Alexander VI​—A Pope That Rome Does Not Forget

“FROM a Catholic standpoint, it is not possible to condemn Alexander VI with sufficient severity.” (Geschichte der Päpste seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters [History of the Popes From the End of the Middle Ages]) “His private life is absolutely indefensible . . . We have to admit that this pontificate does no honor to the Church. The contemporaries of the Borgia family, though accustomed to similar spectacles, observed their crimes with unspeakable horror, the echoes of which, more than four centuries later, still have not completely died down.”​—L’Église et la Renaissance (1449-1517)(The Church and the Renaissance).

Why do respected historical works on the Roman Catholic Church offer such severe comments about a pope and his family? What did they do to deserve such criticism? An exhibition staged in Rome (October 2002–February 2003), entitled I Borgia​—l’arte del potere (The Borgias—​The Art of Power), offered an occasion to reflect on prerogatives claimed by the papacy, particularly on the way they were used by Rodrigo Borgia, or Alexander VI (pope 1492-1503).

Rise to Power

Rodrigo Borgia was born in 1431 into a prominent family at Játiva, in the kingdom of Aragon, now in Spain. His uncle Alfonso de Borgia, bishop of Valencia, guided his nephew’s education and saw to it that while still in his teens, Rodrigo was endowed with ecclesiastical benefices (ecclesiastical offices with revenue attached). At age 18, under the protection of Alfonso, by now a cardinal, Rodrigo moved to Italy, where he studied law. When Alfonso became Pope Calixtus III, he made Rodrigo and another nephew cardinals. Pere Lluís Borgia was given the governorship of various cities. Soon Rodrigo was appointed vice-chancellor of the church, a position that he held under various popes, enabling him to procure numerous opulent benefices, amass fabulous wealth, exercise enormous power, and live the luxurious life of a prince.

Rodrigo was intelligent, an eloquent speaker, a patron of the arts, and capable of attaining his objectives. He had a number of illicit relationships, however, fathering four children  with his lifelong mistress and more with other women. Although reprimanded by Pope Pius II for his propensity for “the most dissolute” amusement and “unbridled pleasure,” Rodrigo did not change his ways.

Upon the death of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, the cardinals of the church met to elect a successor. It is undisputed that Rodrigo Borgia, with splendid offers and open cynicism, bought sufficient votes from fellow cardinals to emerge from that conclave as Pope Alexander VI. How did he pay for the cardinals’ votes? By granting them ecclesiastical positions, palaces, castles, cities, abbeys, and bishoprics with enormous revenues. You can understand why one church historian called Alexander VI’s reign “days of infamy and scandal for the Roman Church.”

No Better Than Secular Princes

By virtue of his spiritual power as head of the church, Alexander VI arbitrated the division between Spain and Portugal of the newly discovered territories in the Americas. His temporal powers made him head of the papal states with territories in central Italy, and he governed his kingdom much like any other Renaissance sovereign. Alexander VI’s reign, like those of popes before and after him, was thus marked by venality, nepotism, and more than one suspicious death.

Rival powers contended for Italian territories during these turbulent times, and the pope was no passive spectator. His political maneuvers and alliances, made and broken, were designed to maximize his power, advance his children’s careers, and raise the Borgia family above all others. His son Juan, married to the cousin of the king of Castile, was made duke of Gandía, Spain. Jofré, another son, was married to the granddaughter of the king of Naples.

When the pope needed an ally to strengthen his relations with France, he broke the betrothal of his 13-year-old daughter, Lucrezia, to an Aragonese noble and gave her instead to a relative of the duke of Milan. When that marriage was no longer politically expedient, a pretext was found to annul it, and Lucrezia was wed to a member of a rival dynasty, Alfonso of Aragon. In the meantime, Lucrezia’s ambitious and ruthless brother, Cesare Borgia, formed an alliance with Louis XII of France, and his sister’s recent marriage to an Aragonese became an embarrassment. The solution? One source says that Alfonso, her hapless husband, “was wounded by four would-be assassins on the steps of St. Peter’s. While recovering, he was strangled by one of Cesare’s servants.” The pope, desiring new strategic alliances, arranged a third marriage for Lucrezia, now 21, to the son of the powerful duke of Ferrara.

Cesare’s career has been described as “a story of unscrupulousness, reddened by blood.” Though his father appointed Cesare a cardinal at 17, he was better suited for war than for church matters, being astute, ambitious, and corrupt like few others. After resigning ecclesiastical office, he wed a French princess, thus obtaining the duchy of Valentinois. Then, with the support of French troops, he began a campaign of siege and assassination to bring the north of Italy under his control.

 To secure the French military support needed to further Cesare’s objectives, the pope condescended to a convenient but scandalous divorce sought by Louis XII of France that allowed him to marry Anne of Brittany and add her duchy to his kingdom. In effect, says one reference work, the pope “sacrificed the prestige of the Church and the rigors of principle to obtain temporal advantages for members of his family.”

Criticism of Papal Excess

The excesses of the Borgias made enemies and drew criticism. The pope basically ignored his detractors, but one who could not be ignored was Girolamo Savonarola. He was a Dominican monk, a fiery preacher, and a political leader of Florence. He condemned the vices of the papal court as well as the person and the politics of the pope himself, calling for him to be deposed and for ecclesiastical reform. Savonarola thundered: “Church leaders, . . . at night you go to your concubines and in the morning to your sacraments.” He later said: “[Those leaders] have the face of a harlot, their fame is to the detriment of the Church. These, I tell you, do not believe in the Christian faith.”

Attempting to buy silence, the pope offered Savonarola the office of cardinal, which he refused. Whether it was his antipapal politics or his preaching that caused his undoing, Savonarola was finally excommunicated, arrested, tortured into making a confession, and then hanged and burned.

Serious Questions

These historical events raise important questions. How can such intrigues and conduct of a pope be explained? How do historians explain them? Different lines of reasoning are used.

Many hold that Alexander VI has to be seen in his historic context. His political and ecclesiastical activities were ostensibly conditioned by the desire to safeguard peace, maintain equilibrium between rival states, strengthen bonds of friendship with allies who would defend the papacy, and keep Christendom’s monarchs united against the Turkish threat.

But his conduct? “Every era of the Church has seen bad Christians and unworthy priests,” says one scholar. “So that no one be shocked by this, Christ himself foretold it; he even likened his Church to a field in which good wheat and weeds grow, or to a net in which there are good fish and bad, just as he even tolerated a Judas among his apostles.” *

The same scholar continues: “Just as a defective setting does not lessen the value of a gem, so the sinfulness of a priest cannot essentially prejudice . . . the doctrine he teaches. . . . Gold remains gold, whether it is a pure or impure hand that dispenses it.” One Catholic historian argues that the standard that sincere Catholics should have followed in the case of Alexander VI is the counsel Jesus gave to his disciples regarding the scribes and Pharisees: ‘Do as they say, but not as they do.’  (Matthew 23:2, 3) Honestly, though, does such reasoning convince you?

Is This True Christianity?

Jesus left a simple guideline to test the quality of professed Christians: “By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. Really, then, by their fruits you will recognize those men.”​—Matthew 7:16-18, 20.

In general, how have religious leaders through the centuries measured up, and how are they now measuring up, to the pattern of true Christianity established by Jesus and exemplified by his true followers? Let us consider just two areas​—political involvement and life-style.

Jesus was no worldly prince. He lived such a modest life that, as he admitted, he did not even have a place “to lay down his head.” His Kingdom was “no part of this world,” and his disciples were to be “no part of the world, just as [he was] no part of the world.” Jesus thus refused to get involved in the political affairs of his day.​—Matthew 8:20; John 6:15; 17:16; 18:36.

Is it not true, however, that for centuries religious organizations have made it a practice to consort with political rulers for power and material gain, though this has resulted in suffering for the common people? Is it not also true that many of their clergy live in luxury, even though multitudes of the people to whom they should minister may be impoverished?

Jesus’ half brother James stated: “Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever, therefore, wants to be a friend of the world is constituting himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4) Why “an enemy of God”? First John 5:19 notes: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.”

Concerning Alexander VI’s morals, one historian of Borgia’s day wrote: “His style of life was dissolute. He knew neither shame nor sincerity, neither faith nor religion. He was possessed by insatiable greed, immoderate ambition, barbarous cruelty, and a burning passion for the advancement of his many children.” Borgia, of course, was not the only member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to act in such a way.

What do the Scriptures say of such behavior? “Do you not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom?” asked the apostle Paul. “Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor . . . adulterers, nor . . . greedy persons . . . will inherit God’s kingdom.”​—1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.

One of the declared objectives of the recent exhibition in Rome on the Borgias was “to place these great personages in their historic context . . . , to understand but certainly not to absolve nor to condemn.” In fact, visitors were left to draw their own conclusions. So what conclusion have you reached?


^ par. 20 For accurate explanations of these parables, see The Watchtower, February 1, 1995, pages 5-6, and June 15, 1992, pages 17-22.

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Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI

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Lucrezia Borgia’s father used her to maximize his power

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Cesare Borgia was ambitious and corrupt

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Because Girolamo Savonarola would not be silenced, he was hanged and burned