Reconstruction of Dante’s face, at the Anfiteatro de Villa in Costa Rica. Wikimedia Commons

Many Catholics have come to reject liberalism. They see the ruins of postmodern culture – its atomization, its rejection of the transcendent, its radical individualism – and identify liberalism as its cause. They argue our cultural decay is too great, and it requires radical solutions, and so they say we will be unable to reverse secularization unless we overthrow liberalism. Their solution to this is to put the Church in charge of the temporal order, a solution often referred to as “integralist.”

Dante Aligheri, author of The Divine Comedy, would likely take issue with this, because he was able to see first-hand how bad the Church was at governing. Dante was not just a great poet, but also a statesman and political philosopher, notably having written Monarchia, a text in which he discussed the nature of religious and political authority. Dante was also deeply involved in the affairs of the Republic of Florence, particularly with the clash between the White Guelphs, who favored less papal involvement and tended to welcome the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the opposite. Dante allied with the White Guelphs, which ultimately led to his exile.

In short, Dante was unlike a lot of twenty-first century writers and poets who tend to have beautiful prose and lines but quixotic politics. Instead, Dante was a nimble and interesting political thinker who, through his belief that the medieval Church was too involved in temporal affairs and that the political and spiritual should inform each other, seemed to anticipate such twentieth century Catholic political thinkers as the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Dante, by Adolfo de Carolis, 1920s

We can get a sense of Dante’s view of politics by doing a close reading of The Divine Comedy, a poem he intended to be viewed as a work of political philosophy. We’ll examine three sections of the poem: Dante’s colloquy with Boniface – Dante the poet (I’m phrasing it this way to distinguish the author from the character) and his presentation of the lowest circle of hell – and Dante’s argument in the Purgatorio that men behave badly when they are governed badly.

But before I begin in earnest, I’d like to turn to Ernest Fortin, A.A.’s seminal study of Dante’s politics, Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, in which he presents readers with not only Dante’s thought but also a history of medieval political and religious thinking. Fortin argues that Dante’s chief political project was to understand how both Church and state relate to one another. He says:

Dante has no more pressing concern than to show that the emperor receives his authority directly from God and that consequently he exercises it by his own sovereign right and not in the name of the Church. His argument begins from the principle that man has two ends: one natural and the other supernatural. The knowledge required for him to attain them comes to him through two bodies endowed for this purpose by divine wisdom: the imperial authority and the Church. The first leads to happiness in this world through philosophical instruction, the second to eternal happiness through spiritual teaching.

Fortin, p82

In the Middle Ages, though, there was no clear-cut definition of Church and state, the Church claimed a significant amount of power for itself. Consider, for instance, the Papal States. And Dante’s contemporary, Pope Boniface VII, in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, argued instead “for the total submission of princes to the sovereign pontiff.” Fortin says the question of the “two powers” of authority “absorbed Dante’s attention in great part.” (p81) And because Boniface VII, through his papal bull, essentially merged these authorities, Dante viewed him with scorn. He referred to him as “the prince of the new Pharisees” and a “usurper.” (p89)

Fortin suggests Dante believed that the Church, essentially, was too focused on the temporal. But there is also clear historical evidence of this. Fortin reminds us that Rome had “a habit of forging political alliances for its own aggrandizement” which had “the double effect of giving a bad example to its own followers and of neutralizing any effort which the temporal power could make to moderate its subjects’ worldly ambitions.” (p88) In fact, according to Fortin, Dante sought to depict the medieval Church, particularly the papacy, as “Geryon, the fabulous beast on whose shoulders Dante and Virgil pass from the seventh to the eighth circle of hell.” Fortin says:

The monster is invested with the most extraordinary features: he crosses mountains, pierces the thickest walls, destroys powerful armies, and afflicts the whole world. What does he represent? Fraud perhaps, as the text suggests in speaking of him as a “filthy effigy of fraud.” Sins of fraud are in fact punished in the infamous Malebolge the two travelers are about to enter. But the author seems to have something else in mind. If there is any institution in the Middle Ages whose power penetrates everywhere, shatters weapons and fortresses, and makes itself felt beyond mountains, it is the Church. Could it be that in the monster’s features Dante sought to depict the abomination that the medieval papacy had become for him?

Fortin, p89

The answer, of course, is yes. Fortin writes that, in Dante’s description of Geryon, “there is no mistaking the description of the animal’s body, which recalls very nicely the papal vestments of the time, the sleeves of which were covered with ermine and the sides decorated with knotted strips and medallions.” (p90)

Dante’s view of both Boniface and the medieval institutional Church—and, consequently, what happens when the Church becomes too interested in temporal affairs—becomes clear in Canto XIX of the Inferno, where we meet the aforementioned pope. Boniface is in one of the lowest circles of hell, in a space reserved for the simoniacal. The character of Dante denounces him, saying that his “avarice afflicts the world” and that it “tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” (p140) This is essentially an inversion of what we would normally read in the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” What Dante is saying here is that a Church that has become too focused on the here and now, a Church that has made itself “a god of gold and silver” (p140), is a Church that has diluted and even perverted its mission and so has become too interested in power qua power. 

Perhaps this is why Dante places Brutus, Cassius, and Judas at the lowest circle of hell, chewed by Satan. Brutus and Cassius, of course, betrayed Julius Caesar, leading to his assassination. And Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities, leading to his arrest and crucifixion. We might posit that this is Dante’s ultimate warning to the medieval Church—it has become like what it once stood against. Becoming too focused on political intrigue and power for the sake of power leads you to betray friends and confidants. It can even lead you to betray God himself. Ultimately, it all leads to damnation.

But this is something Dante too had to learn, since his involvement in the clash between the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs eventually led to his exile. Dante likely spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of things, and perhaps he authored The Divine Comedy as a means of sharing his reflections and to correct certain errors he had perceived. In Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Fortin says that Dante intended The Divine Comedy to be a work of political philosophy, his “aim” being

…none other than to teach men how they are to live or how they might leave the state of misery in which they languish for a better and happier state, or, as the Comedy states, how one goes from slavery to freedom, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity. Moreover, Dante was convinced that of all the senses to be found in his work, none was more useful than its moral sense.

Fortin, pps59-60

Dante, then, seems to have come to believe that the various disorders of the period were due to bad governance, which had handicapped human flourishing. And therein lies the paradox of the medieval Church, against which Dante had directed so much ire, in an attempt to get it to do better: the institution that should lead to human flourishing, since it was created by God Himself, in the form of Christ, was preventing it, because it had developed a horizontal gaze. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, Marco Lombardo says as much, telling Dante:

Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be malevolent; your nature is not corrupt, not prey to any fatal astral force. For Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns; and they made visible two paths – the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s. One has eclipsed the other; now the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together must of necessity result in evil

Purgatorio, XV1, lines 103-111

So Dante the author is saying that the various pathologies we can see in public life are not due to fate or to ‘the gods,’ but instead due to the misrule of the Church. It had “confounded two powers in itself,” which “must of necessity [have resulted] in evil.” (Fortin, p291)

Dante’s solution to this is to ask the Church, clerics and lay, to do better and to forget about its entanglements in political and worldly affairs. (Again, we can imagine that this is also self-directed, since Dante’s political projects brought him to his exile.) In the Paradiso, we observe that Beatrice counsels Christians to “proceed with greater gravity: do not be like a feather at each wind, nor think that all immersions wash you clean. You have both Testaments, the Old and New, you have the shepherd of the Church to guide you; you need no more than this for your salvation.” (p400) She warns Christians to not heed the summons of “evil greed” and to not be “like sheep gone mad.” (p400) And later in the Paradiso, in Canto IX, Cunizza da Romano says that “the pope and cardinals are intent. Their thoughts are never bent on Nazareth.” (p422) But she suggests things will change, noting that “the hill of Vatican as well…will soon be freed from priests’ adultery.” (p422)

Ultimately, it seems Dante wants the Church to be the Church and leave the governing to the nations – they can work together, but the Church had absorbed too much authority, becoming, as Fortin observed in his reading of Dante, a monstrous distortion of what it was and is supposed to be. In this way, Dante is not unlike John Courtney Murray, who had argued that the religious liberty of the United States was not a threat to the Church but would rather help it, in that it would allow people to pursue the good life properly, without coercion from an authority such as the Papal States.

Placing states in the hands of the Church means bad governance, which Dante demonstrates both in The Divine Comedy and other texts. Rather than bring about a kind of quasi-perfect state, wherein citizens would be totally directed toward God, who is Goodness, the power of governing would corrupt the Church, making it too interested in worldly affairs and thereby corrupt the people, who would become afflicted by all sorts of pathologies. So advocates of integralism might consider revisiting Dante Aligheri and his Divine Comedy. There they can see the results of their political-theological project. And then, rather than attempt to turn the Church into an empire, they might encourage it – its clerics, its religious, and its lay – to do and be better, so that they could go out and bring the peace and joy of the Gospel to the world yet again.

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