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Benedict XII - A Monastic Pontiff

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Terra Cotta statue of Benedict XIIOn 20 December after a conclave which had lasted seven the cardinals unanimously elected Jacques Fournier, to succeed John XXII. Athis coronation in the Dominican priory at Avignon on 8 January, 1335 he took the name of Benedict XII.

He was a native of Saverdun in the county of Foix, a Cistercian monk, a master of the University of Paris a distinguished theologian who had played a leading part in the controversy occasioned by John XXII's teaching about the fate of departed souls. As Bishop first of Pamiers and later of Mirapoix he had also distinguished himself by the zeal he showed in the pursuit of heretics.

A true monk, continuing to wear the habit even after his election as pope, austere in his private as in his public life, Benedict XII was to show the same zeal in his attempts, never fully successful, to reform the papal court and the religious orders and to bring peace to the warring princes of Europe.

From the very beginning of his pontificate Benedict XII renounced war as an instrument of policy. Neither to defeat the aggression of the emperor in Italy nor to defend the Papal States was he prepared to have recourse to arms. With Louis of Bavaria he at once entered into negotiations which were to continue to the end of the pontificate, and if no lasting peace was made between pope and emperor this was due rather to the opposition and the mistrust of the kings of France and England than to any lack of good will on the part of the pope. The attitude of the German princes was intransigent. In 1338 at Rense they repudiated the claims made by Clement V and John XXII, declared the Empire totally independent of papal control, and rejected all the censures by which the two popes had attempted to vindicate their claims to suzerainty. In this the princes were supported by the German Church. In Germany the emperor acted on occasion as though he were possessed of spiritual as well as temporal authority, annulling the marriage of Margaret, the heiress of the Tyrol, and providing her and his son with dispensations from the impediment of affinity so that they might marry.

Benedict XII worked with some success to prevent the disastrous conflict between France and England later to be called the Hundred Years War, which was just beginning, and on three occasions he was able to bring about a truce or a temporary cessation of the fighting. But it was the business of reform within the Church that was the pope's chief concern.

Avignon was notorious for the peculation and the dishonesty of many of the papal clerks, and for the swarms of benefice seekers and absentee bishops and clergy who infested the papal court. Within a month of his election Benedict XII ordered all diocesan bishops resident at Avignon, and all the clergy having benefices with care of souls, to return at once to their duties under pain of deprivation. The abuse of granting abbeys to non-resident abbots was abolished. In December 1335 the pope revoked all the favors known as "expectatives", grants of benefices when they should fall vacant. The mere threat of inquiry and reform in the different departments of the papal government, and above all in the office of the pope's marshal, is said to have brought about a general flight of the guilty from Avignon. The office of the Penitentiary, which dealt chiefly with absolution from reserved sins and ecclesiastical censures and with dispensations, was completely reorganized. A new staff of secretaries was created to deal with the pope's secret correspondence, and a new system established of registering all privileges and favors in order to eliminate forgeries.

A monk himself and a diocesan bishop for many years before his election to the papacy, Benedict XII was well aware that almost all the religious orders at this time were in need of reform. The Cistercians had long since abandoned much of their primitive austerity, the rigid observance of poverty and the excellent system of regular visitation and of general chapters. The pope renewed these rules, severely limited the abbots' rights of disposing of monastic property, and ordered all Cistercian monasteries to maintain students of theology in the universities.

The most radical reforms were introduced into the Benedictine order. Thirty-one provinces were established, and each province was ordered to hold a triennial chapter for the maintenance of discipline. Other rulings of the pope dealt with the restoration of the common Iife in the monastery, the care of the property, and the courses of monastic studies.

Benedict XII was particularly critical of the Franciscans and imposed on the order a new constitution which was very ill received and finally abolished by his successor. With the Dominicans the attempted reform was eves less successful; the pope was openly resisted by the Master General, and the controversy was still unsettled when Benedict died on 25 April, 1342.

The pope's reform of the religious orders appears to have failed because he attempted to do too much too quickly, to make too many regulations and changes at once and without the men and the machinery to see that the proposed reforms were put into practice. All that he did aroused a tremendous antipathy. He was blamed for his alleged avarice, for being stubborn and hard-hearted, for his animosity toward the orders of the friars. Like every reformer Benedict XII made mistakes and he made enemies; but there can be no doubt of his integrity, of his personal sanctity, and his ardent desire to purify the Church and restore the declining prestige of the papacy.

This biographical data is from "The Popes" edited by Eric John. Published by Hawthorn Books, Inc of New York.


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