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Marco Alvarez
ENGL 2341
12-04-2012

Dante the Popes & The Catholic Church

We know now that one of the main reasons Dante wrote the Divine Comedy was because of his qualms with the Catholic Church, the institution he blames for his exile. Dante uses his talent as a poet to convey those feeling through invectives, be they direct or indirect. His strong dislike for the Catholic Church and specifically the papacy does not arise from a dislike of the religion but rather more of a dislike of what the church had become. In Dante’s interpretation of hell he has dammed three popes to Inferno; Pope Celestine V, Pope Anastasius, and Pope Nicholas III. Although Dante does not talk to the first two popes the symbolism of them just being there is more than enough to convey what he has intended for his audience to interpret. Dante further attack the Catholic Church and clergymen several times and inserts his idea of what the church should be. The position of pope in Dante's time was that of great power and influence since the pope was the direct connection between mankind and God so his words is perceived as that of God's, many noted this and took advantage of it. Dante encounters Pope Celestine V grave shortly after passing through the gates of hell. There is some mystery surrounding this specific reference as Dante does not call the pope out by name merely makes us assume Celestine is the one Dante is talking about. This "namelessness and facelessness embodies the very concept of sin" that everyone in the Church is responsible for. (Frongia 42-43) Poscia ch'io v'ebbi alcun riconosciuto,

vidi e conobbi l'ombra di colui
che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.
{INF III, 58-60)'
To fully understand why Dante refers to Celestine as a coward it is pivotal to know what Celestine did, or didn’t do in his case. Celestine was the one chosen to inherit the papacy after Nicholas IV death after two years of gridlock between the cardinals. But then he leaves his office, the “gran rifiuto” is a reference to Celestine choosing to abdicate refusing to abandon his duties as a pope and leave all together the papacy only five months after he was chosen by the cardinals. “Celestine voluntarily renounced the papacy because of his inadequacy and his decision must therefore be considered an act of cowardice.”(De Benidictis 85) There was also a consensus that Celestine would “reform and a return to the Church's original purity,” something Dante was surly a supporter of. (De Benidictis 85) If that wasn’t enough reason for Dante to damn Celestine, his indifference for the papacy left the throne wide open for Boniface VIII, the man who Dante loathes the most and not only further perverted the church but was also the man responsible for Dante’s exile. Boniface was the mastermind behind the abdication having convinced Celestine that every man in the world is damned. Celestine scared for his soul fled, he became a hermit to save himself. In the end “Celestine’s great guilt is that his cowardice served as the door through which so much evil entered the Church.” (Ciardi 35) Although Celestine was seen as a holy man and was even canonized, proclaimed a saint after his death, his accepting then abandoning the papacy in such a short time window makes him indecisive and hence a coward. I think it’s very significant that Dante specifically singled out a pope early into the Inferno and helps set his tone toward representatives of the church throughout the Inferno.

Among the Simoniacs Dante meets Nicholas III who mistakes Dante for his future successor in hell Boniface VIII. Dante uses this encounter to damn not only Boniface VIII but Clement V as well to the malebolge reserved for simony for their violation of everything the Catholic Church stands for. Mind you Pope Clement V and Boniface VIII where still alive when he did this. The significance here is that Dante specifically reserved a spot in hell for all those who violate clerical...
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