After mocking to scorn the dissolute lives of secular princes and their courtiers, Erasmus’ personified Folly in Praise of Folly turns her piercing gaze of sarcasm on the princes of the Church. Popes, cardinals, and bishops have followed the lead of their secular counterparts. They wear the symbolism-rich garb of the Church, yet utterly forget what the symbols mean: “a sad and troublesome life” full of “labor, care, and trouble.” Forgetting that they are “not lordds but dispensers of spiritual things of which they must shortly give an exact account,” these “blind seers” turn the example of the apostles on its head. They feed themselves only, not their flocks, and, raking in the money hand over fist, fail to “instruct, exhort, comfort, reprehend, admonish, compose wars, resist wicked princes, and willingly expend not only their wealth but their very lives for the flock of Christ.”
Folly seems somewhat incredulous that anyone would actually want to be the pope. For popes,
which supply the place of Christ, if they should endeavor to imitate His life, to wit His poverty, labor, doctrine, cross, and contempt of life, or should they consider what the name pope, that is father, or holiness, imports, who would live more disconsolate than themselves? or who would purchase that chair with all his substance? or defend it, so purchased, with swords, poisons, and all force imaginable? so great a profit would the access of wisdom deprive him of – wisdom did I say? nay, the least corn of that salt which Christ speaks of: so much wealth, so much honor, so much riches, so many victories, so many dispensations, so much tribute, so many pardons; such horses, such mules, such guards, and so much pleasure would it lose them. You see how much I have comprehended in a little: instead of which it would bring in watchings, fastings, tears, prayers, sermons, good endeavors, sighs, and a thousand the like troublesome exercises.
The sarcasm here is palpable, and Folly refuses to relent. She complains that these princes of the Church have been execrably reduced to “a staff and a wallet” rather than being the light of the world, as they ought. Further, for men who so often invoke the names of Peter and Paul, the popes are astonishingly unlike either apostle:
if there be anything that requires their pains, they leave that to Peter and Paul that have leisure enough; but if there be anything of honor or pleasure, they take that to themselves.” These supposed wise men seem to believe “that Christ will be well enough pleased if in their mystical and almost mimical pontificality, ceremonies, titles of holiness and the like, and blessing and cursing, they play the parts of bishops. To work miracles is old and antiquated, and not in fashion now; to instruct the people, troublesome; to interpret the Scripture, pedantic; to pray, a sign one has little else to do; to shed tears, silly and womanish; to be poor, base; to be vanquished, dishonorable and little becoming to him that scarce admits even kings to kiss his slipper; and lastly, to die, uncouth; and to be stretched on a cross, infamous.
Obviously following the exhortations of the apostle Paul, the popes make use of the apostolic weapons of “interdictions, hangings, heavy burdens, reproofs, anathemas, executions in effigy, and that terrible thunderbolt of excommunication, with the very sight of which they sink men’s souls beneath the bottom of hell: which yet these most holy fathers in Christ and his vicars hurl with more fierceness against none than against such as, by the instigation of the devil, attempt to lessen or rob them of Peter’s patrimony.” This last is, of course, a reference to the feudal territories claimed by the papacy, and to the warmongering activities of the last several popes of Erasmus’ day, most especially Julius II, infamously known as “the warrior pope.” Folly notes the problem with the papacy’s claims about “Peter’s patrimony”:
When, though those words in the Gospel, “We have left all, and followed Thee,” were his, yet they call his patrimony lands, cities, tribute, imposts, riches; for which, being enflamed with the love of Christ, they contend with fire and sword, and not without loss of much Christian blood, and believe they have then most apostolically defended the Church, the spouse of Christ, when the enemy, as they call them, are valiantly routed. As if the Church had any deadlier enemies than wicked prelates, who not only suffer Christ to run out of request for want of preaching him, but hinder his spreading by their multitudes of laws merely contrived for their own profit, corrupt him by their forced expositions, and murder him by the evil example of their pestilent life.”
As with the highest office, so with the lower ones. The “common herd of priests” is just as bad as the papacy, for they “count it a crime to degenerate from the sanctity of their prelates.” When they are not simply illiterate, they are quick “to pick the least thing out of the writings of the ancients wherewith they may fright the common people.” They continually forget their pastoral duty to the people, stupidly thinking that “they have sufficiently discharged their offices if they but anyhow mumble over a few odd praryers, which, so help me, Hercules! I wonder if any god either hear or understand, since they neither themselves, especially when they thunder them out in that manner.” Like the heathens of old, today’s priests are better read in secular than in sacred things, which enables them to lay all burdensome things on the shoulders of others and shift responsibility from themselves to everyone else. Leaving the study of Christian piety to the common layman, the priests follow the examples of their secular and ecclesiastical superiors, “throw[ing] back the care of the flock on those that take the wool.”
Keep in mind that Praise of Folly was written by Erasmus, in collaboration with Thomas More, both of whom remained all their lives loyal Catholics. This is no bit of heretical nonsense propagated by idiotic malcontents who didn’t believe “real Catholic doctrine.” Of course, the genre of the work is satire, and satire is never to be taken in a strictly woodenly literal sense. Nevertheless, the point of satire is precisely that it has real, identifiable connections with the real world that it is sarcastically describing. It’s no wonder that some have said the Praise of Folly contributed so much to the Reformation. It’s witty highlighting of the profound pastoral failures of the Church in the 16th century connects precisely with a major concern of the Reformers. Of course, Erasmus didn’t make any of it up. Bernard of Clairvaux was chastising the pope for caring more about Roman law than Christian spirituality, Dante reserved special places in hell for corrupt priests and popes, Francis of Assisi and Dominic urged the popes to more moderate lifestyles, and the conciliarists of the 15th century spared no effort of their own to point out the dire need for reform of the Church’s own officers. Sadly, nothing was done about the folly of the self-appointed “wise men” in the hierarchy, and so, as the Preacher had said so long ago of fools who despise wisdom, only the rod was left for their unrepentant backs.