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Popes Who Behaved Badly

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

For the man who is deemed to be the closest to God, compassion, honesty, and humility ought to be the minimal job requirements. However, several vicars of Christ have been villainous rascals.

Pope Benedict IX

During the first half of the 11th century, Benedict IX was pope three times. The first stint began in 1032 when he was just 20 thanks to his wealthy father distributing bribes in the right places to get him elected. That spell as head of the church lasted until 1044 when citizens, angry at his violence, rebelled against him and he fled from Rome.

He came back in April 1045 to reclaim the papal throne, which had been handed to Sylvester III. Poor Sylvester was shoved aside when Benedict sold the papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI, in June 1045. It seems Benedict regretted selling the papacy so he returned to Rome in 1047 and kicked Gregory out.

Many clergymen were fed up with the turmoil and called on King Henry III of Germany to sort matters out.

The king and his army arrived and deposed Benedict, Sylvester, and Gregory, placing a German bishop in the papacy in December 1046. Ten months later, Clement II was dead and toxicology tests in the 20th century found he had been poisoned, whether by an enemy or because of a medicine he may have taken is unknown.

Next up was Poppo de' Curagnoni, another German bishop, who took the name Damasus II. He became pontiff in July 1048 but was dead in less than a month; rumours of poisoning whirled around. Benedict faded into the background and there's no record of his later life.

We are left with the verdict of Pope Victor III, who was briefly the holy father at the tail end of the 11th century. In his scathing reverse eulogy Victor described Benedict's “rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

Pope Benedict IX.

Pope Benedict IX.

Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Borgia was born into a family whose name is twinned with corruption, intrigue, and murder. Family member Alfonso de Borgia became Pope Callixtus III in 1455 and handed out preferments to his relatives, one being his nephew Rodrigo who was appointed cardinal at the age of 25.

The papacy became vacant in 1492 with the death of Pope Innocent VIII. With his treasure chest bulging with Borgia money, Rodrigo was able to buy enough votes from cardinals to become pontiff.

He took the name Alexander VI and one of his first acts was to stuff the College of Cardinals with relatives. One of these appointees was the brother of one of his mistresses, who would himself become pope.

He practised simony, the selling of church offices, and enjoyed holding elaborate and expensive ceremonies. In October 1501, the Apostolic Palace was the scene of the Banquet of Chestnuts. The guest list included the pope's inner circle of supporters, clerical and secular, and several dozen prostitutes.

The banquet table groaned under the weight of food and wine. As the last dishes were cleared away, the main event began with sexual hi-jinks going on all night. One of the entertainments involved chestnuts being strewn on the floor that the naked ladies picked up with their genitalia.

Soon, cardinals and other dignitaries threw off their robes and got down on the floor and . . . But, let us draw a discreet curtain on the rest of the orgy.

Papal spin doctors have since tried to cast doubt on the extent of depravity during the reign of Alexander VI, but we have the word of a priest and contemporaneous chronicler as evidence.

Johann Burchard wrote that “There is no longer any crime or shameful act that does not take place in public in Rome and in the home of the Pontiff. Who could fail to be horrified by the . . . terrible, monstrous acts of lechery that are committed openly in his home, with no respect for God or man?”

Pope Alexander VI.

Pope Alexander VI.

Pope Boniface VIII

In his epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante accompanied by Virgil are going through the circles of hell when they bump into Pope Boniface VIII. There he is lodged in the eighth circle reserved for those who commit fraud and sell church offices. As head of the Papal States he handed choice parcels of land to his relatives.

Boniface, a member of the aristocratic Caetani family, came to the papacy in 1294 and declared himself all powerful; all the crowned heads of Europe were subject to his authority, he said. That didn't go down too well with numerous queens, kings, and other royals and quarrels ensued. King Philip IV of France, in particular, took exception to being told he had to bow down to the dictates of the pope.

In 1303, Philip gathered an assembly to discuss Pope Boniface VIII and all manner of accusations were levelled against the pontiff. Boniface retaliated with a threat to excommunicate Philip, who had one of his followers capture the prelate.

In captivity, Boniface's health started to suffer and there is some evidence he was severely beaten when he refused to abdicate. He died in mid-October 1303 in his early seventies.

Such was the animosity with Rome, that Philip had Boniface's successor, Pope Clement V, move the papacy to Avignon, France. Even then, the king was not done with his nemesis. He demanded Clement have Boniface posthumously face a trial on charges of heresy and sodomy, but this came to nothing.

Boniface VIII is sufficiently venerated for his tomb to be in St. Peter's Basilica,

Boniface VIII is sufficiently venerated for his tomb to be in St. Peter's Basilica,

Pope John XII

John is said to have been rather stupid with only one thing on his mind—sex. During his time in office—955 to 964—the papal residence was turned into what amounted to a brothel. Hundreds of women were brought in to satisfy the pontifical urges. Journalist Tim Brinkhof calls John XII “Perhaps the most morally depraved pope of all . . .”

Disregarding his vows of celibacy was far from John's only moral failing. He was a habitual gambler and his lack of intelligence meant that he was also a habitual loser. To cover his debts he offered lucrative positions to those who bailed him out.

He was born into an aristocratic family that placed him in the papacy when he might have been only 18 years old; there is confusion about when he was actually born.

There were several attempts to dislodge him from his lofty perch. He had an on-again-off-again alliance with Germany's King Otto I. During one of the off spells, Otto convened a meeting of 50 bishops to essentially put John on trial. He was found guilty of many charges and the bishops referred to him as “This monster without one single virtue to atone for his many vices.”

But, the disgraced pope made a comeback and he wanted revenge against those he believed had betrayed him. He had the right had of one cardinal lopped off, a bishop was whipped, and another priest had his ears and nose cut off.

There are two versions of how John XII died. The first says he had a stroke while in the lustful embrace of another man's wife. The second is that the cuckolded husband caught the pontiff in flagrante delicto and tossed the lascivious priest out of a window.

The defenestration of Pope John XII. His paramour is shown naked while the pope is clothed. Even in scandal appearances must be preserved.

The defenestration of Pope John XII. His paramour is shown naked while the pope is clothed. Even in scandal appearances must be preserved.

Papal Culpability

Apologists for the Catholic Church argue that citing corrupt and evil popes from medieval times and earlier does a great disservice to the modern church.

However, the current pontiff, Pope Francis, said in 2017, “There is corruption, it's clear. With the interrogations we will see if they are guilty or not. It is an ugly thing, it's not nice for this to happen in the Vatican”

As a result of investigations, in July 2021 “The Vatican has indicted 10 people, including an Italian cardinal, for several alleged financial crimes including extortion, corruption, fraud, forgery, embezzlement, and abuse of power” (CNN). The trial of these individuals, including Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, is ongoing as this is written.

Pope Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI resigned in February 2013, under a cloud of allegations that he didn't do enough to stop the sexual abuse of children by priests. Lawyer Martin Pusch, who has examined the issue, said that during Benedict's time as the Archbishop of Munich “there were abuse cases happening. In those cases those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything.”

Surely a similar charge that can be levelled at all popes. None can argue that they did not know priests were guilty of the most heinous of crimes. From their times in seminaries, through pastoral work, and rising in rank—bishop, archbishop, cardinal—the abuse of children by priests could not have been a secret within the Catholic Church. Offenders, when caught, were shuffled into another parish where they could find new victims.

It can be argued that the Roman Catholic hierarchy of recent decades has left as dark a stain on the church as the misbehaviour of popes centuries ago.

The Outing of Cardinal McCarrick

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1184, Pope Lucius III commanded Europe's bishops to look into alleged heresies. This was the start of a process that led to the Spanish Inquisition during which thousands of people were tortured and executed for allegedly not following the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Pope Stephen VI held an enormous grudge against his predecessor, Pope Formosus. Stephen's hatred was so deep that, in 897, he ordered the dead pontiff dug up, dressed in his vestments and put on a throne. The purpose of this charade was to have the dead man found guilty of perjury. Stephen then order three fingers of his right hand cut off and the corpse to be tossed into the River Tiber.
  • Eugenio Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939 and carries the unfortunate nickname of “Hitler's Pope.” Writer John Cornwell spent a long time digging through Vatican archives and through his research “It showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent. And, worse, that he was a hypocrite, for after the war he had retrospectively taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.”

Sources

  • “Worst Pope of All Time?” Simon Sebag Montefiore, Literary Hub, October 17, 2018.
  • “The Most Incorrigible Popes in the History of the Vatican.” Tim Brinkhof, The Big Think, November 28, 2021.
  • “How Pope Alexander VI Hosted Orgies, Kept Multiple Mistresses, and Bribed His Way to the Top.” Natasha Ishak, allthatsinteresting.com, June 20, 2020.
  • “Vatican Indicts 10 People, Including a Cardinal, over an International Financial Scandal.” John Allen, Delia Gallagher, and Mia Alberti, July 3, 2021, CNN.
  • “Former Pope Benedict Accused of Inaction over Child Sexual Abuse Cases.” Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, January 20, 2022.
  • “Top 10 Controversial Popes.” Kayla Webley, Time, April 14, 2010.
  • “Hitler’s Pope.” John Cornwell, Vanity Fair, October 29, 2013.
  • “10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes.” Khalid Elhassan, historycollection.com, May 18, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor