Benedict XII (JACQUES FOURNIER), third of the Avignon popes, b. at Saverdun in the province of Toulouse, France, elected December 20, 1334; d. at Avignon April 24, 1342. Nothing is known of his parentage or boyhood. In youth he became a Cistercian monk in the monastery of Boulbonne, whence he moved to that of Fontfroide, whose abbot was his natural uncle, Arnold Novelli, by whose name Fournier was also known. He studied at the University of Paris, where he received the doctorate in theology. Mean-time he was made Abbot of Fontfroide, succeeding his uncle who was created cardinal December 19, 1310. In December 1317, he became Bishop of his native Diocese of Palmiers, was translated to Mirepoix January 26, 1327, and was made cardinal by Pope John XXII, December 18, 1327. On the latter’s death, December 4, 1334, the cardinals in conclave, most of whom opposed a return to Rome, demanded of Cardinal de Comminges whose election seemed assured, the promise to remain at Avignon. His refusal precipitated an unexpected canvass for candidates. On the first ballot, December 20, 1334, many electors, intending to sound the mind of the conclave, voted for the unlikely Cardinal Fournier, who, though he was one of the few men of real merit in the college, was but lightly regarded because of his obscure origin and lack of wealth and following. He amazed the conclave by receiving the necessary two-thirds vote. On January 8, 1335, he was enthroned as Benedict XII.
Resolved to reestablish the papacy at Rome, Benedict signalized his accession by providing for the restoration of St. Peter’s basilica and the Lateran. He was prepared to acquiesce in the petition of a Roman deputation soliciting his return, but his cardinals pictured the impossibility of living in faction-rent Italy. They were right, whatever were their motives, and Benedict yielded. Conscience-stricken during a critical illness, he proposed as a compromise a transfer of his court to Bologna. The cardinals urged the slender hope of securing obedience, and Benedict decided to remain at Avignon, where in 1339 he commenced to build the massive papal castle which still exists. Mindful always of distracted Italy, he often sent money to succor the famine-stricken people and to restore churches. Reform of abuse was Benedict’s chief concern. Immediately after his elevation he remanded to their benefices clerics not needed at Avignon, and menaced with summary chastisement violators of the law of residence. He revoked the scandalous “expectancies” granted by his predecessors and forbade conferring benefices in commendam. (See Commendatory Abbot.) He condemned unseemly “pluralities” and conferred benefices with such conscientious discrimination that several were left long vacant, and so gave color to the calumny that he was himself harvesting their revenues. He inveighed vigorously against greed for gain among ecclesiastics; regulated the taxes on documents issued by papal bureaux; made episcopal visitation less of a financial burden to the clergy; abolished the practice of countersigning requests for papal favors, which was extremely lucrative to venal officials; and established the Registry of Supplications for the control of such petitions. Abhorring nepotism, he granted preferment to but one relative, naming the eminent John Bauzian Archbishop of Arles in deference to the insistence of the cardinals; he compelled his only niece to discourage noble suitors and marry one of her own humble rank. A legend, vouched for by Aegidius of Viterbo (d. 1532), accredits him with saying, “a pope should be like Melchisedech. without father, mother, or genealogy”. Monastic reform particularly engaged his zeal. Himself a Cistercian, he sought to revive pristine monastic fervor and devotion to study. Pertinent papal constitutions and visitations of monasteries attest his solicitude for a monastic renaissance.
Being a learned theologian, he was as bishop, cardinal, and pope, keenly interested in scholastic discussions. He terminated the controversy on the vexed question as to whether the Beatific Vision was enjoyed before or only after the General Judgment. John XXII had advocated the latter view and stirred up vigorous discussion. Eager to solve the question, Benedict heard the opinions of those maintaining the theory of deferred vision, and, with a commission of theologians, gave four months to patristic research. Their labors terminated in the proclamation (January 29, 1336) of the Bull “Benedictus Deus” defining the immediate intuitive vision of God by the souls of the just having no faults to expiate. Zealous too for the preservation of the Faith, he stimulated the bishops of infected districts to vigilance in the repression of heresy and urged the use of the preventive remedies of the Inquisition. He combated energetically the anti-papal doctrines which the ecclesiastico-political theorists of the disturbed Avignon period had spread, and which were unfortunately sustained by a school of misguided Franciscans. (See Fraticelli. Marsilius of Padua. William of Ockham; Michael of Cesena.) Distressed by disloyalty in Ireland, he tried to persuade Edward III to establish the Inquisition in his realm and urged him to assist the Irish bishops to extirpate heresy. But, though the most ardent foe of heresy, Benedict was remarkably patient and loving in dealing with heretics. He looked also to the interests of the Faith in the East; negotiated for the union of the Eastern Church with Rome through a delegate of the Emperor Andronicus, whose sincerity, however, Benedict was forced to question; manifested his solicitude for the Church in Armenia which, in the early fourteenth century, suffered from Mohammedan invasions, succouring the unfortunates in temporal matters and healing doctrinal differences which had long rent Armenia with schism.
In purely ecclesiastical affairs Benedict’s pontificate was creditable to himself and productive of good to the Church. Pious, prudent, and firm, he strove conscientiously to meet the Church‘s needs at a critical period. In political relations, however, he was not so successful. Inexperienced in politics, he had little taste for diplomacy and an imperfect knowledge of men and affairs of the world. Conflicting political motives confused him, and hesitancy and vacillation contrasted painfully with his firmness and decision in ecclesiastical matters. Though determined to act independently of Philip VI of France, the latter generally succeeded in committing the pope to his policy. He helped to prevent his return to Rome. He frustrated his desire to make peace with the Emperor Louis of Bavaria whom John XXII had excommunicated for fomenting sedition in Italy, proclaiming himself King of the Romans, and intruding an anti-pope. Willing to absolve him should he but submit to the Church, Benedict exposed to Louis’s delegates his generous terms of peace (July, 1335). But Philip, aided by the cardinals, persuaded the pope that his generosity encouraged heresy and rebellion. Benedict yielded. Thrice the imperial envoys came to Avignon, but French influence prevailed, and, on April 11, 1337, Benedict declared it impossible to absolve Louis. The latter, as Benedict feared, allied himself with Edward III of England against France. In vain the pope tried to avert war, but he was no match for the kings and their allies. His good offices were spurned; and he was humiliated by Philip’s later alliance with Louis, who had also allied to himself the pope’s political and ecclesiastical enemies, and by the emperor’s denial of the pope’s authority over him, and, worst insult of all, by his usurpation of papal power in declaring the nullity of the marriage of John Henry of Bohemia and Margaret Maultasch, that the latter might marry his son, Louis of Brandenburg. The French king hindered Benedict’s projected crusade against the infidels, making the war with England an excuse to forego his promise to lead the armies, and even diverting the money subscribed for it to financing his own wars, despite the protests of the conscientious pope. Benedict’s crusading ardor found solace in Spain, where he encouraged the campaign against the Mohammedans who in 1339 invaded the peninsula.
Benedict XII has not escaped calumny. Reformer, foe of heresy, builder of the Avignon papal palace, unwilling ally of France and enemy of Germany, he made many enemies whose misrepresentations have inspired most non-Catholic appreciations of his character. Much harm was done to his memory by the satires of Petrarch, who, though befriended and honored by Benedict, yet bitterly resented his failure to return to Rome. His natural obesity, too, stimulated caricature and undeserved criticism. But history offers a vindication and testifies that, though he failed to cope successfully with the political difficulties to which he fell heir, his piety, virtue, and pacific spirit, his justice, rectitude, and firmness in ruling, his zeal for doctrinal and moral reform, and his integrity of character were above reproach.
JOHN B. PETERSON