Papal Profile: Pope Paul III
Few Roman Pontiffs ever inherited so unfavorable a position as Pope Paul III. Rome had been sacked, much of Italy was in ruins, Protestantism was taking root and the papacy itself was firmly in the grip of the German Emperor and King of Spain Charles V. However, Pope Paul III would not be deterred by any of that. A Renaissance prince, rather typical of the period, he had his negative as well as positive qualities yet his pontificate would be remembered as one of pushing back wherever possible and accepting the ills of the day when not.
A man from an illustrious family whose name appears often in papal history, he was born Alessandro Farnese on February 29, 1468 in Canino, in what was then Latium, part of the Papal States. His family were well known in the ranks of the condottiere and his sister, the famously lovely Giulia Farnese, had been the beloved mistress of the notorious Pope Alexander VI. As a son of the Italian Renaissance, Alessandro Farnese would be known for his great culture, his love of art as well as for his political machinations and nepotism. However, as with the Renaissance Popes as a group, he was a more pious man than he is usually given credit for.
|Young Cardinal Farnese|
His election had taken only two days, a sign of the respect his fellow cardinals had for him as well as being seen as no friend of the King of France but also not beholden to the German Emperor though he was careful not to cross him. As someone who owed his red hat to his sister being the mistress of Pope Alexander VI, it should not be too surprising that, while his own life had changed considerably upon entering the Church, Pope Paul III was not above laughing at a bawdy comedy, turning a blind eye to the indiscretions of the Roman court and elevating his teenage grandsons to the Sacred College. Nonetheless, when it came to matters of the Church, the spiritual life of the Church and the revival secular historians have dubbed (erroneously) the, “Counter-Reformation”, Pope Paul III provided invaluable leadership to Catholic Christendom.
In political matters, Pope Paul III was not too timid to clash with the secular authorities. He famously excommunicated King Henry VIII of England for his divorce of Queen Catherine of Aragon, appropriation of Church property and various other desecrations of the sacred which Henry termed as a ‘campaign against idolatry’. Paul III was though careful not to find himself opposed to Emperor Charles V and he backed the Habsburg war against the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran princes in Germany which was happily in his own interests as well. However, Paul III knew there was only one thing that would fully satisfy Emperor Charles V and it was the one thing all of his predecessors since the first outbreak of Lutheranism had been reluctant to do; call a general council of the Church.
|Pope Paul III with two of his grandsons|
This actually had a huge impact and was probably the single most significant thing that Pope Paul III did during his reign. Nothing happened overnight, but the Council of Trent did provide the framework and the starting point for what would be a Catholic revival which would ensure that the Church of Rome not only survived the Protestant storm but would push back against it, ultimately regaining at least a good deal if not all of what had been lost. As part of this overall campaign, Pope Paul III also continued the work of his predecessor Clement VII in pushing for reform in the religious orders. The Theatines, Capuchins, Somaschians and Barnabites were rejuvenated, the Ursulines (a teaching order of nuns) was established in 1535 who would prove quite effective and in 1540 Pope Paul III officially recognized the Society of Jesus. In 1550 he would confirm their constitution and he showed great favor to the Jesuits, viewing them as the spiritual ‘shock troops’ of Catholicism in combating the spread of Protestant sects. He also established and gave extensive powers to the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition. Despite his worldly reputation, Paul III was obviously someone who took his faith seriously.
|Pope Paul III|