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The Borgias represent a dark time in church history

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP | Contributor
Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Showtime TV series “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons as the notorious Pope Alexander VI, uses the tagline: “The original crime family” to describe the Borgia family.

A lot of Catholics are in a dither over this, but the Borgias kind of were the original crime family, or one of them. This historical muck really did happen, perhaps even worse than Showtime is showing it.

Bad popes, of course, prove that God is with the Catholic Church, otherwise they would have destroyed her long ago. However, it’s still so jarring to see a corrupt pope who hypocritically goes through the motions, blessing crowds, paying lip service to God — especially after the 20th century’s truly extraordinary and holy men in the chair of Peter.

Pope Alexander VI became pope in 1492, and it’s no coincidence that he was a contemporary of Machiavelli, the “greed is good,” “might makes right,” “raw power,” “by any means necessary” political philosopher.

Pope Alexander is portrayed as having some kind of twisted, lackadaisical, yet genuine faith (often telling his priest-son before they sin “God will forgive us”) in God. Yes, he has a family, as do most of the cardinals around him. “We must appear to be chaste” is the rule of the day.

Of course, these were also the times when the pope had significant temporal power, could crown and de-crown the monarchs of Catholic countries, headed a standing army and owned significant land in Italy (“the papal states”). Probably one of the best things that ever happened to the papacy was the loss of all land holdings but the tiny Vatican-City State. This enabled the pope to truly focus on being a spiritual leader (with temporal impact) and the Vicar of Christ.

Is “The Borgias” any good? There’s nudity, gorgeous costuming and settings, good acting (mixed British and American cast) and good-enough plots and dialogue, but the question is: Do you find corruption, subterfuge, deceit, murder, betrayal, bribery, greed, lust and thirst for power interesting? “The Sopranos,” “The Godfather” and other gangster shows are just as grindingly predictable. Will they lie? Yes. Will they kill? Yes. Will they go that far? Yes. Why? Because they have no conscience, only a code of ethics that they made up (subject to change).

The conclusion of the book “The Sociopath Next Door,” by a psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, is simply that the conscience- less are bored out of their gourds, and so life has to be a game to save them from their utter and total lack of inhibition and empathy. The Borgias were bored.