In the face of so many disappointments from previous Popes during the last part of the fifteenth century, optimisim flowed when Pope Sixtus IV, a humble but powerful Franciscan was chosen the 212th successor of Peter. But he was nothing like Saint Peter, for power went to Sixtus' head and he sought to surround himself with relatives and friends as nepotism ran rampant in Rome and the results were catastrophic. The old guard of cardinals weren't the best, but they were saints compared to the new ones Sixtus appointed. Soon morale and morals were at an all-time low and trust in Holy Mother Church slipped faster than an avalanche. All these contributed greatly to forcing the serpent of enlightenment and individual thought to coil and raise its ugly, deadly head, prepared to strike with the fangs of hate, violence and heresy of the venom known as the Protestant Reformation. But the antidote to prevent the bite from being fatal could not be supplied by the Church for she was plunged into dire desperation which Sixtus countered by prescribing the Spanish Inquisition, a placebo that sought to be the mongoose to the rebel's cobra. The results over the next several centuries would claim countless victims on both sides as blood would run deep in every city of Europe and beyond.
Pope Sixtus IV: Pawn for power-brokers whose purpose was to secularize the papacy
When the Conclave met in the summer of 1471 to choose a successor to Pope Paul II who had died on July 26th, they deliberated for a few weeks before deciding on a humble Franciscan Cardinal Francesco della Rovere who had been Minister General of the Friars Minor. His track record as an ardent reformer prompted the College of Cardinals to elect him in hopes he could reform the Church. Sadly, they would be in for great disappointments for the promise that Rovere showed from his earliest days of youth when dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, dissipated when he became Pope Sixtus IV. Elected on August 9, 1471, Sixtus took over what many felt was a sinking ship and, rather than clearing off the barnacles and bailing out the bilge, took on more dangerous ballast by appointing relatives and friends to prestigious posts. It was an example of the cardinals creating a monster. The deed was done and they could do nothing about it as the new Pope fast became a pawn for the powerful duke of Milan who, it was discovered, had lavished many gifts on the Conclave to get Sixtus elected. Even though Sixtus remained strict in his own life, he looked the other way in regards to others and rather than reform, his non-action only encouraged further clerical abuse as the ecclesiastical court became more depraved and tainted by the riches of the world. Concubines became the norm in circles where chastity had been practiced in the past. This was spurred on by the influx of new bishops and cardinals appointed by Sixtus as "pay-offs." These new clerics were no more religious than Bill Clinton or Slobodan Milosevic. They contributed greatly to the growing unrest among the faithful and within the clergy that a great double standard was being foisted on the people and it opened the door wide for defections that would ultimately end in the Protestant Reformation. In truth, had we been living in those times, it's quite possible we too might have bolted. That's how bad things were as some of Sixtus' nephews gained high-profile, influential posts in the Curia and wielded a power-hungry sword that dictated Italian politics at the time.
Chief among the culprits were his nephews from Liguria, Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere who would become Pope Julius II thirty years later. While the latter was more dedicated to his vocation, the former was a rogue who found himself in a compromising position and died from an overdose of what many believe was heroin. Sixtus replaced Pietro with someone even worse - his other nephew Girolamo who was a ruthless climber, having married the daughter of Milan's Duke Galeazao Sforza. The Vatican was now being invaded by demons in human clothing. Morality sunk to an all-time low and morale sunk even lower with those who cared and loved the Church. Debauchery and orgies were common place as Sixtus turned a deaf ear to those complaining, turning the complaints over to the very ones who were the object of the complaints. Needless to say the results were retaliation against those who complained while the aberrations continued unabated.
Even though the notorious Sultan Mehmet II was ill and would soon die, weakening the resolve and intensity of the Saracen threat, Sixtus was still embroiled in the continuing failed crusade of his predecessors. Meanwhile his nephews were plotting more sinister things. They were engaged in a bitter takeover of the Medici family, killing Giuliano de' Medici and seriously injuring his brother Lorenzo de' Medici who escaped and fled back to Florence. Historians account that Sixtus knew of the plot against them and silently condoned Girolamo's plot against the Medici by giving his nephew his blessing and troops to fight against the Firenze armies, a senseless, exasperating and expensive war that lasted from 1478 to 1480. They even orchestrated an execution-like murder in the cathedral of Florence on the altar that negated the whole sanctuary concept. To stir things up further, Girolamo convinced Sixtus to prompt the Venetians to attack Ferrara. When Ferrara appealed to Rome for Mercy, Sixtus did a "180" and retaliated against his supposed ally Venice, imposing strict spiritual penalties that were totally unfair and turned all of Venice against the Roman Pontiff in 1483.
Rome, too, was growing tired of the decline of prestige and respect in this papacy and, even though Sixtus had resurrected the Renaissance in the eternal city, widening many streets, restoring many institutions and building new churches and palaces, luring many Renaissance painters and sculptors to Rome. With the few funds he had left after the splurging and exhorbitant military expenses, he employed builders to construct the Sistine Chapel. He spent lavishly on the Vatican Library and his own tomb, designed in bronze by the Renaissance master Antonio del Pollaiuolo. It was another ridiculous and obvious show of ego and an inordinate love for worldly things while the supernatural importance of the Church suffered greatly.
This was a sad time for the Church who had so hoped things would turn around with this Franciscan in charge, but he quickly forgot his own roots and was mesmerized by the scent of power and an earthly kingdom, not to mention deceived by the wiles of his satanic nephews and the thirty-some cardinals he elected whose character contributed greatly to the malaise and defection that would follow over the next fifty years. Further disappointment in Sixtus contrasted the few achievements he did accomplish in establishing the feast of the Immaculate Conception as well as canonizing Saint Bonaventure. But these accomplishments paled in comparison to the failures of Sixtus's reign which took on the resemblance of a greedy monarch out for his own court rather than a spiritual kingdom where the faithful subjects came first. It was evidence further of satan's own hand in infiltrating the sanctuary at the very top.
The defection of so many and bad-mouthing of the Pope and Catholicism, even though it was correct in respect to Sixtus' pontificate and his appointees, spread throughout Europe and insurrection against authority spread rapidly as a new enlightenment surfaced. Add to this France's on-going insistance on investiture and the Church was being met with resistance at every turn. Many of the Catholic kings of Europe, especially in Spain, panicked and approached the Pope of how to curb this revolution. Sixtus, at the advice of some of his new cardinals - none of the old - established the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition had already been established, but Sixtus' decree installing Cardinal Tomas de Torquemada as grand inquisitor in 1483 set in motion an acceleration of further decay and sometimes ruthless retaliation against those who dared question the Pope's character. While the Inquisition was a necessary evil, it often became just that - necessary and evil. Established for the specific purpose of upholding the truths of Catholic doctrine, it was abused by many who used it for their own personal gains or to cover up other abuses being committed by those who did not deserve to wear the cloth. It was an intimidation factor that would run out of control. Even though much of the abuse has been exaggerated and wrongly recorded by historians over the years, the facts are that it further alienated the faithful from the clergy and made it tougher to evangelize for the factor of trust had been violated. It would take a century for the Church to recover from the abuses committed during the last part of the fifteenth century and the early part of the sixteenth century. In retrospect, there were few saints during these times and it is no wonder for few there were to set the example for others. Few were called as in vocation, but many were lured as in vacation to take up the cush, privileged life of a cleric with nary a thought to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as we shall see the results of Christ's words that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Sixtus limbs were barren because he leaned too heavily on friends and relatives to carry out the mission Jesus never intended. Those Sixtus gave favors to and promoted to prominent positions used him as a pawn to secularize the papacy and establish a kingdom on earth that Our Lord strongly refuted.
A year before Sixtus' death, one of the loyal cardinals Andrea Zamometic a Croatian archbishop who had been one of the Pontiff's closest associates in the early years before the nephews took over, had had enough. He rallied the older cardinals to suspend Sixtus and reinvoke the statutes passed at the Council of Basle, calling for another council, but his attempts were foiled by the new wave of cardinals who saw the threat to their lifestyle and successfully defeated the measure. Sixtus responded by issuing a papal bull banning all appeals to a general council. A year later, bitterly embroiled in military and diplomatic efforts that met dismal defeat in all venues, he died a dessolate, disoriented and disillusioned man on August 12, 1484. His successor Pope Innocent VIII would try to right the wrongs committed by Sixtus, but he could barely stop the bleeding as the tourniquet would split and a torrent of blood be shed during the succeeding papacies of Innocent's successors as we shall see in future installments.
Next issue: Pope Innocent VIII: Trying to corral the stallion of rebellion after it has bolted the barn