The Color of Money: Can Pope Francis Reduce the Wealth of Cardinals?
Pope Francis caused a stir in the Vatican last month when he ordered cardinals and other top officials to take a pay cut. Even the Catholic Church is strapped for cash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Pope saw the need for them to do their part to help balance its books. Media reports say the Cardinals now “earn” up to € 5,000 (or A $ 7,750) each month, in addition to receiving free or subsidized housing. Recent unflattering accounts of their social life and allegations of financial corruption may lead some to view this income as excessive. At the very least, such reports have led to an in-depth examination of how much money the Cardinals spend, and on what.
The Vatican claims that Francis’ actions are “the first time in living memory” that a pope has acted in this way. That may be true, but it ignores the long and rich history of talk about how Cardinals are rewarded. The pope’s financial relationship with his cardinals shaped much of Catholic history: it caused the Western schism (when, at one point, three popes claimed to rule at once), and has simmered ever since.
Francois should be careful what he wants. The efforts to impose austerity on the upper echelons of the Catholic Church have been as likely to provoke new conflicts as they have been to achieve their goal.
Popes vs. Cardinals
Today we regard the cardinals as the subordinates of the Pope who are also his electors. But the key to understanding the Cardinals’ relationship to money is that not all Cardinals throughout history have viewed their position that way. In the Middle Ages, some cardinals and their supporters openly questioned whether their right to choose the Pope gave them independent status in the Church. As Bernard of Clairvaux said in a letter advising Eugene III (r. 1145-53), the cardinals were less his personal assistants than a separate and powerful Senate of the Church: “those whom you did not choose, but who have chosen you ”. If so, didn’t that in turn entitle the cardinals to their share of Church revenues, some wondered?
Medieval popes would have neither of these arguments, but still deemed it prudent to redeem the cardinals with a generous block grant. Nicholas IV allocated them half of the revenues of the Holy See in 1289, on condition that they did not consider them as their right. John XXII (r. 1316-34) gave them half of the 70,000 florins left by the late Clement V on a similar basis. These popes also recognized the right of cardinals to seek and acquire money from other sources – for example, from those for whom they have done favors.
Things only came to a head when Urban VI (r. 1378-89) – who, perhaps revealingly, was one of those rare popes who had never been a cardinal himself – a told Quorum members that they could only spend what he chose to give. them. He prohibited quorum members from accepting gifts or annuities from lay people or holding additional church services that could supplement their income. Most of the Urban cardinals decamped to France, where they declared his election void and chose another pope. The ensuing schism lasted thirty-nine years.
“Princes of the Church”
After the schism, the cardinals sought to restore the prestige of the papacy by calling themselves “Princes of the Church”. If the papacy was as important as it claimed to be, then its main representatives had to be prepared to behave as such.
Jean Jouffroy, a 15th-century Burgundian French cardinal, argued, without apparent irony, that the heavy responsibilities of cardinals meant that, like today’s CEOs, they simply deserved great wealth. Jouffroy’s contemporaries competed to outdo each other and the Pope in the magnificence of their Roman quarters and their ways of life. Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549), at one point kept 306 men in the service of his household.
All of this benefited the vibrant cultural and artistic scene of Renaissance Rome, which many of these Prince Cardinals nurtured as patrons. However, such patronage required ever larger sums. Cardinals met at the start of each conclave throughout the 15th century, making a pact whereby whichever of them chosen as pope would share more of the spoils. Of course, no new pope has ever honored this pledge, arguing that it would reduce his special fullness of power to do so.
The cardinals turned more and more to the traffic of bishoprics and other offices of the Church to increase their income. Three cardinals from the 1510s – Pompeo Colonna, Agostino Trivulzio and Raffaele Riario – took a total of thirty-three bishoprics during their career. One cardinal – Alessandro Farnese again – held sixty-four distinct benefits (that is, church services with an attached salary) during the 1520s and early 1530s. Humanist poet Ludovico Ariosto wrote a wasp satire on another cardinal, Francesco Armellini (1470-1527), who joked that he would look for money every hour and in every place of every person.
Such a financial squabble brought the cardinals into disrepute, not least because they often held these positions, not consecutively, but simultaneously (a practice strictly contrary to the precepts of canon law).
In 1536, following the Reformation, Paul III appointed a special committee by Emendanda Ecclesia (for the reform of the Church) which aimed to put an end to all financial “abuses”. Nevertheless, many cardinals still exchanged religious services thirty years later. The Italian priest and writer Girolamo Garimberto, who in 1567 wrote one of the first books devoted to the subject of the cardinals, still included an entire section on the cardinals “who had succumbed to greed”.
The idealized cardinals
After the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the spectacle of cardinals grabbing money was considered inappropriate. A new literary genre promoted the “ideal” cardinal as sober, pious, humble, moral and wise. In short, someone who wouldn’t want to spend ostensibly large sums to pretend to be important. All of the cardinals were encouraged to adapt their lifestyles accordingly.
Still, even the wisest and most venerable of them was not yet above bickering with the Pope over money. Carlo Borromeo (1538-84) and Pope Pius V (r. 1566-72) – both now saints – quarreled over the endowments that Borromeo’s uncle Pius IV had chosen from him. Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605) also later successfully wielded the threat of financial sanctions against members of the Order who opposed his policies. In fact, the belief that the Cardinals still had a little too much ease remained a popular anticlerical trope. Giancarlo de ‘Medici (1611-63), a cardinal famous for his love of mistresses and chocolate, maintained a specific cabinet in the Pitti Palace in Florence for his favorite sweets (a surviving inventory notes his stock at the time as forty -three boxes).
Other cardinals traded in luxury goods – fine art, exotic plants, Chinese silks, and porcelain were particularly popular. Silvio Valente Gonzaga (1690-1757), Secretary of State to Pope Benedict XIV, cultivated what was probably the first Italian example of this symbol of 18th century opulence, the pineapple, in his Roman villa.
Nineteenth-century artists like Jehan Georges Vibert (1842-1902) made a good living satirising such apparent extravagance. The system of government shows a round cardinal in rich silk robes drinking a pitcher of milk. The wonderful sauce portrays even more buoyant cardinal supper samples provided by an outgoing young Italian chef. By this time, the Pope had lost all of his land in the Italian peninsula and was walking around begging faithful Catholics for money, which only made Vibert’s underlying message all the more pungent.
“Everything is together”?
Francis has a reputation for personal austerity, but he will have his work cut out for him if he is to convince a large part of the Catholic faithful that the whole Church, including the cardinals, is really all together. And the Catholic Church is currently in a time of constitutional flux, which adds to the uncertainty. If Francis “retires” at eighty-five next year, as his predecessor Benedict XVI did in 2013, it may raise new questions about the status of the Pope in the Church. A pope who presides as de facto Did the limited-term executive chairman really set his institutional standards in the same unilateral way his predecessors did when they claimed the authority of absolute monarchs with a direct alliance with God?
How much the Cardinals spend to maintain the dignity of their office will always be highly political as it goes to the heart of the spiritual mark of the Catholic Church. With Vatican finances still notoriously murky, today’s cardinals may well find a way around Francis’ cost-cutting measures, just as previous ones did for those of his predecessors. The current pope is unlikely to find his recent announcement to be the last word on the subject.
Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Modern Studies and Assistant Research Coordinator at the Institute for Religion and Critical Research at the Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700.