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Sixtus IV - A Failing Pontiff

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Woodcut of Sixtus IVFrancesco Della Rovere was born at Celle on July 21, 1414, of poor parents. He was a sickly youngster, and his mother consecrated him by vow to St. Francis. At the age of nine he was put under the care of a Franciscan schoolmaster, and later on he entered the Franciscan order. He proved to be a talented student at the universities of Pavia and Bologna. Ordained, he taught theology with an extraordinary success. Even the learned Cardinal Bessarion sat in on his lectures.

As provincial of the Ligurian province of his order, Francesco worked hard for reform, and after 1464 when he was elected minister-general of the order, he extended his efforts to the whole order. He so ably defended his friars before Paul II that not only was the Pope appeased but he made Francesco a cardinal in 1467. Cardinal Francesco continued to live as simply as Fra Francesco. He devoted his leisure to study and produced a number of volumes which earned him considerable notice, especially a work defending Mary's Immaculate Conception. With perhaps less success he strove to show that Aquinas and Duns Scotus differed only in words!

Such was the man the cardinals chose to succeed Paul II on August 7, 1471-- a friar, zealous for reform, a hard-working scholar learned in theology. Surely now it would seem that the church had a leader who would undertake the root-and-branch reform so long desired. But not since Urban VI had a pope been more of a disappointment.

It is true that Sixtus IV, as Francesco chose to be called, accomplished some good in his pontificate. He tried to regulate abuses in the inquisition. He made Rome more sanitary. He could be called a second founder of the Vatican Library. He was a great patron of art, and for this he will be remembered whenever men look at the Sistine Chapel.

In spite of all this his pontificate must be considered a dismal failure. At a time when the Church needed reform and rightly expected vigorous leadership in that direction, Sixtus IV caused the moral tone of Roman ecclesiastical life to dive sharply. Not that he was crudely immoral: the Franciscan pope, devoted to Mary, lived a private life which is attacked only by gossipy enemies whose testimony is of no value. The crime of Sixtus was nepotism. From Liguria came numerous relatives to fatten on church wealth and to lower church standards. He created youthful nephews cardinals and loaded them with ecclesiastical plums.

The moral tone of Rome sank as parties, gambling, and loose living became commonplace. The older cardinals looked on with dismay at these manifestations of a new spirit, but they were dying off, and the future remained with the numerous cardinals created by Sixtus IV, the cardinals who did much to pave the way for the success of the Protestant revolt.

Sixtus lowered the prestige of the papacy also by becoming involved in a shabby conspiracy to overthrow the Medici in Florence. To do him justice the Pope insisted that no blood be shed, but still any connection with the Pazzi conspiracy, which was climaxed by a murder on the altar of the cathedral in Florence, is a disgrace to a Pope.

Sixtus IV died August 12, 1484, in the midst of diplomatic and military failure. It was fitting, for the keynote of his pontificate is failure.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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