The following is adapted from my introductory comments at our recent Saint Benedict Center conference.
One of the institutions most associated with the Renaissance Papacy was the so-called “Cardinal Nephew,” a man related to the reigning Supreme Pontiff who was created Cardinal by the pope, often unworthily and sometimes as an act of naked ecclesiastical nepotism. In fact, the word “nepotism” draws its very origin from this phenomenon, the Latin name of which is cardinalis nepos, nepos meaning nephew. The practice actually stretches back to the Middle Ages and continued until the reforms of Pope Innocent XII in 1682. And for over 100 years — 1566 to 1692 — there was a curial office in the Holy See associated with this institution, namely the Superintendent of the Ecclesiastical State, the occupant of which was generally also known as the “Cardinal Nephew.” This office was done away with in Innocent XII’s reforms, when the Secretary of State’s position was created to assume its responsibilities. Prior to the reforms, the Cardinal Nephew was the de-facto prime minister of the Pope, and often exerted great power. The institution lent itself to incredible corruption at times, including especially financial corruption, and it helped to turn the papacy into the play-thing of several powerful Italian families (e.g., Borgheses, Borgias, de Medicis, della Roveres, Barberinis, and Colonnas).
The list of cardinal-nephews includes at least fifteen, and possibly as many as nineteen popes — that is, men who went from being Cardinal Nephews to becoming the Vicars of Christ.
Of course, if you were Cesare Borgia, you didn’t need to be a nephew of the Pope’s to become a powerful cardinal; you were, rather, lineally descended from him as bastard son, thanks to the sacrilegious infidelities of Pope Alexander VI and his long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.
Why do I mention this?
Two Cardinal Nephews are canonized saints:
- Guarinus of Palestrina (+1158) was created cardinal by Pope Lucius II (1144-1145)
- Saint Charles Borromeo (+1584), the cardinal-nephew of Pope Pius IV (1559–1565)
Guarinus, an Augustinian Canon Regular, at first refused to be made a bishop, but was at last compelled to become Archbishop of Palestrina. He was a devout religious who opposed the will of his parents to embrace the clerical state. He was known for his humility and became a great patron of Palestrina’s poor. When his pope-uncle gave him rich gifts worthy of a man of his new station — the gifts included fine horses — Saint Guarinus sold them all and gave the money to the poor.
Better known than Saint Guarinus is Saint Charles Borromeo, the nephew of Pope Pius IV. After having gone on an Ignatian retreat, the young sub-deacon resolved to become a saint. Appointed to the Archdiocese of Milan as its Archbishop, he surprised everyone when he not only took the orders of diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy, but even took the trouble to live in his Archdiocese and actually minister to his flock. He was the first Archbishop of Milan to do so in eighty years, thus ending the terrible practice of episcopal absenteeism in that see, an abuse that was common in those times, as was the related abuse of multiple benefices, which was the simultaneous holding by one man of more than one, sometimes several, bishoprics, abbacies, priorates, and other ecclesiastical offices — along with the financial benefits attached to them. These abuses are commonly listed among the causes of the Protestant Revolution. They were abuses that were addressed by the Council of Trent and its subsequent reform, known properly as “the Catholic Reformation.”
Speaking of which, most of us know that Saint Charles Borromeo was called “the Soul of the Council of Trent,” and had a large share in the compiling of the Roman Catechism (also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent). He became a major figure in the reforms of the Catholic Reformation, founding seminaries for the formation of priests, and making his own Archdiocese a model of true reform. In his charity, he expended his personal wealth and even went into debt to help the victims of a plague that had broken out in Milan. He also showed great interests in the plight of persecuted English Catholics, personally hosting Saints Edmund Campion and Ralph Sherwin on their way to England, ministering to English Catholics in exile in Italy, and even carrying on his person an image of the not-yet-even-beatified Saint John Fisher.
A contemporary of Saint Charles Borromeo was Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s disciple, Saint Francis Borja, known more commonly by the Italianized form of his name, Borgia. My earlier mention of the Borja family and especially of the wicked Cesare Borgia was not a gratuitous bit of scandal mongering, but was for a purpose: In celebrating the feast of Saint Francis Borja just yesterday (October 10), the Church celebrated the man who was the fourth Duke of Gandia (in Aragon, Spain), the third Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and another major figure of the Catholic Reformation. He was also the grand-nephew of Cesare Borgia, and the great grandson of Pope Alexander VI.
We must, when coming upon such things in Church history, recall that “parable of the kingdom of heaven” known as the “parable of the wheat and the tares,” something upon which we ought to meditate from time to time.
What does all this have to do with our conference?
For this year’s conference, our speakers have been asked to address the theme, “The Church’s Four Marks: Reflections on These Indelible Divine Signs.” The reason I chose this theme was because I know how deeply afflicted and scandalized many of the faithful are at the goings on in the Church. If you have been following any of the coverage of the current Amazon Synod going on in Rome from October 6 to the 27th, then you know that it is a scandal factory. This is happening in a Church already shaken internationally by the homosexual priest scandal. Additionally, just days ago, big news of horrible financial scandals have come out of Rome, with the Vatican police force dramatically raiding the offices of Holy See’s own Secretariat of State and its Financial Information Authority (AIF). It seems that a four hundred thousand euros went missing. Moreover, the man who was tasked with the Herculean labor of cleaning out the Augean Stables of Vatican finances, Cardinal Pell, is rotting in an Australian prison, victim of a plot hatched by an alliance of his Australian and Italian enemies.
And the scandals multiply, each day’s Catholic news bringing fresh rot to our attention; so, by the time you read this, the paragraph above will be stale news.
Amid such horrors, we need to keep our minds on the supernatural truths of the Faith and to remind ourselves that the Church is a living supernatural organism that has the seeds of reform in herself. Moreover, we ought to see, love, and seek God above all things so as to be the very saints who will help reform the Church, in our own small way, in these times God has given us to live in the Church Militant.
If you were not able to join us for the conference, I highly recommend obtaining recordings of the talks.