[This post by Greg Garrett is part of a roundtable conversation on the new book The Pope Who Quit, by Jon M. Sweeney, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]
Despite what you might hear every day as politicians go on and on about their personal faiths, a lot of people say that religion and politics don’t go together. The arguments are that either they operate in entirely different spheres, like comparing apples and camels, or that politics is such dirty business that it will stain religious faith beyond the wearing. History is certainly full of examples of how the Church has become less like the Church and more like whatever political system with which it has consorted, and Jon M. Sweeney’s The Pope Who Quit offers a potent exploration of the tensions between spirituality and power, between individual piety and community polity, and what happens when the Two Cities Augustine wrote about, the earthly and heavenly, collapse into one.
In choosing as the greatest pope in history this same almost-forgotten Pope Celestine V, “the unwilling holy man who knew there was no meeting place between the pursuit of power and the worship of God,” A. N. Wilson was expressing a potent criticism of the many ways the Medieval Roman Catholic Church–and in some ways, the Church Victorious ever since–stepped through the gates of the Earthly City. “For some of us,” Mr. Wilson wrote, what attracts about the Christian faith “is its distrust of power.” And yet, he noted, what often happens when a holy man–or less than holy man–is elevated to the Throne of St. Peter is that he loses his humility. He becomes more like the earthly rulers he resembles in pomp and wealth, and less like the one who in becoming the most powerful Christian leader on earth should conform most to Jesus’ commandment that the leader must be a servant. Celestine is a rare exception–a humble and spiritual man, he knew that he was not cut out to be pope, and that it might, in fact, be his spiritual undoing.
Mr. Sweeney’s new book is fascinating not for its depth of detail about the life and death of Celestine V–he admits that there are some huge gaps in what we know about the man–but in its evocation and analysis of an era in which the Church and the State were alike wrestling for influence and power. The facts are quickly told. Peter (Pietro) of Morrone was a hermit and administrator who was unaccountably elected pope in his very old age. A. N. Wilson recounted Peter’s life succinctly in the Times:
An 85-year-old peasant mystic known as Father Pietro in his prepapal days, he had founded a religious order of pious simpletons. But even this was too much for him; before his ascendancy he was living in a tiny grotto on the side of a mountain in southern Italy. He had a reputation as a healer, a prophet, a dreamer of dreams. The local peasantry, the class from which he himself came, believed that he hung out his cowl on a sunbeam while he prayed. This was the man who became, for five miserable months, from July 5 to Dec. 13, 1294, a most reluctant Pontiff — and one whose lack of interest in the job allowed local rulers and politicians to wield extraordinary power over the church.
One possibility, as Mr. Sweeney notes, is that in a letter he sent to the cardinals who for two years had been deliberating on a new pope, Peter revealed himself as a man of great piety and spiritual acuity. Perhaps, some thought, he could lead the Church to become more like himself, and less like the earthly City, reclaiming some of the powerful spiritual values he and his order represented.
Mr. Sweeney also outlines the more pragmatic and realistic possibility, that Peter was indeed a man out of his depth, a man like Chance (Peter Sellers) in the classic political comedy Being There, who finds himself the tool of smarter and more savvy operators who used him for their own purposes. Certainly Celestine’s papacy was co-opted by the local ruler, who built a papal palace for him rather than encourage him to place his reign in Rome, and at least one ambitious cardinal seems to have had the power to advise to his own ultimate benefit.
Whatever the reasons the cardinals originally saw fit to elevate this ancient hermit to the papacy, the central truth is this: less than half a year after he reluctantly accepted the job, he stepped down, the only pope ever to resign. He was imprisoned by his successor–that confidante who helped him to resign–and died, perhaps of murder. Mr. Sweeney provides a catalog of murdered popes to buttress this possibility, and certainly it wouldn’t be politic to let a former pope hang out in a cave and possibly come back down the mountain some day.
Mr. Sweeney sums up the lesson of this enigmatic figure who felt–and was–overmatched by the papacy in this way:
Celestine V was the latest, and for some, the last, hope of those who believed that a man could wield both political and spiritual power and rule the one apostolic Church and the world with the wisdom of King Solomon and the compassion of Christ. To those who saw the calamities of the 1300s as God’s judgment, Peter Morrone’s papacy represented a failed attempt to raise a profoundly spiritual, unworldly man to the throne in the expectation that the world would follow him. Just as some of Christ’s disciples were disappointed that he didn’t come to earth to be a temporal ruler, those in power crushed Celestine when they saw his glaring political and social incapacities. (226)
Augustine reminds us in City of God that while the earthly city may promote justice, the earthly city and the City of Heaven are seeking entirely different things. It is a mistake to mistake them for each other, or consider them somehow interchangeable although we still continue to. Mr. Sweeney brings up the figure of St. Francis on several occasions in The Pope Who Quit. Francis of Assisi was another holy man who had encounters with the powers that be, although he was never offered anything like the power offered Celestine. Francis did not rule; instead, he invited people to conform themselves with the image of Christ and to preach transformation to others around them–which, in his life as hermit and abbot, Peter of Morrone too had done.
Francis too would probably have been overmatched as a pontiff, but we remember him today long after Celestine V is largely forgotten because those individuals he affected continue to shape the world. Perhaps this is the ultimate spiritual lesson from the life of the pope who quit: that the way of Christ is not about imposing power from above, but inviting transformation from within. Peter of Morrone and his Celestine Brotherhood may also have made more lasting impact on the world than did any of the decisions Celestine V proclaimed from the seat of power.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.