[This is part of Catholic Analysis’ special series on Pope Alexander VI. This part, the third, elaborates on Rodrigo’s time as a cardinal. Read the second part.]
Rodrigo Borgia was given the red hat by his uncle, Pope Callixtus III, when he was 25 years old. While some have criticized Callixtus for this, it is important to remember that the established families of Italy were very hostile to the Spanish Borgias, and so the foreign family took a close-knit approach whenever possible.
In short order – about 2 years later – Rodrigo was appointed Vice-Chancellor to the Holy See, again by his uncle, and eventually made the Archbishop of Valencia.
By the time he was Vice-Chancellor, Rodrigo had substantial income. He received benefices from multiple cathedrals, including the one at Valencia, and cloisters, on top of the automatic salary (8,000 ducats) associated with his position. As he was a scholar and devotee of learning, much of this income was spent on books. 
Interestingly, the Cardinal may have been in substantial debt, due to his funding of many diocesan and papal projects, among them many parties and building restorations, as well as Pius II’s Crusade.
“..[W]hen we consider that a goodly portion of his revenues was spent in habitual charities and rich donations, we could not expect his alleged accumulation of gold coin to be very great. We know, on the contrary, that, more than once, he was on the verge of financial ruin or actually penniless.” 
Despite his otherwise-grand expenditures and lifestyle, perhaps due to a mixture of piety and frugality, Rodrigo fasted often and typically limited himself to one dish per meal. This made him unpopular company, and the other cardinals usually found cause to avoid his table. 
Politically, the Cardinal was a brilliant and valuable legate. Rodrigo had a rather notable penchant for solving delicate diplomatic issues, which would serve him well in his later years. He was instrumental in the rise of Isabella (and Ferdinand) in Spain, whose claims to the throne, thanks to him, were endorsed by the Pope and for whose firstborn he even offered to serve as godfather. 
Five popes (Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VIII) utilized Rodrigo’s services. Even Pius, who was pressured to remove Spanish from positions of influence, insisted on keeping him on, saying that Rodrigo was both “an extraordinarily able man”  and “young in age assuredly, but..old in judgment”. 
Cardinal Borgia was an extremely loyal man and an excellent lieutenant. He told Pius II, “I will be at your side, Pontiff, on sea and on land, and even, if necessary, will follow you through fire!” 
After Paul II removed less-competent Curia employees, Bartolomeo Sacchi de Piadena (aka Platina), one of the fired workers, made a pamphlet threatening the overthrow of Paul. Continuing in this constant vein of loyalty, Rodrigo was furious, and he ensured the rebel’s arrest. Still, this pamphlet led to a murderous plot against the Holy Father in 1468, which was only foiled at the last minute. Such incidents caused the Cardinal to be wary of heretics and dissidents. 
Due to his high offices (not just the aforementioned, but also that of camerlingo – treasurer – and dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals), though, the question has been asked: Would the popes have accepted his alleged notoriety, if indeed he was notorious? I believe not. The awful things that he has been accused of – many of which will be addressed in this book – would surely bar him from office, if indeed he participated in them.
Innocent VIII said that Rodrigo was “distinguished by noble gifts, abounding remarkable by [his] virtues”.  Was the pope just ignorant, or did he know something then that many do not know today?
1. Arnold H. Mathew, D.D., The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia, p. 38
2. Msgr. Peter de Roo, Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives, and His Time, Vol. 2, p. 303
3. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 83-84
4. Ivan Cloulas (translated by Gilda Roberts), The Borgias, p. 46
5. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 20
6. Br. J.B. Darcy, CFC, What you don’t know about the Borgia Pope: Alexander VI (1492-1503) (Catholic Insight)
7. Arnold H. Mathew, D.D., The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia, p. 40
8. Ivan Cloulas (translated by Gilda Roberts), The Borgias, p. 44
9. Br. J.B. Darcy, CFC, What you don’t know about the Borgia Pope: Alexander VI (1492-1503) (Catholic Insight)