What is “The Great Refusal”?

With all the comparisons between Popes Benedict XVI and Celestine V that have been floating around recently, I couldn’t help but take special note of a particular passage from Dante’s “Inferno,” which I’m reading this week as part of my Great Books Project.

In Canto III, Virgil leads Dante through the gates of hell. Immediately Dante notices a large group of people wailing in various languages. When he asks who they are, Virgil replies,

Such is the miserable condition of the sorry souls who lived without infamy and without praise. They are mingled with that base band of angels who were neither rebellious nor faithful to God, but stood apart. The heavens drive them out, so as not to be less beautiful; and deep Hell does not receive them, lest the wicked have some glory over them. . . . These have no hope of death, and their blind life is so abject that they are envious of every other lot. The world does not suffer that report of them shall live. Mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass on.

Dante continues to look at the huge procession of people. He claims to recognize some of them, and then he writes, “I saw and knew the shade of him who from cowardice made the great refusal.

What does this have to do with popes? Dante does not give any further explanation in the text, but a footnote explains that early commentators all identified this character as Celestine V! If that’s true, then Dante and his contemporaries viewed “the pope who quit” as a big chicken who deserved to remain nameless throughout history. That’s quite a contrast to the modern authors who tend to laud him as being someone too pure for the corrupt church of his time or something of that sort.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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4 Responses to What is “The Great Refusal”?

  1. Alice Jewell says:

    Considering that Dante put a lot of popes upside down in lower circles, Celestine V fares pretty well.

  2. David K. says:

    “If that’s true, then Dante and his contemporaries viewed ‘the pope who quit’ as a big chicken who deserved to remain nameless throughout history.”

    On the other hand, Celestine V was canonized by Pope Clement V in 1313. So I’m not sure whether there is really such a stark contrast between the medieval and the modern views of Celestine V.

    • Dr. J says:

      Perhaps Dante’s view of Celestine was colored by political events in Florence and the struggle between the Ghibellines and the different Guelf factions.

  3. Donald Miller says:

    When I read something like this, I try to relate it not so much to historical events as to current events, especially those current events taking place in my own life. To my way of reading it, Dante is saying that it’s better to be Christopher Hitchens, who knew what he was doing and why he was doing it *and* stood by it, than it is to be someone who just wants to coast along without becoming personally and intellectually invested in a moral cause.

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