Erasmus of Rotterdam was a former Catholic priest who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Erasmus wrote extensively about potential reformations to the policies of the church which would make the clergy an important entity in daily life once again. Like Martin Luther who sought reformation of church policy in reaction to perceived corruption of the clergy. During the period, many members of the Catholic Church were accused of accepting moneys and other favors in exchange for pardons or blessings. Reformists were appalled that sinners could purchase their way to salvation through the actions of some corrupt officials. Unlike the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus did not support an entire reevaluation of church dogma, but rather a return to the original pious intentions of the Catholic Church. In Erasmus' essay "Julius Excluded from Heaven," he levels some heavy criticisms at the church which serves to highlight some of the properties of the clergy which he found distasteful.
In the work, Erasmus writes about the death of Pope Julius II. As the Pope ascends to Heaven, he discovers that the gates of St. Peter will not open for him. When Peter does arrive, he refuses to recognize Julius and will not open the gates just because the deceased demands him to. The purpose of this passage is to state quite clearly Erasmus' belief that no man can enter Heaven unless it is the will of God. Not even the Pope, the man who is supposedly God's representative on Earth, can force his way into Heaven if he has not deserved it. Peter says, "If you were triply great, greater than the Hermes Trismegistus, you still wouldn't get in here unless you were supremely good, that is, holy" (144). Julius tries to insist his position by forcing Peter to recognize his glamorous clothing and his jeweled crown. No man of the clergy should be in possession of such excessive luxury. Peter says, "No tyrant ruling over barbarian people ever ventured to win one like it, much less anyone who came here asking for admission. Your cloak doesn't impress me either; for I always used to consider gold and jewels as trash to be despised" (143-44). Members of the clergy are not supposed to desire material possession nor are they to desire aggrandizement or luxuries which would be emblemized by the crown and cloak. Julius's possession of them is not impressive to St. Peter, but rather it sickens him. This was symptomatic of the then-current morality within the church. Although priests and nuns were supposed to shun material goods like gold and jewels, many corrupt members of the clergy would accept them. This sickened Erasmus to the point where in his fiction, even a Pope was possessing the articles. Additionally, in comparing Pope Julius to the leader of a barbarian people, he alludes to the fact that secular leaders, like kings and queens usually have luxuries because they are not responsible for the souls of their people. Dressed in gold and silks, the Pope stops taking the responsibility of the charge of his followers' souls and instead becomes a poor imitator of a royal. Julius asks later in the piece:
Why are kings given whatever they demand except that individuals attribute them whatever they have as if it were their gift even though in reality the monarchs have contributed nothing at all? In the same way, everything that's holy is imputed to us popes, even if we've done nothing but snore our life away. But we do more: we give extensive indulgences for very small sums of money; in more serious cases we provide dispensations for less than the maximum price; and wherever we go, we bless everyone, and for free (162).
He relinquishes his purity in order to acquire more power.
Saint Peter says to Julius, "I'm ashamed to say, and even to see, that there's no part of your body not marked with traces of outrageous and abominable lust; in addition, you belch and stink like a man just come from a drunken debauch and fresh from a fit of vomiting. Judging from the appearance of your whole body, you seem to me, not worn out by age or disease, but broken down and shriveled up by drunken excess" (145). Part of St. Peter's reasoning for refusing Pope Julius admission is that he decrees that the deceased Pope is not truly a holy man. Rather, in his secret life he indulges in all matter of vices and debauchery. His label of "his holiness" cannot hide his wicked deeds. The title alone does not dismiss the evil actions of the man. One of Erasmus' most prominent complaints about the modern clergy was the fact that so many of them refused to fulfill their pledges to God or to follow the Commandments of the Bible. These men would go to bed with women, would gamble, would indulge in a plethora of other vices and then sermonize Sunday morning against other men who gave in to the same desires. This hypocrisy could not be abided and was a cornerstone of the need for reformation in the church.
This hypocrisy was also seen in the dispensation of pardons and the threat of potential excommunication from the Catholic Church. This is represented by Julius who dares to threaten Saint Peter himself. "If you don't hurry up and open the gates, I'll unleash my thunderbolt of excommunication with which I used to terrify great kings on earth and their kingdoms too" (145). Pope Julius is not at all interested in using his position in the church to better the lives of others or in relating the word of God to the rest of the world. Instead, he is only concerned with using this religious position to further his own sense of power. Through his office, he is alone able to make even the most powerful men in the world cower. He has become so corrupted by the ability to frighten powerful men that he has convinced himself of a fallacy; that he can have power even over the Heavens.
Julius is so deluded by his own sense of superiority that he not only demands entrance for himself and his entourage but admits freely to having purchased his position in the church. He also makes the declaration that he was a more deserving man of the papacy than any other Pope, including St. Peter himself. This functions to completely set the reader against Pope Julius because he is boastful beyond what could be considered at all acceptable. St. Peter uses the words of Jesus Christ himself to explain the erroneous perception of the Pope in front of him. Peter says, "He didn't say to admit those who came here lugging heavy leaden bulls, but only those who had clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, visited the prisoners, aided the pilgrims. If he wanted me to keep out those who prophesied in his name, cast our devils, and did wonderful works, do you suppose he would want people let in who just walk up with a bull in the name of Julius?" (150). Aligning against him, the readership in effect aligns against the modern policies of the church and, united by this, becomes as desirous for the older way of the Church as Erasmus does.
Erasmus makes further claims against Pope Julius. The specifics are unimportant, but when summed up, it becomes apparent that this Pope has no personal belief in the necessity to abstain from sin. The world wages war over religious doctrines and yet the pope does nothing to stop the upheaval. Rather he exacerbates the problems to distract people from anything that would put him into a position of political imbalance. Julius says, "I'd sooner have six hundred wars than one council" (166). The problem with all tyrants is the concern that at some point they will acquire enough power that they will do anything to keep it. The more upheaval that they can create in other corners, the less likely it will be that internal factions will try to remove them from their seat of power. The papacy, and indeed the majority of clergy members in position of power, were guilty of corruption and would do whatever necessary to continue to hold their profitable positions. In response to this final straw, St. Peter lays out clearly the deficits between himself and this new generation of the papacy. He says:
What made you pope was money in the first place, then flattery, and finally fraud -- if in fact you should bear the title at all. I gained thousands of souls for Christ; you drew just as many to death and hell. I first taught pagan Rome the lesson of Christ; you made yourself master of a kind of pseudo-Christian paganism. I with the mere shadow of my body healed the sick, exorcised the diabolically afflicted, recalled the dead to life, and wherever I went left my…