In defence of Gianpietro Carafa, Pope Paul IV (in jest)

Pope Paul IV - a nice chap beneath it all

My learned friend, Fr Hunwicke, has written a fair-minded post exculpating our Holy Father from the charge of being the worst pope ever. In this I entirely agree; there have indeed been worse popes, especially in the saeculum obscurum. I must confess to twitching a little, however, when he ranks Pope Paul IV alongside the notorious rogues of that era.

The charges against Pope Paul IV are that he had a ferocious character and that he had such malevolent hostility towards the English Catholic Church during the reign of Queen Mary that he made it easier for Elizabeth I reintroduce the so-called reformation to England.

On the first charge, we might offer the nuanced appraisal of a study by a Jesuit (who, as such, has no particular reason to be generous to Paul IV). He says
Paul was seventy-nine years old when elected, learned and incorruptible, undoubtedly and genuinely reform-minded. But he was also a self-willed, stubborn, intolerant, shortsighted, harsh autocrat with a fierce hatred of almost everything Spanish, in part because of the Spanish hegemony over his native Naples. ("Ignatius, the Popes, and Realistic Reverence." John W. Padberg, SJ. Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 25/3 : May 1993)
So there is some good mixed in with the negatives; and after all, incorruptible reformers do sometimes have to be a little stubborn and autocratic.

On the second charge, we could, I think, say that Pope Paul IV was to a certain degree lacking in prudence on the English question. However, we should bear in mind that in ordering Cardinal Pole to return to Rome to face the Inquisition (which the pope, as Cardinal Carafa, had wisely helped to set up) he was not particularly prejudiced against the English. He had, after all not allowed Cardinal Morone's reputation at the Council of Trent to save him from a spell in prison on suspicion of heresy. Let us not forget that in the event, Cardinal Pole kept out of the papal slammer thanks to the intervention of Queen Mary.

Pope Paul IV also denied the legitimacy of Elizabeth I's claim to the Crown and again we have to accept that if this was a mistake it was surely in the area of prudential judgement and one we could only dare to charge him with, when aided by hindsight.

Looking more positively at the record of the venerable scion of the Carafa family, we must record his early yearning for the contemplative life and his part in the founding of the Theatines. The latter would surely have offered a more humane and less problematic version of clerical reform than the Jesuits who perhaps would have benefited from the suggestion of amalgamating with them. An unwarranted degree of cynicism would be required to put Carafa's reservations about the new project of a Company of Jesus entirely down to his hatred of all things Spanish.

Whether we count Paul IV's refusal to reassemble the Council of Trent as an error, must surely depend on our appraisal of his approach to what we would today call synodality. He was quite reasonably worried about the conciliatory approach towards protestantism shown by some of the theologians. (His successor did nothing to assuage such doubts by allowing communion under both kinds in Bohemia.) Let us not forget that Paul IV issued the bull Cum ex apostolatus officio in a sincere attempt to prevent a heretic from being elected pope.

Finally we must admit to the awkward problem of the nephews whom he made cardinals. They were so unworthy of the post that the next pope felt obliged to execute them. I shan't attempt to present this as evidence that beneath his autocratic harshness, Paul IV was an affectionate family man - he just shouldn't have made those nephews cardinals. (Imagine the problem if a pope did such a thing now that the death penalty has been crossed out of the catechism!)


I should say, with apologies to any confused readers, that much of this post is intended in jest. For edification, you would do better to read Fr Z's remarks on the question and especially his reflections on Horace.

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