We live in a cynical time. We expect little of our leaders and they often deliver. But, after all, our leaders, of both church and state, are politicians, so what can you expect?
More than that, I think. One of my aphorisms is that the real trick in life is to find the right standards of comparison. Let me offer a few. I’m bad, one can say, but I’m not in their league.
Where should I look for world class corruption? Well, as I was raised Catholic, I figured that popes should have to meet pretty high expectations.
Then I started studying history.
So our first candidate is Pope Stephen VI, who was raised to the Papacy in 896. His immediate predecessor, Boniface VI, had reigned for all of 15 days. The one before that, Formosus, was the pope who had made Stephen a bishop, so you might expect some sort of a positive relationship.
The politics of the time are too complicated to explain in anything less than a huge (boring) volume. Suffice it to say, Pope Formosus set himself in opposition to one Guido of Spoleto, the Holy Roman Emperor, while Stephen allied himself with Guido.
When Boniface died, the Spoletos insured that Stephen was elected Pontiff. Stephen immediately declared that Pope Formosus (the dead one) had been guilty of such crimes that he should be declared no pope at all.
Here comes one of my favorite scenes.
So he had Formosus dug up, dressed in his full regalia, propped up on a throne, and put on trial. Despite the fact that they gave the silent Formosus a deacon as defense council, Formosus somehow lost and was declared no pope and defrocked…literally. Stephen had them strip the corpse of his fancy robes, dress him in civilian clothes, cut off the three fingers he had used for giving blessings, and throw him into a commoner’s grave. Later, he decided that wasn’t enough and they dug him up again and threw his corpse into the Tiber.
Now this guy knew how to hate!
It didn’t do Stephen a lot of good, though, as the Italian politics changed round again and he was first deposed, then imprisoned, and finally strangled. This whole story took just one year.
Ah, Christianity. How it improves our standards of human behavior.
The Spoletos remained powerful for many years. In 955 they decided to place one of their own, Octavianus, son of Alberic II of Spoleto, on the papal throne. Whatever else he may have been, Octavianus (as Pope John XII) was hardly spiritual. He preferred hunting and whoring. He managed to get himself deposed for a while, but died as pope. He kept up his old habits to the end, though. It is said he died in adultery, either from apoplexy or at the hands of the lady’s outraged husband. He ruled for nine years, being all of 34 (or maybe just 27) at his death.
Our next exemplar is Pope Benedict IX (born Theophylactus, another of the Spoleto clan). He managed to be pope on three separate occasions, starting in 1032. He may also have been the first homosexual pontiff, although it’s hard to be sure. As far as I can tell, Benedict would hump just about anybody.
His reign(s) went like this: Elected pontiff at age 20, he was first deposed at age 32. Oddly enough, he was expelled not for his scandalous life, which was notorious, but purely for political reasons. Benedict was restored to office when he was 35, but then his pious godfather persuaded him to resign on promise of a large sum of money. Next that same pious godfather took over as the next pontiff, Gregory VI. Benedict soon changed his mind and reclaimed the throne in the next year. A Council was called and Benedict was kicked out again. He refused to accept the verdict and was excommunicated.
He remains the only pope who managed to sell the papacy.
Pope Alexander VI, born Roderic de Borja (Italianized to Borgia), was a good family man. A very large family man. His entire papacy (1294 to 1303) was shaped around his children. His many mistresses produced lots of children, but the most famous were those by his favorite mistress Vannozza dei Cattani: Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Goffredo. They were the Borgias, famous in history for beauty, ambition, and arsenic. They were probably not really poisoners, but they were certainly ambitious. Alexander loaded them with estates and titles, thereby earning them, and himself, lots of deprived enemies. He made Cesare a Cardinal (he resigned later) and married Lucrezia off, annulled the marriage, then married her off again. The Borgias spent their entire lives in wars trying to defend what he had given them.
Alexander lived to the ripe old age of 72, pope to the end. But his successor, Julius II, declared that Alexander had been so bad he would never live in the same rooms as Alexander had. He had them sealed up and forbade anyone to enter them. They stayed sealed until the 19th century.
Our last example, Leo X (born Giovanni de Medici) was certainly not as personally sinful as some of his predecessors, but he raised the corruption of the papacy to new heights.
He lost a lot of money in the usual interminable Italian wars involving the kings of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, etc. Then, he expensively worked to promote a new crusade against the Ottomans. At home, he spent freely on his great love of art. Finally, he was determined to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica in Rome into the greatest church in Christendom, which would require a great deal of money indeed.
To pay for all this, he turned the Church into a reverse ATM. Insert money and you might get your nephew that bishopric he always wanted. Insert more money, out popped some indulgences (remissions of punishment for your sins). All of which drove a purist monk named Martin Luther to post a bunch of theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. Leo largely ignored him, keeping up his corrupt practices and thus setting off the Protestant Reformation.
Not the worst pope, but by embodying all of the Church’s vices of the time, he was arguably the one who triggered the greatest revolution in the Church and Europe at large.
It’s true, of course, that it’s rather unfair to pick such awful examples. They don’t fairly represent the Church nor our own leaders. On the other hand, I like to imagine Pope Francis, a genuinely humble man, comforting himself after a really bad day, saying, “I really didn’t live up to the tiara today. I got angry with that idiot, I dropped that thing on my toe and swore, but still, you know, in comparison…”