03/11/2013 08:59 am ET Updated May 11, 2013

Machiavelli: How the Darkest Conspiracy Ever Backfired and Gave Us Two Popes 500 Years Later

There is strong circumstantial evidence that Niccolò Machiavelli - history's most cunning writer about power - may have plotted to obliterate the Roman Catholic Church and its governing Cardinals to purge it of the corruption of that epoch. The repercussions of those events definitively changed the mission of the Church to what it is today.

Machiavelli may have precipitated the Sack Of Rome in 1527, in which tens of thousands of Romans were butchered. Ironically -- in a brilliant strategic PR shift by the Church government -- the horrors of the Sack allowed the Church to survive and thrive. Now, with Pope Benedict XVI's possible repudiation of his election by the Cardinals, he may have seeded doubt to their claim to be the infallible voice of God, and with it, shaken their pillar in the Church. In his actions, the Pope may have achieved the very goal of Machiavelli 500 years later.

Let's consider the background history of how we arrived here.

Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat and author of The Prince that became the handbook for despots from Napoleon through Hitler to Mao. It specifies how to apply acts of cruelty to achieve and maintain power at any cost. It is a page-turner, with Machiavelli serving as eye witness to Cesare Borgia -- the son of Pope Alexander VI and role model for The Prince -- who galloped with death squads and proudly garroted a general in the diplomat's presence.

The written evidence that implicates Machiavelli in a conspiracy to destroy the Vatican comes from Machiavelli's boss and friend, Francesco Guicciardini. Guicciardini led the Papal army of Clement VII, a Pope himself from the Medici, which was the great Renaissance family of banks, art and power. Francesco's brother Luigi was the Medici mayor of Florence, and Machiavelli was the strategic advisor to both. They believed in God, yet privately loathed the bling and butchery of the Church, unmatched since the Roman emperors. In words of damning testimony Francesco wrote, in paraphrase: "If I were not employed by the Pope himself, it would be my pleasure and honor to eradicate this swarm of scoundrels -- these priests who run the Church -- who love their power and riches more than God." (1)

My hypothesis is that Machiavelli and the Guicciardini brothers transformed a threat to Florence by the grisly army of the German/Spanish ruler Charles V -- which was raping and pillaging its way through Italy's scrambled city states -- into an opportunity to rid their world of what they considered a corrupt Church. Among Charles' forces were newly minted German "Protestants" who championed Martin Luther by killing for the "Reformation" of the Church. In April 1527, after two years of atrocities, and near starvation, Charles' army reached Florence: the richest banking city of the world. But there they hesitated.

This is an extraordinary moment to ponder.

Francesco Guicciardini had positioned the Papal army between the invaders and the gates of Florence. There seemed no choice but to fight the fearless aggressors. But suddenly, instead of butchery, the German-Spanish forces turned away -- and charged down the road to Rome, which had been left unprotected.

Could these three Florentines -- Machiavelli and the Guicciardini -- have cut a deal, or simply deflected the German-Spanish army to the only other cornucopia where thousands of starving troops could feast and plunder -- Rome? We do not know. Yet the curious fact remains, Florence was spared while Rome was obliterated eight days later.

I suggest it was strategic genius for Machiavelli and his sponsors to believe they could act to destroy the Church because no one would ever accuse them -- until today -- of attempting to murder their fatherly patron, the Medici Pope.

It is also incriminating that these politicos allowed the Sack to rage for months without the interference of the Papal army, as tens of thousands more were hacked to death.

The Sack was so horrific as to cause an ironic consequence. That was the PR coup orchestrated by the governing priests of the Church who claimed the moral high ground against the invading "Protestants," although in reality the invaders included many Catholics. The Church named this PR campaign the "Counter Reformation" which proselytized or prosecuted disbelievers with the Inquisition. The ghastly Sack ultimately saved the Papacy from annihilation by the Protestant Reformation.

This conspiracy exemplifies the Machiavellian credo that "the ends justify the means." In other words, the barbaric Sack of Rome, rather than a sack of Florence, was justified as an attempt to expunge venality. However, history is rich with unintended consequences: the plot backfired and the Church survived and flourished.

In a movie of this Machiavelli story, it would end with Machiavelli's sudden death two weeks later at his country home. I can imagine two Medici horsemen arriving and handing Niccolò a fatal vial of poison, just like Socrates.

Inevitably there are "statesmen" who emulate Machiavelli and dare to implement his black art in statecraft. Unintended consequences - that are caused by boggling events like the Sack - may include America's "War On Terror," which has turned in on itself, and may never end. It was intended to defend American democracy from outside attack, but unintentionally it might be damaging its own democracy and justice system from within. After all, Machiavelli himself -- possibly the greatest theorist in political history -- failed, and his plot backfired.

Back to reality, today there is an existential crisis for the governing priests, the worst since the Protestant Reformation and the Sack of Rome.

The scholarly Pope Benedict XVI has changed the Church playbook. Whatever the spin from the Vatican press office, or platitudes from TV commentators, it has never happened before like this. Period.

Over time, the case might be made that Pope Benedict XVI is ultimately a saint. He personally knows sin: for being a member of the Hitler Youth; for commissioning the report of the on-going sins of priests in the pedophilia scandals, which led to his last act to force the resignation of an unrepentant Scottish Cardinal; and it might be interpreted that Benedict's unique resignation was a repudiation of the Cardinals' infallibility. His awareness, let's say, of an on-going mortal sin of his own, could have compelled him to disobey his fallible election by the Cardinals, resign, repudiate, and only obey God.

Benedict also sanctioned one billion dollars of payments to childhood victims of sexual abuse by priests, with legally appropriate non-disclosure agreements. But it can also appear to be common sense that Cardinals are protecting themselves rather than Catholic children. Is this threatening to the Church?

My non-scientific poll of cabbies, scholars, friends and bus riders in Rome says that Benedict is a bookish, good man frustrated by the incorrigible Church institution. Most cabbies articulate the identical Italian phrase. They put their trembling hand in the air, and mutter, sheepishly, "scandal... who will ever know?" This confusion -- as well as institutional scandals -- may reflect the gravest problem for a Church that declares itself incapable of confusion.

While history repeatedly has demonstrated that Cardinals protect their institutional power, they are also capable of transformation. Perhaps their radical reformation has been forced by Benedict. There are infinite new possibilities, starting with the fact that there will be two living popes. But perhaps the true measure is if a Catholic feels that prayers from the Pope are spoken with the voice of God -- or if gradually, over time, that sense is relegated to ancient history.

How might the governing Cardinals handle such revolutionary change as they did the Reformation after the Sack of Rome?


As the Cardinals vote for the second Pope, their institution generally does not consider the public's concerns to be relevant to its long-term perspective over centuries. Its bureaucracy now cares more if you are from Bangladesh or Buenos Aires, less so from Boston. The Cardinals cannot completely condemn sexual abuse by priests without condemning their own. Nor will it allow women to the priesthood -- says authoritative Church reporter John Allen, seriously and convincingly -- "for 200, 300 years, maybe." It is certain because Pope John Paul II declared his decision in 1993 against women to be "infallible."

The fact is the Church must perceive itself as a corporation with 1.2 billion paying members. With another Pope it generally only changes its spokesman's head and where he faces. It irks Cardinals who now have two Popes. During the election of the second Pope, you will hear of a new "trinity" in Church media slogans: 1) "Global Vision" is the Church term for Latin American, India, and Africa; 2) "Evangelization" is Vatican techno-speak for "a salesman to move the Catholic product in the competitive market place;" and 3) "business management" is the fix of the unfixable bank that was just rifled again by internal money laundering. Not coincidentally, Pope Benedict's penultimate act was to name a German accountant to run the bank. His final act was to "out" the Scottish Cardinal. While Cardinals may quickly retake their control of the bank, pedophilia is, to some degree, institutionalized and cannot be removed so easily.

The respected La Repubblica went into extensive details trying to substantial rumors that the Pope resigned under pressures, in part, from a powerful "gay lobby" of Cardinals who do not want to be "outed." Reporter John Allen writes that although such "cabals" and "networks" may exist, he says Benedict did not quit under such pressure.

Now, after the Pope's revolutionary resignation that potentially delegitimizes the infallibility of these governing priests, the Cardinals are doing what was, to this time, unthinkable. They are openly attacking Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Machiavelli plotted to obliterate "this swarm of scoundrels." Perhaps the current governing Cardinals are in conflict how to institutionally cope with two mortal sins, adultery and theft, both of which were cited by Benedict. The true believers of the Church deserve a pure slate.

(1. Historian Jacob Burckhardt quoted Guicciardini, "No man is more disgusted than I am with the ambition, the avarice... of the priests, each of these vices is hateful... unbecoming with God... my position at the Court of several Popes forced me to desire their greatness...[otherwise] I should have loved Martin Luther as myself... in order to see this swarm of scoundrels ('questa caterva di scellerati' ... forced to live either without vice or without power.' Burckhardt cites the "Ricordi" by Francesco Guicciardini, n.i. 123.125 in "The Renaissance in Italy.)