This is the story of one of the weirdest pontificates in papal history, and official Vatican records are used to recount the episode:
‘Ten days after the death of Nicholas IV , the twelve cardinals assembled in Rome but two years and three months were to pass before they gave the church a pope’.
(‘The Popes, A Concise Biographical History’, Burns and Oates, Publishers to the Holy See, London, 1964, p. 19; published under the Imprimatur of Georgius L. Craven)
However, in 1294, and for some obscure reason, the weary cardinals agreed to make Pietro del Morrone (1215-1296) the new pope, and gave him the title, Celestine V.
Facts well-known to Catholic historians
Before, and during the time of his pontificate, Celestine V lived a hermit’s life in a cave in the wild mountains of Abruzzi, south of Rome, a fact that has proved difficult for modern-day Catholic supporters to dismiss. He was a man of ‘limited learning and completely lacking in experience of the world’ (‘The Popes, A Concise Biographical History’, Burns and Oates, Publishers to the Holy See, London, 1964, p. 238). While Celestine enjoyed his pontificate in his cave, the powerful machinery of the Church Militant flourished under the management of the warrior-cardinal of Ostia, Latino Malabranca (Diderot’s ‘Encyclopèdie’, 1759), a fighting man with extensive military experience.
The Vatican’s doctrinal façade
King Charles II of Naples (1254-1309), wanting a series of papal favours, sent a deputation to the cave to carry Pope Celestine in a litter to Naples to meet with him. Celestine arrived, and created a daily public spectacle of conceding extraordinary and unlimited privileges upon Charles, even making Charles’s 21-year-old layman son, Louis, Archbishop of Lyons. Celestine handed out offices and favours to anyone who asked, even to gutter-boys; sometimes he handed out the same office to three or four opponents.
The true nature of the ‘holy fathers’ obscured
The cardinals, realizing that the Pope they elected was a simpleton, were moved to demand his resignation. Chief among those who pressed him to abdicate was Benedetto Gaetani, a rich and robust prelate of great ambition. It was widely believed that Gaetani had a speaking-tube put through gaps in the stone enclave of the Pope’s cave, and a ‘voice from heaven’ bade him resign. The simple Celestine was convinced that ‘God had spoken to him’, and abdicated. Then, in February 1296, Gaetani purchased the papacy from the cardinals for 7,000 gold florins, and became Pope Boniface VIII (1234-1303). He then imprisoned Celestine in the grim and solitary castle of Fumone near Ferentino in Campagna, and so brutally was he treated that he died soon after. Because of a bullet hole in the supposed skull of Pope Celestine, some historians claim that Boniface VIII murdered Celestine. Pope Clement V (1305-14) canonized Celestine in 1313 at the urging of Philip IV of France who saw it as an opportunity to demean Pope Boniface VIII whom Philip despised.
Here we see the ongoing Vatican practice of pretending that past pontiffs were devout, religious men, knowing that they weren’t, and with Celestine V, we see the ignorance and uncritical simplicity of the papal office that was typical for centuries.