Dante’s belief that nonbelievers exist in a transient state of incompletion in the afterlife suggests that he believes their lives were also deficient in the mortal world; otherwise, they would have ascended to heaven or even purgatory after death. To Dante, Christianity is therefore not only the key to salvation, but also integral to his understanding of what it means to be a good, whole person.
Despite his commitment to Christianity as the only true faith, however, Dante consigns a high number of church officials to hell. With few exceptions, every sinner Dante meets after leaving limbo had believed in Christ while alive, or at least been baptized. And yet, as Dante stresses throughout the
In the fourth circle, where the prodigal and avaricious must spend eternity pulling stone weights, Virgil and Dante encounter a throng of corrupt priests, cardinals, and popes too numerous to count or even recognize. By placing church officials in hell, Dante draws a distinction between the Christian faith and the institution of the Christian church, asserting that participation in the latter does not necessarily imply possession of the former.
Dante’s simultaneous commitment to a strict Christianity and his condemnation of clergymen reflects his deeply held concerns about the institution of the Church. Dante’s greatest ire is reserved for church leaders who drift from their ecclesiastical responsibilities—providing spiritual guidance to the people—in favor of chasing money and power. In the third pouch of the eighth circle of hell, for example, Dante encounters the Simoniacs, church leaders who have sold ecclesiastical offices for money and personal gain.
In Canto XIX, he meets Pope Nicholas III, who must spend the rest of eternity upside down, his head in a rock and his feet (which have been set aflame) in the air, for having abused his spiritual authority to increase the political power of the Church. The sight provokes Dante to launch an invective against papal abuses of power, crying out against the “miserable lot” of clergymen who “take the things of God that ought to be / Wedded to goodness and in your greediness / Adulterate them into gold and silver!” As he progresses through the
Dante believed that giving the Church political power distracted the clergy from their spiritual duties, corrupting them in the process. He agitated for change in real life, and with the
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