Not long ago my attention was brought to a short article on The Imaginative Conservative website by the inimitable Joseph Pearce concerning the question, Was Dante wrong to name the people he put in Hell? It’s a reasonable question, and our own Rosanne Sullivan has explored the problem of Dante putting the then-recently canonized P. Celestine V in his Inferno. Even leaving aside the debate of whether or not Dante actually knew about the canonization before he penned the first part of his Comedy, it is interesting to ask: “Is it morally acceptable to name real deceased persons in a fictional account of Hell?”
Before I wrestle with that question, how about the similar question of naming real persons as damned in a sermon or theological work? While it is true that the Church has not definitively ruled on any particular persons being in Hell, it was not uncommon to find examples of damnation in the works of the Church Fathers and in later saints and doctors. Judas, Cain, Core, Pharaoh, Jezebel, the populations of Sodom and Gomorrha—all these and more were fair game in the homiletic tradition. Those who rhetorically beheld these sinners in Hell were not arguing for a definitive assertion of their damnation (except perhaps in the case of Judas), but rather using their infamy as a springboard for the reality of Hell and the very real possibility that those being preached at might end up there forever. Their belief that these people were damned was less of the “de fide” category, and more of the “sententia probabilis” sort. (Apologies to the late Fr. Ludwig Ott for so loosely appropriating his categories here.)
The placement of real historical persons in Hell by a poet or fictionist, however, depends largely on his intent. If the writer is merely venting his spleen against his enemies, as Pearce suggests of Dante, then the writer can at least be accused of cruelty. If he is rather concerned with the same thing the aforementioned homilists are concerned with—that is, moral correction based on the example of notorious sinners—then I think it is not necessarily unjust, cruel, or judgmental to speak of them as damned. The probability that infamous and publicly unrepentant deceased sinners are in Hell is high, and both the poet and the homilist are, I think, free to exploit that fact for just ends so long as they do not claim dogmatic certainty. One could make an exception of certainty for mystic visionaries who have literally seen Hell, but these are uncommon exceptions.
Does Dante in fact exceed these moral boundaries? Perhaps, though I think not in the case of P. Celestine. He is so careful not to name the man that one thinks he might well have hastily edited that section right before publishing the work, simply because he respected the canonization. Some occupants of his Inferno include personal enemies, it is true, but also personal friends. The poet’s dialogue with Brunetto Latini in Canto XV is one of the saddest episodes in Hell (“You taught me how a man becomes eternal…”). I have read commentary to the effect that many of Dante’s particular accusations of wickedness were based on wrong information, but I do not think he ever knowingly committed slander against any of his damned. He does use some poetic license to fill in knowledge gaps, as in his purely original end to Ulysses’ story, but I do not believe he crosses any serious moral lines.
Of course, a fully fleshed out judgment of Dante’s afterlife placements would require going through each on a case-by-case basis. It may be considered presumption to place any one person in Hell, but it can also be presumptuous to place them in Heaven. Dante’s Paradiso is populated with many uncanonized souls, but we rarely worry about him being too nice towards those characters. (Let us not forget that presuming on one’s own eventual salvation is dogmatically condemned.) I don’t wish to give Dante a free pass solely on his poetic greatness, but I do think that poetic (and homiletic) license have their place in the Catholic life. And since the Florentine expatriate’s purpose is explicitly a spiritual and moral one—that he and his readers may attain to final salvation—we cannot frown on his ultimate intentions.
I will close with the opinion of a much later Roman Pontiff, Benedict XV, on the matter of Dante’s moral judgments and of his piety towards the papal office:
But, it will be said, he [Dante Alighieri] inveighs with terrible bitterness against the Supreme Pontiffs of his times. True; but it was against those who differed from him in politics and he thought were on the side of those who had driven him from his country. One can feel for a man so beaten down by fortune, if with lacerated mind he breaks out sometimes into words of excessive blame, the more so that, to increase his feeling, false statements were being made by his political enemies ready, as always happens, to give an evil interpretation to everything. And indeed, since, through mortal infirmity, “by worldly dust even religious hearts must needs be soiled” (St. Leo M. S. IV de Quadrag), it cannot be denied that at that time there were matters on which the clergy might be reproved, and a mind as devoted to the Church as was that of Dante could not but feel disgust while we know, too, that reproof came also from men of conspicuous holiness. But, however he might inveigh, rightly or wrongly, against ecclesiastical personages, never did he fail in respect due to the Church and reverence for the “Supreme Keys”; and on the political side he laid down as rule for his views “the reverence which a good son should show towards his father, a dutiful son to his mother, to Christ, to the Church, to the Supreme Pastor, to all who profess the Christian religion, for the safeguarding of truth” (Mon. III, 3). [from In Praeclara Summorum, 1921]