THE POPES: SAINTS OR MADMEN?
BY JON NELSON
Many Catholics go through their entire lives without hearing a single word against the papacy. Many still profess great love for the pontiff and consider him to be their moral and spiritual leader. These true believers would be astonished to learn that historically, most of the popes have not been loved, but hated and feared, and deservedly so, as the Vatican has been the home base for some of the most thoroughly evil and corrupt men in human history, all hiding behind the cloak of righteous respectability.
The chronicle of the early papacy makes for unbelievable reading. Nearly every conceivable human atrocity and vice was either encouraged or practiced by these men. Here is a brief synopsis of their history, highlighting some of the key historical figures:
Pope Liberius (reigned 352-356 CE) was, as far as we know, the first pope to ascend through bloodshed. His predecessors are mostly mere footnotes in history, being primarily concerned with establishing their power and the survival of the faith.
Pope Hadrian III (884-885) is noted for having a high official at the Lateran palace blinded. He also had a noblewoman publicly whipped naked as she ran through the streets of Rome. Despite this, Hadrian was regarded as a saint in Rome, and he officially became one in 1891.
Pope Stephen VII (896-897), still angry at his predecessor, Pope Formosus, disinterred his corpse, dressed it in full papal regalia, and proceeded to personally interrogate the stinking body while a teenage deacon hid behind the throne imitating the voice of Formosus. He condemned the corpse as an anti-pope and, as punishment, had two of its fingers chopped off and had the body thrown in the Tiber river, where it was later recovered and re-buried. Not surprisingly, the people of Rome thought him mad, and took to rioting in the streets. He was imprisoned and eventually strangled.
Pope Sergius III (904-911) exhumed poor Formosus again and re-condemned the 10-year corpse. This time, the body was beheaded, along with the seemingly mandatory chopping off of three more fingers before it was once again tossed in the Tiber, where it was again re-discovered and re-buried.
Pope John XII (955-964) ascended to the papacy at age sixteen. This totally depraved individual is said to have slept with his mother and sisters and kept a harem at the Lateran Palace. He enjoyed sexual relations with men, women and children, held massive public orgies and performed “shows” for audiences during which he copulated with horses. Essentially, John turned the Lateran palace into a brothel. He also blinded and then killed his confessor and was suspected of castrating and murdering a cardinal. While in bed with one of his countless paramours, John was killed with a hammer by her jealous husband, although kinder sources say he died of a stroke during the act.
Pope Benedict V (964) fled Rome, with the entire papal treasury, after raping a young girl. After living the high life in Constantinople, he returned to Rome only when his finances ran out. Benedict was later murdered by a jealous husband, a fate shared by several other popes. His body, pierced by over a hundred dagger wounds, was unceremoniously dragged through the streets by an angry populace, and thrown into a cesspool. One can only wonder if the recent Benedict XVI was at all familiar with his notorious predecessor and namesake.
Pope John XIII (965-972) was a real despot. He is said to have reveled in torture, gouged out the eyes of his enemies and slaughtered half population of Rome. John was one of the most fearful men in a century notable for fearful men.
Pope Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048) became pontiff at age eleven. He was said to have surpassed all his predecessors in corruption and vice by age fourteen! Like John XII, Benedict enjoyed having sex with anyone, including children. He was ahead of his time in one respect: His great love of torture and burning preceded by several hundred years the actions undertaken by the grand Inquisitors. One writer referred to him simply as a “demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest.” Another great role model for Benedict XVI!
Pope Gregory VII (1045-1046) was the only pope with the chutzpah to canonize himself. So much for humility as a Christian virtue! Gregory originated the Dictatus, or list, comprising several of the tenets on the power of the pope which the papacy has zealously defended down to the present day, including: (a) The pope cannot be judged by any mere human (b) The church as never erred, nor will it ever err until the end of time and, (c) The pope is the superior of all kings, emperors or any other leader and can dethrone them any time he so desires. Papal history to this day considers this man to be one of its greatest leaders, rather than the totalitarian despot he truly was.
Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) was utterly dedicated to Crusades, with the Fourth Crusade, the Children’s Crusade, and the Albigensian Crusade all taking place at his instigation. The Albigensian was the first crusade directed against fellow Christians, and has the distinction of being the bloodiest massacre of the late Middle Ages. Innocent ordered several hundred thousand Albigensians in Southern France to their deaths, either by sword or by burning at the stake. And, as each succeeding atrocity was reported back to Innocent, he urged the Crusaders on to ever greater crimes against humanity. In 1198, Innocent decreed that nobody should be allowed to read anything, including the Bible, under penalty of death by stoning! Innocent is personally responsible for more deaths than any other pontiff in the two thousand year history of the papacy. And how is this thoroughly evil man remembered by the church? Not as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but as the single greatest pope of the Middle Ages. One writer stated that his pontificate was “the summit of the medieval papacy.” This should tell you something about the misplaced values of the Catholic Church.
Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) apparently felt Innocent’s massacres weren’t enough, since he started the Inquisition, and put it in the hands of the Dominicans. Not a single pope raised a voice against the Inquisition for over three hundred years. In 1231 he made heresy punishable by death at the hands of civil authorities.
Pope Clement VI (1342-1352) commanded some mercenary soldiers while Cardinal of Geneva and ordered the slaughter of every inhabitant of the town of Cesena. His pontificate was marked by graft, indolence, and luxury, with Clement remarking “my predecessors did not know how to live.” He also instigated the doctrine of indulgences that became one of the main causes of the Protestant Reformation two hundred years later.
Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) is supposed to have fathered a son by his own sister. He carried the concept of indulgences to the limit; under his rule, the souls of the dead, under eternal torment for their misdeeds, could be released from purgatory by the pope—for a price, of course. In other words, pay for the dead rather than pray for them. Sixtus also took the Inquisition into Spain where it would figure larger than in any other country. In his spare time, he also managed to involve Italy in several petty wars which served to drain the papal treasury. Sixtus’ solution was to increase the number of indulgences.
Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492), the successor of Sixtus IV, decreed that all Jews must either convert to Christianity or else be expelled from Spain, thus anticipating the Jewish exodus from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. An avid witch hunter, Innocent issued a papal bull, Summis desiderantes, which strengthened the Inquisition in Germany and urged the persecution and severe punishment of alleged witches.
Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), the third in a string of exceedingly bad and corrupt popes whose deeds eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, is often referred to as history’s worst pope. This is quite a distinction considering some of his predecessors! Alexander was a member of the notorious Borgia clan and was said to have committed his first murder at age 17. He was the father of at least ten illegitimate children, both before and after becoming pope. He was a swindler who sold bits and pieces of the papacy to the various warring empires in Europe. His main concerns as pope were sex, money, and appointing family members to positions of authority. Alexander also appointed cardinals for large sums of money, murdered them, usually by poison (a standard Borgia tactic) and then appointed successors to repeat the cycle.
Pope Julius II (1503-1513) was known as the warrior pope. In defiance of Canon law, he actually led armies into battle.
Pope Paul III (1534-1549) was known for murdering his mother and niece so that he could inherit the family fortune. After engaging in a minor theological dispute with a bishop and two cardinals, Paul ordered all three men to be chopped to death with swords. If this were not enough, Paul sold positions in the church to the highest bidder and took half the earnings of the estimated 45,000 prostitutes then in Rome, thus becoming the world’s first papal pimp.
Pope Julius III (1550-1555) stole from the papal treasury to re-build his mansion in Rome. Even in his own day, Julius was a notorious pedophile, and he had MIchaelangelo sculpt images in his mansion of oral rape. He openly flaunted his sexual deviancy, decorating his mansion with statues and frescoes of children having sex with each other. Julius single handedly was responsible for utterly degrading the papacy in the eyes of Europeans for over a century.
Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) was chosen because it was thought he would be a reformer, but he soon proved himself to be a thoroughgoing medievalist. He published the Papal Bull Cum Ex Apolstolatus oficio which claimed that he had sovereignty over every other ruler on earth (thus re-affirming what Gregory VII had proclaimed half a millennium earlier), could turn over any country to foreign invasion, and take anything from anyone without that person having any legal recourse. He strengthened the Inquisition and often attended its sessions. Paul is the pontiff who, in 1557, instigated the Index of Forbidden Books. As viciously anti-Semitic as any pope before or since, Paul ordered them to live in Rome’s ghettoes and forced them to wear distinctive headgear, tactics that would surface again in Nazi Germany. Paul also had a serious phobia about women, refusing to allow one to even approach him, although he enthusiastically supported Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) in her persecution of Protestants in England. One of the most unpopular popes in history, Paul was so hated in Rome that, upon his death, people rioted in the streets, toppled and disfigured his statue, and destroyed the headquarters of the Inquisition, freeing its numerous prisoners.
Pope Pius V (1566-1572) took an active interest in torture, often going down into the papal dungeons to observe and participate in this inhuman practice; an ex Grand Inquisitor, he often tightened thumbscrews himself and personally consigned several victims to the Iron Maiden while pontiff. Despite his harshness, he often castigated himself for being too lenient! He excommunicated Elizabeth I of England, the last time this was done to a reigning monarch. The result was that Catholics in England were now singled out for persecution as never before; many were jailed, tortured, and imprisoned, and killed. This sick individual was later canonized as a saint by the church.
Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), after hearing of the deaths of thousands of French Huguenots in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, reacted with great joy and celebrated the event with Te Deums and Thanksgiving services.
Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) decreed that vaccination against smallpox was contrary to the will of god, even though it had been in use for decades and was an obvious success. An extremely paranoid and conservative man, Leo strengthened the Index of Forbidden Books, and was outspoken in his contempt of religious toleration. He strengthened the Inquisition (now called the Holy Office) even though it did not long survive him. He also re-consigned Rome’s Jews into ghettoes. He created a virtual police state in Rome; freedom of the press became unthinkable and capital punishment was extended under his rule.
Pope Pius X (1903-1914) was also viciously anti-progressive; his “Lamentabile” was a totalitarian document attacking all forms of modernity and progress. This resulted in a purge of intellectualism that had repercussions for over half a century. Not surprisingly, today, he is revered as a saint.
Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) was like most of his predecessors an ultra-conservative who sought to return the church to its imaginary halcyon days where it dominated world affairs. In 1998, he beatified Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, a pro-fascist Croatian cleric who supported the dictator Ante Pavelic in the massacre of Serbs during the Second World War.
This is but a short list of some of the more evil leaders of the Holy See. There are countless more. Today, when a pontiff takes a stand on any given issue, the anti-human and evil doctrines and actions of this two thousand year old institution should be kept in mind, for if there is one thing that the Catholic church has proven, it is that progress and humanity’s well-being are not, to say the least, a top priority.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J.N.D. Kelly. Oxford University Press, 1986
- The Bad Popes by E.R. Chamberlain. Barnes and Noble books, New York 1993
- Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy by Peter De Rosa. Crown Publishers Inc. New York, 1988
- Unzipped: The Popes Bare All by Arthur Frederick Ide. American Atheist Press Inc., Austin, Texas 1987
- Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1990
- The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. Ballantine Books, New York 1984
- A History of the Popes by Nicolas Chetham. Barnes and Noble Books, New York 1982
- Lives of the Popes by Richard M. McBrien. Harper/Collins, San Francisco 1997