The church of the twenty-first century is no stranger to the word "scandal," with headlines on a weekly, even daily basis, dealing with sexual abuse by priests and the Church's past tendency to cover up these failings. Often reporters remark on the "surprising" faithfulness of devout Roman Catholics to their Church despite the abuses of some of their priests—actions that have obviously hurt and damaged family members and friends. To Dante, however, these failings and what appears to be the paradoxical faithfulness of Church members would be neither remarkable nor contradictory.
Living in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Dante was fully aware of the sinfulness of members of the Church on earth—the Church visible—and, at the same time, deeply committed to the Church invisible, existing in heaven but including also all the faithful members of the Church on earth, the Body of Christ. In fact, The Divine Comedy can be seen as Dante's exploration of how both Churches—visible and invisible—exist together and how a faithful believer needs to affirm the Church rooted in heaven by relentlessly confronting the evil of the Church visible, wherever and [End Page 17] whenever it appears. It is confessing and repenting of sin, not hiding from it, that leads to salvation.1 This is the great lesson of The Divine Comedy, a lesson that is crucial to the life of the Church today.
Dante's confrontation with the sinfulness of his own Church probably begins at the very threshold of hell, in the whirling mass of souls who are "hateful to God and to His enemies"2 because they have chosen neither good nor ill. Among them Dante recognizes "the shade of him/ who made, through cowardice, the great refusal" (Canto III, 60). This line is widely believed to refer to Pope Celestine V, although not all scholars agree. According to Charles Singleton, in his commentary on Canto III, this belief was generally held by the earliest commentators, including Pietro di Dante, son of the poet, who wrote,
I believe he places among them Frate Pietro da Morrone, who is known as Pope Celestine V. He could have led as holy and as spiritual a life in the papacy as he had in his hermitage: and yet, he pusillanimously renounced the papacy, which is the seat of Christ.
Celestine abdicated the papal throne so that he might go to a monastery. A humble man, Celestine felt unfit for the papacy and longed for the life of a monk, focusing on God alone. He was canonized in 1313. However, his "refusal" of the papal crown led to the ascendancy of Benedetto Caetani, Boniface VIII, a man whom Dante believed to be completely wicked and who was the pope reigning during the fictional time of the Divine Comedy (that is, at 1300).3 If Celestine is indeed the person described here, Dante is interpreting his abdication as a cowardly act of selfishness, not the act of humility and devotion it is now believed to have been. Celestine is placed among those who have made no choice, either for or against God—the souls linked in damnation to the "neutral" angels who neither rebelled overtly nor made a choice for God. Michael D. Aeschliman, in a lecture published in Lectura Dantis, argues that the entire modern [End Page 18] culture of nihilism, rooted in lack of belief, follows in the same kind of whirling wind as these sinners in Canto III.4 For our purposes, however, the key point here is that Dante's introduction to hell most likely includes a glimpse of a pope among these damned souls, and this ambiguous reference only paves the way for his later scathing and explicit denunciations of other popes and clerics in the three books, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
The most notorious of the religious leaders denounced by Dante is Boniface VIII, mentioned above in the context of Celestine's abdication. To Dante, Boniface represents all that is corrupt in his contemporary Church, and he is placed in Hell in the circle of the Simoniacs (Canto XIX). Dante begins...