Papal Finance and the Papal State

Peter Partner asserts that, from a financial point of view, the Reformation was a paradox; the final outburst against Papal exactions came at a moment when the Popes were less guilty under this charge than they had been for many centuries.

Machiavelli never missed a chance to bait the Church, and the Papal State does not escape his irony. He taunts the Popes as old and ailing men, unfit for war and dogged by approaching death. The inefficiency of their rule was proverbial; few of them could stand up to the fearful physical and mental gymnastics required of a Renaissance prince. Of all rulers, only they “possess states and do not defend them, have subjects and do not govern them.”

This is savage and penetrating, but it is far from being the whole truth. Machiavelli, who considered persons rather than bureaucracies, forgot that the Papal State was managed by the Roman curia, which was probably the most efficient, tenacious and conservative bureaucracy in Europe. Most officers of the Papal court were lawyers, and the claims of the Papacy, which was itself the fount of Canon Law in the West, were pressed by them inexorably from one pontificate to another. They were ambitious and competent men, whose integrity tended to be that of the good civil servant rather than that of the good priest, and to their legal minds the enforcement of the financial rights of the Papacy was of the first importance. And when it is considered how often temporal princes had seized, corrupted and misused the Papacy in its moments of political impotence, their view seems neither nonsensical nor necessarily self-interested.

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