VATICAN CITY (RNS) Modern popes have had their fans and detractors, but few would dispute their reputations for personal virtue. That’s partly why the five most recent pontiffs—including John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1—are under formal consideration for sainthood.
But as the new television show ”The Borgias” is about to remind us, it was not always thus.

Billed as the “sordid saga” of the “original crime family,” the eight-week drama series premieres Sunday (April 3) on the Showtime network with an episode about the 1492 election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI.

Showtime’s website calls Alexander (played by Jeremy Irons) a “wily, rapacious” patriarch who followed his “corrupt rise” to the papacy by committing “every sin in the book to amass and retain power, influence and enormous wealth.”

Alexander, who reigned until his death in 1503, has gotten bad press since the 15th century. A contemporary critic, the zealous church reformer Girolamo Savonarola, even claimed that the pope was doing the work of the Antichrist.Unsurprisingly, Alexander eventually had him executed.

In his recent history, “Lives of the Popes,” University of Notre Dame scholar Richard P. McBrien calls Alexander the “most notorious pope in all of history.” Even William Donohue, the pugnacious head of the Catholic League who assailed Showtime for airing its “sensationalist” show during Lent, concedes that Alexander was an “extortionist who led a life of debauchery.”

How bad was he?

The Spaniard Borgia, the only non-Italian member of the conclave that elected him, made himself pope with the help of generous bribes, handing out offices and privileges accumulated since his uncle Pope Callixtus III had made him a cardinal at the age of 25.

During his 11-year papal reign, according to historian Eamon Duffy’s “Saints and Sinners,” Alexander “was widely believed to have made a habit of poisoning his cardinals so as to get his hands on their property.”

When he assumed the throne at age 61, Alexander had eight illegitimate children “by at least three women,” Duffy writes, and went on to father at least one more. While still a cardinal, Borgia was rebuked by Pope Pius II—himself an author of erotic plays—for holding an orgy where married women had been invited to attend without their husbands.

It didn’t stop there. Alexander’s son, Cesare Borgia, who led Alexander’s reconquest of papal lands from Italian princely families, was the amoral model for Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

Yet some of Alexander’s shocking behavior is less remarkable in historical context. Bribery in papal elections, for instance, was a common practice. And the popes of the late 15th and early 16th centuries were all engaged in a struggle with secular potentates—especially the kings of France and Spain—to defend the autonomy of the church. In other words, cold-blooded political and diplomatic maneuvering was an art well-known to both church and state.

Even so, Alexander was not a total villain. He was relatively tolerant of Rome’s Jews, compared to the 33 later popes who kept them locked in a six-acre, malaria-infested ghetto for more than three centuries. He was even something of an early feminist, letting his daughter Lucrezia Borgia effectively run the papacy when he was away.

Despite his reputation for debauchery, his rumored orgies seem to have been fictional, and the supposedly hedonistic pope followed what Duffy calls a “spartan and coarse diet” heavy on sardines.

Even by the relaxed standards of his day, Alexander must be judged as one who put his own interests and those of his family ahead of his avowed role as leader of Christendom. Perhaps the most unambiguous evidence: he offered to prevent a crusade to free Constantinople from Muslim rule in return for 300,000 gold ducats from the Turkish sultan.

As Duffy writes, “the subordination of religious zeal to political pragmatism could go no further.”

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