Dante’s Inferno Canto 19 Retelling — The Simonists

Chapter 19: The Simonists

Simon Magus, you are among the worst sinners who have ever existed, as are your followers, Dante thought. You were the first to try to engage in the sin of simony, the buying and selling of church offices and spiritual benefits for money. I have read about you in Acts 8. Peter and John were using one of the gifts of God: the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit. You, Simon Magus, were impressed by this and wanted to pay Peter and John money to teach you how to do that. Of course, Peter and John were insulted because the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit is a free gift of God and is not for sale. They asked you to repent your sin.

Your followers also try to buy things that are not for sale. Someone who wants to become a bishop can do so by paying money to dishonest and corrupt people with power. Such people ought not to become bishops.

Why would someone want to buy a church office? They would look at it as an investment. They would be paying money to gain power and perhaps to gain more money. However, are these the people who should be in church offices? Do we want a Pope who has bought his way into that position? The answer is no. We prefer someone who deserves the position through his own merit. We prefer a meritocracy to a plutocracy.

The trouble with simony is that the people who deserve church offices because of their merit don’t get them. Either they don’t have the money to buy the church office, or they do have the money but won’t buy the church office because they know that simony is wrong.

Dante and Virgil had reached the third pocket, where the simonists are punished. Dante would rejoice when he found out how the simonists are punished in the third pocket of Circle 8.

Standing on the bridge above the third pocket, Dante looked down and saw a number of holes in the rock. The holes resembled the holes where priests would stand in a baptistery as they baptized people.

Dante remembered, I once smashed a baptistery, not as an action against the Church, but because a child was drowning in it. Rumors arose, however, that I was being sacrilegious.

Of course, Virgil knew what Dante was thinking — he had that power. Virgil thought, Anyone seeing Dante smash the baptistery would of course think that he was being sacrilegious, but of course he was saving a life, an action that his religion definitely approves of. Similarly, when a prophet criticizes some immoral practices of his religion, he may be seen as being sacrilegious, but of course he is not. The prophet is trying to make the practices of his religion better by criticizing immoral practices such as simony. If Dante tells the truth when he writes The Divine Comedy, he will criticize the bad practices of the Church as a way to make the Church reform itself and become better.

Dante saw legs sticking out of the holes in the rock. Flames were dancing on the sinners’ feet; some of the flames were redder and hotter than other flames. The sinners in those holes were worse than the other sinners.

Dante asked Virgil, “Which sinner is that whose feet are burned by a hotter flame than the feet of the other sinners?”

Virgil replied, “The way down is steep, but I am strong and surefooted, so if you wish, I will carry you down there so that you may ask the sinner who he is and why he is here.”

Dante was agreeable, and when they had reached the sinner, Dante asked, “Wretched soul, what are you? If you can speak, speak, if you are able.”

The soul mistook Dante for the soul of a sinner who would die three years later and be punished here: “Are you here already, Pope Boniface VIII? According to the Book of Fate, you are not supposed to die until 1303. Have you grown tired of engaging in simony and of tearing apart the Church?”

Dante was surprised by what the sinner had said, so he remained quiet, but Virgil advised him, “Tell the sinner that he is mistaken, that you are not who he thinks you are.”

Dante did as Virgil advised, and the sinner said, “What do you want? If you want to know my name, I am the son of the she-bear; that is, I am a member of the Orsini family. When I became Pope, I did not truly take a new name and leave my family behind to serve a new, greater family, even though people called me Pope Nicholas III. Instead, I kept the name of Orsini, and I used my position to advance the interests of my Orsini relatives. When I was alive, I was greedy to pocket wealth, and now that I am dead, I myself am pocketed.

“Under me are many other simonists. Soon, Pope Boniface VIII will arrive here and he will push me deeper in this hole just as my arrival here pushed other simonists deeper in this hole. Later, another simonist, Pope Clement V, will arrive and push Pope Boniface VIII and me and the other simonists here in this hole deeper.”

Dante was angry. He knew how bad is the sin of simony. He said sarcastically to Pope Nicholas III, “Exactly how much money did Peter have to pay to Jesus to get the keys to the gates of Heaven? I believe that he had to pay no money, but simply follow Jesus. How much money did Matthias have to pay to Peter and the other apostles to take Judas’ place? I believe that he had to pay no money, but simply to do God’s will.

“You deserve your punishment, for your sin is so great. You supported the side that paid the most money, so enjoy the reward you gained.

“Your sin of simony brings grief to the Church and to the world. It hurts the good, and it makes the bad happy.

“Your god is made of gold and silver coins. You are like an idolater, except that an idolater worships one idol, while you worship hundreds of idols.”

Then to himself, but loud enough for others to hear, Dante said, “Constantine, you meant well, but your gift of money and wealth to the Church helped make it corrupt!”

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, Virgil thought. When he moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople, he supposedly gave much power and material possessions to the Pope. The medieval belief was that Constantine deliberately moved East in order to reward Pope Sylvester with power and possessions because Pope Sylvester had cured him of leprosy. Dante believes that this Donation of Constantinople corrupted many Popes and the Church.

As a soul in the Inferno, I know the future. Actually, the so-called Donation of Constantine is a forgery, but this will be proved long after Dante’s day; not until the 15th century will the so-called Donation of Constantine be proved to be a forgery.

Pope Nicholas III’s feet kicked harder than ever, perhaps out of anger or perhaps because he knew that Dante’s criticism was justified.

Assassins are punished by being buried alive, Dante thought. I have seen assassins try to put off dying a few more moments by calling to a priest to come back so that they can confess one more sin. Anyone seeing us here could think that I am a priest and this sinner is an assassin. And this sinner really is an assassin. By engaging in simony, this sinner is an assassin of the Church.

This punishment is a parody of a number of things. It is a parody of baptism. Baptism is done with water, not with fire. And it is a parody of the Pentecost, in which fire came down from above and sat on the heads of the followers of Jesus and they were able to speak in tongues.

In addition, the way the sinners are stuck headfirst in the hole is a reminder of how Simon Magus died. In the Acts of Peter, I have read about Simon Magus’ death. Simon became a magician, and he learned to fly. Magus, of course, means magician. Simon was flying and criticizing the one true God, so Saint Peter prayed for Simon to fall, and he fell. The way these sinners are stuck headfirst in the hole resembles an image of Simon Magus falling and hitting the ground headfirst.

I can certainly understand why you sinners are upside down here. You sinners are upside down because you placed things upside down in the living world — you placed material things before spiritual things, thus upsetting their proper order.

Dante noticed that Virgil was smiling.

Dante, this is a job well done, Virgil thought. Your opinion of the sin of simony is exactly right. You started this journey naïve, but you are wising up.

Virgil picked Dante up and carried him up out of the pocket. When he had carried Dante down into the ditch, he had carried Dante at his side. Now, because he was pleased with Dante, he hugged him to his chest.

Dante and Virgil walked to the next pocket.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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