The Divine Comedy: Empowering the Individual
Dante skips the middleman
Dante's Divine Comedy empowers the individual and his/her relationship with God by claiming that the Church does not have the final authority over eternity. Dante clearly and cleverly makes this point in Purgatorio and Paradiso through examples of intercession, conversations with spirits living in various realms of the afterlife, and through two very powerful examples of excommunication. Before delving into those three aspects of individual empowerment, it is important to note the single-most important element of empowerment provided by the author. Dante sent his pro-individuality message directly to the people by writing and printing The Divine Comedy in local vernacular. Since it was written in a language widely understood, there was no need for translation by the clergy.
A Dante fresco
Intercession is an important theme throughout The Divine Comedy. After all, it is the intercession of Beatrice that pulls Dante into the eternal system to recharge his life and steer him along a righteous path. The theme of intercession continues especially in Puragtorio, where spirits are waiting to ascend nearer to Heaven. Cato refers to intercession in the first canto when he explains that Marcia's position beyond the evil river cannot move him (Puragtorio 1.87). In the third canto, Manfred tells Dante and Virgil that God is infinitely forgiving of all those who turn to Him (Puragtorio 3.21). More importantly, Manfred explains that time in Ante-Purgatory can be reduced by intercession (Puragtorio 3.139). He even asks Dante to visit his wife when he returns to ask her to pray for his ascension (Puragtorio 3.143).
Lazy Belacqua reinforces the power of intercessory prayer in the next canto, although he does not bother to send a request for intercession back to the secular world or ask Dante to intercede on his behalf (Puragtorio 4.133). He almost seems content with being in this realm -- it could be worse. In Canto Five, more people ask Dante to request intercession from their living loved ones. These spirits died violent deaths and did not have full opportunity to repent. In addition to being stuck in Ante-Purgatory, they face the knowledge that they have been forgotten because no one intercedes for them in prayer. Being forgotten means there is no chance for ascension to a higher level, as Bonconte explains while sadly hanging his head low (Puragtorio 5.95).
In The Paradiso, Dante also uses his conversations with the spirits as evidence that the Church is not the final authority on eternity. Roman emperor Justinian tells Dante of the corruption in present-day Italy, commenting specifically on the Ghibellines and Guelphs (Paradiso 6. 100-108). Dante is able to give credibility to his own thoughts by having a respected emperor like Justinian state them.
In another conversation, Folquet, former Bishop of Toulouse and a Cistercian monk, tells Dante that "the accursed flower of gold" -- a reference to the French fleur-de-lis -- has turned the Church into greedy people with shattered congregations (Paradiso 9.130). Peter Damian later tells Dante that the clergy is corrupt, describing clergy members as "bloated and vain" (Paradiso 21.130). Even Saint Peter expresses discontent with the current Church situation. He discusses his disdain for Gascons and Cahorsines -- Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII (Paradiso 27.58).
It seems that all these concerns with the Church ultimately prove that the pope and other members of the clergy during Dante's day were not sufficient judges of people. How can a system so corrupt pass judgment on others to the point of excommunication? Rather than leave the reader to develop this thought on his/her own, Dante addresses excommunication in the book in two ways. In a personal example, Dante -- himself an exiled excommunicate -- prays that souls of Heavenly Justice will harshly judge the pope (Paradiso 18. Introduction).
On a broader scale, Dante reveals an entire realm in Ante-Purgatory established for those who have been excommunicated. This is the realm in which Manfred explains that no priest or pope can forbid salvation to someone who has devoted himself/herself to God (Purgatorio 3.133). The spirits in this realm are not there because the Church has put some sort of hold on them. Instead, their unwillingness to obey God sooner earned them their suspension. They will eventually ascend after serving their due time -- which can be shortened by intercessory prayer (Purgatorio 3.139).
Purpose: Power to the People!
One could argue Dante's intention in writing The Divine Comedy. Perhaps his intent was to be a political watchdog and point out wrong-doing. Maybe his intent was to clear his own name by creating a scenario in which the brightest leaders of the past agreed with him. Quite possibly Dante's "comedy" aspect is simply that he got the last laugh against those who exiled him. Whatever his intent, one thing is clear: The Divine Comedy empowers the individual and his/her relationship with God by claiming that the Church does not have the final authority over eternity. The fact that Dante makes his case in several ways only adds to the poem's credibility.
Divine Comedy - Condensed and Animated
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.