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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 20, 2007


all about the Popes

By and large, the late John Paul II got pretty good reviews and it may be still too early to assess Benedict XVI. But what of their 263 predecessors? How do they measure up? After thoroughly researching them via 50 reference works, my conclusion is that they’re comparable with pretty much any random collection of powerful men selected from 2,000 years of our Christian era. Which is to say that they included both saints and sinners, with some at the extreme of both categories.

Last year I paid Xlibris to publish my book, Popes & Anti-Popes, and next week the entire book will be posted on my website for anybody to access without charge. The complete book can be ordered by clicking on the bookstore section at The ISBN number is 1-4134-8122-1.

For centuries the Pope was numero uno in the Western world, the arbiter of whether or not the life you were leading deserved to end up above or below — a matter of grave concern to religious folk (which is to say almost everybody) at the time.

Domination of the papacy and the election of popes by autocratic Roman families was a feature of the 10th and 11th centuries, a period of suspicious and mysterious papal deaths. Between 890 and 931,  a dozen popes died suddenly, half of them of suspected poisonings.

First, the “good” guys, beginning with St. Gregory II, a blacksmith’s son who became a Benedictine monk and was described by the Oxford Dictionary of Popes as “one of the most impressive figures of the medieval world.” After King Henry IV tried to depose him, Gregory declared that “the devil has invented the monarchy” and excommunicated him. The king came humbly to apologize.

This battle between the spiritual and the secular lasted for centuries, power see-sawing between pope and king.

According to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Innocent II (1198-1216) “excercized a despotic command over emperors and kings whom he raised and deposed.” Crowning Germany’s Otto IV as emperor he boasted that “the priesthood is as much superior to royalty as the soul is to the body.”

This was echoed by Boniface VIII (1294-1303) who declared “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff” (France’s King Phillip responded by calling him “an arrant blockhead,” maxima tua fatuitas).

An earlier Gregory (“the Great”) who had left his aristocratic family to join a monastery financed by the sale of his ancestral home, battled with Emperor Leo III for whom he had scant regard. “We can only address you in rough and uneducated style” he sneered, “because you yourself are rough and uneducated.”

But, of course, as history instructs us, for every Gregory XVI (1831-46) who renounced slavery as “unworthy of Christians,” and Benedict XIV (1740-58), a skilled diplomat who was much admired by Voltaire, there were some real rogues.

John XII (955-64) lived surrounded by slaves and eunuchs, made a 10-year-old boy a bishop, died in the home of his married lover and was tagged “a Christian Caligula.”

Benedict IX was 12 years old when elected in 1032 by a prominent aristocrat.  The Oxford Dictionary of Popes calls his life “scandalously violent and dissolute.” Forced out of office at 25, he was back in two months and alleged to have turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. After two intervening popes, he returned for a third time following Clement II who died of poisoning. This time, Benedict lasted one year, evicted by the emperor and retiring to a monastery where he died aged 35.

The young Cardinal Roderigo Borgia, then 29, was rebuked by Pius II (1458-64) for an orgy in Siena. “Shame forbids mention of all that took place… a cardinal should be above reproach,” boomed Pius. Twenty-eight years later, after buying votes, Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, who declared: “The pope is as far superior to a king as a man is to an animal.” He produced five children with his mistress Vanozza Catanei, one of whom was Lucretia Borgia. The Dominican monk Savronola outraged, tried to persuade France’s King Charles II to invade Rome, where he said the clergy was “steeped in shameful vices.” The pope excommunicated Savronola who was subsequently tortured and hanged.

Formosus (891-906) was so hated by his enemies that nine months after his death, Pope Stephen VI, had him exhumed, dressed in papal clothes, tried and flung into the River Tiber. Overthrown the following year, Stephen was imprisoned and strangled in jail.

So, in my Popes and anti-Popes, a useful reference work, there are a few surprises. By the way, that rumor about a legendary Pope Joan dates from an anonymous Dominican chronicle (1250) and which historian Eamon Duffy says was to “prove a godsend to enemies of the papacy” was just that, a rumor.