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May 23: Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265)


It was under the sign of Gemini, which places the date between 18 May and 17 June, 1265, that the author of the Divine Comedy, Durante Alighieri, was born in Florence. Dante, the nickname by which he is known, was born into a Guelph family at a time when Florence was experiencing one of its brief flirtations with democracy, and Dante matriculated in the guild of physicians and apothecaries after 1293 (when he was 28), but he was well versed in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, literature and theology.

Dante pursued a political career that brought him into conflict with Pope Boniface VIII — against the pontiff's interference in Florentine governance — and, when the conflict was lost, Dante was sentenced to pay a fine and to serve a two-year exile or face death. From that day to the last day of his life, on 14 September 1321, he never saw Florence again: he was buried at Ravenna — 186 km (115 mi.) away.

Dante is chiefly remembered for his three-part poem, Divina Commedia, or Divine Comedy, written in vernacular Italian when most writers used Latin. He completed it just before his death. What is telling about the Divine Comedy is that it was the first book written in Christian Europe since Augustine's City of God (completed in 426) which anybody but a professor of literature now reads — including the pagan epic Beowulf (c. 725). Think about it! In nearly 900 years of the Ages of Faith, there was nothing written, inspired by Christian civilization, that is now considered of literary merit. There is no comparable period of world history, before or since, with such a dearth of literary achievement.

Dante lived in what we're encouraged to call the glorious 13th century, so it is significant that he finds his old foe residing in the Inferno (Canto 19, v52-57*). Boniface VIII, pope from 1294-1303, may not have had his predecessor murdered — he certainly took the Papacy from Celestine V (1294) by fraud and imprisoned him (Celestine also resides in Dante's hell) — but his successor, Clement V, convened a Council in 1310 to try the dead Boniface for blasphemy, skepticism, denial of the doctrine of immortality, and mockery of all religion and morals. Unfortunately, the prelates were afraid to make any ruling on the evidence, but the Cambridge Medieval History says that Boniface was doctrinally a skeptic and "it is probable that for him, as later for Alexander VI, the moral code had little meaning." (Cambridge Medieval History, v7, p5)

The Catholic Encyclopedia claims Dante for the Church**, but this "great Catholic poet" – you might as well call him the only great Catholic poet – rejected or ignored much of the theology of his church. Indeed, Dante is a valuable witness to the existence of skepticism in Italy. He puts several Popes deep in hell, in his Inferno. And he was lenient to pagans and to sexual offenders, in that respect appearing more a follower of Aristotle and Cicero than of Jesus and the theologians. In the Purgatorio, Dante is even more dismissive of Catholic doctrine: he places Cato, a pagan and a suicide, is in charge of Purgatory. Purgatory itself is not the Church-inspired place of purgation-by-torture, but rather a place of mental and spiritual purification. Dante doesn't even indulge the doctrine of indulgences. And his Paradiso is entirely unconvincing as a paradise, even by Christian standards.

It is dishonest to claim, as the Catholic Encyclopedia does, that Dante’s “theological position as an orthodox Catholic has been amply and repeatedly vindicated,” when there are numerous and important doctrinal differences in his greatest work — and the Church held the power to compel compliance of its subjects for any critical thinking it could not tolerate. But Dante’s standing as a precursor of the Reformation, and as a giant of early Italian poetry, is beyond debate.

*[Canto 19, v52] And he cried out: Dost thou stand there already, [53] Dost thou stand there already, Boniface? [54] By many years the record lied to me. [55] Art thou so early satiate with that wealth, [56] For which thou didst not fear to take by fraud [57] The beautiful Lady, and then work her woe? **"His theological position as an orthodox Catholic has been amply and repeatedly vindicated, recently and most notably by Dr. Moore, who declares that 'there is no trace in his writings of doubt or dissatisfaction respecting any part of the teaching of the Church in matters of doctrine authoritatively laid down.' " (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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