The year was 1568, but the situation in the Catholic Church was uncomfortably similar to our own. After many decades of corruption and moral decadence, the Church faced the scandal of a clergy who were widely reputed to be involved in the “horrendous crime” of sodomy. When the saintly Pope Pius V was elected in in 1566, he decided to act.
Since the middle of the 15th century, the papacy had been mired in almost continuous scandal as wealthy and powerful Italian families vied for control of the Holy See and the lucrative benefices it controlled. The mentality and behavior of the pontiffs was ostentatiously worldly, and became infamous throughout Europe for their nepotistic exploitation of ecclesiastical and governmental offices. Their spending on expensive art and frivolous entertainments brought the papacy close to bankruptcy. Some were even credibly accused of bribing the cardinals to secure their election, and of selling cardinal appointments.
This atmosphere of moral mediocrity and laxity was accompanied by an increasing problem with sexual immorality among the clergy, and particularly the practice of sodomy.
The problem even seemed to have reached the papacy during the wretched pontificate of Julius III, who in 1550 appointed a teenage boy of uncertain parentage as his “cardinal nephew,” giving him powers roughly equivalent to today’s Cardinal Secretary of State, one of the highest positions in the Vatican.
The young Cardinal Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, who had no formal education and was completely unfit for his post, was strongly rumored to share the pope’s bed, and his strange appointment and relationship with the pontiff were openly derided in Rome. Following the death of his papal patron in 1555, Innocenzo was accused of both rape and murder, and suffered multiple banishments to monasteries. He died in isolation and obscurity, having never achieved social acceptance from the other cardinals.
Pope Pius V immediately sought to address the crisis upon his accession to the papal throne. In 1566, the year of his election, he issued a reform bull, Cum primum, which sought to suppress clerical vice, including sodomy. In paragraph 11, the bull stated, “If anyone perpetrates the nefarious crime against nature, because of which the wrath of God came up on the children of unbelief, they are to be turned over to the secular court, and if they are a cleric, they are to be stripped of all [clerical] order and to be subjected to a similar penalty.” However, this provision appears not to have had the effect desired by the pontiff.
Two years later, Pope Pius V issued a new decree directed solely against the practice of sodomy among the clergy. It was titled Horrendum illud scelus – “That horrendous crime,” for which the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God.
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