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Monday, March 10, 2014

Girolamo Savonarola: Excommunicated Saint?

By:   Michael Davies, RIP
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Savonarola Savonarola

Editor’s Note: As the tide of battle against authentic traditional Catholicism rises to pre-2007 heights throughout the world, spearheaded as usual by ugly calumnies leveled against the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, I was pleased to stumble upon the following Remnant article penned in the late 1990s by my friend and mentor, Michael Davies. The foremost lay pioneer of the traditionalist movement, Mr. Davies has been dead since September 2004, and yet since this is one of many Remnant articles never before posted online it becomes something of new release—a voice from the grave, if you will. So typical of  Davies’ style, this study of the excommunicated Savonarola, while obviously not setting out to establish precedent for Archbishop Lefebvre (a man Mr. Davies vigorously defended throughout his entire career), nevertheless demonstrates the sensus catholicus required of all of us when attempting to unravel the complexities of legitimate resistance to rightful authority vs. insurrection, the difference between schism and mere disobedience, and the spirit vs. the letter of the law. Davies always sought to see both sides of difficult issues of Faith and ecclesial governance, which is why he managed to bring Catholics closer together in times of crisis rather than pushing them apart. Michael Davies did not go in for anathematizing Catholic brothers with whom he happened to disagree, which is why he accomplished so much good for souls. His is an example worthy to be emulated by all of us. May he rest in peace. MJM

In the closing decades of the fifteenth century and opening decades of the sixteenth, the ideals of the Christian faith had become so gravely compromised by the bad example given in high places, above all in Rome, that it provoked a violent reaction, and good Catholics who had no intention of breaking with the Church protested against the scandals of ecclesiastical life. In 1491, St. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, the only English bishop willing to die rather than renounce communion with the Holy See, warned that if the Pope did not reform his court, God would reform it for him.

By far the most dramatic protest against papal corruption came from the Dominican, Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498), who has for centuries been the subject of lively controversy among Catholic scholars, and whose complete rehabilitation now appears to be a distinct possibility.


       Renaissance Humanism

The story of Savonarola cannot be understood without some knowledge of Florence at the close of the fifteenth century. Florence was ruled by the house of Medici who had become the exponents of a development of Renaissance humanism incompatible with Christianity. The flowering of art and literature, exemplified by Giotto and Dante, and the revival of classical studies in the early Renaissance, were by no means seen as a threat to the Church. It can be regarded correctly as the blossoming and unfolding of the mind of the Italian people. The early Renaissance was indeed the Vita Nuova of the nation. In no way was this Renaissance opposed by the Church. Art and artists of the thirteenth century recognized no such opposition. It was the Church which gave the artists their employment and set them to their tasks. The circle of ideas in which they moved is still entirely religious. Visit, if you possibly can, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua to see the witness given to this ideal by Giotto's incomparable frescoes.

The breach with the religious allegory and symbolism of the middle ages did not begin until the late fifteenth century. In the fourteenth century the spread of naturalistic thought had brought about a new conception of the beauty of the human body, but this can hardly be said to be incompatible with Christianity. Witness the Sistine Chapel. Many of the popes were entirely in sympathy with this Renaissance. Several of them opposed the pagan and materialistic degeneration of Humanism, but none of them accused the art of the Renaissance of being inimical to Christianity.

Medici Florence

Medici Florence exemplified the pagan and materialistic side of the Renaissance which, not content with restoring antique knowledge and culture to modern humanity, eagerly laid hold of the whole intellectual life of heathen times, together with its ethical perceptions and its principles based on sensual pleasure. Lorenzo de Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico, was the chief supporter of this school. Scenes that took place during his rule in the streets and squares of Florence, the extravagances of the youth of the city lost in sensuality, and the writings and pictures offered to the public, appeared correctly to earnest minded Christians to be a sign of approaching dissolution. A number of great Florentines had opposed the degeneracy of their republic, but the most celebrated and most effective opposition came from a Dominican monk named Girolamo Savonarola.

The Young Monk

Girolamo Savonarola was born at Ferrara on 21 September 1452.   He was hanged in Florence on 23 May 1498 for heresy and schism. The Savonarolas came from Padua and Girolamo was the third of seven children. From his earliest years it was evident that he was intellectually gifted. Michael Savonarola, his grandfather, arranged for him to study at the University of Ferrara. 
He received a thoroughgoing humanist education and, as a university student, was exceptionally assiduous, and devoted himself entirely to his studies, especially philosophy and medicine.   In 1474 he heard a powerful sermon on repentance preached by an Augustinian priest and experienced a dramatic conversion similar to that of Francis of Assisi. Savonarola resolved to renounce the world and live entirely for God. In April 1475 he entered the Dominican order at Bologna. He expressed his feelings in a poem On the Decline of the Church which he wrote in the first year of his monastic life. The young Dominican devoted himself with great zeal to prayer and ascetic practices and was entrusted with the instruction of the novices in his monastery. He also wrote philosophic treatises based on Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Savonarola entered the monastery without so much as informing his parents, although he did write to his father and grandfather later explaining why he had made his decision. As if scales had fallen from his eyes he saw himself living in a depraved society. Renaissance culture appeared to him to be the culture of Satan. He made this clear in the letter to his grandfather which was replete with religious fervour, but also showed signs of a zeal so excessive that his judgements might not always be balanced. "With all our knowledge of science," he lamented, "we are on the road to hell and with all our wisdom we have fallen into folly. Can you not see that the world is full of filth? Let us flee from Sodom and Gomorrah, let us flee from Pharaoh and from Egypt. In our present society one can earn respect only if one can draw from the depths of a cursed and shameful breast horrible and frightful blasphemies, or if one murders one's neighbour, or if one spreads discord and sedition throughout society. There is not one person left who does good. Not one. Torrential rain, earthquakes, hail-storms, and tempests all call men to repentance, but they refuse to heed the warning.   Floods, epidemics, deadly fevers, and famines invite men to repent, but they will not heed them. The sacrilegious invasions of the insolent Turks cry out a terrible warning to them, but they remain deaf to it. The gentle voice of the preachers and the servants of God resound in their ears, but they will not open them. Then why delay my soul? Rise up and fly."

In a letter to his father he assured him of his constant veneration. If his sudden entry into the monastery without first asking for his consent had seemed to be lacking in filial respect it was because no obligation to any human being, no matter how venerable, could take precedence over a direct command from God. This is the first manifestation of the unshakable conviction that was to motivate him for the rest of his life—that he was directly inspired by God. He went on to give his father the precise instructions that he had received from God concerning the manner in which his brother Albert was to be educated.

In 1479 Savonarola's studies brought him back to Ferrara, a circumstance which led to his friendship with the celebrated humanist Pico della Mirandola who was later to describe Savonarola as "a hope for the Church".

A Prophet Rejected

In 1481 Savonarola's superiors sent him to preach in Florence, the centre of the Renaissance that he so despised. The Court of Lorenzo de Medici was the epitome of immorality if not outright paganism which characterized many classes of society. His sermons made no impression whatsoever upon the Florentines as they were considered to be so unsophisticated as to be repulsive to cultured society. He had employed a professor of diction to improve his preaching, but his instruction resulted only in a mechanical eloquence which left his audience cold or even hostile. Undeterred, Savonarola preached in other cities during the years 1485-1489. But he began to preach directly from his heart with words of passion and sincerity addressed directly to the hearts of his listeners. He was to become, after St. Bernadine of Sienna, the greatest preacher of the Italian Middle Ages. His preaching was devoid of any objective but the salvation of those who heard him. It was characterized by clear and exact theological understanding, replete with natural oratorical perfection, and it proved to be irresistible. In 1482 Savonarola was assigned as lector in theology to the priory of San Marco, Florence.

Apocalyptic Preaching

At Brescia in 1486 Savonarola preached upon the Book of Revelation, the first manifestation of what was to become his obsessive preoccupation, an Apocalyptic interpretation of his own era. God would judge and punish society for its wickedness, he prophesied, and the regeneration of the Church would follow. Savonarola was prone to prophesy, and the number of his prophecies that were fulfilled is astonishing. Renaissance Society was indeed punished for its degeneracy by the Protestant Reformation, and the Church was indeed regenerated by the Counter-Reformation Popes beginning with Pope Paul IV. He also prophesied correctly that Lorenzo de Medici would shortly die, as would Pope Innocent VIII, that the sinful Medici tyranny would be overthrown by the French; that the Chair of Peter would be occupied by a simoniac; and that his own mission would last eight years after which he would be hanged, burned and his ashes cast into the River Arno. He foretold events that it would have been humanly impossible to foresee, such as the separation of two Dominican Congregations, those of Lombardy and Tuscany. He also prophesied that the Turks would be converted within ten years, that Rome would be taken, sacked and filled with desolation, and that the republic of Florence would disappear thirty-two years after his death.   These prophecies were not fulfilled.

The Return to Florence

Whatever Savonarola's faults, it cannot be denied that the motivating force of his life was the salvation of souls. He was, as he was later to prove, willing to give his life to combat wickedness and spread holiness. In 1489 he returned to Florence for what would be his triumph and eventual downfall. He began preaching to the novices at San Marco, his principal theme being the corruption of the Church and the world. Reports of these sermons spread through Florence. The faithful flocked to his sermons and the room in which he gave them became too small for the congregation. He began to speak in the monastery garden beneath the rose trees on summer evenings. The faithful begged him to begin preaching in church and in August 1490 he preached the first of his sermons on the Apocalypse from the pulpit of San Marco. The response was a total contrast with his preaching of 1481. His success was complete. All Florence came to hear him and to hang upon his every word.   His success in preaching was matched by his progress in the Dominican Order and, in 1491, such was the esteem of his Dominican confreres, that he was appointed Superior of the Monastery of San Marco and its dependent foundations.

He was soon involved in disputes with other Dominican Congregations and in a thoroughgoing reform of all the houses under his control. His prime concern was with the formation of the young friars. The formation he gave them was notable in particular for the love and knowledge of the scriptures that he instilled. Their piety was devoid of any false mysticism or affectation, the young monks were cheerful, but the regime was too austere and rigid.   The young men were very poorly fed, being able to eat only what they could gain from the poor pittance obtained from their manual work. But such was the magnetism of his personality that the cream of the youth of Florence sought entry into San Marco.  

The principal benefactor of this monastery was Lorenzo de Medici, but Savonarola would not compromise his principles by so much as meeting him when he came to visit the monastery. Lorenzo was forced to pace up and down waiting in vain for the superior to come out and speak to him. The Dominican realized correctly that the Medici were the primary source of the sins of Florence and the oppressors of its liberties. It is hardly surprising that Lorenzo's opinion of the new prior was far from favourable, but nonetheless he in no way reduced his generous donations to the monastery.

Savonarola initiated an internal reform of his monastery. San Marco and other monasteries of Tuscany were separated from the Lombard Congregation of the Dominican Order and with papal approval were formed into an independent congregation in 1493. Monastic life was reformed in this new congregation of which Savonarola was the Vicar-General.   He set an example of a strict life of mortification; his cell was small and poor, his clothing coarse, his food simple and scanty. Lay brothers of the monastery were obliged to learn a trade and clerics were kept constantly at their studies. Vocations blossomed and the number of monks of San Marco rose from 50 to 238, many of them coming from the most aristocratic families of Florence.

While building up his monastic community Savonarola continued to preach with burning zeal and soon became the most influential person in Florence. He was what would be described today as a cult figure with a constantly growing following of devotees who regarded him as a prophet. His sermons and his powerful personality made a deep impression on all who heard him. Regardless of the possible consequences, he castigated the immoral, vain-glorious, pleasure-seeking Florentines and terrified many of them into a return to the observance of Christian virtues. A city renowned for its licentiousness had become a convent, claimed its cynical neighbours.

Savonarola did not hesitate to use his sermons to attack Lorenzo de Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, as the promoter of paganized art, immoral living, and the tyrant of Florence. But when Lorenzo died Savonarola was the priest he called to minister the last rites to him upon his deathbed. There is no truth in the story that he refused Lorenzo absolution.

Lorenzo's son, Giovanni de' Medici had been made a cardinal while only a boy because of his father's influence. He was elected Pope in 1513 but was disastrously unsuitable to rule the Church. In the best Medici tradition he had only one main aim in life, the aggrandizement of his family:

Had he remembered his office rather than his family and taken reform more seriously than politics, the Reformation might indeed have been a renewal of the Church rather than a terrible schism. As it was, one of the last chances of a truly Catholic reformation was lost.

E. John, The Popes , (Roman Catholic Books, 1994), p. 328.

Corruption in the Church

From 1493 onwards Savonarola's preaching was directed at the heart of the malaise that was undermining the Church. He spoke with increasing violence against abuses in Ecclesiastical life, against the immorality of a large part of the clergy, particularly the immoral life of many members of the Roman Curia, above all that of the Roman Pontiff himself, Alexander VI. He spoke in prophetic terms of the approaching judgement of God and of an avenger who would initiate a reform of Church life. This was to be his fatal mistake, for he chose as his avenger Charles VIII, King of France, who had invaded Italy and was considered by the Pope and all the Italian cities and states as their implacable enemy. Savonarola considered Charles to be the gladius Domini, the "new Cyrus", and his support for the French king brought him from the realm of the spiritual into the realm of politics, and he was no politician.   Furthermore, the immoral life of Charles VIII and his extravagant lifestyle and ideas hardly qualified him to be promoted as an instrument of God.

Florence Reformed

Charles VIII entered Italy and was advancing towards Florence. Lorenzo's son, Pietro de Medici, who was hated both for his tyranny and his immoral life, was driven from the city with his family as a result of Savonarola's preaching. The Dominican with a delegation of Florentines met Charles VIII at Pisa. The King was able to enter Florence unopposed, and before departing handed it over to Savonarola who drew up a unique constitution for the city. It can best be described as a theocratic democracy based on Savonarola's political and social theories. Christ was to be considered the King of Florence and protector of its liberties.   A great council, as the representative of all the citizens, became the governing body of the republic and the law of Christ was to be the basis of political and social life. Savonarola did not interfere directly in politics and affairs of state, but his ideas were authoritative as he presented himself as nothing less than the oracle of God. This invested his teaching and preaching with a fatal weakness. His orthodoxy was beyond reproach, but he demanded that his teaching be accepted without question, not on the grounds of its conformity to Catholic doctrine, but because he was a man directly inspired by God to say what he said and to direct the actions of others.

There was an undeniable regeneration in the moral life of the majority of citizens. Many persons brought articles of luxury, playing cards, ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, and the writings of pagan and immoral poets to the monastery of San Marco where they were burned publicly. It is undoubtedly true that much that was beautiful and precious, part of the patrimony of Florence and mankind, perished in these flames. Savonarola has been blamed for this, but he would not have been troubled. It has been said, and no doubt said correctly, that he lacked any true aesthetic sense and could not distinguish the truly beautiful from coarse sensuality. It is even claimed that he had paintings by Botticelli burned because they depicted nude or semi-nude women.

A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people encouraged a pious Christian life among its members. On Sundays members of the brotherhood went from house to house and along the streets to take away dice and cards from the citizens, and to exhort luxuriously dressed women to lay aside frivolous ornament. This brotherhood developed for practical purposes into a police force for regulating morality. It utilized objectionable methods of spying and denunciation to achieve its objectives. Children were encouraged to report the sins of their parents. Savonarola's severe moral principles were imposed upon the Florentines in the most extreme manner.

Flushed by success, his sermons became more recklessly passionate, more and more daring. He envisaged his mission as securing the moral regeneration of all Italy and then the entire Church. God's instrument for achieving this aim was to be Charles VIII, and this brought about an open conflict with Pope Alexander VI. The Pope and every Italian city but Florence opposed the French king, as did the Emperor Maximilian I, and so Alexander had no difficulty in making the conflict appear political rather than religious. The issue appeared not to be one of a saintly monk denouncing the depravity of the Pope and many churchmen, but of an arrogant politically minded monk allying himself with a foreign invader.

Conflict with the Pope

Savonarola preached with increasing violence against the Pope and the Curia. On 25 July 1495 a mildly phrased papal brief commanded Savonarola in virtue of holy obedience to come to Rome to defend himself on the score of the prophecies attributed to him, which were becoming more and more sensational. In reality Alexander's objective was to persuade the Dominican to refrain from any further comment concerning his private life. Savonarola replied that he fully accepted his obligation to obey a command from the Sovereign Pontiff, but that he declined to leave Florence on the grounds of poor health and the evident danger of making the journey as he might be murdered on the road. He was, he insisted, badly needed at that time in Florence. "So it is not God's will that I leave just now."   As for the prophecies, he would send the Pope a recently composed book, Compendium revelationum, which would give him all the necessary information. Another brief followed on 8 September. The Dominican was forbidden to preach and the monastery of San Marco was restored to the Lombard Congregation.

He replied to the brief on 29 September and attempted to justify himself by stating that while he had always submitted his teaching to the judgement of the Church, he must submit to the voice of God rather than that of the Pope. The Pope made considerable concessions is his next brief, Licet uberius, dated 16 October 1495.   The command for the monastery of San Marco to return to the Lombard Congregation was withdrawn, a considerable concession, and Savonarola's conduct was judged mildly, but the prohibition on his public preaching was maintained.

Savonarola had, in fact, begun preaching again on 11 October in order to rouse the Florentines once more against Pietro de Medici, and on 11 February, 1496, the Signoria of Florence commanded him to preach again. He resumed his sermons on 17 February, thus enabling Alexander VI to charge him with disobedience to ecclesiastical authority. It is very significant that he made it clear that it was not out of obedience to the Pope that he had desisted from preaching, but only to examine his conscience as to his motives and manner of preaching. In a series of Lenten sermons he denounced the immorality and corruption of Rome in the most violent terms, and roused the Florentines to a state of passionate excitement. He insisted from the pulpit that if the Pope commanded something wrong then he must be disobeyed, which was sound Thomistic teaching, but hardly likely to please Alexander.

The Pope feared the emergence of a schism and took action. On 7 November, 1496, the Dominican Monasteries of Rome and Tuscany were formed into a new congregation, their first Vicar General being Cardinal Caraffa, later to become the reforming Pope Paul IV. Savonarola refused to obey and during Lent 1497 he preached against the evils found in Rome with unprecedented violence. The state of the Church was now one of infamy, he insisted, and he urged his congregation to listen to the very word of God transmitted to them through him. In the past when priests fathered sons they called them nephews, but there are no more nephews today, only sons proclaimed as such without shame. Addressing the Pope directly, he stated bluntly: "You have erected a house of debauchery. You have placed a prostitute upon the throne of Solomon. The Church has set up a sign for all who pass by inviting all those who can pay to enter in and do whatever pleases them. Those who seek to do God's will are cast outside. Oh prostituted Church, you display your lewdness everywhere for men to see."

The Excommunication

On 12 May 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated with the bull Cum saepenumero. The friar, believing himself to be directly charged by God, and therefore entitled to disobey ecclesiastical authority, disregarded the excommunication. On 19 June he replied to the Pope with a letter "Against the excommunication". He claimed that the excommunication had been falsely obtained and that the judgement against him was null and void. "Who ever excommunicates me," declared the friar, "excommunicates God." His mission was, he insisted, divine and therefore his excommunication was not valid in the sight of God. "If ever I ask absolution from this excommunication, may God cast me into the depths of hell, for I should, I believe, have committed thereby a mortal sin." He claimed that all those who recognized the excommunication as valid were heretics. Excommunications, he claimed were very cheap today, and anyone willing to pay a small sum could have anyone he pleased excommunicated.

Savonarola lost no opportunity of showing his contempt for the Holy See. A medal was struck with the head of the friar on one side, looking noble and inflexible, and on the reverse a sword suspended over the city of Rome with the words: "Let the sword of God come down to earth immediately and swiftly." Savonarola was now in an almost permanent state of exaltation. His criticisms began to reach the stage of exaggeration, the vices of individual clerics were extended to the whole of the clergy. "Priests," he proclaimed from the pulpit, "go openly to Saint Peter's each one with his concubine: and they do not suffer the least embarrassment in displaying their shame in public. The poison is so widespread in Rome that France, Germany, and the entire world are infected. You evil ones! This monk is fighting you with his allies with the same energy he employs against Turks and infidels. I have received a brief from Rome. It states that I am a son of perdition. I do not deny it. This is the reply I sent to them. The priest whom you so describe has no concubine or no young boy. He preaches the Gospel of Christ."

The Florentine ambassador in Rome intervened on his behalf, but without success which is not surprising as the Dominican continued to become more and more defiant. Alexander explained to the ambassador:

I do not condemn this monk for the doctrines that he preaches but because he refuses to ask for his excommunication to be lifted, declares it to be without value, and continues his preaching in defiance of our express will. All this constitutes straightforward contempt for our authority and that of the Holy See, and a dangerous example of the most serious degree. We ask nothing more of Savonarola that recognition of our supreme authority.

The Scandal of Simony

Savonarola was not calling into question the authority of the Pope and the Curia as such, in se, but the unworthiness of those found at the head of the Christian religion. The humanists of the Curia seemed to him to be devoid of faith and acting beyond the law. The Pope had lost his reputation and the cardinals were more or less simoniacs. He proposed calling a General Council to deal with these individuals whom he considered culpable. He sent letters to the rulers of Christendom urging them to carry out this scheme which, on account of the alliance of Florence with Charles VIII, was not altogether beyond possibility. Such a Council might have intimidated Alexander VI into resigning and initiated at least a partial reform of the Curia, which may have prevented the Reformation. Savonarola claimed that Alexander had purchased the papacy, and he was almost certainly correct. This, he claimed, meant that Alexander had no right to be Pope. The crime of simony had been put forward as a classic instance justifying the deposition of a doubtful pope. In 1513, ten years after the death of Alexander, Pope Julius II denounced simony in his bull Cum tam divino, and stated that it invalidated the election of anyone tainted with it, including the Pope himself. The case of Alexander VI prompted a good number of contemporary theologians to take the same severely critical attitude to simony as the impetuous Savonarola. After listing the cardinals bribed by Alexander VI to secure his election, Ludwig Pastor in his classic History of the Popes comments:

By a mysterious decree of Providence it transpired that a man was invested with the supreme dignity of the Church who in other times would not have been admitted to even the lowest ranks of the clergy in view of his dissolute morals. Then began for the Church an era of ignominy and scandal.

The Last Days

Despite the fact that he had been excommunicated Savonarola celebrated Mass on Christmas Day and distributed Holy Communion. On 11 February 1498 he began to preach at the cathedral again and to explain why he considered that the sanctions imposed upon him were null and void. In the face of the evils afflicting the papacy he had not the least doubt that he was the new Amos charged with correcting the High Priest.

Opposition to the Dominican had been building up for some time. The Signoria had become very alarmed in February, 1498, when Alexander had threatened to place Florence under an interdict, which would have meant the cessation of the administration of the Sacraments. Animosity to Savonarola was particularly strong among the Franciscans. Father François de Pouille, a member of this order, offered him a challenge of ordeal by fire to prove that the Dominican was in error. Savonarola declined, but some of his more ardent followers declared themselves eager for it. The ordeal was to be held on 7 April, 1498, before a large public gathering. The Franciscan representative expected to be burned to death as he passed through the fire, but he was sure that the Dominican representative would suffer the same fate, and thus expose Savonarola as an imposter. If the Dominican failed to emerge unscathed from the flames Savonarola was to leave Florence within three hours.   An immense and eager crowd gathered to watch the competition, but disputes about procedure brought about endless delays. The Franciscans feared that Savonarola might put a spell upon his champion, making him impervious to the flames—which would hardly have been cricket. The Dominican demanded that he be allowed to carry the Blessed Sacrament as he walked though the flames. This gave rise to a lengthy theological argument as to whether such an action would be permissible. A violent rainstorm broke out, which meant that conditions were hardly suitable for an ordeal by fire and, to the outrage of the crowd, the whole affair was abandoned without anyone being burned. Savonarola lost considerable face.

The Florentines now turned against the Dominican. Resentment at his moral dictatorship had been building up for years. Monsignor Philip Hughes describes this dictatorship as one of "crazy severity, and under the surface the city was seething with discontent. There were riots in Florence and the Monastery of San Marco was attacked.   Savonarola and two fellow Dominicans were arrested. Alexander demanded that they should be sent to him for trial. The republic refused, but promised that the Pope should impose the final sentence. The papal delegate, the Dominican General, and the Bishop of Ilerda were sent to Florence to attend the trial. The official proceedings still exist, but they were falsified by the notary.   The captured friars spent forty-five days in Florence's Signoria prison, and despite being tortured, humiliated, and derided, Savonarola managed to write his Commentary upon Mercy, one of the most moving works in the history of the Church. On 22 May, on the basis of admissions obtained through torture, Savonarola and two other members of his order were condemned to death "on account of the enormous crimes of which they had been convicted".   Savonarola confessed under torture that he had acted not by divine inspiration but for personal motives, but he withdrew the confession before his execution. The Pope had authorized the use of torture to extract a confession.

The three friars were hanged on 23 May, 1498, in the Piazza della Signoria. The papal commissaries declared that they had been proven guilty of schism and heresy, and announced that the Pope, in his mercy, offered them a plenary indulgence. Savonarola bowed his head as a sign of acceptance. The three friars were allowed to make their confessions and receive Holy Communion. Before their execution, the Bishop of Vaison, Benedict Paganozzi, degraded the three from their priestly rank and religious status. During the ceremony of degradation the bishop stated: "I separate you from the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant." With great disdain Savonarola corrected the bishop's poor theology: "From the Church Militant, not from the Church triumphant. That is not in your power." After the execution the corpses were burned and the ashes thrown into the River Arno to prevent followers of the Dominican obtaining any relics.

Monsignor Hughes writes:

It was, of course, a terrible retribution for the wild, unmeasured language in which the Dominican had attacked the evil life of the monstrously bad man who then disgraced the chair of St. Peter, and for the endeavours he had made to dislodge him from choose the heresy process as the convenient instrument for the destruction of the friars was a scandalous perversion of justice—it was the case of the Templars and of St. Joan all over again, but with the Pope a leading agent in the wickedness.

There was no reaction to follow the death of the prior of San Marco, a faithful few clung fast to all that he had taught them, but the great commercial city continued on its way, corrupted and contented, as did, for many years yet, the papal curia against whose scandals the great Dominican had witnessed.

Unimpeachable Orthodoxy

Savonarola's writings were examined by a theological commission during the pontificate of Paul IV (1555-1559) and found to be free of error. Nothing that he wrote or said is in the least tainted by heresy. His book The Triumph of the Cross is a superb and inspiring apology for the Church. Its detailed explanation of the Sacraments displays the most perfect possible Thomistic orthodoxy. All the traditional documents are explained and praised as "conforming to the highest level of reason". Savonarola wrote with fervour of Our Lady and the saints. For him beautiful churches, their towers, their altars, and their bells proclaim the glory of God. He loved to see the cross, the candles, the holy water stoup with the holy water in it, "a fountain of tears which washed away the faults of the penitent". Without any exception, great or small, "all the institutions of the Church are admirable. And for those who wish to know more of the Church, let them read attentively the writings of our doctors, let them study these works with care, and they will know that the worship of the Church does not come from men but from God."

Savonarola's writing is replete with a lively piety, bordering upon lyricism and at times exaltation, and is characterized above all by a remarkable clarity. It contains no new insights into mysticism but follows close the teaching of Saint Bonaventure. His philosophy was straightforward Thomism, but expressed with an admirable and exceptional clarity. Ninety examples of his writing are still extant ranging from simple letters to huge volumes.

It is quite ludicrous that Savonarola's statue should have been placed at the foot of Luther's memorial in Worms as a forerunner of the reformation! He has been venerated almost as a saint by St. Philip Neri, St. Catherine Ricci, St. John Fisher, St. Pius V, and St. Pius X. During the examination of Savonarola's writing in the Pontificate of Pope Paul IV, St. Philip Neri was asked by some Dominican Fathers to join in prayer that the works would not be condemned. Saint Philip was assisting at the Forty Hours devotion in the Church of the Minerva in Rome. He fell into an ecstasy, with his eyes fixed on the Blessed Sacrament. When he returned to himself, he said: "Our prayer is heard.


According to the May 1996 issue of Inside the Vatican moves are afoot not simply to exonerate Savonarola but to beatify him. Father Innocenzo Venchi, a Dominican scholar-friar, has been charged with making the case for Savonarola's beatification. He maintains that the friar's excommunication was not valid. This is perfectly possible. Excommunication does not involve papal infallibility. There have been many invalid excommunications in the history of the Church.

Father Venchi also insists that there was no political involvement in Savonarola's apostolate. It is hard to see how his involvement with Charles VIII can be seen as anything but political, and if this is the case it could prove to be a serious impediment to beatification. During the beatification and canonization of the Martyrs of England and Wales during the reign of Elizabeth I, the least hint of political involvement ruled out any possibility of beatification.

Father Vechi also denies that Savonarola ever disobeyed the pope which certainly does not accord with the facts. The friar refused to go Rome when ordered to do so by the Pope and also continued to preach after being forbidden to do so, as well as offering Mass and administering the sacraments after his excommunication. Disobeying the Pope is not necessarily a sin. It could even be a meritorious action if done for the right reason. But Savonarola went beyond disobedience. He made clear in his letter to the Emperor demanding a General Council to depose the Pope that he did not consider Alexander to be a true Pope. He wrote:

Every abomination, every villainy spreads without shame throughout the world but you remain silent and you venerate the pestilence sitting on the Chair of Peter. This is why Our Lord, outraged by this intolerable corruption, has permitted the Church to be without a Pastor for some time. For I assure you in the name of God, in verbo Domini, that Alexander VI cannot possibly be considered to be Pope by any possible stretch of the imagination and can never be Pope. For apart from the execrable crime of simony, which he used to steal the tiara, and which each day he uses to auction and confer upon the highest bidder ecclesiastical benefices. Leaving aside his other vices, known to everyone, and which I shall pass over in silence, this is what I declare in the first place, hoc primum assero, and what I affirm with absolute certitude; this man is not a Christian, he does not even believe there is a God, he has gone beyond the furthest limits of infidelity and impiety.

What must our judgement be concerning this controversial Dominican? He was certainly neither heretical nor schismatic, and his excommunication was certainly not valid. A papal excommunication is not valid simply because it is pronounced by the Pope but must in itself be just and founded upon truth. Savonarola was a fervently devout Catholic devoted entirely to God and to his Church. Alexander VI was, as Monsignor Hughes expressed it, "...a monstrously bad man who ... disgraced the chair of St. Peter". Savonarola displayed a far more profound Catholic instinct than most of his contemporaries, insisting that despite the depths to which the Church had sunk, as a divinely founded institution she would rise again to her former glory, as proved to be the case with Trent and the Counter-Reformation. The shame of Alexander VI and other unworthy Renaissance popes would be eclipsed in less than a century by the glory of the Jesuit saints, Ignatius, Francis Xavier, and, not least, a Borgia, St. Francis Borgia third General of the order, and a direct descendant of Alexander VI. Mention must also be made of other new orders such as the Theatines founded by St. Cajetan, the Barnabites by St. Anthony Mary Zaccaria, and the Oratory of St. Philip Neri.

Savonarola manifested simultaneous the traits of heroic sanctity and pride that bordered upon arrogance. He most certainly refused obedience to Alexander, and it can be argued that as Alexander ordered him to do nothing that was intrinsically wrong he should have obeyed. It is the basis for his refusal to obey that could prove the greatest obstacle to his eventual canonization—his claim to be directly inspired by God. Unless the Holy See is prepared to accept that this was indeed the case it could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle. The New Catholic Encyclopedia considers that the most serious charge against him, and the one that, if anything did, justified his excommunication for heresy, schism, and contempt of the Holy See, was that he had invoked the civil power to call a council and depose the Pope. The Encyclopedia's judgement on the Dominican is that:

Savonarola was certainly a great Catholic and, in some sense, certainly a martyr. His subjective position regarding Alexander VI is certainly beyond question, and only the matter of his objective guilt, depending on the legal judgement of his day, awaits further investigation. Indeed, as early as 1499, Savonarola was locally venerated as a saint.

While one cannot deny that Savonarola was a great and heroic Catholic reformer it is interesting to contrast the lasting fruits of his apostolate, which were virtually non-existent, with those of the gentle St. Philip Neri in the following century. His methods could hardly have differed more than they did from those of Savonarola, and its positive fruits are beyond calculation. He was, incidentally, educated by the Dominicans of San Marco. Whereas Savonarola denounced Rome but did not change it, St. Philip eschewed denunciations but converted the city. Whether or not Savonarola is beatified and then canonized is a matter entirely for the Holy See. Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli, the Archbishop of Florence, wanted the beatification to take place in 1998, the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dominican.   But beatification should not be arranged to coincide with an anniversary but should take place only after the most thorough possible investigation, and some of Father Innocenzo Venchi's comments cited in Inside the Vatican suggest that the investigation has not yet been thorough enough. It would, of course, be possible to rehabilitate Savonarola without beatifying him, to admit that his excommunication and execution were unjust. It is hard to see how this could be denied.

(Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia)




Last modified on Monday, March 10, 2014