A brief historic overview of five of the arguably worst criminals and sinners ever to be elevated to the chair of St. Peter. In chronological order of their pontificate:
– Pope Stephen VI (896–897)
Stephen is chiefly remembered in connection with his conduct towards the remains of Pope Formosus, his last predecessor but one. Fuelled by Stephen’s fury with his deceased predecessor, he exhumed the rotting corpse of Formosus and put it on trial in the so-called Cadaver Synod – or Synodus Horrenda – in January 897. With the corpse propped up on a throne, a deacon was appointed to answer for the deceased pontiff, who was condemned for performing the functions of a bishop when he had been deposed and for receiving the pontificate while he was the bishop of Porto.
The Cadaver Synod by Jean-Paul Laurens
The corpse was found guilty, stripped of its sacred vestments, deprived of three fingers of its right hand – the blessing fingers – clad in the garb of a layman, and quickly buried; from where it was later re-exhumed and thrown in the Tiber. All ordinations performed by Formosus were annulled.
The trial excited a tumult. Though the instigators of the deed may actually have been Formosus’ enemies of the House of Spoleto who had recovered their authority in Rome at the beginning of 897 by renouncing their broader claims in central Italy, the scandal ended in Stephen’s imprisonment and his death by strangling that summer.
In the pontificate of Pope Sergius III (904 – 911) a laudatory remark was placed on Stephen VI’s tombstone. Sergius III – an admirer of Stephen VI – then reportedly had the much-abused corpse of Formosus exhumed once more, tried, found guilty again, and beheaded, thus in effect conducting a second Cadaver Synod.
– Pope John XII (955–964)
Before his death, Alberic administered an oath to the Roman noble clergy, that on the next vacancy of the papal chair his only son Octavianus should be elected pope. At only seventeen years of age, Octavianus succeeded his father as Patrician of Rome in 954. One year later, after the death of the reigning pontiff Agapetus II, he was actually chosen his successor on 16 December, 955. His adoption of the apostolic name of John XII was the third example of taking a regal name upon elevation to the papal chair, the first being John II (533–535) and the second John III.
Pope Joan portrayed as the Whore of Babylon
Pope John XII was depicted as a coarse, immoral man in the writings which remain about his papacy, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general disgrace. He gave land to a mistress, murdered several people, and was eventually killed by a man who caught him in bed with his wife.
An account of later charges levelled against him from the Patrologia Latina include:
‘Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops (an act of simony), specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi.
They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana, his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and made the sacred palace into a whorehouse.
They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass.
All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins and the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.’
– Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048)
Benedict’s terms were interrupted because he sold the Papacy in an act of simony.
Pope Benedict IX
He reportedly led an extremely dissolute life, and also allegedly had few qualifications for the papacy other than connections with a socially powerful family, although in terms of theology and the ordinary activities of the Church he was entirely orthodox.
St. Peter Damian described him as feasting on immorality and called him a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest in his Liber Gomorrhianus. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.
He was also accused by Bishop Benno of Piacenza of many vile adulteries and murders. Pope Victor III, in his third book of Dialogues, referred to his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. Pope Victor III writes: ‘His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.’
– Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303)
Pope Boniface VIII is lampooned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In his Inferno, Dante portrayed Boniface VIII as destined for hell. The reader is reminded of the pontiff’s feud with the Colonnesi, which led him to demolish the city of Palestrina, killing 6,000 citizens and destroying both the home of Julius Caesar and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Boniface’s ultimate fate is confirmed by Beatrice when Dante visits Heaven.
It is notable that Dante did not adopt Guillaume de Nogaret’s aspersion that Boniface VIII was a sodomite as some contemporary sources would have us believe.
– Pope Urban VI (1378–1389)
When Charles III of Naples besieged the Castel Sant’Angelo – at the time, the Roman papal palace castle – Urban was forced to flee. Following this sacking, Urban took the bull by the horns and set out to confront Charles in Naples, the pope’s birthplace. After all, what would an earthly prince do against the holy father?
Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome
Urban was imprisoned in Nocera about twenty kilometres south-east of Naples. According to contemporary sources he cursed and damned his captors with bell, book and candle.
However, he was still to be rescued. The fighting men of two Neapolitan barons succeeded in rescuing the holy father and escort him to Genoa.
Several among his cardinals who had been shut up in Nocera with him and had followed him to Genoa were determined to make a stand against him: they were determined that a pope, who by his incapacity or blind obstinacy might be put in the charge of one of the cardinals. In other words; they questioned the authority, and even the competency of the pope. An indictment – especially to the medieval mind – that was absolutely shocking. Urban had them seized, tortured and put to death.
However, the chronicler Egidio da Viterbo remarked to the sentences passed by Urban against his cardinals as crimes unheard of through the centuries. Whether one frowns or tips his cap, we have to consider that Urban VI succeeded in passing sentences of punishment that were extremely cruel – even for the 14th century. On top of that, according to popular history, he complained that he did not hear enough screaming when the condemned cardinals were tortured.
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