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Dante Alighieri vs. The Church

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Although Inferno is written through the eyes of a zealous Catholic, a large part of Dante’s journey through hell is spent criticizing the current Catholic establishment and exposing the corruption that has infected the Papal office. Throughout the poem, Dante continually points out former high ranking church officials in Hell, of whom even include Popes. Inferno makes Dante’s views about the relationship between Faith and Institution known. He believes that Faith is the key to salvation, however it is not enough to warrant entry to heaven. Since the Church is run of man, and is thus prone to corruption and sin, faith alone becomes void if the sins are too severe. This corruption affects all who resided under Church rule and doesn’t strictly pertain to those directly involved in the sin, and Inferno serves as an outlet for Dante to voice his opinions in an era when free speech wasn’t necessarily recognized as a God-Given right.

From the beginning of the Poem, it is made clear that Dante is a man of God. Even without any historical knowledge of who Dante Alighieri actually was, the Poem clearly displays itself as a commentary about society through a religious lens. Considering the subject matter of the poem, it has to be. However, what is perhaps the most jarring aspect of the Inferno is the fact that much of it is dedicated to criticizing the Catholic Church of his time. Instead of being subservient and accepting of the way things are run, he instead opts to subvert reasonable expectations of the time and condemn the Papacy. The most notable gripe he seems to have is the unholy actions of Church officials. These actions line the pockets of officials off of the perversion of faith, and they twist the religion into something different than what it is. We can derive this from the numerous cantos in the Inferno, and understand Dante’s views through what he wrote.

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The most obvious jab at the Papacy is his placement of former Popes and other officials into deep parts of Hell. An example of this is in Canto 19, when Dante enters the 3rd pouch of the 8th circle of Hell. Here houses the simoniacs, a sin and circle specifically dedicated to the punishment of corrupt Church officials who are paid off for positions of power in the Church. Here, the fact that an entire ditch is dedicated to the misuse of Church power displays Dante’s thoughts on simoniacs. The contrapasso of the punishment also provides valuable insight into what Dante was thinking at the time. The flaming legs of the sinners show the opposite of the natural order, which would be feet on the ground. This represents their desire to put worldly possessions over their duty of serving God, subsequently leading to the abuse of their given power. Specifically met in this ditch is Pope Nicholas III, who is guilty of selling rolls of indulgence to the populace and exchanging positions of power for money. These grant a person absolution of all of their sins, regardless as to whether they have committed them yet or not. The selling of them was viewed as despicable, most notably by Martin Luther, who started the Protestant reformation. More importantly, however, is the fact that Dante also viewed these actions as reprehensible, and thought that these Popes and their commercializing of Catholicism was wrong.

As the poet duo descends deeper into Hell, they encounter a man named Guido Da Montefeltro. This character is important in understanding why Dante thought simony was such a grave sin. Here, they are in the 8th ditch of the 8th circle; the house of those who gave false counsel. However, if it weren’t for Papal interference the man would not be there in the first place. He tells of his sinful past, and how he became a friar to repent for his sins so that he could gain salvation. However, he explains how he was dragged back into his old habits, and exclaims, “I was a man of arms, then wore the cord of a lay friar, thinking to make amends, and doubtless my belief would have come true Had the Great Priest –may he be dragged to Hell!– not pitched me back into my former faults,” (Canto 27, Ln 67-71). The man was dedicated to his monkhood, but due to the deception of Pope Boniface VIII, was sent to Hell. What Pope Boniface did was ask for advice about how to conquer an enemy town. Guido was reluctant to comply at first, but was won over in the end because the Pope offered him a roll of indulgence. This is what ultimately condemned Guido to hell, as a Black Angel snatched him from the gates of heaven, claiming, “One who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor can a man repent and will at once,” (Canto 27, Ln 118-119). What Guido essentially did was sin and repent for sin all at the same time, something that is contradictory as absolution cannot come before the sin. This makes the rolls of indulgence fraudulent. To make matters worse, this means that those who bought them thinking that they were legitimate are all in Hell, basically making all people who sold them False Counselors, as they lied and hurt others for their own gain. Through this commentary, Dante shows how the corruption of Popes can affect the lives of the people under their rule. This is why Dante holds no tolerance for those who misuse the great power and influence that has been granted to them. It affects more people than expected, and for many even causes the condemnation to the ultimate punishment.

While Dante poses many arguments about various controversial topics in Inferno, he has made his stance on the Church clear, above all else. While he constantly praises Catholicism and puts down who he would call infidels, he has no qualms with ripping into the Church establishment at the time, and pointing out all of the shady malpractices that are happening. The Church officials were abusing their power and influence to amass wealth, they were selling offices for money, and in Dante’s eyes, were condemning people to hell through their promotion of rolls of indulgences. The Poem serves as a testament to the corruption of the time, and by writing it originally in Italian, he made sure that it was read by the masses to help bring the sin that has plagued the Church for so long to light.

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Dante Alighieri vs. The Church. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from
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