The Renaissance popes were infamous for their debauchery and wickedness. The notoriety of the popes grew so great that the conciliar movement formed to reorganize the Church. Erasmus, in his play Julius Exclusis, used satire to expose the follies and vices of the Renaissance popes through his portrayal of Pope Julius II. Julius II ruled the papacy from 1503 to 1513 at the beginning of the High Renaissance. He was known to Christendom as “the warrior pope,” infamous for his numerous battles and victories over European kings. The prominent chapter of Erasmus’s play opened with Julius appearing before Peter at the gates of heaven and demanding entrance. Erasmus exposed Julius’s follies and vices through Julius’s testimony and Peter’s strong rebuke.
Erasmus displayed the follies of the Renaissance papacy through Julius’s testimony. First, the Renaissance popes, like Julius, embraced the folly of good works. When Peter asked Julius what he had done that was worthy of heaven, Julius listed dozens of “good” works which had nothing to do with the works Christ had commanded of his disciples. Julius had raised money for the church, conquered territories, and built palaces and armies. He claimed that “[all he] wanted was to secure for the Church as much good as possible.” Secondly, the Renaissance popes failed to focus on doctrine. When Peter inquired if Julius had taught true doctrine, the pope merely replied, “Not I. I have been too busy fighting. … [I care not] a fig for doctrine.” Thirdly, the Renaissance popes evidenced a lack of knowledge about the Gospel and Christ’s true mission on earth. After Julius debated with Peter on what constituted the true work of Christ, Peter moaned, “With your treaties and your protocols, your armies and your victories, you had no time to read the Gospels. The discipline of Christ will not work on a mind absorbed in this world.” Fourth, the popes embraced the folly of wrong priorities. Julius placed his own pleasures and pursuits above prayer, witnessing, preaching, and even faith in God. Peter asked Julius if he thought the supremacy of the Pope should be above the welfare of the Church, and Julius proudly answered that the “Pope’s interest is my interest.” Finally, the Renaissance popes failed to listen to the good council of the conciliar movement which sought to reform the church. When Peter questioned Julius about the conciliar movement, Julius elaborated on his hatred of the reformers because they took away power from the pope. Julius admitted that the reformers, like the Cardinal of Rouen and the Cardinal of St. Cross, were actually devout, righteous men. He just could not stand the reforms the council wished to put upon the Church such as lowering expenses, appointing bishops based on their merit, deposing wicked popes, and suspending bishops who were living in sin. All of these reforms were opposed by the Renaissance popes because the reforms defied their power and threatened their lifestyles.
Erasmus portrayed the vices of the Renaissance popes through Julius’s personal vices and abuse of the papal office. Julius’s personal vices proved he was unworthy of being a pope. First, Julius was openly immoral and debauched. He called himself the nephew of Sixtus II, but most people said he was the former pope’s son. Julius openly admitted to Peter that he had children but no wives. Some of the French reformers accused the papacy of sodomy, fornication, and adultery. Julius even admitted that though the French thought the “looseness with women polluting and disgusting; … we do not think so at all.” Secondly, Julius lacked cleanliness and often drank. Peter told Julius he stunk as soon as Julius approached the gates of heaven. Julius ignored the comment and complained about the French calling him a sot. Later Julius admitted that he did not object to drinking himself. Thirdly, the Renaissance popes were proud, and their pride led them to be respecters of persons. Julius boasted of his accomplishments to a disinterested Peter and declared, “There is no power which can depose the Pope of Rome.” Julius’s pride caused him to reject barbarians; in other words, he rejected anyone who was not Italian. Fourth, Julius displayed angry and blasphemous behavior. When Peter denied Julius entrance to heaven, Julius threatened to return with a host of souls to destroy the gates. Julius blasphemed by calling himself a king of kings and a lord of lords. He considered himself to be “a real god, a savoir of mankind” and “the source of all law.” Jesus Christ alone deserved such titles. Julius’s final personal vice included the deceit and lying which he used to trick the nations of Europe into wars which benefited the papacy. Julius lied to members of the conciliar movement so they would fail to meet and pass reforms. His lies and intrigues deceived France and the Holy Roman Empire into attacking the Venetians, a war which eventually would include Spain. After hearing Julius’s confession, Peter lamented that Julius had involved the whole of Christendom in war for his own personal gains.
The Renaissance popes abused their papal office, just as Julius did. Julius used his papal authority for simony and wealth. Julius proudly told Peter of how he invented new church offices and then sold them for a profit. He feared the conciliar movement because the reforms would outlaw such simony. Julius also amassed great wealth through his papal power. He re-coined the Italian currency which increased his coffers. He conquered Bologna so more revenue would fill the papal treasury. Indulgences and usury also increased the wealth of the papacy. When Peter confronted Julius about the papal wealth, Peter pointed to the poverty of the Apostles and first church members. Julius shuddered at the thought of poverty and replied, “[The] Church will go to pieces if we are poor and [cannot] defend ourselves. Money is power.”
Erasmus attacked the Renaissance popes one final time through Peter’s rebuke. Peter began his reprimand of Julius by reminding the pope of the sufferings of Christ and the early church members. Peter declared that “[to] be a Christian is to be careless of pleasure, to tread riches under foot as dirt, and count life as nothing.” Papal bulls would not grant entrance into heaven. Only those who followed the Master’s example by doing good to the poor and destitute were worthy of heaven. Peter harshly rebuked Julius by saying, “[You] … who make yourself equal with Christ, think only of money, and arms, and treaties, to say nothing of vicious pleasures, and you abuse His name to support your own vanities.” At the end of the scene, Peter was brokenhearted to find out that the other popes were much like Julius, though he was the worst.
Erasmus revealed the vices and follies of the Renaissance papacy through Julius’s life testimony and Peter’s firm rebuke. Erasmus’s play accurately portrayed the corruption of the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. His message and call to action were clear to church reformers; however, the papacy would not begin its recovery until the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
– Hannah S. Bowers