As an English major I have many favorite authors, novels and poems. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes and The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni are definitely on my list of favorites because beneath the romantic melodrama is a veiled attack against the discrepancy of what the Catholic Church represents to the masses, and what it actually is in the darker crevices of its lofty architecture. Cervantes and Manzoni are superb writers who have an uncanny ability to wittily depict the hypocrisy of the church and the unreliability of the clergy as objective authority figures. For example, in Don Quixote, the priest prescribes that Don Quixote should not be reading novels of chivalry on moral grounds, yet comically engages in and enjoys the very same act he condemns himself. In The Betrothed, the religious figures are much more sinister and do not serve as figures of justice, but rather as cowardly accomplices to the corrupt status quo whose motives are merely based on self-interest, like any other human being in the world. Human nature should not be judged, of course; it should only be understood and dealt with in a mature manner. However, part of this understanding is that priests are no better than other humans and the mere professional title in itself will not make them better judges of right and wrong.
One of the most poignant examples of a religious authority demonstrating inconsistency in Don Quixote is when the priest exercises his power in Don Quixote’s house to determine which books are to be burnt and which ones are the ones fit to remain in Don Quixote’s library. It may seem as if the priest had good intentions given that one may rightfully claim that Don Quixote’s excessive reading of novels of chivalry is what led him to such a dangerous fit of unrealistic madness. Furthermore, since life often imitates art in the same way that art imitates life, it may seem to make sense that the literary progeny of “the authors are mischief” be “put to flames without delay” (52) just as His Holiness prescribed. However, one of the most contradictory parts of chapter six is that the priest seems to know a bit too much of the plots to those allegedly mischievous books in Don Quixote’s library. This leads readers to assume that the priest has read the very same books he claims are bad. It also appears that in the context of Don Quixote, priests seem to not only have the right to moralize and prescribe what is right and what is wrong in life, but they also feel entitled to exercising the authority of a literary critic. The priest who claims that books of chivalry are an inherent evil knows enough about the books he condemns to save the ones he considers good literature without regard to any other factor. The sarcastic manner in which Cervantes introduces chapter six and the manner in which he henceforth describes the priest as knowledgeable in medieval romances demonstrates that the author’s intention was to shed light on the inconsistency of the Church.
Don Quixote was printed in 1605, which was a time in which the Catholic Church had dominated all aspects of education and learning. In the time period that Cervantes wrote his famous novel, members of the clergy were the only educated citizens of society because part of their training was to receive an elite education in the best institutions and monasteries of Europe from an early age. This means that they had access to more than just novels of chivalry; however, allowing the rest of society into their Garden of Eden to eat from their tree of knowledge would translate into the loss of society’s innocent stupidity, and hence the loss of the Church’s power.
With that being said, the book-burning scene is one of the most significant in Don Quixote when it comes to discussing the dishonesty of the Catholic Church because it shows just one example of the institution’s attempts to control knowledge and societal values. Banning certain genres and prescribing others was one of the easiest ways in which the religious leaders could control the stream of information that circulated amongst the subjugated religious devotees, and enforce their own values and beliefs upon society. The fact that the priest in Don Quixote decides to save the books he finds worthy, regardless of whether or not they fit the general criteria for burning shows that he, like every human being under the stars, bent the rules to suit his interests. What is most disturbing, however, is that he, unlike every human being under the stars, has the power and authority to decide what is right and what is wrong simply because he wears his religion literally on his sleeve.
If all religious hypocrisy were limited merely to literature, the world would perchance be a better place. However, even those in the holy profession are not exempt from experiencing all facets of the human experience, including its darkest and most sinister ones. This is what Manzoni’s intention seems to be by the meticulous detail he provides as he recapitulates the scope of the priests’ experiences and emotions. The religious figures in The Betrothed are not nearly as comical as the priest in Don Quixote because those in the former represent the more serious offenses committed by normal men and yes, even by those who profess strong inclinations to Catholicism. Both Cervantes and Manzoni seem to imply in his novels that believing in the popular deity of the day does not make a person less evil, and certainly professing a religion does not always mean following it.
All men are not created equal and everybody lives life according to their biases, tastes, values, and experiences. The same holds true for men and women of all professions and creeds, and Catholic priests are subject to the same human foibles as everybody else. However, people look up to the clergy as being responsible for upholding and spreading the virtues preached and exemplified in the prescriptive Christian books. However, because the Catholic priests are only human and subject to possessing different characters and personalities, no two clergymen may interpret or perform their duties to the same extent or resolve. This is exactly the case with the contrasting clergymen, Don Abbondio and Father Cristoforo, in the The Betrothed. Don Abbondio and Father Cristoforo are clergymen of the Capuchin monastery, and both are sought out by Lucia and Renzo for help when a corrupt nobleman seeks to prevent their marriage. However, they both respond to the request in completely opposite ways and with different motivations. Throughout The Betrothed, Manzoni frequently compares the apprehensive and duplicitous nature of Don Abbondio to the altruistic bravado of Father Cristoforo. However, because appearances are so deceiving, society views Don Abbondio as more virtuous than Father Cristoforo; this is only because the latter has tarnished his reputation by being a man of the world and committing a crime where everybody found out and will never let him live it down for as long as he lives. Yet, despite Don Abbondio’s priestly reserve and crimeless life, Father Cristoforo’s actions are more in line with the Christian creed of compassion and selflessness.
When the dangerous bravoes terrorize Don Abbondio into preventing Lucia and Renzo’s marriage on Don Rodrigo’s behalf, the priest selfishly follows their advice instead of doing the just thing, which would be to resist and fight the oppressor of freedom, love and marriage. One would assume that a clergy’s duty is to uphold the values of the Catholic religion and its sacraments, but Don Abbondio’s motivation to join the priesthood had little to do with religious affinity. “Poor Abbondio was not noble, nor rich, and still less was he courageous…. He had consequently been quite willing to obey his parents when they wanted him to enter the priesthood. To tell the truth, he had not thought very deeply about the duties or the noble objects of the ministry to which he dedicated himself. To win the means of living with some degree of comfort, and to join the ranks of a revered and powerful class, seemed to him two more than sufficient motives for such a course” (38). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that being a man who wishes to avoid conflict at any cost, he would be willing to do so at the expense of an innocent young couple’s happiness. Don Abbondio knows that his position as a priest will “lend them the necessary weight… After all, he said to himself, Renzo’s mind is on his sweetheart, but mine is on my own skin; so I have more at stake, apart from having more brains (45),” and so he does not hesitate to allow his cowardly but cunning nature to create pathetic excuses for delays and execute a most flagrant injustice by utilizing his religious powers merely for self-interest.
Even when Don Abbondio is once again confronted by Renzo and tells the young man of the threats, the priest does not blame Don Rodrigo for putting him in this difficult position, but instead lays the blame on Renzo, explaining: “What a hero you’ve been! What a good turn you’ve done me! What a trick to play on a decent man, and your parish priest at that. In his own house, a sacred place (53)!” Don Abbondio’s haughtiness and lack of concern towards criminal activity and the victimized party portrays how priests act out of self-interest as much as anybody else. Sadly, the fact that they wear a holy vestment does not make a quiet priest a more reliable moral authority than a random loud-mouthed knave on the street. Yet, under the cloak of religion, a man can pretty much exercise any law that he wishes upon a society that lacks sense and education. Don Rodrigo knows this, which is why he wishes to remain anonymous in the beginning and enact his folly through the priest. Don Abbondio’s character allows the reader to understand the extent the degradation of the Church centered society-- if the priest, a symbol of sanctity and righteousness, is a hypocrite, then the rest of society is powerless and doomed for failure.
Contrary to Don Abbondio, Manzoni portrays Father Cristoforo as more in line with the values of courage and virtue that the society blindly believes that all priests follow. The greatest irony of this is that Don Abbondio has a bad reputation because after all, he has been a man of the world and has even killed another man, even if in self-defense. Nevertheless, the fact that he makes amends to the extent of submitting his life to the priesthood shows that he is more righteous than Don Abbondio who has never hurt anybody physically. Furthermore, having had been born the son of a wealthy merchant truly made his transformation more remarkable and essential to his character. Father Cristoforo is willing to sacrifice himself in hopes of justice for the weak and oppressed, sometimes even defying boundaries between the social classes, as is the case with Don Rodrigo. Upon hearing the troubles of Lucia and Renzo and their request for help, Father Cristoforo does not hesitate to be of assistance in the noble act of rectifying the inequity. He is calm, patient, and respectful as he discusses the unjust predicament with Don Rodrigo. His attempts are not always successful, but throughout the novel he genuinely does what he can to help.
In The Betrothed, as much as in non-fictional society, religion is a pacifier that authority figures use a disguise and a tool to silence the masses and have their way. The common belief amongst readers of The Betrothed is that the main and only impediment to the marriage between Lucia and Renzo is Don Rodrigo’s oppressive obsession with her. However, this problem alone could have been solved simply by running away early enough before Don Rodrigo could conjure his plan to kidnap Lucia. Human beings are often their own worst enemy, slaves to nothing more than their own beliefs. Lucia's irrational concern with her reputation and with what society might think if they know she spent so much time alone with a young male without being married enslaves her, and it is her demise and an important factor to all the troubles that ensued. She could have remained faithful to Catholic tenets by abstaining from engaging in anything physical, and God’s knowledge of her virtue alone should be enough to allow her posthumous entrance to the promised afterlife.
However, it is the opinion of fellow mortals she is most concerned about because the Church catechized the society into believing such things. Manzoni seems to suggest that this is what allows the clergy to utilize their power to their advantage. However, as Cervantes suggests, the reason the masses are kept ignorant is due to the clergy’s control of mainstream information. Both authors suggest that one of the consequences of idealizing the Catholic Church and placing too much trust on its religious figures is that it leads to situations in which an innocent person like Lucia could not allow herself to be defended if not with the permission of a priest. On the other hand, Gertrude is “virtuous” only because she is believed to be virtuous, whereas Lucia would have been looked down upon had she run away with Renzo, even if nothing of a racy nature had actually taken place. This shows that an uneducated society that is more concerned with appearances is more likely to fall prey to the hypocrisy of the church.
Despite her eccentricities and implied malevolence, Gertrude is one of the most sympathetic religious figures that represent the corruption of the Church. She inspires tear-stained pity in readers because she was coerced by her authoritative father to join the cloisters. She is virtually powerless to decline a lifestyle that she knows is inherently incompatible with her personality simply because she is afraid of public scandal, as well as of the maneuvers and menaces from her father. After joining the convent and becoming a most respectable Signora and mistress of the convent, “The main occupations of her mind were an incessant regret for her lost freedom, a loathing for her present condition, and a painful dwelling on desires destined never to be satisfied…. The sight of those nuns who had helped to lure her into the convent was loathsome to her” (204). Given the manner in which she was practically forced into the convent, it is no surprise that she is so bitter, and bitterness often leads even the best-intentioned individuals to commit awful follies. Considering that likelier than not, Gertrude is just one of thousands of young women and men who join the holy profession by force and only to satisfy their appearance-conscious parents who seek to vicariously live the holier life through their children, it should come as no surprise that all these individuals, too, take advantage of the power they can exercise there as a way to vent their frustrations.
This makes Gertrude’s affair with a bravo, the implied murder, and her tolerance of the injustices committed against Lucia more understandable, though not necessarily more justifiable. Yet people like Gertrude are a result of a society that places too much importance on religious appearance, rather than religious action. The implication in Don Quixote and more explicitly in The Betrothed is that such a strong emphasis on reputation consequently leads to a corrupt clergy that cares more about reputation than the actual state of their soul. That, however, is a truth that common to the human experience across all professions and not the exclusive vicissitude of the clergy.
Miguel Cervantes and Alessandro Manzoni do not unintelligently demonize the Church and its representatives; instead, they shed light on the idea that religious figures are not ultimate sources of objective truth as the gullible followers believe, but rather real men of real passions, subject to the caprices of the fickle human heart. They act out of self-interest like everybody else, and as such they tend to uphold the values of those in power, no matter how unjust, because doing otherwise would take away their power. Also, these authors illustrate priests in their role of judging what types of literature should be available for the mainstream so as to maintain their status as the literate elite and be able to exercise their authority beyond the extent prescribed by the Bible. Whether or not Cervantes and Manzoni are religious is beside the point for it is not religious values that are being attacked. Their novels have a more important message, and that message is to caution the public against abuses of religious powers and encourage them to never stop questioning and to never take no for an answer.