been airing its extravagant historical timepiece starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI.  It has a number of actors that I think are well suited to the pomp and power roles that dominate this series.  Colm Feore, Simon McBurney, Steven Burkoff, and Derek Jacobi are some of the recognizable faces (to me at least) playing these power figures.  I think it is very well acted.

The show is full of intrigue, sex, murder, deceit, corruption, and political maneuverings in Rome and Europe.  The sexual aspects of the show are over the top.  There are depictions of sex between the pope and multiple partners as well as allusions to homosexuality, pederasty, bestiality, incest etc.  Poison as a weapon has been a theme, at least in the few shows I watched, but there is also a lot of bloody swordplay, nasty daggers, and the like.

Of course the setting is world class Roman luxury, one palace after another being the home to these Christian leaders who somehow have also sworn a vow of poverty.  I see a complete sense of opposites in the whole convoluted working of the time as we see top church leaders who have sworn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience gorging themselves in luxury, abandoning themselves in sexual wantonness, and living the deception of trying to look like obedient servants while constantly maneuvering for their own advancement and political conquest.

And there is the enigmatic element of these corrupt men at times appearing to have a conscience, sometimes even appearing to do the right thing.

Of course, this is a show that has basis in fact.  Rodrigo, Casare, Lucretia, the Cardinals, etc were actual people.  Supposedly, while a lot of the details are conjectured from what is known about how these people lived, the major facts are accurate, i.e., Borgia allegedly bought the papacy, made moves based on political expediency, had lovers, children, and so forth.

I say allegedly because the Catholic Church’s view of the rise by Borgia to Pope Alexander VI is a milder version.  They present some challenges, but they do not deny that he bought the papacy, indicating a large level of greed and corruption present in the papacy.  At the very least, they admit corruption in the election to the papacy of Alexander IV on account of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s desire for a better position:

“That he obtained the papacy through simony was the general belief (Pastor, loc. cit.) and is not improbable (Raynaldus, Ann. eccl. ad an. 1492, n. 26), though it would be difficult to prove it juridically, at any rate, as the law then stood the election was valid. There is no irresistible evidence that Borgia paid anyone a ducat for his vote; Infessura’s tale of mule-loads of silver has long since been discredited. Pastor’s indictment, on closer inspection, needs some revision, for he states (III, 277) that eight of the twenty-three electors, viz. della Rovere, Piccolomini, Medici, Caraffa, Costa, Basso, Zeno, and Cibò, held out to the end against Borgia. If that were true, Borgia could not have secured a two-thirds majority. All we can affirm with certainty is that the determining factor of this election was the accession to Borgia of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s vote and influence, it is almost equally certain that Sforza’s course was dictated not by silver, but by the desire to be the future Pontiff’s chief adviser.”[i]

The drama in the show is soap opera-ish on an epic scale and seems to center around details in the affairs of these people beyond the scope of written history.  All in all it is a re-enactment where literary license is taken to reconstruct dialogues, meetings, trysts and the like between the many characters.

That the show depicts a carnal, corrupt, and even evil Christianity is the tragedy.  In fact, the show does not seem content to merely depict the sins in the Borgia’s lives, it relishes in them. It glorifies each deadly plot, each sexual affair, each political conquest.  True Christianity is nowhere to be found.

Sadly, there is little evidence to refute that the Borgias were the harshest example of a Catholic Church fallen away from original Christianity (with its emphasis on genuine spirituality) to an organization that embraced world power and all the evils involved.

[i] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01289a.htm

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

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