Jeremy Irons makes a delicious villain. From Simon Gruber in Die Hard With A Vengeance to voicing Scar in Lion King, the sly Englishman recently added to his cast of baddies Pope Alexander VI: Rodrigo Borgia.
One of the most corrupt of Renaissance popes, Alexander VI rose to power through bribery and thuggery. Open about his various sexual adventures, he enriched his children and used them as pawns to gain more power, wealth and influence.
Alexander VI was hated by the powerful Medicis of Florence, so after his death in 1503, and the papacy of the Warrior Pope Julius, the Medicis stepped in and dominated the papacy for the next three decades. Their reign rivaled Alexander’s for a greedy, decadent and sumptuous lifestyle.
You might remember the sixteenth century was one of enormous upheaval, turmoil, genius and crisis. This was the age of amazing new inventions and stunning achievement. Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Shakespeare all belong to this century. Henry VIII was fighting with the pope for permission to marry Anne Boleyn while Martin Luther was raising the religious rabble in Germany.
The political and religious situation was tense. The whole of Europe was embroiled in revolution and transition. and meanwhile the Renaissance popes fiddled while Rome burned. Not exactly. The Medici Pope Clement VII didn’t fiddle while Rome was sacked and burned, but he did flee for his life as his Swiss guards were massacred.
But then, when the tide had turned, the popes and cardinals went back to the same old same old.
A Catholic priest friend of mine commented about the current situation in the Catholic Church,“We’re in a sixteenth century situation.”
Sex and Power
Many believe Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 because he was confronted with the evidence that the Vatican was riddled with sexual immorality and financial corruption. In 2017 Italian police raided a property on Vatican territory and discovered the personal secretary of a cardinal involved in a cocaine fuelled gay orgy. Meanwhile reports emerged of an Italian archbishop, Vincenzo Paglia, who plastered his cathedral with a huge mural celebrating homosexuality.
Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate, but when Frederic Martel published In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy earlier this year, the curtain was raised on the reality of the rampant sexual activity among the clergy.
One of the highest ranking prelates to be disgraced was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Said to be one of the kingmakers in the 2013 election of Pope Francis, McCarrick was the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC and even after his retirement, continued to be a powerful fundraiser and globe trotting diplomat.
McCarrick was accused of molesting young seminarians and had been implicated in several child abuse scandals. Apparently his activities were well known in church circles, and his various proteges like Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, were accused of covering McCarrick’s tracks.
Money, Money Money
Where there is sexual impropriety there is always financial skulduggery. Another one of McCarrick’s buddies was Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia. Blessed with an unusual amount of money in the diocesan accounts, Bransfield had no problems spending it lavishly. This article from the Washington Post outlines Bransfield’s Renaissance Rome lifestyle. Here are a few choice morsels:
It was billed as a holy journey, a pilgrimage with West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to “pray, sing and worship” at the National Shrine in Washington. Catholics from remote areas of one of the nation’s poorest states paid up to $190 for seats on overnight buses and hotel rooms.
Unknown to the worshipers, Bransfield traveled another way. He hired a private jet and, after a 33-minute flight, took a limousine from the airport. The church picked up his $6,769 travel bill.
That trip in September 2017 was emblematic of the secret history of Bransfield’s lavish travel. He spent millions of dollars from his diocese on trips in the United States and abroad, records show, while many of his parishioners struggled to find work, feed their families and educate their children.
Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.
Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.
Where did the money come from? Like the Renaissance popes it was revenue from property holdings.
In West Virginia, Bransfield took responsibility for a vast diocese in great need. Nearly 1 in 5 state residents lived in poverty, the opioid epidemic was spreading and even coal mining jobs — a mainstay of West Virginia’s hardscrabble economy — were hard to come by.
Bransfield had access to an obscure source of riches. More than a century ago, a New York heiress donated land in West Texas to the West Virginia diocese. The land turned out to be rich with oil, generating annual revenue of almost $15 million in recent years.
Bransfield did not call attention to that revenue publicly, but the diocese drew on it to cover his travel expenses and other personal spending, according to the confidential investigative report. During his 13 years in West Virginia, Bransfield spent $4.6 million on renovations to his church residence, almost $140,000 at restaurants, $62,000 on jewelry, and thousands on alcohol, the report shows.
Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
St Francis famously took a vow of absolute poverty, chastity and obedience. In doing so he was following the example of Jesus who wasn’t married, claimed that “he had no place to lay his head” and that he only came to “do the will of his heavenly Father.”
Those who follow in the path of St Francis are also expected to observe complete chastity and poverty. However, not all Catholic clergy are Franciscans. Priests and bishops are permitted to own possessions. If we earn money we can enjoy the good things of life.
However, we’re supposed to observe a simple and contented way of life, always remembering those who are less well off. It is certainly true that wealth, on its own, is not an evil. The New Testament teaches that it is the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil, not the money.
The problem with Bishop Bransfield is that he was spending money that he hadn’t earned. The woman who gave the land in Texas did not do so in order to provide jets and limousines for the bishop. She gave it for the work of the Lord in the diocese and by “Lord” she did not mean the Lord Bishop.
That Bishop Bransfield spent the money on luxuries for himself and his friends is bad enough, but the fact that he was the bishop of an impoverished rural diocese is even worse. What if the income from that land in West Texas were invested in the parishes, schools and evangelization of the people of West Virginia?
Now here’s the real kicker. Like the Renaissance popes who didn’t really think there was a problem-neither does Bransfield.
When confronted with his ridiculously lavish lifestyle he made excuses. It is the same old story from the usual suspects: defend, deny, deflect. Defend, deny and deflect.
Bransfield said “other people on his staff made the hotel bookings.” Then he played the victim, “When I was told I was being relieved of my ministry it was the worst day of my life.”
Why I’m Still a Catholic
I write this as a Catholic priest. I’m disgusted and dismayed by the Renaissance lifestyle of some of our bishops and clergy. It hurts me to read about the hypocrisy and double standards, and I can understand why so many Catholics have pulled out of our church.
But I’m staying.
I’m staying because I’ve read history and realize that corruption, immorality and hypocrisy have always been part of the church. Peter denied Jesus, Judas betrayed Jesus to his death and church history is riddled with failures, denials and betrayals of the faith. Furthermore, I realize corruption, immorality and hypocrisy are part of every church and every religion.
But I also realize the vast majority of religious people are not corrupt and immoral. Most of the priests and church leaders are good, faithful men and women, and the ordinary people in the pew are down to earth, honest, hard working believers. They’re not perfect, but they’re working on it.
Furthermore, while I’m aware of the hypocrisy and corruption of religious people, I’m also aware of the huge amount of good they do. Christian believers worldwide continue to care for the sick, fight for the poor, stand up for justice, campaign for life, educate children, house the orphans and fight for peace.
Sure, we’re a work in progress. We’re not there yet. But if it is anything, the church is a refuge for broken brothers and sisters, not a gallery of perfectly pristine people. As Pope Francis has said, “The church is a field hospital for the wounded.” Life is a struggle, and faith is the main weapon in the battle for goodness, truth and beauty.
Then I realize that I’m mixed up in this wrestling match between good and evil just like everyone else. I don’t always live up to the high standard, so I can’t pass judgment on others. They might be unrepentant criminals, rogues and rapscallions all, but they’re not going to stop me doing my best to follow the Master.
Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest in South Carolina. Browse his books and follow his blog and podcasts at dwightlongenecker.com
An earlier version of this article appeared at Patheos.com.