Of Popes and Pirates


Attack by Pirates by Arnold Böcklin, 1880

We’re not sure why, but it’s pretty clear that evangelicals are intrigued by the whole white-smoke/black-smoke mystery and drama that surrounds the election of a new pope. Of course, the hardball politics were enough to shame the most jaundiced American campaign professional, with almost daily anonymous leaks of sex and banking scandals, accompanied by abrupt denials and even more abrupt resignations. Evangelical scandals, particularly among the televangelist clique, often involve the same elements of financial and sexual sins, although they are usually more pedestrian and tawdry, with characters straight from central casting.

As counterpoint to these, our modern scandals, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at an historic scandal so large that it launched armies and toppled governments….

Baldassarre Cossa was a man of simple needs; money and power, to be precise. His two brothers were executed as pirates and he could easily have become merely another statistic of medieval justice. Instead, he became pope.
Six Popes
Six Popes. From “Acta Sanctorum …”, published 1643-1940. Popes pictured: Gregory XI, Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII, Gregory XII, Alexander V.
While many, if not most divisions in church history divide along theological lines, Cossa’s grasp on the papacy was firmly grounded in politics and commerce. Having come by his ecclesiastical trappings through his skills at piracy and brigandage, he wasted no time in turning church office into a rollickingly successful business enterprise.

No one promoted the sale of indulgences more than Cossa, and no one recognized the potential power of merging banking and church interests like the Napolitan Cossa. After his brothers were executed for piracy, Cossa chose a less dangerous path, entering law school at the University of Bologna. Upon graduation, he went to work in 1392 for Pope Boniface IX. Boniface was considered to be the “real” pope by the Italians, Germans and English, while France and Spain backed a rival pope during this period often known as the “Western Schism.”

As modern Christians know, there is nothing to bring out the worst in people than a church split, and the “Western Schism” was a doozy. While those who possessed a measure of faith in those tumultuous times were, no doubt, scandalized and grieved by the brazen cupidity of the ecclesiastical combatants, Cossa seems to have been mesmerized by the possibilities.

Appointed a cardinal deacon (although not yet even a priest), and then a papal legate, real opportunities began to blossom as the next generations of “popes and anti-popes” came and went. Cossa managed to get himself selected as one of 7 cardinals to try and heal the rift. He did so by shifting his alliance from then-pope Gregory XII, to the French “anti-pope” (as the Italians called the Avignon leader) Benedict XIII. Cossa convened the Council of Pisa, which he controlled, and proceeded to depose both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, electing his own choice Alexander V.

Then the fun began in earnest. Both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII rejected the decision of the Council of Pisa, so instead of two popes, there were now three. The matter was made either more complicated or less, depending on one’s perspective, when Alexander V died shortly thereafter. Baldassarre Cossa moved quickly, having himself quickly ordained as a priest, and then elected pope the very next day, choosing the name John XXIII [see sidebar].

University of BolognaCossa, aka John XXIII, had long had a cozy relationship with the Medici family, and now greatly empowered and enriched the Medicis by naming their bank the official Vatican bank. Wielding the power of ex-communication in one hand, and waving financial support in the other, John XXIII pumped up Vatican finances as never before, through the sale of “indulgences.” (Indulgences were essentially “get-out-of-purgatory-free” cards that church members could buy on behalf of their departed loved ones). His run lasted until Ladislas of Naples, ally of competing pope Gregory XII (and not coincidentally the one who had executed the Cossa brothers for piracy) seized Rome in battle, forcing John XXIII to flee to Florence.

In Florence, John XXIII was convinced by Sigismond to convene the Council of Constance over the two-popes-too-many problem, which John did, only to find himself deposed. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the surprising and swift actions of the Council of Constance which, like most of Christendom, seems to have had about enough.
Coronation of King Ladislaus of Naples in 1403 by Celestina Medovića

Of the three popes, John the Twenty-third was the first victim: he fled and was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest; and after subscribing his own condemnation, he expiated in prison the imprudence of trusting his person to a free city beyond the Alps. Gregory the Twelfth, whose obedience was reduced to the narrow precincts of Rimini, descended with more honor from the throne, and his ambassador convened the session in which he renounced the title and authority of lawful pope.

Having dealt with two of the Pretenders, the Council now had to find a way to rein in the third. Gibbons describes the sad fate of last remaining tri-pope:

To vanish the obstinacy of Benedict the Thirteenth, or his adherents, the emperor in person undertook a journey from Constance to Perpignan. The kings of Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Scotland obtained an equal and honorable treaty: with the concurrence of the Spaniards, Benedict was deposed by the council, but the harmless old man was left in a solitary castle to ex-communicate twice each day the rebel kingdoms that had deserted his cause.

Pope Gregory XIIIt was now left to the council to choose a new pope, which they did, selecting Martin V in 1417. For his indiscretions and, perhaps, for his cheek, as well, the deposed John XXIII was imprisoned. Perhaps, thinking the ever-resourceful Cossa had a few good years left in him, the Medicis paid a huge bribe and secured his release. Cossa immediately made his way to Rome, submitted to Martin V and, for his troubles, was appointed cardinal bishop of Tusculum, a city which had been virtually obliterated several centuries earlier and was noteworthy primarily as the hailing place of Cicero. Presbyterians in the U.S. may know the name as that of a small Tennessee school, itself the namesake of Rev. John Witherspoon’s homestead at Princeton.

Upon Cossa’s death, the Medicis erected an ostentatious grave memorial [see sidebar article], referring to him (much to the outrage of the then-current pope) as the “former pope”. As for John XXIII’s legacy, it is a textbook example of unintended consequences. Opposition to his promotion of indulgences became a key rallying cry for John Hus and the Bohemians, those early lights of the Reformation that would sweep Europe a century later.

Journey Of Magi
Such was the influence of the Medici that family members are placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men in Benozzo Gozzoli “The Journey of the Magi”, 1459-62.