Whenever I am fortunate enough to find myself in Florence, I make a point of visiting the Museo Nazionale di San Marco, the former 13th century Dominican convent and home to the inspirational paintings of Renaissance artist Fra’ Angelico. It’s not just Fra’ Angelico’s Annunciation, located at the top of the stairs on the first floor, or the frescoed scenes from the life of Jesus painted on the individual walls of the monks’ cells that draws me back to this place time and time again. It’s the final cell of the left corridor that beckons me like a beacon of light on a dark, stormy night.
Like John the Baptist of old, Savonarola paid the ultimate price for his outspoken opposition to an apostate religious system and a corrupt oligarchy. Pressured by the Pope on one hand, and Medicean conspirators on the other, Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were arrested on April 9th and tried on trumped up charges of heresy. Finally, on the morning of May 23rd, 1498, the three friars were led out to the Piazza della Signoria, the main square of Florence, and arraigned before a tribunal of high clerics and government officials.
In a ‘ceremony of degradation’ lasting two hours, the friars were condemned as ‘heretics, schismatics, and condemners of the Holy See’. The men were then stripped of their Dominican garments, and their hands, faces and heads were shaved. Wearing only thin white shirts, the friars were escorted to the gallows located at the end of a long wooden platform jutting out into the piazza. One by one they were hanged, whereupon their bodies were consumed by fire and their ashes were carted away and dumped in the Arno River.
The Seedbed of the Reformation
Many scholars consider Florence to be the birthplace of the Renaissance — the period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity, characterized by revolutionary developments in art, architecture, science and literature. Polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, artists like Masaccio and Botticelli, sculptors like Donatello and Ghiberti, architects like Brunelleschi, and philosophers like Machiavelli were part of the fabric of Renaissance Florence.
However, 15th century Florence could also be considered to be a seedbed of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that would find its focal point some twenty years later in the person of a little known priest and university professor at Wittenberg, Saxony (modern day Germany). In October, 1517, the priest in question, Martin Luther, composed a list of propositions for an academic disputation on the power of indulgences and sent the Theses, together with a letter, to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz.
With the aid of the newly invented printing press, the Theses were reprinted and distributed throughout Germany, and ultimately all of Europe. Although couched in terms of propositions for debate, the Theses articulated Luther’s personal opposition to the selling of plenary indulgences by the clergy. It was believed that these certificates had the power to reduce the temporal punishment in purgatory for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. The selling of indulgences was, in effect, an elaborate spiritual insurance scheme that capitalized on the superstitious beliefs and primitive fears of the proletariat — a rort that enriched the coffers of the church and the personal bank accounts of the clergy. (In 1515, for example, Pope Leo X granted a plenary indulgence for the express purpose of financing the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome).
Luther contended that true repentance consisted of an inner spiritual experience rather than an external act of conciliation. Moreover, the Theses represented Luther’s growing concern over the culture of corruption and spiritual abuse in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Indeed, during his visit to Rome in 1511, Luther was dismayed as he observed the luxurious lifestyle of many clerics, the widespread immorality in high ecclesiastical circles, and the obsessive materialism of the Roman Curia.
In certain respects Luther’s Theses echoed the concerns raised by Savonarola a generation earlier. Luther had, in fact, studied some of Savonarola’s writings, and valued the friar’s prison meditations so much that he published them twice. Luther described Savonarola as “a godly man of Florence” whom the Pope had persecuted. Indeed, Savonarola had demonstrated, albeit imperfectly, that it was possible to establish a godly republic based on the Scriptures, which would in time become one of the major aims of the Protestant Reformers.
Alexander, the Not-So-Great
In order to understand the significance of Savonarola’s ministry and its implications for the modern day church, one must consider the political and religious context of 15th century Italy. At the time of Savonarola, the Italian peninsula was dominated by city-states (large trading metropoles) such as Venice, Milan, and Florence. In addition to this, a series of territories in central Italy known as ‘Papal States’ were under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope. In effect, the Pope was one of Italy’s most important secular rulers as well as the head of the Church.
The city-state of Florence was controlled by the Medici family — a corrupt banking and political dynasty that patronized art and culture, dominated Florentine representative government, and monopolized the manufacturing industry. Ironically, it was the Medici magnate, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who facilitated Savonarola’s return to Florence and the convent of San Marco in 1490.
In 1492, the year Christopher Columbus embarked on his voyage to the New World, Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope, assuming the papal name, Alexander VI. Born near Valencia (Spain), Rodrigo adopted his mother’s family name of Borja after the election of his maternal uncle as Pope Callixtus III in 1455. Thereafter followed a series of nepotistic appointments which allowed Rodrigo to build networks of influence, and gain considerable wealth and experience. It was alleged, but not substantiated, that Rodrigo acceded to the Papal throne through simony (the bribing of cardinals with benefices and offices).
What was undeniable, however, was Rodrigo’s debauched and decadent lifestyle. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops observed that Rodrigo’s eleven-year pontificate was “the most deplorable in the whole history of Christianity” and that under his watch “the Church sank to her lowest depths of degradation.” Throughout the course of his life Rodrigo had many mistresses and fathered at least eight children, several of whom were appointed to powerful positions in the Church and the Papal states.
As to his avarice, John Julius Norwich commented: “He made no secret of the fact that he was in the Church for what he could get out of it — and he got a very great deal.” Rodrigo’s lust for wealth and power was no more clearly demonstrated than in the Inter caetera, the Papal bull (edict) that he issued on May 4th, 1493, in which he granted rights to Spain with respect to the newly discovered lands in the Americas. The Inter caetera formed the basis of the Requerimiento, the declaration of the Spanish Monarchy’s divine right to take possession of the territories of the New World, and to subjugate, exploit, and when necessary, fight the native inhabitants.
In the view of Norwich, “The last four years of Alexander’s [Rodrigo’s] pontificate were largely taken up with his own and [his son] Cesare’s ambition to appropriate the entire Papal State and turn it into a Borgia family fief.” This was the world in which Savonarola lived — a world that was about to be turned upside down by Luther and the reformers.
The new indulgences
It is ironic that some five hundred years after the Reformation, most so-called ‘Protestants’ have no idea what their forefathers were protesting against; namely, simony, nepotism, immorality, and exploitation of the poor. As a result, the modern day Protestant Church, and particularly the neo-Pentecostal or ‘Charismatic’ branch of Protestantism, is unwittingly repeating the mistakes of medieval Catholicism.
In essence, it’s not a Roman Catholic problem, it’s a human problem. It speaks more to human nature than any particular denomination. The prophet Jeremiah declared that the human heart is deceitful above all things and incurably sick, and that only the Lord can truly analyse it (Jer 17.9-10). Jesus elaborated on this point in Matthew 15.19; “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.”
Far from being havens from corruption, religious institutions often become theatres of exploitation, as demonstrated by the money changers in the temple. Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus confronted the fraudulence and the commercialization of the sacrificial system. Angrily driving out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturning the table of the money changers, he declared, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” (Mat 21.12-13). One can only wonder what he would think of the Church that bears his name if he visited it today!
Sadly, the sins of simony, nepotism, and covetousness are rife in the modern Church. The gospel, which was meant to be free (Mat 10.8), has become a billion dollar business. Nepotism is now called ‘succession-planning’. (It’s remarkable how many people in leadership positions in certain churches and ministries have the same surname!) Covetousness is now referred to as ‘prosperity consciousness’. (We all know that God wants us to be rich, so what’s the big deal? Just show me the money!)
Under medieval Catholicism, priests set themselves up as mediators between God and the people. They made themselves (and their approbation) indispensable in the practice of the Christian faith. The way the system operated, a person could not receive absolution from sin without the intercession and endorsement of the priest. In order to ensure the priest’s cooperation, one had to purchase indulgences which enriched the Church, and often the priest himself.
In a similar way, some Pentecostal/Charismatic leaders have created a cult of dependency around themselves. People flock to their meetings or tune into their broadcasts, hoping to receive divine guidance by way of personal prophecy, or a miracle cure for their physical ailments or their financial problems.
People are instructed to give generously, with the promise that they will receive up to a hundred-fold in return. The clear inference, if unspoken, is that if people do not give, they will not receive. People are, in effect, buying indulgences — a guarantee of financial and other kinds of blessings, in much the same way as medieval believers bought a guarantee of forgiveness of sins.
I have met some of these dear people, who, like the woman with the chronic haemorrhage of blood (Mark 5.25-26), have given everything they have to TV evangelists and celebrity preachers, and are no better. If anything, they are worse off than before! Maybe it’s time to bypass the ‘profiteering priest’ and go straight to Jesus!
A final word about giving
In conclusion, I would like to make an observation about the so-called ‘Law of Sowing and Reaping’ (2 Cor 9.6-10; Gal 6.6-10), which is often used as a justification for raising money in the Church. Whilst it is true that one cannot reap a harvest of any description without first sowing the appropriate seed, it is also true that sowing a seed does not in and of itself guarantee a harvest.
Remember, the ‘Law of Sowing and Reaping’ is exactly that — a law of nature or agricultural science (Gen 8.22). I live on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, an area that is famous for producing award-winning, cool-climate wines. Viticulturists have told me that no matter how much work they put into preparing the vines, the end result (harvest) is subject to a number of variable factors that are beyond their control. As one veteran winemaker said to me, “Viticulture is a form of farming, and farming always involves risk.”
Unforeseen and unpredictable factors like frosts, droughts, heat waves, floods, and disease can ruin a potential harvest. In such cases, the problem is now with the sowing, but rather, the elements contiguous to the process. For this reason, I contend that it is impossible for a preacher to guarantee a hundred-fold return on a monetary investment in his or her ministry, simply on the basis of the ‘Law of Sowing and Reaping’. Aside from the sowing of a seed, there may be 101 mitigating factors in a donor’s life that could prevent them from reaping a harvest — factors that the preacher has no knowledge of.
Jesus said, “Give and you shall receive” (Luke 6.38). He didn’t say, “Give in order to receive.” In actual fact, he said the very opposite: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return …” (Luke 6.35). We should give, but not as a means to an end. Otherwise, our giving is nothing more than the buying of an indulgence to procure a blessing.
In the final analysis, we should give simply for the joy of giving — out of sheer love for God and the people He has created in His image. And one thing is for sure: God loves that kind of big-hearted, free-spirited giver!