Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Searcher of Hearts: Cesare Baronio's History of Conversion

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Searcher of Hearts: Cesare Baronio's History of Conversion

Article excerpt

The decision of Henry of Navarre to return to the Catholic Church in 1593 threw the Roman curia into a state of confusion. Clement VIII and his advisors viewed the conversion of the heir to one of Europe's most powerful thrones (who had already converted once before, in 1573) not with excitement or celebration, but rather with a sense of apprehension and unease. Very few among the cardinals, heads of religious orders, and theologians involved in papal decisionmaking were willing to consider the king's decision genuine, and when representatives of the French crown began to appear in Italy to request a full pardon and readmission to the Roman Catholic Church, the most intransigent members of the clergy-theologians, canon lawyers, and inquisitors-argued that there could be no possible agreement with a relapsed heretic like Navarre, whose word was unreliable and who had been driven back to the Church by his own interest, and not by a true desire to repent. Francisco Peña (ca. 1540-1612), a Spanish Dominican trained in Bologna and one of the leading representatives of the Roman Inquisition, expressed all of his mistrust for Henry and his willingness to sacrifice any potential political gains for the Church in favor of a rigid stand on legal principle: Henry's confession of error had been "false and simulated," and any absolution granted to him by definition "null and absolutely invalid."1

But Peña's attitude, though impeccable in its interpretation of the law and consistent with the attitudes of previous popes towards Henry of Navarre, had weaknesses of another kind. Many, including the pope's cardinal nephew Pietro Aldobrandini, recognized that there were heavy political and even religious costs to be paid in the event that the Church refused to absolve the king entirely. The well-known tendencies of the French church to assert its so-called Gallican liberties could explode into a full-blown schism, making Henry the head of a state church divorced from the See of Peter. Even if such extreme consequences were avoided, closing its doors to France would leave the papacy even more vulnerable to the tutelage of Philip II, unable to forge any policy independent of Spain. As Rome divided into navarristi and spagnoli, Clement faced a profound dilemma which months of consultation and temporizing were unable to resolve. The question of France was as much a question of his own conscience as that of the would-be king's, and in order to assuage it, he turned to his confessor, a member of the elite congregation of secular clergy known as the Roman Oratory who was much better known for his scholarship than for his political acumen or theological learning: Cesare Baronio (1538-1607).2 As Baronio recounted in a letter to the rector of the Oratory in Naples, Antonio Talpa, the pope had requested that he write a document "in which all of the examples of relapsed heretics received by the Roman Church were collected, even those who were suspected of falsity, and who were still not excluded."3

No one was better equipped to write such a document than Baronio, who since the 1560s had been at work on a history of the Church, a multivolume defense of papal claims to primacy and temporal sovereignty entitled the Annales ecclesiastici. The Apologéticas, as his brief came to be known, was copied in a number of manuscripts and read all over Rome, where many observers credited it with finally convincing Clement VIII to allow the absolution of Henry of Navarre and put an end to the crisis that had enveloped the city for months. On September 17, 1595, a ceremony was held in St. Peter's that formalized Henry of Navarre's abjuration of Calvinism and his reacceptance into the Catholic fold. The king himself was not present; despite the importance of the moment for legitimizing his rulership, two French bishops took the monarch's place in abjuring "impious and wicked Calvinism," reciting the profession of faith, and promising to complete a series of penances which included the restoration of Catholicism in France and the Béarn, daily attendance at mass, daily recitation of prayers, and confession and communion four times a year. …

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