At the beginning of Canto XVIII, Dante reflects on what his ancestor Cacciaguida (“the holy mirror”) has prophesied and advised. Beatrice, “she who was my guide to God,” tells him to stop, and to think about how she, Beatrice, dwells “with Him Who lifts the weight of every wrong man suffers.”
In other words, she counsels him to look into her face, the face that beholds the Absolute Love. Remember, the pilgrim is not yet strong enough to see God, but Beatrice is also a holy mirror, and Dante is spiritually strong enough to see God reflected in her:
I can recall just this about that moment:
as I was gazing at her there, I know
my heart was freed of every other longing,
for the Eternal Joy was shining straight
into my Beatrice’s face, and back
came its reflection filling me with joy;
then, with a smile whose radiance dazzled me,
she said: “Now turn around and listen well,
not in my eyes alone is Paradise.”
Thus does Beatrice, Dante’s guide, remind the pilgrim that all the souls in heaven reflect Paradise. Again, we are reminded that we mortals are not capable of beholding God in all His glory, but we may see him reflected in His creation (in particular, those souls purified and deified — that is, filled to their capacity with the Holy Spirit — in heaven). Cacciaguida addresses his descendant one final time there in the sphere of Mars, dwelling place of the brave, pointing out to him the souls of great heroes of the past — Joshua, Roland, Charlemagne, several Crusaders. Giuseppe Mazzotta points out that Dante is revealing to us a standard of heroism that does not depend on victory. Roland, recall, died fighting the Moors. The idea is that if your cause is righteous, dying for it, even in defeat, makes you a hero.
Contemplating holiness in Beatrice’s beautiful face, Dante says:
And as a man feeling from day to day
more joy in doing good, becomes aware
thereby that virtue grows in him, just so,
seeing that miracle grow lovelier,
I noticed that my circling with the heavens
had taken on a greater arc of space.
See what’s happening here? Dante shows that contemplating beauty with an intellect that sees the presence of God in it works the same kind of change on a man’s soul that doing good deeds does — that is, it draws the Holy Spirit down to dwell more fully in our hearts, and draws our own souls upward, closer to Paradise. We advance spiritually, and, in Dante’s metaphorical construction, take on “a greater arc of space.”
The pilgrim is now in the sphere of Jupiter, the heaven of the Just. Flocks of saints, like birds, fly “to their music’s rhythm” and form a message in letters. Here we see God’s eternal design, emerging in music and in a message formed by the blessed moving in concert. Here is a beautiful tercet testifying to the Grand Designer:
The One who paints there has no one to guide
his hand. He guides Himself. It is from Him
that skill in birds to build their nests is born.
The holy souls use their heavenly bodies to write, in Latin, the first line from the Book of Wisdom: Love justice, you who judge the earth. They then remain there forming the letter M, which stands for “Monarchy,” Dante’s ideal form of government. Dante here offers a powerful rebuke to the papacy:
Therefore, I pray the Mind — for there begins
your movement and your power — to examine
the place whence comes the smoke that dims your rays,
so that its wrath descend upon, once more,
all those who buy and sell within the temple
whose walls were built with miracles and martyrs.
What makes this so lacerating? The “smoke” is incense from the pope’s liturgies, which normally symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, but which now, owing to the corruption of the papacy, obscures the Divine Light from the eyes of mankind. Dante says Boniface VIII has profaned the temple of the Most High with his worldliness and greed, just as the moneychangers did in the Temple in Jesus’s day. The pilgrim prays for God to cleanse his Holy Temple, just as wrathful Jesus did in Jerusalem when he drove out the moneychangers.
Dante further condemns the Pope for using the Eucharist as a weapon of war. In Dante’s time, Popes would place entire cities, even nations, under interdict, which meant that no masses could be celebrated there, and the entire population cut off from the sacraments: no Eucharist, no confession, no mass, no baptism, nothing. It was an excruciating fate for medievals, who feared eternal hellfire if they died in a state of mortal sin — as they would, if confession was denied them. Florence suffered under papal interdict for resisting the papacy’s temporal claims. In 1302, before the Commedia was written, Boniface VIII issues his declaration Unam sanctam, in which the pope declared, in part, that Catholic theocracy was God’s will. Dante wrote his book De Monarchia to dispute this, and to make the case for the separation of Church and State. Here in this canto of Paradiso, Dante, the greatest poet of his age, declares the sitting Vicar of Christ to be thoroughly corrupt, and his teaching on relations between church and state to be null. And he does so in the name of Catholic orthodoxy, in the name of fidelity to the saints and the martyrs. He pointedly does not do so to rebel against the Church itself. His point is that Church is not the same thing as the person of an individual pope, and that sometimes, holiness demands that the faithful denounce corrupt popes. The Dante scholar Ron Herzman writes:
Those who want to see Dante as a poster child for orthodoxy—or for heterodoxy, for that matter—usually have a pre- determined view of what such a position might entail, and then go about showing how Dante fits or does not fit into it. It begs the question, assuming that we already know what we mean when we use the terms orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It also makes an implicit assumption that the poem is accurately read as a series of propositions that can be taken as proof texts.
Dante’s poem, on the contrary, helps us to figure out what the terms mean, always forcing us to see that they mean more than we think they mean. The poem constantly and relentlessly pushes us to go beyond where we thought we were. Dante shows us how propositions are a useful tool, in some sense a useful starting point, but they are valuable only to the extent that they lead us deeper into mystery—which is to say, they are paths that provide a direction. Dante’s poem presents, among other things, a model for transformation in which the Pilgrim’s journey, a model for the journey of the reader, embodies and imagines continually new ways of seeing. One can never stop and say, OK, here it is, here is what it means to be orthodox (or conversely, here is what it means to be a rebel); to read Dante this way would be a kind of idolatry, taking propositional language or the propositions embedded in that language as the end of the journey rather than as a guide for the journey. Orthodoxy is not an end. It is a means to an end. [Emphasis mine — RD]
It is hard for us to consider the radicalism and the courage of what Dante wrote. The lines of this canto of Paradiso, in which the poet claims that the justice of God requires monarchy (or at least non-ecclesial authority) to administer temporal affairs, is basically a refutation of Unam sanctam.
The Vatican made a pile of money in Dante’s time by receiving money to lift excommunications. Thus was justice in the Church traduced by being put on sale. Here are Dante’s final lines of this canto:
And you who write only to nullify
remember that Peter and Paul, who died
to save the vineyard you despoil, still live.
But you will answer: “I, who have my heart
so set on him who chose to live alone
and for a martyr’s crown was danced away,
know nothing of your Fisherman or Paul.”
“Write only to nullify” is Dante’s way of condemning the pope, who ought to be writing things to build up the Church, but is instead using his writing to nullify excommunications for money. More broadly, he’s saying that the pope in not affirming sanctity, but denying it. Dante is speaking prophetically here, telling the pope that Saint Peter and Saint Paul, both martyrs, live, and their example stands in judgment of his corruption.
Anticipating the pope’s rationalization, Dante gets in a scabrous jibe. The one whom Boniface’s heart is set on is John the Baptist — not the saint, but the appearance of the saint on the florin, the gold coin of Florence. The poet says that the pope tells himself he’s concerned only with holiness, but he’s really money-obsessed, and is a stranger to the great apostles Peter and Paul.
This canto began with Beatrice reminding Dante that we see the reflection of God in His creation, especially in his saints. It ends with Dante considering how the corruption of the Vicar of Christ (and, by extension, the clergy) makes it harder for people to perceive God and His justice, because these men are His representatives. In this canto, Dante asserts that blurring the lines between Church and State leads to injustice, and in parallel, to stand up for divine justice sometimes requires the faithful to speak out against their leaders, even the pope, in the same way that Jesus purified the Temple by throwing the moneychangers out. This is the Catholic Dante at his most engaged and prophetic. Herzman calls it:
… the full frontal assault that Dante is making on the spiritual crisis of his own time, and by extension on a complacent institutional Christianity of any time, whether in the Monarchy or in the Commedia. I would argue that Dante is orthodox to the very degree that he is subversive—at least, subversive in terms of “a complacent institutional Christianity.”
Does this make Dante a proto-Protestant? Perhaps, though it can’t be emphasized strongly enough that Dante believed in the Catholic Church, and in the office of the pope. He does not call for its overthrow, but rather its reform — or, to be precise, the repentance of the popes, the cardinals, the bishops and the priests, for the sake of the salvation of the world. What could be more Catholic — more Christian — than that? Whatever your opinion, there’s no doubt that Dante, both in this canto and in the entire Commedia, raises difficult to answer questions about what it means to be orthodox. And though he makes clear that we cannot expect ultimate justice in this life, Dante leaves no room for quietism and complacency. We must love justice, while at the same time loving mercy, which may require suspending any expectation of justice. This is hard. But just as the defeated righteous may still find their place in the court of heaven by falling in the fight for justice, so may we be found just in God’s eyes, even if we are cast out by those on earth who speak in God’s name.
And: just as we see God reflected in the eyes of the Beautiful (e.g., Beatrice), we may also see God reflected in the countenance of the Courageous, and the Just. Look upon them, take their example into your mind, and you too may grow in holiness and virtue.