Unam Sanctam: Power, Corruption and the Eighth Circle of Hell
by Renegade Sleuth
All throughout time flesh and blood mortals have told the masses to surrender their power and better judgement. Whether politician, monarch or spiritual leader they preach that all should follow their lead, often against their own interests and into bloody conflicts, as they have a direct line to God.
Whether it be the evangelical Christian George Bush, who in 2002 prior to invading Iraq, publicly placed America on the side of the “angels” telling West Point graduates “We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name,” or the too numerous to name monarchs and spiritual leaders who have invoked God’s name even as they send those on the lower rungs of their pyramids of power, to cloud the world in misery and stain the earth red with bloodshed.
Power struggles among elites often bear the hallmark of evil acts carried out because men (almost exclusively) are fighting over land, precious resources or status. The pursuit and maintenance of power has seen many, proclaimed holy men and otherwise, behave with the dishonest, greedy, cynicism described in Niccolo Machiavelli’s book The Prince.
In his political treatise Machiavelli sets out to tell his readers how to secure and maintain power. He recommends that “The successful prince must be dishonest and immoral when it suits him.” He concludes “We see from recent experience that those princes who have accomplished most paid little heed to keeping their promises, but knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”
Two centuries before The Prince was first published in 1513 there was a man who wanted it all and wanted it now.
In the early 14th Century a power struggle between flesh and blood men spilled over into a Latin decree which was designed to leave no room for doubt as to where supreme power rested on God’s earth - It was declared that it lay in the head of a man who was born in a town called Anagni, near Rome, and wore a hat shaped like the mouth of fish.
On the 18th November 1302 Benedetto Caitani AKA Pope Boniface VIII (the Eighth) issued a Papal Bull (decree from the pope which is deemed to be a legislative act by the Roman Catholic Church) called Unam Sanctam, the most extreme statement of papal spiritual supremacy ever made.
Unam Sanctam, which translates from Latin as One Holy, in this context meaning One Holy (Church) is a lengthy bill which ends thus ‘we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.’
Elsewhere in the Bull it’s made clear that outside of the ‘Church’ there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins and that ‘of the one and only Church there is one body and one head (the pope), not two heads like a monster.’
The Bull also refers to the ‘Church’ having two swords in its power, namely the spiritual and the temporal (relating to the material world). Uman Sanctam declared ‘For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish terrestrial power and to pass judgment if it has not been good.’ As the latest successor of the First Pope, St Peter, this meant that Pope Boniface VIII sat in judgement over everyone including those bothersome warmongering monarchs Philip IV (the Fourth), King of France and Edward I (the First), King of England.
In fact Unam Sanctam was just the latest in a long line of Bulls which had been drafted to increase Boniface’s power over spiritual and civil matters. In part Boniface had drafted Bulls to stop the reigning monarchs of the day, in France and England, from taxing the clergy to pay for conflict between the two nations.
Philip IV (known as Philip the Fair) was enraged by Uman Sanctam and the previous Bulls as he saw no difference between his war taxes and the taxes levied on the clergy with papal blessing to fund The Crusades.
It’s important to note that Unam Sanctam leaves no space for those who like to practice without a middle man or ‘Great Leader’. The Bull is not mystic friendly, that is to say those who believe they can find communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight are clearly damned.
Speaking of damnation Pope Boniface, who had just declared himself to be the supreme power on earth because of his closeness to God and informed all and sundry to worship through him and his ‘Church’ alone, was about to face charges of poisoning, conspiracy, sodomy and devil worship.
Philip the Fair decided Boniface’s bid to increase papal power was well, not fair, so he had the Dominican Jean Quidort issue a refutation (declaring that the Bull was hollow and misguided). Tit for tat, Boniface excommunicated the French King.
Tit for tat, Philip calls an assembly in which 29 accusations against the Pope are made, including infidelity, heresy (holding a belief that is at odds with established beliefs or customs), simony (trafficking for money in spiritual things), gross and unnatural immorality, idolatry (a negative term for the worship of an image of anyone or anything but the true God in Roman Catholic eyes), magic, loss of the Holy Land (geographic area encompassing modern day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Syria), and the death of his predecessor Celestine V (the Fifth).
Pope Boniface VII was elected on December 24th, 1294 after the pious yet incompetent Pope Celestine V abdicated (possibly due to Boniface’s own insistence). Upon becoming pope Boniface celebrated his new found power by sentencing Celestine to prison in the Castle of Fumone, where the old man was mistreated and died ten months later.
Boniface denounced the 29 charges but it was too late. On 7th September 1303, King Philip’s advisor Guillaume de Nogaret led two thousand mercenaries on horse and foot who attacked the palaces of the Pope and his nephew at the papal residence at Anagni.
In the face of the onslaught almost everyone fled from the Pope’s side, including his attendants and his nephew, only the Cardinal of Santa Sabina remained at his side to the end.
The palace was plundered and Boniface was nearly killed, Nogaret prevented his troops from murdering the Pope. Boniface was mistreated and held prisoner for three days during which time no one brought him food or drink. Eventually the townsfolk expelled the marauders and Boniface pardoned those who were captured. On 13th September 1303 the Pope returned to Rome.
However, he didn’t get to spend much time in Rome. The profoundly shaken Pope developed a violent fever and died less than a month after his arrival on 11th October 1303.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the death of Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 was that - according to the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri - they had been expecting him deep underground in the Eighth Circle of Hell for three full years.
In the Inferno (Hell), part 1 of Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy the given starting date is the night before Good Friday 1300. In the Inferno popes who are corrupt have a special place reserved for them. They are thrust head down into a furnace. When the next bad pope dies he is crammed into the same furnace forcing the last victim further down.
In the visionary poem Dante travels down through nine circles of hell with the Roman Pagan poet Virgil as a guide.
In the Eighth Circle which deals with fraud including simony this unfolds:
“Is that you here already upright? Is that you here already upright Boniface? By many years the book has lied to me,” In an act of poetic justice Dante has the tortured soul of the late Pope Nicholas III (the Third) mistake him for Boniface VIII newly arrived to take his place in hell, head down in a furnace, ahead of time.
Dante was sickened by Pope Boniface’s insatiable desire for power which cost Dante his home and led to his exile from the city of his birth.
Desperate to maintain control of Florence where the White Guelphs, Dante’s party, wanted more freedom from Rome, Pope Boniface paid the sum of 70,000 Florins to Charles of Valois, a French Prince.
The down payment saw the troops of Charles of Valois surround Florence on November 1st 1301, enabling the Black Guelphs, who supported increased papal power, led by Florentine Corso Donati to sack the city.
Dante had been detained in Rome, where he had gone to argue the case of the White Guelphs and Florence before Boniface himself, so he was spared the day of violence which was the prelude to a series of purges and show trials.
Corso and his men sacked houses Dante’s among them, and eliminated everyone who opposed them.
In Florence the new city council began a purge of all its enemies. Dante was an obvious target. The original sentence was exile, the trumped up charge was bribery and other crimes but before he had time to return to Florence it had already been increased to death by burning. Dante could never go home again.
Dante’s treatise Monarchia attempted to refute the papacy’s claim that the spiritual sword had power over the temporal sword. Dante pointed out that the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (who Dante saw as a counterweight to papal power) were both human, and as such no peer should have power over another peer.
In Dante’s opinion only a higher power could judge the two ‘equal swords’ as each was given power by God to rule over their respected domains.
Dante’s idea that no peer should have power over another peer is worth expanding on, especially in cases were leaders call for others to carry out violence on their behalf, whether in the name of God or otherwise.
The American linguist Noam Chomsky asserts that authority, unless justified, is inherently illegitimate, and that the burden of proof is on those in authority. If this burden can’t be met, the authority in question should be dismantled.
One last note on Pope Boniface VIII, it was he who declared the first Jubilee or Holy Year in 1300. Tens of thousands of pilgrims converged on Rome to gain indulgences, adding enormously to the prestige of the papacy and the spiritual centrality of Rome. All who visited St Peter’s or St John Lateran cathedrals that year after confessing their sins were promised full and copious pardon. The exercise caught the imagination of Europe enriching Rome’s churches so much that the sacristans (officers charged with looking after the room for sacred vessels, the church and their contents) had to scoop in the pilgrim offerings with rakes.
The crime: Simony, trafficking for money in spiritual things.
The punishment, as dealt by Dante: To be thrust head down into a furnace, waiting to be crammed further down when the next corrupt pope comes to take your place.