The Papal-Porte Axis


Here's the NYT's rundown of various attitudes toward Islam to be found among the cardinals who will soon choose the next pope. (One of them, of course, will be the next pope.) Some cardinals hope that Muslims will become more secular, others believe Muslims have something to teach Christians about piety. The story's major theme involves Catholic-Muslim dialog, and whether the next pope will exert the same effort toward mutual understanding as did the last pope.

John Paul II was certainly well intentioned, but why should interfaith dialog represent the standard for Catholic-Muslim harmony? The Church has a very long history with Islam, and the Crusades represent only one aspect of it. Surely the pope who set the standard for a completely "normal" relationship with Islam was Alexander VI (1492-1503). Even as the Ottoman navy was capturing a series of Christian cities in the Mediterranean, Alexander sought a military alliance with the Sublime Porte against one of his fellow Christian rulers in Europe. That's mutual understanding.

Alexander VI is usually considered the bottom of the papal barrel, merely because he was a greedy, aggrandizing sensualist who attained the Papacy through simony. That's all true, but given some of the other pontiffs' records, such failings don't make him uniquely bad. Alexander's real historical problem is that he was a Borgia (the father of Lucrezia Borgia, in fact) with many powerful enemies outside the Church who spread lurid tales of incest and poisoning, and who described such unlikely episodes as the infamous 50 coupling Roman harlots competing professionally for Alexander's entertainment.

Anyway, in 1494 Charles, the king of France, was marching down the Italian peninsula with an impressive agenda. He was threatening to depose Alexander as illegitimate, take control of the Papacy, crown himself king in Naples, and was even talking of an anti-Ottoman Crusade that would make him king of Jerusalem. Alexander, unable to find allies in Europe to defend him, turned to Constantinople, and Sultan Beyazit II (the grandfather of Suleiman the Magnificent). Alexander wanted two things from Beyazit: an attack on Charles using the sultan's allies, and money.

In fact, Beyazit had been sending the pope 40,000 gold pieces annually. Why? Because Beyazit's brother Cem lived with the pope; he was a kind of papal hostage. Cem had fought Beyazit for the sultanate, lost, and taken refuge on Christian Rhodes. He ended up in Rome, where Alexander kept him around should he someday prove useful. Beyazit's annual payment made sure Cem stayed away from Ottoman territory. Alexander wanted an advance on that payment.

Beyazit sent the money, began diplomatic maneuvers on Alexander's behalf, and even made an offer of his own: If Alexander would murder Cem and send the corpse to Constantinople, Beyazit would forward Alexander another 300,000 gold pieces "with which to buy possessions for your sons." But Beyazit's letter was intercepted by Charles, to Alexander's intense embarrassment. Thus, despite their best common efforts, the pope never consummated his alliance with the sultan against the king of France.

Here's how their story ends. Charles enters Rome, even capturing the pope's mistress. (Alexander ransoms her.) But Charles decides against deposing Alexander because he fears the process will be far too troublesome. However, Charles does demand custody of Cem, perhaps to use in his planned Holy Crusade (which, obviously, never takes place). Alexander refuses. Cem soon dies anyway, probably poisoned by the pope with the connivance of Beyazit. If so, Cem is the only victim of Papal-Porte intrigue.

In 1499, Beyazit brings Cem's body home, "together with his property," according to an Ottoman account, "amongst which was an enchanted cup, which became brimful as soon as delivered empty into the cup-bearer's hand, a white parrot, a chess-playing monkey, and some thousands of splendid books . . ." While they were burying Cem, a great "thunder-clap and tumult" caused the funeral party to flee screaming from the sepulchral chamber. They didn't come back for more than a week.

NEXT: What About Frogs and Other Rodents?

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  1. Can we pay the Vatican 40,000 gold pieces a year to keep Neil Bush under wraps?

  2. Popes are funny. Growing up as a protestant, I read a couple of books about the popes. Neither was flattering at all. Of course, consider the protestant, pope-hating sources.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the ME was the pope’s (or anyone else’s) problem and not ours?

  3. History is interesting, but there’s just too many damn names to remember.

    So where the hell did they get the don’t-eat-fish-on-Friday thing?

  4. So where the hell did they get the don’t-eat-fish-on-Friday thing?

    Church edict establishes a subsidy to the fishing industry.

  5. Doug:

    It was a “don’t eat MEAT on Friday” thing. Simon Peter and a few of the other apostles were fishermen. It was “Jobs For The Boys.”


  6. So, that explains all of the Catholic union members.

  7. Love the story about Alexander VI. In 1978, just after they had elected JP II, I remember attending Catholic Mass in my hometown. During the homily (sermon) the priest went to great lengths to point out how the selection of a Pope is a pristine process, with none of the politics and corruption of, say, an American presidential election. Sadly, I’m sure a lot of the faithful believed it – and many still do. Kinda like the folks who swear that there really is a Social Security trust fund.

  8. “Alexander’s real historical problem is that he was a Borgia (the father of Lucrezia Borgia…” ???
    What about celibacy ? Were Popes exempted at that time ?

  9. “What about celibacy ? Were Popes exempted at that time ?”

    Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon for men to join the clergy later in life, i.e., after having been married and having children.

  10. Man am I an ignorant putz sometimes.

  11. Technically, the cardinals don’t have to name one of their own. They could pluck some abbot or priest from obscurity.

    They won’t, but they could.

  12. As far as I know, the cardinals could pick ANY Roman Catholic male.

    But they won’t, true.

  13. I do think it’d be cool if they utterly shocked everyone by doing just this – picking a non-cardinal. Any Catholic male? Damn, so many we could choose from. Who’s a famous Catholic that we’d like to see made Pope, despite the unlikelihood?

  14. Pope thoreau the First!

  15. Wow, you learn something new every day. Thanks Charles.

  16. Pope thoreau the First!

    I second that nomination. He’ll be the first pope to put a Darwin fish on the Popemobile.

  17. Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon for men to join the clergy later in life, i.e., after having been married and having children.

    Since they couldn’t divorce, were they widowers or did they remain married and simply skipped out on their husbandly duties?

    Cripes, three posts in a row, I just pulled a Gunnels.

  18. “Any Catholic male?”

    Theoretically, yes, though to become pope (i.e., bishop of Rome), he’d have to either be a bishop already or eligible to become a bishop (which means, among other things, that he be unmarried).

  19. I read somewhere it was pretty common for popes and bishops and cardinals to have kids in the middle ages. The polite fiction was to refer to them as nephews. Often your “nephew” would inherit your office.

  20. Who’s a famous Catholic that we’d like to see made Pope, despite the unlikelihood?

    It would be pretty funny if Michael Moore, John Kerry, Bill O’Reilly, or Mel Gibson were elected Pope. The unmarried thing would do them in though.

  21. Kevin Smith, the dude who made Dogma and a few movies better than that, is Catholic. I vote for him, especially if he goes with the “Buddy Christ” idea.

  22. Hey, I’m an unmarried Catholic male (I never could figure out how to be excommunicated). I could be pope! I would promise to bring scandal and intrigue back into the papacy!

  23. For more scurrilous Pope gossip (and a great read!) check out “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. And no, Lucezia Borgia wasn’t born before her old man joined the clergy. And Lucrezia’s son was supposedly either fathered by Alexander or Cesare, her brother. Traditional family values.

  24. I have heard that married Church of England priests who convert can become Catholic priests (they are the only married Catholic priests I am aware of). I wonder if they would then be eligible.

    Probably no, I heard that celibacy is critical too (a story on NPR; all the papish trivia’s coming out now). Maybe the CofE converts can be nothing but parish priests.

    What if a CofE bishop converts, I wonder?

    Anybody know?

  25. “What if a CofE bishop converts, I wonder?”

    When Graham Leonard, former CofE bishop of London, poped in the 1980s, he was re-ordained simply as a priest (see

  26. What about celibacy ? Were Popes exempted at that time ?

    I don’t think it was a requirement at that time.


    celibacy wasn’t a requirement in the early church, and after it became one it was sometimes violated (which is the case for Alexander VI)

  28. So where the hell did they get the don’t-eat-fish-on-Friday thing?

    Comment by: Douglas Fletcher at April 13, 2005 11:41 PM

    So where the hell did they get the don’t-eat-fish-on-Friday thing?

    Church edict establishes a subsidy to the fishing industry.

    Comment by: db at April 13, 2005 11:49 PM


    It was a “don’t eat MEAT on Friday” thing. Simon Peter and a few of the other apostles were fishermen. It was “Jobs For The Boys.”


    Comment by: kevrob at April 14, 2005 12:22 AM

    More than you know. I don’t know whether it was a chicken-or-egg thing, but I read the Church owned substantial fisheries during the Middle Ages.

    Being a semi-regular church-goer doesn’t keep me from being cynical about the human side of the institution and the corruption therein, especially pre-Reformation. Speaking of which, celibacy rules or not, plenty of Middle Ages clergy had kids and mistresses, and even held orgies. There is a story of an abbot (I think) who received news that his mistress had just given birth, and said, “Rejoice! For I am on this day twice a father!”

    (The book The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State has a chapter that details the widespread corruption of the Middle Ages RC Church and also points out parallels to the current condition of the nation-state.)

  29. The Borgia Pope’s dealings with the Ottoman Empire serve as a useful reminder that for all of the dire Kulturkampf warnings of people like Samuel Huntington, relations between the Christian West and Moslem East have always been grounded in a secular political substrate. The Crusades were as much or more about carving out new feudal states in the East and ransacking the decrepit Byzantine Empire as they were about redeeming Jerusalem, and the Ottoman campaigns in the Balkans, Hungary and North Africa were direct dynastic conflicts with the expanding Hapsburg regime.

    Medieval and Renaissance popes were a fundamental part of the temporal political scene; remember, the Papacy ruled a strategically important swath of middle Italy, as well as a string of ecclesiastical states and bishropics across Central and Northern Europe. The average pope was probably no better or worse than the run-of-the-mill Hapsburg or Valois monarch, and the papacy reflected the upper-class mores of the time, especially as so many of them came from well-heeled Italian or Spanish noble families.

  30. I just checked this thread for the first time. As much as I’d like to be Pope thoreau the First, there is one little problem: I’m married.

    Change that rule, and I’ll go to Rome and start campaigning!

    Speaking of which, did anybody see SNL last week? They had the papal debates, hosted by Tim Russert. The candidates included some ancient cardinal, a hip young cardinal, a Nigerian cardinal, a couple of guys that I can’t recall, and Reverend Al Sharpton. I only caught part of it, but it was hilarious. The most hilarious thing about it, of course, was just the whole premise and the fact that Al Sharpton was even there.

  31. Oh, and somebody ripped the Darwin fish off my car.

    Sad but true.

  32. The basic “constitutional” necessities of popehood has been baptized Roman Catholic male, did JPII limit selection to the umarried (which the next Pope could undo if he wanted without doctrinal issues)?

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