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January 23: Boniface VIII Becomes Pope

Boniface VIII Becomes Pope (1295)

Boniface VIII

It was on this date, January 23, 1295, that Boniface VIII (Benedetto Gaetano) was made Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He was born about 1235 in Agnani, Italy, and served the papacy for many years as a canon lawyer. On the death of Nicholas IV, Celestine V, a pious monk, was drafted to be Pope, an office he tried to flee. On the rather self-interested counsel of Boniface, who had opposed Celestine's election in the first place, Celestine issued a decree giving popes the right to abdicate and then did so in 1294.

But Boniface had the 80-year-old Celestine imprisoned in a tiny, unhealthy cell at Ferentino, presumably to avoid a schism in the church. At least, that is the amusing claim of the Catholic Encyclopedia. Celestine died in that prison within ten months, a victim of the ambition of, if not murder by, Boniface VIII.

The new pope demonstrated his arrogance and ineptitude throughout his nine-year reign. His Bull of 1302 (Unam Sanctam), in which Boniface claimed that it "is necessary for salvation that every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff," he put into practice by meddling in foreign affairs. He was rebuffed every time.

Boniface quarreled with Emperor Albert I of Habsburg, and with the Colonnas family. France so enraged the Pope that he was about to launch an interdict against the kingdom. Instead, he was taken captive in Agnani for three days by agents of Philip IV (Philip the Fair). In return, Boniface excommunicated Philip (1303), with whom he was arguing over levying taxes on the clergy. It seemed the clergy and the Pope felt not obligation to pay for Philip's physical protection when the money was needed by Rome.

After this sad pope died, on 11 October 1303, his successor, Clement V, was persuaded to prosecute him for blasphemy, cynical skepticism, denial of immortality, defense of adultery, and mockery of all religion and morals. The charges were brought voluntarily by Roman priests and lawyers, and supported by the best legal minds in France at a Council of the French Church in 1312, but Philip eventually relented.

The Catholic Encyclopedia denies the charges, but the authoritative Cambridge Medieval History, not yet redacted by minions of the Catholic Church, says "the evidence seems conclusive that he was doctrinally a sceptic" and "it is probable that for him, as later for Alexander VI, the moral code had little meaning."* The Pope himself had said, regarding adultery, that there is "no more harm in it than rubbing your hands together."

The signal achievement of Boniface VIII was instituting Jubilees in 1300, which attracted many pilgrims to Rome and much cash to Rome's coffers.

* Cambridge Medieval History, VII, 5.

NB: The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the above date for Benedetto Gaetano becoming pope. Wikipedia, for some reason (as of 1/22/2011), gives December 24, 1294.

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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