Chasing the Devil Out of the Church

St. Benedict’s Rule has proved to be an enduring rule to cure the Church.

Vassilacchi, “The Apotheosis of the Benedictine Order,” 1592
Vassilacchi, “The Apotheosis of the Benedictine Order,” 1592 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

There is a breathtaking canvas that occupies the entire temple wall above the main door of the of one of the most beautiful churches of Perugia, Italy – the Basilica of St. Peter, which is part of the abbey complex with the same name.

The Apotheosis of the Benedictine Order was painted in 1592 by Antonio Vassilacchi (1556-1629), otherwise known as the Aliense, who was a student of Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto. Look closely and the gigantic painting is made up of images of thousands of characters belonging to the clergy — cardinals, pontiffs, abbots, abbesses, bishops, deacons, monks and nuns — 300 clergy heads in all. A mind-blowing collection of faces, tiaras, pastoral staffs, red cardinal hats, tombstones, coats of arms and sacred books.

Pope Gregory the Great is also visible among the troubled crowd. But if one looks from the opposite side of the church, from the altar, there is an impressive, frightening, gigantic depiction of a devil’s face made up of the clergy heads. St. Benedict of Nursia is in the center, somehow shielded from the crowd with an open book on his lap — probably the Rule — and he is the devil’s nose. In the devil’s eye sockets are a sun and a moon and two stars ­— the morning star and evening star Venus can be seen illuminating the devil’s lurking eyes.

But there is more mystery of the clergy-devil inside Perugia’s basilica. Why a gigantic devil, made up of clergy figures inside a Catholic church? Why is the clergy made part of the devil? Why was the artist so critical toward the clergy’s vices? Why the 400-year-long silence about the devil painting inside the Church?

There are many speculations about and interpretations of this mysterious devil painting inside a Catholic church. The most credible is that Vassilacchi was angry about the deep-rooted crisis and corruption in the leadership of the Catholic Church of his time, a corruption that caused the Protestant Reformation. Time had elapsed since the clergy reform and renewal brought about by St. Peter Damian, the prominent voice in eradicating the vice of sexual promiscuity among the clergy and in the Gregorian Reform (1050-80) that followed. It seems that the Church of Vassilacchi’s time was in need of another major purging. Filth; abuse of power; sexual abuse of children, men and women — these and other abuses by the Catholic clergy prompted Luther, Calvin and Zwingli to reject celibacy. The reformers pointed to the compulsory celibacy required in the Latin Church as the leading cause of the clergy sexual abuse, an argument that has not become old but is also being used in the current sex abuse crisis.

Moreover, evidence from ecclesiastical court records and bishops or even papal intervention indicate that clerical sexual activity with males and females was an open scandal for the Church during Vassilacchi’s time. What was the remedy to fight and cure abuse? Stronger legislation, physical and spiritual and penalties, to name a few, apparently had failed to produce any results. Discontent and anger by the laity were at an all-time high. The faithful wanted to hold the Church and its bishops to higher standards.

The movement for cleansing the Church culminated in the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which offered solutions to the sexual abuses of clergy. What were Trent’s solutions?

Despite opposition from some bishops, the Council of Trent reiterated the teaching on compulsory celibacy for clergy. Trent’s view on celibacy was not different from previous Church teaching. Celibacy was placed above marriage in virtue: “If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema” (Canon 10, Session XXIV).

According to the Council of Trent, women’s monasteries were expected to enforce and live by the rule, and the superiors were responsible for ensuring that the rule be followed to the letter. The nuns were not allowed to wander outside the monasteries. Instead, it was mandated that “the enclosure of nuns be carefully restored, wheresoever it has been violated, and that it be preserved, wheresoever it has not been violated,” and in case of disobedience “ecclesiastical censures and other penalties” were to be imposed, and “if need be, the aid of the secular arm. The holy Synod exhorts Christian princes to furnish this aid, and enjoins, under pain of excommunication, to be ipso facto incurred, that it be rendered by all civil magistrates.” The council declared it unlawful for a nun to “go out of her convent, even for a brief period, under any pretext whatever, except for some lawful cause, which is to be approved of by the bishop; any indults and privileges whatsoever notwithstanding” (Chapter V, Seventh Decree).

In its final session, the Council of Trent dealt with the priests’ concubines ­– the filth of sexual impurity, “unclean bondage, the thing itself doth testify, in the common scandal of all the faithful, and the extreme disgrace entailed on the clerical order … the holy Synod forbids all clerics whatsoever to dare to keep concubines, or any other woman of whom any suspicion can exist, either in their own houses, or elsewhere, or to presume to have any intercourse with them: otherwise they shall be punished with the penalties imposed by the sacred canons, or by the statutes of the (several) churches, but if, after being admonished by their superiors, they shall not abstain from these women, they shall be ipso facto deprived of the third part of the fruits, rents, and proceeds of all their benefices whatsoever, and pensions” (Eighth Decree, Chapter XIV).

The Council of Trent was more successful in bringing about strict observance of celibacy and chastity than was any other councils before it. The reason probably was connected with the establishment of seminary training for clergy.

However, three years after Trent, Pope Pius V in his constitution Cum primum, of April 1, 1566, promulgated legislation against “crimes against nature” and used strong language to condemn homosexual activity among clergy: “If someone commits that nefarious crime against nature that caused divine wrath to be unleashed against the children of iniquity, he will be given over to the Curia Secularis for punishment … and if he is a cleric, he will be subject to the same punishment after having been stripped of all his degrees.” Additionally, in 1568, Pope Pius V issued Horrendum Illud Scelus against clerics who sexually abused young boys and crimes against the nature, prescribing severe measures to protect children, issuing the following decrees:

1. Clearly it is known to the Lateran Council that clerics who have been caught sinning against nature with children must be cast out from the clergy or forced to lead a life of penance in the monasteries.

2. But lest the contagion of such a disease grow stronger, we have concluded in council that the clerical defendants of this nefarious crime must be punished severely, that for those who do not shudder at the damnation of their souls the avenging secular sword of civil laws may surely deter them.

3. Therefore, we intend to pursue more fully now and with more vigor what has already been decreed in this pestilence, and we deprive any presbyter and any other clerics, either diocesan or religious, of whatever grade, rank, office or privilege who commit so dire and unspeakable an act. Those demoted by ecclesiastical judge or bishop should be immediately delivered to the secular power to receive punishment.

This was in a nutshell the crisis in the Catholic Church during the time of Vassilacchi that to a degree explains the anger of the artist and how he managed to camouflage the gigantic devil painting inside one of the most beautiful and historic churches of Perugia.

Is there a 16th-century “Benedict Option” that Vassilacchi is offering? The centrality of the figure of St. Benedict of Nursia might be interpreted that indeed St. Benedict is the only option to purge and cure the Church of the evil and sexual abuse. Following the rule of chastity and virginity as prescribed by St. Benedict’s Rule would sanitize the Church to love chastity and fight the sexual appetites, which included homosexual relations. Benedict’s Rule has proved to be an enduring rule to cure the Church.

In sum, only by rigorously following St. Benedict’s Rule will the Church overcome the devil and reach apotheosis, or be like God. This is a 16th-century Benedict Option.