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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
21 Sep 2004

The Venetian Interdict of 1606-1607

by Dr. John C. Rao

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 'Portrait of Paul V' (1600), Prince Camillo Borghese Collection, Rome

The Divine Right of Republics, and the Triumph of the Will

One of the most important events of the Catholic Reformation era was the Venetian Interdict of April, 1606 to April, 1607. It involved practical economic matters and power-political relationships which the Church may not have judged correctly. Nevertheless, is also represented a cause célèbre engaging much of the European continent in a debate on the relationship of mankind to a changing environment and the unchanging God in which the Church was indeed on the side of the angels. Examination of the entire episode yields interesting insights into the development of the Church-State framework of twenty-first century America.

The Dispute and the Interdict

A basic outline of the history of the Venetian Interdict can be sketched quickly. Venice and the Papacy, which often quarreled over jurisdictional questions, clashed especially harshly over a number of such matters in the years 1602-1605. Laws which, in effect, legitimized lay confiscation of lands which had been leased from the Church (1602), prohibited the construction of church buildings without state permission (1603), and ended transfers of property from secular to ecclesiastical hands (1605) followed one upon the other. Meanwhile, two clerics, Scipione Saraceno, a canon of Vicenza, and Abbot Brandolino of Nervesa, accused of crimes ranging from mockery of the symbols of state authority to sorcery and murder, were arrested by the Republic to be tried in secular--rather than ecclesiastical--courts.

Pope Paul V (1605-1621), excoriating all these measures, put Venice on warning that failure to change her behavior would lead to excommunication of her leaders and the laying upon the entire commonwealth of an interdict, a prohibition of all sacramental life save in life or death emergencies. Warnings came to naught. By April, 1606, therefore, the Papal threat became a reality. There then took place a battle of great bitterness for the obedience of the clergy and the laity within the Republic, in the midst of which the bulk of the churches were kept functioning by the government, and especially pro-papal forces like the Jesuits were expelled. A Venetian protest of the interdict tried to interest all secular authority throughout Europe in the Republic's plight, citing it as an example of unjust Church interference in the life of the State with general repercussions for everyone. Protestants, especially English and Dutch Protestants, became excited over the possibilities for penetrating the Italian peninsula. French Gallicans were called into the fray. Rome weighed the prospects for a military solution. Finally, after a year of turmoil, the French Cardinal Francois de Joyeuse, building upon the mutual (and anti-Spanish) friendship of Venice and his own kingdom, negotiated a settlement (April 21, 1607). Rome let the censures drop, Venice abandoned her protest, and the Republic promised to hand the clerical criminals whose immunity it had violated over to the King of France, who might, if he so wished, give them up to the Pope for judgment.

Already, beforehand, Cardinals Cesare Baronius (1538-1607) and Roberto Bellarmine (1542-1621), two of the greatest contemporary defenders of the Church, had their objections to the suggestion of an interdict against Venice. Almost everyone since them has agreed that it was a mistake and a failure on the practical level. Not only did Paul V underestimate the extent to which seventeenth-century clergy and laity might cavalierly disdain commands which would have made even hostile medieval peoples tremble, but he also could be accused of a dreamer's indifference to Venice's serious economic concerns about land usage, and political fears for her survival in a Hapsburg-dominated Italy. Not only did he pick a weapon, the interdict, which seemed to strike at the innocent as well as the guilty, but he also used it against Venice while sparing the Hapsburg Spain that terrified her: a land which men like Baronius considered to be much more guilty in these jurisdictional matters. Other states were aroused to sympathy for Venice in a fashion that hurt papal prestige. Even the settlement of the issue proved to be an embarrassment for the Papacy. The Republic forbade celebration of the reconciliation and the seeking of absolution for canonical penalties incurred by violating the interdict, insisting that it was apologizing for nothing and changing nothing in its behavior. Venice made it clear that its compromise in the matter of the criminal clerics was a one-time event, in no way prejudicial to its future jurisdictional demands. In short, the good sense and effectiveness of Rome were seriously called into question by the Venetian Interdict, and some of the greatest minds in the Catholic world could have said, "I told you so".

But does that mean that nothing that was spoken or done against Venice over the issues inspiring the interdict was for the good, or that no battle with the Republic ought to have been waged at all? Here the answer must be a decisive "no". For the long-term correctness of papal concern over the Venetian actions--and with it the overall correctness of the Catholic vision in and of itself-- comes out when one examines the spirit behind Venice's struggle with Rome. Even a superficial glance at much of the Venetian writing in defense of the Republic reveals an outlook that the Church needed to combat and can be proud to have resisted. And, in fact, men like Bellarmine and Baronius, who were uncomfortable with some of the specific political and legal aspects of the interdict, were in the forefront of the battle against certain monstrous intellectual errors at play alongside them.

The Giovani

Who were the spokesmen for this unacceptable Venetian spirit? One cannot aspire here to a complete listing of every name of significance. Let it suffice to say that the main figures of importance were men appreciated by or directly connected in one way or another with a political faction called the Giovani--the "Young Turks" we would say--which managed to gain control of the Republic in 1582. The Giovani were men with deep intellectual roots, highly conscious of the distinct historical position of Venice in the life of the West, and very eager for their city to overcome her commercial, agricultural, and strategic problems and survive.

Reference should be made specifically to the names of Paolo Paruta (1540-1598), author of Political Discourses and a work On the Perfection of the Political Life; Enrico Davila (1576-1631), known for his History of the Civil Wars in France; Leonardo Donà (1536-1612), Doge from 1606 onwards, for whom service to the State was an act of religious commitment evoking from him a vow of celibacy; Giovanni Marsilio (d. 1612), ex-Jesuit and bridge between the realms of politics and theology; and Fulgenzio Micanzio (1570-1654), a Franciscan who served as spiritual consultant to the Republic after the death of the most famous of all those involved in the battle: Paolo Sarpi (1553-1623). Sarpi, a Servite friar who came to epitomize the revolt in the eyes of Rome, and was excommunicated along with Marsilio and Micanzio, was counselor to the government from 1606 onwards. His Treatise on Benefices, History of the Interdict, History of the Council of Trent and Thoughts cannot be overlooked by the student either of the Venetian Interdict or of the development of modern secular culture as a whole. This is witnessed by no less an enemy of Christianity than Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who considered Sarpi, along with Davila, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini as bright lights in the recent development of historiography.

A full treatment of the arguments of the Venetian spokesmen can be found (and presented, I might add, in a more favorable light than I will do in this article) in Bouwsma's work on Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty. Briefly stated, without untangling the specific positions of each of the different thinkers mentioned above, what one finds therein is a high-minded appeal to spiritual principles and the State's role in defending them, combined together both with a view of the universe as the realm of irrationality, sin, and lust for power, as well as a haughty indifference to the contradictions and consequences of this confusion of ideas all too reminiscent of our own zeitgeist. The entire vision is seasoned with an equally familiar disdain for everything Roman. Let us explore this vision and its dangers beginning with the anti-Roman bias.

Venice had had a different history from much of the rest of Latin Europe. Proving the extent of this distinction was one of the main stimuli to Venetian historiography in the first place. History had indeed kept the Republic out of the Carolingian-Western Roman imperial sphere of influence. Its historians fantasized that Venice surely must have remained somewhat separate from the original Imperium as well. Nothing Roman, the Giovani felt, should therefore be allowed to exercise an "unhistorical" control over Venice. This included the Roman Church, many of whose medieval demands had, in fact, effectively been kept at bay over the course of the past five hundred years.

Here is where the problem lay. Since the time of the Council of Trent, the Roman Church had been awakened from her dogmatic slumber and had dedicated herself to a reform that deeply threatened the unique historical position of the Venetian Republic. Rome, the Giovani believed, wanted to drag Venice into an ecclesiastical Imperium that broke with her whole tradition, and claimed to be acting in the name of God in doing so. This was an aggression that offended them for three reasons.

The State is the One, Proper Vicar of God in the Secular Sphere. It Rules by Divine Right.

For one thing, the Giovani were convinced that the State was the sole instrument created by God to act in the secular realm in the name of things spiritual. It ruled by Divine Right. Rome, by emphasizing the rights of the supernatural order in the natural sphere was sacrilegiously invading the space of God's State. In reality, Rome was merely reiterating what had been stressed since the days of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), and Gregory argued at that time that he himself was only reviving the ancient canonical tradition which had been suppressed by bad political customs over the course of what we call the Early Middle Ages. Hence, the Giovani had not only a pre-Tridentine, but a pre-Gregorian understanding of the State's spiritual role in the life of Christendom. Constantine might have understood their practical desires, though not necessarily their deeper explanation of their position, which involved a more contemporary development of an admittedly age-old intellectual battle.

The Secular World is the Realm of Flux and Cannot be Guided by Universal or Architectonic Principles.

This brings me to the second objection of the Giovani and their supporters, a twist on the ancient complaint of the rhetoricians against philosophy. The earthly realm, they insisted, is the sphere of constant flux and change, the sort of condition described by history (the discipline held to be most suited to demonstrating Venice's unique position in the West). God wants His spiritual agent, the State, to examine the changing reality around it, different for different societies, and use all the tools necessary to move people to do what is required to survive in its midst. He is with the State in all that it demands. Now, however, the Giovani protested, the Church, descending from its proper field of action into another, unsuitable one, was claiming that the realm of flux had to be guided by theological and metaphysical constructs (ideological principles, we would say, if we wished to indicate the same negative judgment). For example, she wanted individual states' foreign policies to be conducted with an eye to the overall interest of Christianity and Christendom, a demand which could embroil Venice in wars against the Turks. For Venice, however, a foreign policy which aimed strictly at practical issues concerning her survival and growth might lead to commerce with the Moslems rather than crusades. Moreover, the Church wanted such practical economic interests to be guided by broad Catholic moral aims, rather than the laws of agricultural and industrial advantage alone. This was a mistake. Great truths were beyond human definition and application to the natural world, the Giovani concluded, and any institution that sought to intervene in the secular realm in their name was acting absurdly. For Sarpi, this critique even extended to the dogmatic activity of the Church, since such activity required the use of natural, human language, itself inappropriate for expressing divine truths accurately. It is difficult to see how Christianity could be anything for him in the long run but the observable spiritual life of distinct, changeable local "churches", incapable of any serious advancement down the path of doctrinal formulation. Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone could be permitted by Sarpi's view and that of some other Giovani even to use history as a model for their action, since to do so would be to turn an historical argument into an intellectual guideline attempting to explain and shape pure "flux". The State, the agent of God, must merely act, commanded by nothing rational or architectonic. Discrete moments of life and reaction to them are the stuff of its existence. On the other hand, consistent obedience to State decisions is the will of God.

The World is the Realm of Sin and the Struggle for Power and Cannot be Transformed to the Greater Honor and Glory of God.

Thirdly, Rome offended the Giovani by acting as though the earth could be transformed ad majorem Dei gloriam. Such a transformation was, for them, an utter impossibility. The world was the realm of sin, with the lust for power being the specific sin that lay behind all human endeavor. Lust for power was the special distinguishing mark of Rome throughout her history, the Popes devoting themselves to the continuation of the old imperial aggression. In fact, the whole Tridentine reform effort, the entire enterprise of transformation of the world in Christ, the thrust of the growing interest in dogma and its application to daily life was one enormous mask for building Roman power, the Giovani claimed. It was therefore the duty of the intelligent man to uncover the lust for power behind every action, to "deconstruct" these seemingly principled moves to reveal the omnipresence of sin. It is this that Sarpi did particularly cleverly, after the interdict was lifted, in his History of the Council of Trent. Of course such an idea means that the State, serving as lion-tamer in a jungle of irrational conflict which may change form but never end, must then itself logically exhibit that same sinful, mindless lust for power that it is supposed to identify and manage in its subjects. Still, if the State insists upon its Divine Right to obedience, cuts off all discussion of higher principles, and, to enforce its will, relies on the kind of terror that Sarpi has no qualms about encouraging, it can easily prevent "deconstruction" of its own role as God's agent in the world.

The Principle of Pragmatism Becomes a Dogma

This brings us to a final underlying contradiction. According to the Giovani, no universal ideas were to be allowed a role in shaping the life of states with their different histories and varying problems. Politics was to be the realm of the "pragmatic". But it is clear that the pragmatically-minded Giovani were religiously devoted to their political conclusions. Many of them spoke of their Republic as though she had sprung fully formed out of the almost supernatural wisdom of her Founding Fathers, with universally applicable practical lessons for a world desperately in need of enlightenment. Hence, they were teaching pragmatism as dogma. A contradiction, indeed, but it should be clear by this time that we have entered an era in which consistency is dismissed as the "hobgoblin of little minds".

The Giovani and America

Paolo Sarpi's book on the Council of Trent was taken to the Plymouth Bay Colony by William Brewster (1567-1644), the spiritual leader of the migrants. John Locke was deeply interested in the Venetian Question. Holland was looked to by the Giovani for support at the time of the Interdict, and offered inspiration to Sarpi, among others. All the above have had their influence on America, and the dominant forces in American life have continued to emphasize much of what the Giovani had to say. America, too, demands belief in the Divine Right of her Republic. She, too, has tried to keep the Church out of secular affairs, insisting on the importance of her political institutions as the real agent for injecting spiritual, liberating influences into human life. Our system also works with an understanding of mankind as a herd of self-interested, warring animals whose factiousness can only be observed and managed, but never cured by obedience to a higher truth and a call to the practice of virtue. It, too, jumbles spiritual and practical claims together in contradictory ways, prohibiting dogmatic guidance of the natural world if this guidance is based on ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty, but requiring it if the dogma being taught is one that underlines the purely "pragmatic" actions of power-driven men. Religious dogma, for America as it was for the Giovani, has been seen as something unreal and, ultimately even "unspiritual", while the dogma of man's sinful, irrational life of flux is recognized as truly realistic and, quite bizarrely, somehow spiritually uplifting. To say that this involves a deep cynicism or confusion about the essence of things spiritual is but to touch the tip of the iceberg. Catholicism could not be reconciled with this vision in 1606-1607 and it cannot be reconciled with it today.

We live in a time when practically every element in the traditional life of the Church has been challenged or destroyed. In order for us to fight properly and fight well for the restoration of everything that ought to be restored, we would do well to try to distinguish what is essentially important to the life of the Church from what is secondary and ephemeral. The real glory of the Church and a number of her apologists in the Venetian Interdict issue was their recognition of the essential error lying behind the vision of the Giovani: the recipe for the triumph of the will, the glorification of the will to power--the "right to choose"--of the strong over the weak without having to be called to account for their action; a triumph of the will and a glorification of the will to power brilliantly argued for the benefit not of a monarchy or a dictatorship, but of a republic. They had the acuity to "deconstruct the deconstructors", to show where true cynicism had taken root.

Not every prelate and apologist in the seventeenth century was so perceptive. It was difficult for them to understand that the spiritual role which they all admitted the State to possess was being given so radically different a definition by their opponents. Indeed, their opponents may themselves not have seen all the consequences of their thought either. Whatever the case may be, the bulk of the Catholic attacks on Venice were centered on the particular facts of the jurisdictional battle, which involved issues that did touch upon legitimate Venetian political and economic fears, and on which the Church might in fairness have compromised but did not wish to in 1606-1607.

It is the insistence of our own age and land on the Divine Right of its Republic to do what it chooses to do based upon the will of its Founders, regardless of the demands of reason and Christ's Church, which is the essential dogma requiring the labor of Catholic apologists, now as with the Venetians in the seventeenth century. It is to the confused and often cynical claim of a "godly" and "spiritual" foundation for this invitation to the willful use of power that attention must be turned. The failure to recognize the essential, and the direction of attention to specific issues of ephemeral importance alone, such as the accidental benefits or detriments of a particular article of the Constitution or piece of legislation, is an enormous diversion of effort to uprooting a tree while a thick forest is left to cover everything in utter darkness.


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