Pope Boniface VIII: Turning the Church into a chess match
Whereas Pope Saint Celestine V was a simple, pious, humble and naive man, his successor Pope Boniface VIII, 193rd successor of Peter, was just the opposite. Boniface was Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, the same papal advisor who had sent Celestine to the wolves, so to speak, and then renegged on his promise to the holy pontiff to allow him freedom to return to his beloved hermitage. While Caetani was not a bad pope or a bad man, he was a master politician, complicated, proud and very alert to capitalizing on situations or cutting off any opposition before it could mount a force. This was his trademark throughout his rise through the ranks. Born in Anagni around 1235, he came from an aristocratic family of the Campagna which allowed him the privilege of studying law at the University of Bologna. With this prestige he became papal notary under Pope Nicholas III and his successor Pope Martin IV was so impressed that he made Caetani a cardinal deacon. Pope Nicholas IV elevated Benedetto to cardinal priest in 1291, then dispatched him to France where he exhibited his aggressive diplomatic skills in championing the rights of mendicant orders in the great battle between the dioceses and the Franciscan and Dominican Orders. Paris was his stage and his abrassiveness was evident, but his manipulating style came through loud and clear and the end result was that he produced results. This reverberated back to Rome where Nicholas appointed him as canonist. When Nicholas died on April 4, 1292 the papacy was vacant for two years. During that time, though there was no official Supreme Pontiff, it is widely suspected that Caetani ran things from Rome while trying to garner support from the other cardinals for his nomination. The main problem was the aristocratic family split among the cardinals. When the compromise hermit Celestine V was selected the Colonna family came into prominence and, along with Celestine, favored the Spiritualists within the mendicant orders, specifically the Franciscans - which was a strict adherence to the rule Saint Francis of Assisi had originally established but which, had been challenged and relaxed. The manner in which Caetani betrayed Celestine and his annulment of most of the privileges granted by Celestine fostered an intense hatred of Boniface VIII by the Colonna family and the Franciscan Spirituals after that. But that did not deter the aggressive and clever Boniface who managed to defeat the Colonna family through the alliance of other powerful families and demolish the Colonna's fortress at Palestrina. Ruthless in his methods, Boniface sought to strengthen his power among other barons, but France stepped in and distracted the ambitious pontiff.
He sought to make a name on the international scene and this proved to be his achilles heel. He tried to intervene as an arbitrator between England's King Edward I and France's King Philip IV. Both in Britain and France the Church was being pressed to help finance and support the war and the bishops and clergy complained bitterly that they were being squeezed for funds that were being taken away from the Church and their own projects. The Pope got tough and issued a papal bull which forbid the clergy from contributing to the monarchs without papal approval. But he was in over his head because Edward retaliated by forbidding the clergy from practicing the faith, including the Sacraments and Philip cut off shipments of gold out of the country. The latter was a crucial move because the Holy See received considerable revenue from France through the exporting of the precious metal. Realizing he was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Boniface blinked and relented. In order to appease Philip IV he made the gesture of canonizing the king's grandfather King Louis IX who truly deserved the acclimation as saint for the life he lead as ruler, crusader, father, husband and friend of the poor and downtrodden.
Meanwhile, the Colonna family, intent on revenge, took advantage of Boniface's misfortune and circulated throughout Europe a long list of the crimes they felt Boniface was guilty of committing. But this backfired because of the Boniface's crafty collusions with other powerful barons who convinced many of the European princes that the charges were false. While Boniface gloated over this trump he failed to see what was sneaking up behind him. Two of the Colonna-influenced cardinals took up refuge in Philip's court and convinced the king that Boniface was plotting against the monarch. Philip used that to turn the tables on the Church and began milking the clergy for more than the allotted tithing. Boniface countered by ordering the bishop of Pamiers, France to preach a crusade against the king. Philip's move was to have the bishop incarcerated, then composed a counterfeit papal bull which really put Boniface in a bad light: In it the Pope was supposed to have decreed that he was the head of France and that all Frenchmen had to bow to the Pope. Boniface rallied by issuing a real Papal Bull warning the French monarch of such treachery and deceit, withdrawing the exemptions he had granted earlier, and called a synod of the French bishops in 1302 to meet in Rome to determine what direction to take with this dilemna with the king. During the synod is when Boniface ushered his landmark Papal Bull Unam sanctam which basically stated that the Pope is not in charge of secular matters but in all things relating to the Church he is in charge. This decree has withstood the test of time as it is the case today as then that all Catholics are subject to the Pope in regards faith and morals.
During this time the Flemish dealt Philip a brutal defeat at the Battle of Coutrais, but that did not deter the French ruler from remaining stubborn to Boniface's actions. Boniface threatened to deliver the final blow of bell, book and candle to the French monarch with his prepared Papal Bull Super Petri solio if reconciliation could not be reached, but Philip didn't blink. He had already recruited the armies of the Colonna family headed by Sciarra Colonna aided by Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip's new advisor, to march into Anagni where Boniface's quarters were and capture the Pope, which they did. Boniface was quite willing to be the martyr, exclaiming to Nogaret, "Here is my neck, here be my head, I offer it to you as God so deigns." Fearing he would be remembered as a martyred Pope that would further his own political cause in the eyes of the people, Nogaret opted to imprison him instead. Sciarra and others within the Colonna family hated Boniface so much that they argued vehemently that Boniface should die. This fued between Nogaret and Sciarra proved to be Boniface's break for while they were fighting in-house, one of the anti-Colonna leaders Cardinal Nicholas Boccasini from the rival Orsini family rescued him and drove the Colonna family from Anagni. After resting in the Orsini refuge, Boniface returned to Rome on September 25, 1303 under protection of the Orsini family but, demoralized over the events that had transpired and spent physically from the ordeals, died on October 11th, 1303.
While Boniface's exploits politically were ruthless and cunning and met with deserved defeat, his contributions spiritually were surprisingly pious and did contribute somewhat to the growth of the Church. He was known to go in prayer at least for two solid hours daily and used his brilliance as a canon lawyer to compose the third part of the Corpus of Canon Law as well as extending the five books of Pope Gregory IX's Liber extra with his Liber sextus. It was Boniface who reorganized the curial administration and gave a catalog system to the Papal Library as well as setting up a new system for the Vatican archives. While he greatly curtailed the progress made by mendicant orders and gave more preference to the diocesan secular priests, he did establish universities , most notably the Sapienza University in Rome. He was a fervent patron of the arts and commissioned many works of art including numerous statues of himself which should not be so surprising considering his personal vanity and pride. In the long run, this man of intelligence was not as smart as some may have given him credit for since he was often blinded by revenge, insensitivity to others and, basically, had no real friends. In the end he died alone and friendless and few mourned his death as they had so many pontiffs before and after him, such as Pope Blessed Benedict XI who we shall cover next week.