A visionary leader in a time of great turmoil

When the cardinals chose Alessandro Farnese, a member of an aristocratic and notable Roman family, to succeed Pope Clement VII as Pope Paul III in 1534, the known world was in a state of flux.

Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg and criticized Rome on a wide variety of issues, beginning with the sale of papal indulgences.

“This was the age of the printing revolution.  For the first time a technology existed which could spread the ideas rapidly across the whole of Europe, which could take theology out of the monastic cloister or the university lecture-room into the market place. Within a matter of months, Luther was the most famous man in Germany. As the church authorities moved against him, he abandoned the indulgence issue and launched an attack on the whole range of Catholic teaching and practice. If faith was everything, and faith comes from the Word preached and the Scriptures read, then reliance on priests, sacraments, hierarchy, was all in vain” (Saints and Sinners, 201).

Farnese was the oldest of the cardinals, exceedingly intelligent, diplomatically experienced, the explicit favorite of his predecessor, and so a logical choice to lead the church in such a time of tremendous turmoil.

While not sympathetic to the “Reformation,” Paul recognized the certain need for ecclesial reform. Corruption, nepotism, lax formation and poor spiritual direction had sapped the church of much of her vitality in the decades leading up to his election. Paul convened a council to address these issues, as well as the criticisms of others that “protested” the current state of the church, whether from without (such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli) or within (like the forward-looking Venetian cardinal Gasparo Contarini and Henry VIII’s cousin Reginald Pole). Because the geography of such a meeting was a delicate issue among the European powers of France and the German Emperor, Paul shrewdly chose the northern Italian city of Trent as a compromise location.

Paul’s council, which would continue intermittently through the next five pontificates, addressed many of the disputed points of the period with clarity and precision. Doctrinal articulations were formed surrounding debates on justification, transubstantiation, purgatory, and sacramental theology.  Practical reforms ensued as well – the erection of seminaries, improved preaching techniques, the elimination of many immoral and superstitious ecclesiastical abuses. In the council’s wake, the church became a more stable, organized and institutional entity than ever before.

Paul III also left an imprint on the artistic and historic landscape of Catholicism. It was he who decided to appoint Michelangelo as chief architect for the then-unfinished St. Peter’s Basilica and to complete his Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel. Paul had been tutored in the Florentine house of Il Magnifico, Lorenzo de Medici, as had Michelangelo and the future Medici Pope Leo X, six years his younger.  His portrait by Titian is widely regarded as a masterpiece. He also approved the religious order of an inspired and eccentric ex-soldier named Ignatius of Loyola.

While Paul was prone to some of the financial and personal papal indiscretions common to the period, he cannot be denied to have an important and lasting impact on the history of the church.  Trent’s teachings, and their impact on Catholic and Protestant thought, resounded for centuries. When taken into consideration with his military, organizational and artistic contributions, one can see why the Catholic Encyclopedia maintains it is “forced to confess that his reign was one of the most fruitful in the annals of the church.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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