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Erasmus’ Criticism of Popes = Today’s Pope-Bashing?

Erasmus’ Criticism of Popes = Today’s Pope-Bashing? November 10, 2021

The influential and important, self-described “traditionalist” website One Peter Five has taken lately to describing its endorsement of rather aggressive and pointed papal criticism as “in the spirit of Erasmus“: the great 16th century satirist, classicist, linguist, and reformer. Thus, an “Editor’s Note” at the beginning of the article, “The Francis Pontificate is the Catechism of Hypocrisy” (J. Basil Dannebohm, 8-25-21) states:

Editor’s note: OnePeterFive is publishing the following commentary, written in the spirit of Erasmus, whose sardonic critique of the Renaissance papacy was critical for provoking long-delayed and long-denied reform in the Church. Some Catholic authors condemn him for his acerbic attacks, while others recognize that by provoking his contemporaries to righteous indignation at the ecclesiastical corruption, a necessary response from churchmen was finally obtained. Telling the truth for the sake of the faith is an act of charity, yet there are times when the truth can, per accidens, be a cause of others committing sins of impiety against superiors, but this is not the fault of the truth, but rather of reacting to it or acting upon it in the wrong way. Rather, when we realize the depth of our difficulties, we should be prompted to cry out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. We forgive our enemies and pray for our persecutors without ceasing to recognize that they are enemies and persecutors for as long as they resist the truth. [the original was in all italics]

The first link is to In Praise of Folly: Erasmus’ famous satirical work, originally written in 1511 and revised frequently up till 1532. This is the understanding that the writers of One Peter Five have of themselves; how they conceptualize and justify their own very serious papal criticisms. On 19 April 2018, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, one of the main writers at 1P5, invoked the great man in the midst of his typically derisive attacks on the Pauline (“ordinary form”) Mass:

In his Erasmus Lecture “Evangelizing the Nones,” Bishop Barron eruditely identifies various cultural contributors to modern irreligiosity—but never mentions the elephant in the room: the dumbed-down, totally inadequate liturgy that we are supposed to pretend is at the center of our lives, but that wouldn’t be enough to sustain a false religion, let alone the true one. I suspect that Desiderius Erasmus, had he been able to hear this lecture named after him, would at least have raised a skeptical eyebrow, if not launched full-tilt into a withering satire.

Alas, the folks at 1P5 have even produced a “fictional” letter from Erasmus: speculating upon what he would supposedly say about Pope Francis’ encyclical Amoris Laetitia.

With this in mind, I’d like to take a look at In Praise of Folly: particularly the sections concerning popes and the papacy. I will be utilizing a 1922 edition (available online), published by Peter Eckler Publishing Co. in New York. I can’t find in the book the name of the translator. I shall cite the portions having to do with popes. After that, I’ll take a brief look at the notorious pope that Erasmus almost certainly had primarily in mind. Readers can then determine for themselves if the 1P5 “summoning” of Erasmus as analogous to their criticisms of Pope Francis is plausible or not. I’m simply providing the background information.

The words “pope” or “popes” appear only twelve times in this book of over 300 pages. Quite obviously, then, the pope was not the only person or thing in Erasmus’ mind, in criticizing the characteristic excesses and sins of the time (many of which helped foment the Protestant Revolution, but by no means the only or even primary causes).

It should also be noted that In Praise of Folly is not Erasmus’ final word on the papacy in general. Erasmus was faithful to the Church, just as earlier papal critics like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena had been. In his later works, he clearly saw what the so-called “Protestant Reformation” was leading to and was a scathing critic of it, far more so than he had been (with the best of intentions) with regard to the Catholic Church and her popes. He also wrote the following about popes:

I approve of those who stand by the Pope, but I could wish them to be wiser than they are. . . . Many great persons have entreated me to support Luther. I have answered always that I will support him when he is on the Catholic side. . . . I advise everyone who consults me to submit to the Pope. I was the first to oppose the publication of Luther’s books. I recommended Luther himself to publish nothing revolutionary. (To Louis Marlianus, 25 March 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 261-163)

No one has been more distressed at this Luther business than I have been. Would that I could have stopped it at the outset. . . . But it has been ill-managed from the first. It rose from the avarice of a party of monks, and has grown step by step to the present fury. The Pope’s dignity must, of course, be supported, but I wish he knew how that dignity suffers from officious fools who imagine they are defending him. (To Francis Chisigat, 11 September 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 269-270)

And when he himself [Martin Luther] wrote to me two years ago, I lovingly admonished him what I wished him to avoid; and I would he had followed my advice. This letter, I am informed, has been shown to your Holiness, I suppose in order to prejudice me, whereas it ought rather to conciliate your Holiness’s favor towards me. (To Pope Leo X, 13 September 1520, in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 72)
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I saw that it would do no good at all for you to direct your violence not only against popes and bishops . . . but also against anyone who so much as mutters anything against you. (Hyperaspistes [1526]; Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 115; I have a hardcover copy in my own library; this comment and the next four were written directly to Martin Luther, who used to love him but had turned against him by this time. See my seven-part series documenting Erasmus’ devastating refutation of Luther in 1526)

[Y]ou have so courageously scorned both popes and emperors and battalions of theologians . . . (p. 116)

I have always professed to be quite apart from your league; I am at peace with the Catholic church, to whose judgment I have submitted my writings, to detect any human error in them, for I know that they are very far from any malice or impiety. . . . It is not my place to wield the rod of judgment over the lives of popes and bishops. (p. 141)

[W]hy do you yourself not rant and rave against the emperor with savagery like that with which you assail the pope and bishops? For the emperor is a greater obstacle to your gospel than the pope. (p. 175)

I thought less badly of the man [Jan Hus] before I sampled the book he wrote against the Roman pontiff. What does such laborious abuse have in common with the Spirit of Christ? And in our discussion it does not matter what sort of pope condemned Hus; he is unknown to me, and popes have their own judge before whom they stand or fall. They are my judges; I am not theirs. (p. 230)

But now we go back fifteen years earlier to 1511 in order to ascertain the substance of Erasmus’ withering and satirical criticisms of recent popes:

And now for some reflections upon popes, cardinals, and bishops, who in pomp and splendor have almost equaled if not outdone secular princes. Now, if any one considers that their upper crochet of white linen is to signify their unspotted purity and innocence; that their forked mitres, with both divisions tied together by the same knot, are to denote the joint knowledge of the Old and New Testament; that their always wearing gloves, represents their keeping their hands clean and undefiled from lucre and covetousness; that the pastoral staff implies the care of a flock committed to their charge; that the cross carried before them expresses their victory over all carnal affections; he (I say) that considers this, and much more of the like nature, must needs conclude that they are entrusted with a very weighty and difficult office. But, alas, they think it sufficient if they can but feed them selves; and as to their flock, either commend them to the care of Christ himself, or commit them to the guidance of some inferior vicars and curates; not so much as remembering what their name of bishop imports, to wit, labor, pains, and diligence, but by base simoniacal contracts, they are in a profane sense, Episcopi, i.e., overseers of their own gain and income. . . .

Now as to the popes of Rome, who pretend themselves Christ’s vicars, if they would but imitate his exemplary life, in the being employed in an unintermitted course of preaching; in the being attended with poverty, nakedness, hunger, and a contempt of this world; if they did but consider the import of the word Pope, which signifies a father; or if they did but practice their surname of most holy, what order or degrees of men would be in a worse condition?

There would be then no such vigorous making of parties and buying of votes in the Conclave, upon a vacancy of that See: and those who by bribery, or other indirect courses, should get themselves elected, would never secure their sitting firm in the chair by pistol, poison, force, and violence.

How much of their pleasure would be abated if they were but endowed with one dram of wisdom? Wisdom, did I say? Nay, with one grain of that salt which our Savior bade them not to lose the savor of.

All their riches, all their honors, their jurisdictions, their Peter’s patrimony, their offices, their dispensations, their licenses, their indulgences, their long train of attendants (see in how short a compass I have abbreviated all their marketing of religion); in a word, all their perquisites would be forfeited and lost; and in their room would succeed watchings, fastings, tears, prayers, sermons, hard studies, repenting sighs, and a thousand such like severe penalties: nay, what’s yet more deplorable, it would then follow, that all their clerks, amanuenses, notaries, advocates, proctors, secretaries, the offices of grooms, ostlers, serving-men, pimps, (and somewhat else, which for modesty’s sake I shall not mention); in short, all these troops of attendants, which depend on his holiness, would all lose their several employments. This indeed would be hard, but what yet remains would be more dreadful: the very Head of the Church, the spiritual prince, would then be brought from all his splendor to the poor equipage of a scrip and staff.

But all this is upon the supposition only that they understood the circumstances they are placed in; whereas now, by a wholesome neglect of thinking, they live as well as heart can wish.

Whatever of toil and drudgery belongs to their office, that they assign over to St. Peter or St. Paul, who have time enough to mind it; but if there be any thing of pleasure and grandeur, that they assume to themselves, . . .

They think to satisfy that Master they pretend to serve, our Lord and Savior, with their great state and magnificence, with the ceremonies of installments, with the titles of reverence and holiness, and with exercising their episcopal function only in blessing and cursing.

The working of miracles is old and outdated; to teach the people is too laborious; to interpret scripture is to invade the prerogative of the schoolmen; to pray is too idle; to shed tears is cowardly and unmanly; to fast is too mean and sordid; to be easy and familiar is beneath the grandeur of him, who, without being sued to and intreated, will scarce give princes the honor of kissing his toe; finally, to die for religion is too self-denying; and to be crucified as their Lord of Life, is base and ignominious.

Their only weapons ought to be those of the Spirit; and of these indeed they are mighty liberal, as of their interdicts, their suspensions, their denunciations, their aggravations, their greater and lesser excommunications, and their roaring bulls, that fright whomsoever they are thundered against; and these most holy fathers never issue them out more frequently than against those, who, at the instigation of the devil, and not having the fear of God before their eyes, do feloniously and maliciously attempt to lessen and impair St. Peter’s patrimony: and though that apostle tells our Savior in the gospel, in the name of all the other disciples, we have left all and followed you, yet they challenge as his inheritance, fields, towns, treasures, and large dominions; for the defending whereof, inflamed with a holy zeal, they fight with fire and sword, to the great loss and effusion of Christian blood, thinking they are apostolical maintainers of Christ’s spouse, the church, when they have murdered all such as they call her enemies; though indeed the church has no enemies more bloody and tyrannical than such impious popes, who give dispensations for the not preaching of Christ; evacuate the main effect and design of our redemption by their pecuniary bribes and sales; adulterate the gospel by their forced interpretations, and undermining traditions; and lastly, by their lusts and wickedness grieve the Holy Spirit, and make their Savior’s wounds to bleed anew. . . .

[Y]ou shall have some popes so old that they can scarce creep, and yet they will put on a young, brisk resolution, will resolve to stick at no pains, to spare no cost, nor to waive any inconvenience, so they may involve laws, religion, peace, and all other concerns, whether sacred or civil, in unappeasable tumults and distractions. And yet some of their learned fawning courtiers will interpret this notorious madness for zeal, and piety, and fortitude, having found out the way how a man may draw his sword, and sheathe it in his brother’s bowels, and yet not offend against the commandment whereby we are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I believe this is most of what is in the book about popes, without doing some painstaking searching of many other terms. Now who is it that he was writing about? Russell Chamberlain”s book, The Bad Popes, lists eight scoundrels. The one man that Erasmus unquestionably had in mind was Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), who had died just eight years before Erasmus’ book. In his article, “Good and Bad Popes,” J. Dominguez wrote about him:

Rodrigo Borgia (A.K.A. Alexander VI) used his daughter Lucrezia getting her married with important men for political reasons … some even call him (pardon the expression) a “pimp!!!” . . . The most infamous pope in history was probably Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) who had seven illegitimate children as a cardinal, which he openly acknowledged.

The article, “The 11 most scandalous popes in history” (Caroline Praderio, Insider, 1-13-17), noted:

Alexander VI became pope in 1492 — but before then he was just Rodrigo Borgia, a member of the notorious Italian crime family the Borgias. And in true crime-family fashion, he used money to buy his way into the papacy.

He also had several mistresses and fathered at least nine illegitimate children — possibly as a result of hosting orgies.

During his pre-papacy stint as a church cardinal, Alexander VI received a letter from Pope Pius II condemning him for hosting “several ladies of Sienna” late at night. “We have heard that the most licentious dances were indulged in,” Pius II wrote. “Shame forbids mention of all that took place […] All Sienna is talking about this orgy.”

Another source says he hosted an orgy in 1501 called the “Joust of Whores.”

See more about one reputed orgy connected with him and/or one of his sons (historians differ on what actually happened): The Banquet of Chestnuts.

Is this comparable to the character of Pope Francis? I don’t think so at all, which is why I have defended him against what I felt were unjust and unwarranted (if not also outrageous) charges 213 times and compiled 311 further defenses of him from others. Many others today think quite differently, For example, Catholic Thomist philosophy professor Ed Feser is not exactly a fawning admirer of the Holy Father:

Usually, errant popes exhibit serious failings of only one or two sorts.  But Pope Francis seems intent on achieving a kind of synthesis of all possible papal errors. . . . might Francis next ape Pope Stephen VI by exhuming a dead one and putting the corpse on trial? Probably not.  But absolutely nothing would surprise me anymore in this lunatic period in history that we’re living through. (“Pope Victor Redux?”, 7-18-21)

Now I leave it to you, esteemed reader, to decide whether Pope Francis is in the category of an Alexander VI, and thus worthy of receiving criticism analogous to that of Erasmus: likely directed towards that moral monster.

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Photo credit: Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: Erasmus’ criticism of popes is seen as a model for the criticism lobbed today at Pope Francis: particularly at the website, One Peter Five. But is it really analogous?

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