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Popes Throughout History

We have seen that the idea that Peter was the first pope is a Catholic myth. We have also shown that the idea of papal infallibility is untenable, even in the limited definition given to it by the Roman Church. It is now time to look at the characters that held this ecclesiastical throne.

Many lay Catholics are under the misconception that their popes throughout history has been men of high morals and elevated piety. Given below are brief biographical selections of quite a number of popes who do not fit this popular idea:

In this, albeit brief, look at some of the more infamous popes of history, it should be clear that the exposure to Christian teachings does not make a good person. In fact, as the behavior of the popes show, it tends to make them intolerant and vindictive of people who do not agree with them. To answer the old cliché - Is the pope catholic? - our answer is yes. It goes to show that good Catholic Christians, in the sense of practicing what is required and in believing the necessary dogmas, do not necessarily lead good lives.

Pope Victor I (189-199)

We know relatively little about the popes before Christianity came into prominence with emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The popes had relatively little temporal power and hence did not make and significant historical impact. However, even then some of the pope were already exhibiting an intolerant strain that was to mar Christendom throughout history.

One such pope was Pope Victor I, who held the office from the year 189 to 199. In the church of that day there was a dispute as to the exact date Easter, the memorial of Jesus' resurrection, should be celebrated. Then, the churches in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day it falls on. They were called, because of this tradition, Quartodecimans. The rest of Christendom celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. In the past the Christians had simply agreed to differ on the exact date of this festival. Victor, unable to accept any lack in uniformity excommunicated all Quartodecimans. Victor was also the first pope to indulged in imperial wheeling and dealing. This pope made use of the emperor's mistress, Marcia, who was Christian, in his attempts to free some condemned Christians. [1]

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Pope Damasus I (366-384)

After the conversion of the Roman Emperors to Christianity, the behavior of many of the popes took a turn for the worst. The intolerant strain became stronger. An example of this is Pope Damasus I (in office:366-384). Damasus actively and sometimes brutally repressed heresies: be it Arianism, Apollinarianism or Macedonianism*. The method in which this pope actually got into office deserves to be told. On the death of Liberius (in office: 352-366), the previous pope, there was no consensus among the clergy as to his successor. A faction supported Ursinus, who was one of Liberius' deacons. Damasus was supported by the faction which were previously loyal to the antipope Felix. To consolidate his position and claim to the papacy, Damasus hired a gang of thugs and carried out a three day massacre of Ursinus' supporters. That did not satisfy this heresy-hunting pope. After his consecration as bishop of Rome, his men attacked Ursinus and his remaining supporters who were seeking refuge in the Liberian basilica. As a result of that attack, one hundred and thirty seven supporters of Ursinus were murdered. It is noteworthy that this Damasus- who, incidentally, was recognized by the church as a saint- was the first pope in history to use the Petrine text in Matthew to support the papacy’s claim of supremacy. [2]

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Pope Symmachus (498-514)

Apart from the indubitable lack of toleration and respect for human life, some of the popes began to develop a more immoral lifestyle. Pope Symmachus (in office 498-514), like Damasus, is recognized by the church as a Saint, partly due to his strong defense of orthodoxy. But this pope was a promiscuous fornicator, although he did have a regular lover, named Conditria. He regularly misused church funds. A synod of Italian bishops was held in the year 502 to discuss charges of fornication and cheating. The verdict of the synod was ludicrous in the extreme; they did not clear Symmachus of any of the charges against him, but ruled that as pope, no human court could try him; the judgment of pope Symmachus, according to the synod, must be left to God alone. [3]

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Pope Vigilius (537-555)

The next pope on our list is Pope Vigilius (in office 537-555). The way this pope got into office is a lesson in corrupt politics. Vigilius was promised the post by the monophysite empress Theodora in exchange for supporting the reinstatement the one of her pawns, Antimus as patriarch. Vigilius agreed. His predecessor Silverius was thus deposed and exiled. Vigilius was then elected the new pope with support of the empress. When Emperor Justinian (483-565) received a complaint about Silverius' unjust deportation, he ordered the deposed pope to be tried fairly. Vigilius blocked this trial and re-exiled the ailing ex-pope to the island of Palmaria. Within a few weeks, Silverius had died, of starvation. [4]

Vigilius was also well known for his involvement in what became known as "The Three Chapters Controversy." The Emperor Justinian, in his effort to win over the monophysites, condemned as heretical the "Three Chapters": which stands for the Christological speculations and teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d.428), Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. c458) and Ibas of Edessa (d.457). As emperor, he ordered all the bishops throughout Christendom to endorse his condemnation. Vigilius, at first, refused to give his approval to Justinian's edict. He was forcibly brought to Constantinople, and, seeing the emperor's determination on the matter, agreed to condemn the Three Chapters. This met with disfavor by the western church. A synod of African Bishops excommunicate him for his condemnation. In an effort to placate the western church, Vigilius withdrew his condemnation. This, again, met with imperial disfavor. The pope was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Seeing that recalcitrant bishops were either jailed, deposed or exiled by the emperor, Vigilius decided to safe his own hide. He informed the emperor that he had been misled by the devil to withdraw his condemnation of the Three Chapters! In other words he said, the devil made him do it; sounds familiar? He was then allowed by the emperor to return to Rome to resume office. The Three Chapters Controversy was one of the historical evidence brought forward by some bishops in the First Vatican Council to oppose the doctrine of papal infallibility. [5]

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Pope Sergius (687-701)

What interest us about the next pope on our list, Pope Sergius (in office 687-701) was how he became one. The events that led to his election is filled with intrigued worthy of a modern soap opera.

It all started with Paschal (d.692), the archdeacon of Rome, who wanted to become pope so badly that he offered a bribe, one hundred gold pieces, to the emperor's representative to Italy, the Exarch of Ravenna, to ensure his ascension to the papacy. But Paschal was challenged during the papal elections by the archpriest Theodore. The election was stalemated, and through the commotion, a third person, Sergius was elected instead. Paschal called the exarch to Rome to help him depose the new pope. However, much to Paschal's consternation, the exarch supported the new pope after a sum of one hundred gold pieces was given to him - by Sergius! [6]

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Stephen III(II) (752-757)

Stephen III(II) (in office: 752-757) is renowned for the being the pope responsible for the formation of the papal states. The circumstances of how this came about deserves some mention. The year of 753. Rome was threatened by the Lombards, a barbarian tribe from the Baltic. Stephen approached Pepin (714-768), the king of the Franks.

The Roman bishop showed the Frankish king a document that purports to be dated 30th March 315; a document that came to be called “The Donation of Constantine”. The reason for this title will be made clear here. The document tells the story of how Emperor Constantine (d.337), after being miraculously healed of leprosy, gave Pope Sylvester I (in office: 314-335), the regions of Italy surrounding Rome and pronounced Rome supreme over the other main centers of the church, namely, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

The document all purports to give the reason why Constantine moved the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople: he wished that the pope should have no rival on earth! In a stroke, the document showed that the Roman Church was, from the days of Constantine, pronounced as the supreme church, had a right to the regions around Rome and was superior to the emperor. The document made the right impression on Pepin. Upon defeating the Lombards, he duly handed Stephen the regions mentioned the Donation. Thus was how the papal states came into being.

The Donation of Constantine, however, is a fraudulent document; and one which was most probably concocted just before Stephen met Pepin. The document was finally shown to be a fraud in the fifteenth century by the Italian humanist, Lorenzo Valla (c1406-57). Lorenzo showed that, among other things, the time of the donation as stipulated by the document was before the reign of Pope Sylvester I; thus the pope that should have received the donation was Pope Miltiades (in office: 311-314) He also showed that the name Constantinople was not conferred on the new capital-which was called Byzantium-until 330; so it would not have been possible for a document that was supposed to have been written in 315 to know that the name of the new capital was going to be changed to Constantinople fifteen years later. Valla also showed that the language of the document was a later form of Latin than that used in the fourth century. With the help of these and other arguments he conclusively proved that the Donation of Constantine was a papal fraud. While Valla’s argument convinced the impartial scholars, Rome continued to deny for many centuries that the Donation was a fraud. Thus one of the most significant triumph in the history of the Roman Church was achieved by fraud. [7]

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Stephen IV (III) (768-772)

Stephen IV (III) (in office 768-772) deserves mention in our list as an example of a human being without a conscience. When his predecessor Paul I died in 767, there was no immediate successor. In fact two antipopes, Constantine and Philip, were elected during the period when the holy see was vacant. When Constantine was irregularly appointed to the see, it angered the Lombards who deposed him and replaced him with the presbyter Philip. Christopher, the head of the priestly college in Rome, was appalled by these irregularities and arranged for the canonical election to be held to elect the lawful pope. Christopher, and his son, Sergius, managed to muster enough support to have Stephen IV elected.

The Lombard king Desiderius, anxious to avenge Philip's loss of office, promised to hand over to the papal state substantial territory if Stephen would hand over Christopher and Sergius to him. These two, abandoned by the pope, were brutally murdered by the Lombards. Thus was the thanks they got from the man they helped become pope! To save face, Stephen claimed, in a letter Charlemagne (742-814), the king of the Franks, alleging, falsely, that Christopher and Sergius, together with a few others, had plotted against his life. Stephen claimed that he was saved by a his "admirable son" Desiderius. After getting the revenge he wanted, Desiderius refused to give Stephen the territory he had earlier promised! The double crossing pope was himself double crossed!

The reign of Stephen III was also marred by the general cruelty shown to antipopes and their supporters. The anti-pope Constantine, for instance, had his eyes gouged out! In some martyrologies, Stephen III was actually considered a saint! [8]

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Pope Nicholas I (858-867)

With Pope Nicholas I (in office 858-867) we have another example of how low the holder of the papal office could stoop to enforce the primacy of the Roman church over the rest of Christendom. It all started with a collection of document known as the "Pseudo Isidorian Decretals". It was claimed that the documents were collected by St. Isidore of Seville (d.636). Part of the collection contains letters purportedly written by the ante-Nicene popes, beginning with Clement (in office:88-97). The collection was suppose to prove that from the earliest days the Church of Rome had the right to issue laws, validate council decisions and depose bishops. These documents are known today to be forgeries. They were actually deceitfully composed by the Frankish Court around the year 850.

Nicholas I, an ardent campaigner for papal supremacy seized on this chance. In his arguments with Hincmar (c806-882), archbishop of Rheims, he cited the Decretals, claiming to have ancient copies of them. It was obvious that Nicholas lied, for the forgery was only less than two decades old then! The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, together with the Donation of Constantine, played very influential roles in the historical establishment of papal supremacy. [9]

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Pope Stephen VII (VI) (896-897)

Another ninth century pope that deserves mention here is Pope Stephen VII (VI) (in office 896-897). Stephen was famous for putting to trial the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (815-896; in office 891-896). Stephen was the sworn enemy of Formosus. When he was elected pope, he had Formosus' decaying body - he had already been dead nine months - exhumed from the grave; a mock trial was arranged, presided by Stephen himself. He found Formosus guilty of coveting the papal throne. The punishment was macabre. The corpse was stripped and the three fingers of its right hand chopped off. The body was then finally flung off into the River Tiber. [10]

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Sergius III (904 to 911)

An ardent supporter of Stephen VII was Sergius III who held the papal office from 904 to 911. Serguis was one of the bishops present during the cadaver trial of Formosus. He fully supported the results of that trial and hounded any member of the clergy who did not subscribe to it. Pope Serguis III's other claim to fame was his affair with the then fifteen year old Marozia (d after 954), daughter of Theophylact (d. c920), the financial director of the holy see. Out of this affair came an illegitimate son who was also destined to become pope. [11]

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Pope John X (914-928)

Marozia’s mother, Theodora, was not to be outdone by her daughter in their family game of papal sexual roulette. Theodora had her lover elected as Pope John X (in office: 914-928; died 929). The reason she made him pope, according to a contemporary source, was to have him close by to continue their trysts! Apart from his love affair with Theodora, the most memorable thing about John X was that he actually made, for political expediency, the son of a count an archbishop. The count’s son was only five years old at that time! John’s fatal mistake came from one of his acts of political expediency. He persuaded Theodora to marry off Marozia to Alberic of Tuscany, whose family was beginning to gain political clout. Marozia had ideas of her own though, she married Alberic and then, very probably, egged him on the take on the pope. Alberic was routed. John then made Marozia look at the mutilated corpse of her husband. It was something she would never forgive her mother’s lover for. For when Theodora died in 928, Marozia had John X imprisoned and finally ordered him to be suffocated the next year. [12]

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Pope John XI (931-935)

The next two popes were merely stop-gap instruments of Marozia- to warm the papal throne until her son could ascend to it. When he turn 20, Pope John XI (in office 931-935), the illegitimate son of Sergius III and Marozia, became the 126th pope. He proved a willing instrument in his mother's quest for power. As an example, he officiated the, theoretically incestuous, wedding of his mother to Hugh, King of Italy. Hugh, at that time, was Marozia's brother-in-law! [13]

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Pope John XII (955-964)

The next pope on our list, John XII (in office 955-964) was the person who initiated the tradition of changing names upon elevation to the throne*, his name being Octavian. Surely, the protesting Catholic reader will say, a person whose actions became tradition in the papacy must be good. Wrong!

John XII was one of the most notorious popes in history. The illegitimate son of Alberic II, the prince of Rome (c905-954), and the grandson of the infamous Marozia, his addiction to sex and all forms of hedonistic pleasures were well known. Contemporary gossip had him turning the Lateran palace into a brothel. He went after every female form he could find. He was reputed to have slept with his niece, his father’s ex-lover and even his own mother! He died the way he lived; from a heart attack while making love to a married woman.

His political imbecility and lack of honesty can be seen in his dealing with Otto I (912-973), King of Germany. After soliciting Otto's help against the rulers of North Italy, John crowned Otto in AD962 as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. John was not entirely happy with Otto and tried to betray him by conspiring with Otto's enemy, Berenger II (d.963), king of Italy. Angered by this, Otto had John deposed in 963. Leo VIII (in office 963-965) was chosen as John's replacement. But the deposed pope was not to be so easily defeated. Once Otto was out of Rome, John removed Leo from the papal office and reestablish himself as the pope. Leo manage to escape, but his supporters were savagely treated by John's men; they were either executed or badly maimed. John conveniently died when Otto was on his way back to Rome to punish this errant pope. [14]

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Pope Benedict IX (1032-1044; 1045; 1047-1048)

Benedict IX held the papal office on three separate occasions: from 1032 to 1044, in 1045 and from 1047 to 1048. Apart from this record of sorts, his behavior as pope was nothing for Catholics to harp about. Benedict was a member of the powerful Tuscalani family who forced him to take the papal throne in 1032. Like John XII, Benedict was a promiscuous pope.

His scandalous lifestyle was too much for the people of Rome to take and they revolted against him in 1044. In his place, the John, the bishop of Sabina was elected pope and took the name Sylvester III. This pope reigned for less than a year. For in 1045, the powerful Tuscalani family deposed him and again put Benedict back on the throne. Tired of all this religious skirmishes - and genuinely wanting to get married - Benedict sold the papacy to his godfather, Giovanni Graziano, who became Pope Gregory VI (in office 1045-1046). Gregory VI was deposed by a synod which charged him with bribing his way into the papal throne. In his place Clement II (in office 1046-1047) was elected pope. When Clement died suddenly in 1047, Benedict bribed the crowd into staging a popular uprising and had himself restored as pope. He was finally expelled, for good, in 1048 by Count Boniface of Tuscany. [15]

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Pope Innocent III (1198-1216)

With the relative failure of the crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries against the Muslims, the Christian Church began to turn towards itself to satisfy its need for violence. The next few popes were instrumental in initiating that new period of internal horror.

Innocent III (1198-1216) was by all definitions a pious pope; deeply concerned with the problems of the Muslims, Jews and heresies. It was he who initiated the crusade against other Christians. He considered the Albigensian heresy, in the regions of Toulouse and Langeudoc in the south of France, as a bigger threat than the Muslims. He thus ordered a crusade to be launched against the Albigensians which resulted in enormous bloodshed and devastation. Innocent also issued decrees which forced Muslims and Jews to wear distinctive dress. [16]

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Pope Alexander III (1159-1181)

Pope Alexander III (in office 1159-1181) had the dubious distinction of being one of the first popes to order the use of force against heresies. In 1178, Alexander forced the Count of Toulouse and his nobles to take an oath to resist the Albigensian heresy. He encouraged lay princes to punish heretics as they wished and to reduce them to slavery. Alexander declared that no one should "keep faith" with the heretics. Ironically, the Oxford Dictionary of Popes calls Alexander "a great pope who left a lasting mark on the church." [17]

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Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241)

Following in the footsteps of Alexander III was Pope Gregory IX (in office 1227-1241). Gregory was the pope who established the infamous Inquisition. In 1231 Gregory extended the legislation against heretics making them liable to the death penalty, which at that time, was to be burnt at the stake. In fact, the death penalty became mandatory for those who were condemned by the Inquisition for heresy. [18]

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Innocent IV (1243-1254)

In many respects, Innocent IV (in office 1243-1254), was similar to the last three popes we have examined; his intolerance towards non-Catholics was certainly in line with theirs. In 1252 he formally established the Inquisition as an institution in Italy. His bull Ad extirpada (1252) authorized the use of torture to extract confessions from heretics. He also encouraged King Louis IX of France (1214-1270) to organized the ill-fated seventh crusade against the Muslims. [19]

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Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303)

Throughout this period of open hatred to heretics and infidels, the popes never forget about their tradition of treachery and deception. The way in which Pope Boniface VIII (in office 1294-1303) came into and held on to the papal office is a case to point. It was Boniface, then Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who wrongly advised, perhaps purposely, the tired pope, Celestine V (in office 1294), that his intentions to abdicate were legal and had precedent. It was also Benedetto who drafted the abdication formula for Celestine. When Celestine abdicated, Benedetto conveniently became pope and took the name of Boniface VIII. Concerned that Celestine's abdication may be illegal, and his own position as pope declared null, Boniface did the Christian thing: he had his predecessor imprisoned in a cell in the castle of Fumone. Celestine died in this prison in 1296. Upon becoming pope, Boniface wasted no time in enriching himself and his family.

The powerful Colonna family questioned his nepotism and his legitimacy as pope. When they tried to ambush a papal convoy, Boniface reacted with extreme ferocity. He organized a holy war against the Colonna family, granting indulgences to those who would take part in the crusade against them. The Colonnas were finally reduced to a single stronghold: at Palestrina, a town about 60 kilometers east of Rome. There, Boniface ordered the complete destruction of the town. A total of six thousand inhabitants died there. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes summarizes Boniface's behavior thus: "singularly unsympathetic, combining exceptional arrogance with cruelty, insatiable acquisitiveness for his family, and insensitive contempt for his fellow-men; feared and hated, he could not keep a friend.". [20]

Boniface's quest for temporal wealth and power during his lifetime made him, and the papacy, a mortal enemy in the French King, Philip the Fair (1285-1314). Determined to gain control of the papacy, Philip forced pope Clement V (in office 1305-1314) to move the papal curia from Rome to the French city of Avignon. This period became known as the Avignon residency or, more colorfully, the Babylonian captivity. Clement was a weak pope who was under the control of Philip. Apart from this, Clement was a keen practitioner of nepotism; for example, he promoted five of his family members into cardinals. [21]

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The Avignon Popes(1305-1378)

The Avignon residency was to continue until 1378 under six more popes: John XXII (in office 1316-1334), Benedict XII (1334-1342), Clement VI (1342-1352), Innocent VI (1352-1362), Urban V (1362-1370), and Gregory XI (1370-1378). In order to raise money to construct a residence fitting for the papacy, the Avignon popes ingeniously, and sometimes brutally, levied many forms of taxes and fees. The splendor of the papal lifestyle aroused deep resentment among the laity. Clement VI, for instance, had plates which were made of gold and silver. He also purchased the entire town of Avignon (in 1348) for 80,000 florins! Sexual pleasures were, of course, not far from their minds. Benedict XII, for instance, bribed the brother of the poet Petrarch, in order to sleep with their sister! Under Clement VI, who himself suffered from a form of sexually transmitted disease, the enriched cardinals kept, according to their inclination, the handsomest young boys or the prettiest girls. It is no exaggeration to say that Avignon residency brought the prestige of the papacy was at its lowest since the time of the lady pope-makers, Marozia and Thoedora, in the tenth century. [22]

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The Anti-Popes(1378-1414)

When Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377, he reestablished the papal curia in that city. His untimely death in 1378 led to the election of two popes, pope Urban VI (in office 1378-1389) and the antipope Clement VII (in office 1378-1394), Clement took up residency in Avignon, while Urban stayed in Rome. For a period of forty years the Catholic Church had two popes. This period is widely referred to as the "Great Schism". The period was marked by violence between the schismatic parties (Urban had six cardinals tortured for daring to plot against him) and increasingly harsher methods of tax collection. The Great Schism was only ended in 1414 when the council in Constance initiated by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368-1432) deposed both the Roman and the Avignon popes. [23] The new pope Martin V (in office 1415-1449) took up residency in Rome.

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Pope Callistus III (1455-1458)

The birth of the Renaissance in Italy saw the prestige of the papacy at its lowest ebb, due mainly to the behavior of the popes during the Avignon Residency and the Great Schism. The Renaissance popes therefore, simply concentrated on accumulating works of art and fulfilling their basal needs. The money to fulfill this papal pastime came from the laity through taxes, fees and simony. [24] The next few popes we will look at are probably the worst of the whole lot.

Pope Callistus III (in office 1455-1458), whose real name was Alfonso, was a member of the infamous Borgia family. The papacy was a chance for him to exercise his corrupt nepotism which substantially enriched his family. He appointed at least three of his nephews to important positions in the church; one of them Rodrigo Borgia was made a cardinal, while still in his early twenties. Rodrigo was to become Pope Alexander VI. [25]

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Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484)

Pope Sixtus IV (in office 1471-1484) was even more nepotistic than Callistus. Immediately after his election, he made two of his nephews cardinals. He enriched, on a hitherto unprecedented scale, a large number of his other relatives. Sixtus was also involved, albeit indirectly, in the murder of Giuliano de Medici (d.1478), one of the rulers of Florence. As a result of this, Sixtus was dragged into a war with Florence. This war and many other papal excesses placed a tremendous drain on Rome's financial resources. This resulted in the creation of many dubious ways of increasing revenue. Sixtus was the first pope to license the brothels in Rome: an activity which brought the papacy about 30,000 ducats a year. Another major source of revenue was his taxes on priests with mistresses. His genius for generating revenue was shown most clearly in the introduction of sale of indulgence for the dead. Thus living relatives of the dead, eager to help their loved ones in purgatory dug deep into their pockets to reduced the dead’s suffering. Apart from making lots of money selling indulgences- and spending even more-Sixtus found time for other religious duties; in 1478 he published a bull which sanctioned the Inquisition in Castille. [26]

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Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492)

Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) followed closely in his predecessor's footsteps. Upon gaining the influence of the office of papacy, he provided for his numerous illegitimate children by marrying them off into princely families. He appointed his thirteen year old grandson a cardinal. Apart from fulfilling the tradition of nepotism, he also faithfully carried out the other tradition ; intolerance. Innocent VIII was the pope who ordered, through his bull Summis desiderantes (1484) the Inquisition in Germany to ruthlessly seek and eliminate witches. [27]

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Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503)

The next pope, Alexander VI (in office 1492-1503) is without a doubt the most infamous pope in history. Alexander, born Rodrigo Borgia, was appointed to the lucrative post as vice-chancellor of the papal curia by his uncle, Pope Callistus III in 1457. The appointment enabled him to amassed such wealth that he quickly became one of the two most richest cardinals in the church. Rodrigo ensured his election to the papacy by bribing cardinals with money and promises of appointment to lucrative posts upon his ascending the papal throne.

Alexander, both before and after he became pope had countless number of mistresses through which he fathered at least ten children. One of his mistresses, Guilia Farnese was sixteen years old and married to another man when he became he lover. Guilia remained as Alexander's live-in mistress throughout the pontificate. Through his affair with the Roman aristocrat Vannoza dei Cattanei, he had four children. Two of them, son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia, had a special relationship with him. It is very likely that Lucrezia was sexually available to both Alexander and Cesare. Historians still argue among themselves whether Lucrezia's child was Alexander's or Cesare's. Once, Cesare threw a party for the Pope where there were fifty of Rome’s finest prostitutes dancing naked at the papal table.

Alexander, true to the time honored papal tradition, practiced nepotism. He had his son Cesare made a cardinal at the age of eighteen. He also made the brother of Guilia, Alessandro Farnese, a cardinal, at her insistence. He also made his nephew, Juan Borgia-Lanzol, a cardinal. For his daughter, Lucrezia, he arranged many marriages to rich and important people.

Alexander applied many different methods to raise the necessary amount of money to further his family's political ambitions. One was by assassinations followed by seizures of the victim's property. Another was by selling the office of cardinals to the highest bidder. He was also a keen practitioner of simony. He once sold to a nobleman the right or permission to commit incest with his sister for 24,000 gold pieces.

To his enemies, Alexander showed very little mercy. When the Dominican monk Savondrola (1452-1498) denounced his moral behavior, Alexander had him excommunicated, tortured and then burned at the stake as a heretic. Alexander was also, at least, an inactive participator in the murder of his son-in-law Alfonso (Lucrezia's husband) by Cesare Borgia. Alexander died, very probably, from mistakenly taking the poison prepared by him and his son for a cardinal. [28]

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Pope Julius II (1503-1513)

The 215th pope Julius II (in office 1503-1513) is well known to most people as the pope who commission Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Less well known is the fact that Julius bribed his way into the papacy, fathered at least three illegitimate daughters and was a syphilitic. [29]

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Pope Leo X (1513-1521)

The next pope on our list is Leo X (in office 1513-1521). Leo was corruptly nepotistic and a reckless extravagant. He spent so lavishly that once he actually had to resort to pawning the furniture and plates of the papal palace to support his lifestyle. A large part of his income also came from the licensed brothels in Rome. The city of less than fifty thousand had seven thousand registered prostitutes! It was no surprise that syphilis was a common disease among the ecclesiastics in Rome. His other fund raising techniques include selling ecclesiastical postings. Perhaps the most fateful method was in the selling of indulgences. Leo struck a deal with the archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1548) which arranged for the selling of indulgences to be advocated by the preachers in his dioceses. It was this arrangement that caused the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) to post his "95 Theses" on the church door in Wittenburg thereby starting the Protestant Reformation. It was largely due to Leo inept handling of the resultant conflict which carried the Protestant Reformation through. [30]

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Pope Paul III (1534-1549)

When Alessandro Farnese was a cardinal he earned the nickname "cardinal petticoat" due to the fact that his sister Guilia was the mistress of Pope Alexander VI. From Alexander, Alessandro must have learnt a lot, for when he became Pope Paul III (in office 1534-1549) he seemed to be emulating his sister's late lover in his nepotism, corruption and immorality. A clear cut example of his nepotism is the appointment of two of his grandsons, then only fourteen and sixteen years old respectively, to cardinals in 1534. [31]

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Pope Julius III (1550-1555)

Paul's successor Pope Julius III (in office 1550-1555) was another typical Renaissance pope; a lover of pleasure, a glutton and a heavy gambler. As pope, Julius managed to create a scandal, even by the standards of the Renaissance popes, by becoming infatuated with a fifteen year old boy, Innocenzo, which he picked up in the streets of Parma. He showered the boy with gifts one of which was appointing him as a cardinal. All in all, Julius III had a laid back reign, spending most of his time in the hedonistic pursuit of carnal pleasures. [32]

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Pope Alexander VIII (1689-1691) & Pope Pius VI (1775-1799)

The almost simultaneous rise of Protestantism and Humanistic philosophies began to assert an influence over the behavior of the person in the papal office. Weary of losing still more followers to the Protestant church, the Roman popes' behavior began to improve. However, once and a while, the corrupt nepotistic instinct reared its ugly head. Two examples being Pope Alexander VIII (in office 1689-1691) and Pope Pius VI (in office 1775-1799). Pope Alexander VIII is known to have appointed his relatives to lucrative ecclesiastical posts. Pope Pius VI practiced nepotism the easier way. He simply gave church money to his relatives. [33]

While the personal behavior of the popes were better; the intolerance bred by their religious beliefs continued unabated. Thus the popes persecuted heretics, “witches”, Jews, Muslims and free thought.

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Pope Pius XII (1939-1958)

Twentieth century popes may be less immoral than their predecessors but many of the unattractive traits remain. One such example is Pope Pius XII (in office 1939-1958). Pius knew about the Nazi atrocities on the Jews but chose to keep silent about it. The papacy today, as before, showed itself incapable of providing a moral leadership when it was needed most. [34]

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Pope Paul VI (1963-1978)

Our concern with the modern day popes are not so much with the personal behavior but with the increasing harm they do to society in trying to enforce what they believe to be the teachings of Christ. The one lasting contribution of Pope Paul VI (in office 1963-1978) was his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae which condemned all forms of artificial birth control, therefore condemning millions of Catholics in third world countries to have more children then they can possibly feed.[35]

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John Paul II (1978-2005)

There was an immense, global, spontaneous outpouring of grief during the recent demise of Karol Wojtyla - better known as Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) - who passed away on April 2, 2005. This is understandable, for the propaganda machine of the Catholic Church presents the pope as the man who helped bring down communism, who reached out to Orthodox and Protestant churches in the quest for Christian unity and who fought against major illnesses towards the end of his life to maintain the unity and strength of the Church.

Yet I do not think future historians will view his record as positively as the average Catholic may believe. I believe there are three major themes on which the final judgment of his papacy will be based on.

1. Intolerance of Dissent

Under John Paul II's reign as pope, the Church clamped down hard on any form of intellectual dissent among its flock. In his first encyclical as pope, Redemptor Hominis (1979), he warned Catholic theologians that they should work within the body of doctrine approved by the Church. Those who crossed this theological line drawn in the sand faces the wrath of the modern inquisition. To enforce this, he appointed the hardline conservative, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the current pope: Benedict XVI), in 1981 as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), the modern version of the Inquisition.

Since burning heretics and dissenters is no longer an option; the method used by the CDF is probably one of the most efficient: depriving these dissenters of their livelihood. Modern ecclesiastics, trained in a field which increasingly has less and less application in the modern world, do not exactly have job offers by the truckloads. Some of the Catholic thinkers, academics and theologians who were punished by the modern inquisition during Pope John Paul II's papacy include:

  • Edward Schillebeeckx, Dutch Theologian
    In the first year of the papacy of John Paul II, Schillebeeckx a Flemish priest of the Dominican order, was summoned to Rome three times. Schillebeeckx had argued in his writings that the Church is not in "full possession of the truth". He was warned against committing any further dissent and put on probation.

  • Hans Kung, German Theologian
    Kung had his license to teach Catholic Theology at the University of Tübingen revoked in 1979 when he questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility.

  • Utta Ranke Heinemann, Professor of Church History
    In 1987 Prof. Heinemann was removed from her chair in New Testament and Ancient Church History at the University of Essen when she taught that Mary's virgin birth should be interpreted symbolically.

  • Charles E. Curran, Moral Theologian
    In the US, Father Curran lost his teaching post at the Catholic University of Washington (in 1989) when he taught that a theologian's duty is to critically evaluate the Church's teachings. He was commenting specifically on Pope Paul VI's, Humanae Vitae - the encyclical which reiterated the Church's ban on contraception.

  • Leonardo Boff, Theologian
    The Brazilian ecclesiastic Leornardo Boff wrote a book Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church in which he argued that the Church as is a dysfunctional institution. His call was for one of reform and change. For this "dissent" he was disciplined by the Vatican in 1991. He left the priesthood a year later.

  • Tissa Balasuriya, Theologian
    In 1997 Father Tissa Balasuriya, a 73 year old Sri Lankan Catholic priest and theologian, was excommunicated by the Church for doubting Mary's perpetual virginity and for suggesting that the doctrine of Christ's divinity may not have come from the Galilean Jesus himself. He was only allowed back into the fold a year later when he had made the necessary "contritionary" acts. [36]

2. Hardening of the Church's Position on Contraception and Abortion

The Catholic Church's position on birth control has brought much suffering into the world - especially among the poorer citizens of the third world. John Paul II's record here has been abysmal. It has been suggested that the then Archbishop Wojtyla was responsible for as much as 60% of the ideas found in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. (Among other things, Karol had sent a translated copy of his book Love and Responsibility (1960) to the Pope which outlined his views on sex, abstinence and birth control.)

The book showed that his views on sex, marriage and birth control came not from experience but from theological reflection and second hand reports (mainly from discussions about sex with youths he used to take on hiking trips as a priest in Poland). The phenomenologist Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who had worked closely with Karol before he became Pope, commented upon reading the book that he "obviously does not know what he is talking about". As John Cornwell commented, the book was "like an essay on the phenomenology of color by a color blind physiologist"!

When he became Pope, John Paul II came up with his own encyclical Familiaris Consortio (1981) wherein he condemned "artificial" contraception as an "anti-life" mentality. Unlike some of his earlier predecessors, he elevated the sex act to such an extent that is seems, in the words of Gary Wills, "only monks are really worthy of it". The rhythm method, according to the pope, is the only method which "respects the dignity" of the woman. [37]

This "respect for the dignity" of women led John Paul II to assert during the International Congress of Moral Theologians in Rome in 1988 that a hemophiliac with AIDS cannot use condoms to have intercourse with his wife. The answer, of course, is abstinence. And if both husband and wife cannot abstain, then it is better that he infects the wife than use a condom! [38]

And as we have seen this "respect for dignity of women" and the unrealistic understanding of the sex act bears a large responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, maternal and infant deaths, over population and the continued spread of HIV/AIDS in the third world.

His stance on abortion is made clear in two encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995) in which he asserted that abortion is always intrinsically evil - with no exceptions and, in essence, equated abortion with murder. We have seen the impact of this stance on abortion elsewhere in this website. [39]

Although abortion is not murder, no one thinks of abortion as an ideal. The numbers of unwanted pregnancies could be reduced is effective birth control methods (condoms, IUD's, the pill) are allowed. Yet this is exactly what the Church forbids.

The whole illogical stance [c] against both contraception and abortion affects, as we have seen, not only Catholics but many of the poor in the third world who depend on international aid organizations to survive. Some of these international organizations, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have their funding cut off mainly due to the Catholic Church's alliance with the current fundamentalist-leaning US government. This has led to more maternal and infant deaths among the poor. The responsibility for a large number of the 500,000 women who died of pregnancy related causes around the world annually can be laid on the tombstone of this pope.

3. The Sex Abuse Scandal

We have described elsewhere in this website the sex abuse scandal that still rocks the Catholic Church. Here we will look specifically at how John Paul II handled the issue.

While there is no doubt that the recently departed pope was saddened by the whole scandal, it is quite clear that what saddened him more was the suffering inflicted on the church rather than the suffering of the victims. This comes out quite clear, as John Cornwell points out in his recent book The Pope in Winter (2004), in a speech John Paul II made early in 2002 when the scandal in the Boston archdiocese was experiencing the peak of media frenzy:

We are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing to the..."mysterium iniquitas" at work in the world...A dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the fine priests...the church shows her concern for the victims...[41]
[Emphasis added-PT]

Note the order and words used. He was "afflicted by" the sins of some of his brothers - it hurts him. This is not the same with the victims where he is merely "concerned" for them. Furthermore he placed this concern last. It ranks below the "shadow of suspicion" that is cast upon "all the fine priests". Finally his use of the Latin mysterium iniquitas (mystery of iniquity or lawlessness) is not accidental. It is taken from the Vulgate (II Thessalonians 7). The passage deals with the eschatological end times when the "evil one" will use all his might in his battle with God to lead people astray. ...[42] Thus, albeit indirectly, the Pope is pushing the blame - from the priests who perpetrated the heinous crimes, the church hierarchy that covered it up and, his own role in it as well [see below] - to the devil himself! It hard to solve problems when the ultimate responsibility is pushed into the plane of the mythological.

In many instances John Paul II was a hindrance to the resolution of this issue:

  • In 1995, a former monastic student accused the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Groër of sexual abuse, the then Austrain Bishop Johan Weber wanted to set up a commission to investigate the allegations. The Polish Pope refused to approve it. (Bishop Weber went into early retirement in 2001.)

  • As we have seen in elsewhere, the then Boston Archbishop, Cardinal Law tried to cover up the sex abuse cases by moving the offending priests from parish to parish instead of sending them for treatment and removing them from pastoral service altogether. Yet in the midst of intense media scrutiny the Pope ordered the Cardinal to remain in his post. He only accepted Law's resignation a year later, in 2003 - when the latter's position was clearly untenable. Inexplicably, in 2004, the Pope appointed Cardinal Law the relatively prestigious post of archpriest of the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major. The position includes, among others, membership of the Congregation for the Clergy which, get this (!), deals with the discipline of priests.

  • In June 2002, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops drew up guidelines for dealing with cases of priestly sexual abuse. Among others, the guidelines call for a "zero tolerance" policy towards sex abuse - any priest convicted of child abuse would be removed from the ministry. The bishops, as required by canon law, had to wait for ratification from the pope. Yet the Vatican sat on the guidelines for a few months. When it did made a decision, it incorporated some radical changes to the guidelines. These included calling for more "protection" for the accused priests and for "pontifical secrecy" in the procedures. All this means that the substantial problems accompanying the sex abuse scandal (lack of transparency, concern more for the criminal than the victims) remains unresolved.

  • Another scandal was that of Marcial Marciel, the founder of the order Legionaries of Christ and a trusted ally of Pope John Paul II. In 1997, nine former members of the order made a petition to the pope to censure Father Marciel for his alleged abuse against them as children in the 1950's. The accusations shared the same consistent themes (forced masturbation of the priest by the young teenage boys and drug taking). The detailed presentation of the allegations was provided in a book written by two Catholic investigative reporters, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, entitled Vows of Silence (Free Press, 2004). Although Marciel had denied the charges, he had made no attempt to take his accusers to court. However one looks at this case, the allegations are serious. How did Pope John Paul II handled this? He praised Marciel, as an "efficacious leader of youths" and continued to extend him privileges even after the allegations were made. The accusations have been ignored by Vatican up till today. When Brian Ross, the ABC new correspondent, questioned Cardinal Ratzinger (the current Pope - Benedict XVI) about the scandal, the reporter got his hand slapped! [43]

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a.The years refer to their years in office as the Pope.
b.There is a slight discrepancy as to how many Pope Stephens there were in the papal list. There was a Stephen II who was elected to the papacy on the 22nd of march 752 and died four days later, on the 26th, due to a stroke. He was thus never consecrated. Until the sixteenth century, consecration was considered an essential part ascending the papal throne. Thus his immediate successor took the title Stephen II, in line with the tradition which considered that the recently perish pope-elect was never truly pope. However since the sixteenth century, election by the clergy was considered a sufficient condition for papacy: thus later lists of the popes included the short reigned Stephen II, and Stephen III was renamed Stephen IV and so on along the line of Pope Stephens.
c.The stand against both contraception and abortion comes from the idea that "the contraception mentality leads to the abortion mentality". That this is obviously illogical can be seen in a CNN poll conducted in 1999. It reported that women who use contraceptive devices are only 15 percent as likely as women who do not to have an abortion. [40]


1.John Grant, A Book of Numbers, Corgi, London 1982: p90
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p12
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p425
2.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p32
3.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p147
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p51
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p496
4.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p60
5.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p153
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p60-62
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p513-514, 539
6.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p171-172
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p82 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p54-57
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p90-91
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p127,158
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p58-59
8.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p180
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p94-95
9.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p107-108
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p189
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p62-63
10.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p193
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p114-115
11.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p195
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p119-120 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p68
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p121 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p68-69
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p195
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p123 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p69-71
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p197
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p126-127
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p275
15.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p198-199
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p142-144
16.Armstrong, Holy War: p390-396
17.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p206
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p176-177
Robertson, History of Christianity: p174
18.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p206
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p189-191
19.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p206
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p192-193
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p261 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p103-107
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p211
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p208-210
21.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p212-214
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p83-84
22.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p212
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p82-85
23.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p227-228
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p85-87
24.Fisher, A History of Europe: p456
25.Grant, A Book of Numbers: p211
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p245-247 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p139
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes p250-251
27.Ibid: p251-252 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p143-147
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p212
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p252-254
Wallace, The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People: p7-9 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p153-155 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p156-163
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p213
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p256-258
31.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p261-262
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p86
32.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p262-264
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p86
33.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p288,301
34.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p404
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p163
35.Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p324
36.Cornwell, Breaking Faith: p44-46, 56, 202-203, 213-224
Cornwell, The Pontiff In Winter: p72, 94-95
de Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p196-200
Grant, A Book of Numbers: p218
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p328
Strauss, The Catholic Church: p90
37.Cornwell, The Pontiff In Winter: p45-46
Wills, Papal Sin: 98-101
38.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p298
39.Cornwell, Breaking Faith: p141
40.ibid: p137
41.quoted in Cornwell, The Pontiff In Winter: p228
42.ibid: p228-229
43.ibid: p222-238, p252-259
Brian Ross, "Priestly Sin, Cover-Up Powerful Cardinal in Vatican Accused of Sexual Abuse Cover-Up" April 26, 2002

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