In Canto 19, we enter upon the third “bolgia” of the eighth circle of Hell wherein are punished the “simonists”. Who are these sinners? “Simonists” are those who buy their way into a position of power in the Church. They are named after Simon Magus, a biblical figure we find in Acts 8:9-24. There Simon is described as a magician—hence the surname “Magus”. But the sin of dabbling in magic was not the main sin he was remembered for in the Church’s tradition. Rather, he was remembered for trying to buy spiritual power. Becoming enamored of St. Peter’s ability to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit, Simon offers Peter money to obtain the same power for himself. Of course Peter denounces Simon’s sin in no uncertain terms. He says, “May your money perish with you!”—in effect, “You and your money can go to Hell!” And this is exactly where Dante places Simon and his “followers”, the simonists. It is also important to take note of various post-biblical traditions about Simon Magus. One tradition, found in ancient apocryphal texts such as the Acts of Peter, holds that a number of years after the incident related in Acts 8, Simon and Peter had a confrontation in Rome in which Simon, by the power of the Devil, levitated into the air to prove to the Romans that he was a god. It is just when Simon is in midair that St. Peter prays, causing Simon to fall to the ground. Might Simon’s traditional fall to the ground be one of the images lying behind Dante’s depiction of the simonists of the third bolgia as planted head first in the ground? In any event, Dante devotes Canto 19 to the condemnation of the simonists of his 14th century Italy.
One such simonist is Pope Nicholas III with whom Dante has a conversation. At first, Pope Nicholas mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface VIII, another simonist who is slated to be arriving at the third bolgia in the near future. For Dante, while Pope Nicholas III was a sinner, Pope Boniface VIII was public enemy number one. Born Benedetto Caetani, Boniface quickly rose through the ranks of the Church becoming Pope after the abdication of Celestine V in 1294. Boniface meddled in Florentine politics and squelched one of the guilds long held sacred to Dante and his family.
After Dante clears up Nicholas’ confusion, Nicholas informs Dante that he foresees the damnation not only of Boniface VIII, but also Clement V—an even more corrupt pope, “one uglier in deeds…a lawless shepherd from the west” [line 82]. Because Clement was a native of France, his election to the Papacy was supported by King Philip IV of France, and it was under Clement’s reign in 1309 that the Church witnessed the beginning of the Avignon Papacy, a deed considered so abhorrent to Dante that he envisions Clement as the worst of the 14th century popes.
Dante clearly decried the wholesale secularization of the Church in the 14th century, especially what appeared to him to be a conspiracy between Church and State for benefit of those in ecclesiastical power. It was this collusion between the sacred and the secular that Dante witnessed with utter disdain.
Throughout its history the Church has had to be both “of” and “not of” this world. Sadly there have been many instances when the less than altruistic values of a secular society have made their way into the Catholic Church through the offices of certain clerics. And today too, this is still a temptation. In our modern western culture, the sacred often takes second place to the secular. Such goals as profit margins, personal pleasure, fame and fortune are the messages plaguing the airways and social media. Church leaders today too can fall under the spell of such secular sirens, failing to live up to their sacred vocations.
Luckily, though, we have also seen the courageous actions of our Holy Father Pope Francis, as he attempts a series of reforms within the Vatican Bank establishing the Secretariat for the Economy. Pope Francis ordered the establishment of the secretariat in a ‘motu proprio’, Fidelis dispensator et prudens, published on 24 February 2014. Within the Roman Curia, after the Secretariat of State, the Secretariat for the Economy is the second dicastery specially named as a secretariat, an indication of its importance relative to other parts of the Curia. The administration of the patrimony of the Apostolic See was also transferred to this new Secretariat. Clearly Pope Francis wants to safeguard the integrity of the Church at the same time the Church deals with the mundane issues of a global financial economic system. Like Dante, Pope Francis is critical of worldly power and concerns eclipsing the sacred. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Francis has recommended we read the Divine Comedy across the Year of Mercy.
Fr. George Heyman, Ph.D. has been a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 34 years. Currently he is the President and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, NY. In addition to his teaching responsibilities in the area of biblical studies and early Christian origins, he is also Director of Professional Development and Ministerial Certification for the Diocese of Rochester.