The Most Controversial Popes in Catholic History

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Scandals, Power, and Reform.

Throughout history, the papacy has witnessed a spectrum of pontiffs, with some revered for their holiness and others notorious for their involvement in actions that have sparked widespread controversy and debate. Among them, figures have emerged whose tenures were marked by episodes of corruption, nepotism, and moral lapses, challenging the Church’s integrity and its followers’ faith. From the sale of indulgences that precipitated the Protestant Reformation to the political machinations that entangled the Church in the affairs of state, these popes have left an indelible mark on the history of the Catholic Church.

Pope Formosus and Stephen VI
Jean-Paul Laurens’ painting “Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI” (“Pope Formosus and Stephen VI”), 1870. The painting depicts the Cadaver Synod of 897, a controversial event in which the body of Pope Formosus was exhumed and put on trial by his successor, Pope Stephen VI. The painting is dominated by the figure of Formosus, who is seated on a throne in his papal robes. He is surrounded by a group of cardinals and other church officials, who are listening to the charges being brought against him. Stephen VI is standing in the foreground, pointing at Formosus and accusing him of heresy. Source

Pope Stephen VI (896-897)

Pope Stephen VI, occupies a unique and infamous place in papal history, primarily for his orchestration of the “Cadaver Synod,” an event that stands out for its macabre and scandalous nature. This ecclesiastical trial involved the exhumation of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, whose corpse was put on trial for alleged violations of canon law, including the accusation that he had ascended to the papacy illegitimately. During this grotesque proceeding, the decomposed body of Formosus was dressed in papal vestments and placed on a throne to “answer” the charges brought against him. The trial concluded with the posthumous conviction of Formosus, leading to the mutilation of his corpse and its subsequent disposal in the Tiber River, although it was later recovered and given a proper burial.

The motivations behind Stephen VI’s actions are believed to stem from pressures exerted by powerful Roman families and factions that had opposed Formosus and sought to delegitimize his papacy and its appointments.  The backlash against the “Cadaver Synod” was swift and severe, contributing to Stephen VI’s rapid downfall. The public and the clergy were horrified by the disrespect shown to Formosus and the papacy itself, leading to Stephen’s imprisonment and eventual murder. 

Pope Sergius III (904-911)

Pope Sergius III presided over a period of the papacy that was deeply mired in scandal and corruption, often referred to as the “pornocracy” or the rule of the harlots. This era was characterized by the substantial influence of Roman aristocratic families over the papal throne, particularly through the notorious Theophylacti family, which wielded its power to control the election of popes and manipulate the Church’s affairs for its own benefit. Sergius III’s ascent to the papacy was marked by tumult and violence, with historical records suggesting that his rise was facilitated by the ousting and possibly the murder of his predecessor, Leo V, and antipope Christopher.

The allegations of Sergius III ordering the murders of his predecessors are among the most damning and reflect the brutal power struggles within the Church and Roman society at the time. These claims, while part of the larger narrative of political and moral decay attributed to this period, underscore the extent to which the papacy had become entangled in secular ambitions and vendettas.

“a wretch, worthy of the rope and of fire… flames could not have caused this execrable monster to suffer the punishments which he merited. It is impossible to believe that such a pope was a lawful one.”

Caesar Baronius, cardinal and historian of the Catholic Church

Sergius III’s papacy was rife with political maneuvering, where lines between religious authority and worldly ambition blurred. Accusations of immorality swirled around him, both during his reign and in later accounts, adding to the turbulent reputation of this era. His speculated relationship with Marozia, a politically astute noblewoman whose lineage held significant sway in Rome, underscores the intricate interplay between Church and aristocracy during this period.

Pope John XII (955-964)

Barely out of his teens, John XII ascended the papal throne in 955, embarking on a reign that would become notorious for its scandals and controversies, etching his name in the annals of Catholic history. His tenure was marked by allegations of gross immorality, secular indulgence, and a blatant disregard for the spiritual responsibilities of his office. The criticisms leveled against him included not just personal moral failings, such as engaging in gambling and leading an unchaste life, but also accusations of turning the sacred precincts of the Lateran Palace, the residence of the popes in Rome, into a setting for debauchery, effectively tarnishing the sanctity of the papal seat.

John XII’s conduct, seen as befitting a secular prince rather than the spiritual leader of Christendom, sparked outrage and condemnation from contemporaries, including members of the clergy and laity alike. His lifestyle and the management of his papacy reflected the broader disorder and moral laxity that afflicted the Church during this period, a time when the lines between temporal power and spiritual authority were often blurred.

The culmination of his controversial reign came in 963 when he was deposed by an imperial synod convened by Emperor Otto I, who had initially supported John XII’s papacy. The synod’s decision to depose him, although brief and eventually reversed, was a dramatic indication of the tumultuous nature of his pontificate. It highlighted the struggle for control between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, a recurring theme in medieval European history.

Pope Benedict IX (Papa Benedetto IX, 1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048)

Pope Benedict IX (born Theophylactus of Tusculum), uniquely notorious in the annals of papal history, held the See of Peter on three separate occasions between 1032 and 1048, a feat unmatched by any other pope. His pontificates are chiefly remembered for the scandal and chaos that surrounded them, marking a period of profound moral and ecclesiastical decline known as the Saeculum Obscurum or the dark ages of the papacy. Benedict’s era was rife with accusations of simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges), sexual misconduct, and various forms of corruption, reflecting the broader issues of governance and morality that plagued the Church at the time.

Perhaps the most astonishing act of his career was his decision to sell the papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI, a move driven by personal motives, including his desire to marry. This act of simony was unprecedented and highlighted the extent of the degradation within the Church’s highest ranks. Benedict IX’s life and actions as pope starkly illustrate the challenges faced by the medieval Church in maintaining spiritual authority and moral integrity amidst widespread corruption.

Pope Gregory IX (Papa Gregorio IX, Ugolino di Conti, 1145-1241)

Pope Gregory IX, ascended to the papacy in 1227 during a period of significant religious and political upheaval. His pontificate is most notably associated with the institutionalization of the Papal Inquisition, a mechanism established to identify, trial, and punish heretics within the Catholic Church. 

The Papal Inquisition, under Gregory IX’s directive, was a response to the growing threat that heretical movements, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, posed to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the Christian faith’s doctrinal purity. Heresy was seen not just as a spiritual error but as a form of social and political rebellion that threatened the very fabric of Christendom. To combat this, Gregory IX issued the papal bull Excommunicamus in 1231, authorizing the use of inquisitorial tribunals to prosecute heresy.

These tribunals were tasked with investigating suspected heretics, conducting trials, and prescribing appropriate penalties. The methods employed by the Inquisition included the use of torture to extract confessions or gain information about other heretics. This practice was rationalized within the context of contemporary legal theories that allowed for judicial torture as a means to elicit truth.

Pope Boniface VIII (Papa Bonifacio VIII, Benedetto Caetani, c.1230-1303)

Pope Boniface VIII governed the Church at a time of escalating tensions between ecclesiastical and secular powers in medieval Europe. His tenure is most famously associated with the papal bull Unam Sanctam, which asserted the Pope’s supreme authority over both spiritual and temporal matters, declaring it necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. This bold proclamation was a direct challenge to secular rulers, particularly King Philip IV of France, known as “The Fair,” setting the stage for a significant conflict over the rights to tax the clergy and the distribution of church revenues.

The struggle with Philip IV intensified when Boniface VIII issued Clericis Laicos, forbidding the taxation of the clergy by secular authorities without papal consent. Philip IV retaliated by halting the transfer of funds from France to Rome, straining the papacy’s finances. The conflict reached its peak with the “Slap of Anagni” in 1303, where the Pope was assaulted by agents of Philip IV, aiming to bring him to trial on various charges, including heresy. Although Boniface was quickly freed, the incident was a severe blow to his authority and the prestige of the papacy, contributing to his death shortly thereafter.

Boniface VIII was heavily criticized by Dante for his greed and for being another simoniac. His soul was not yet in Hell since he was still alive at the time of Dante’s journey, but the poet foreshadows his arrival. Nicholas III, Boniface VIII’s predecessor, is also found in Dante’s Inferno. He is located in one of the pits of the circle of simoniacs, with his head down and flames licking his feet. The pope, mistaking Dante for Boniface VIII, expects his successor to soon replace him in that punishment.

Related article: The Illustrations of Gustave Dore of Dante’s Inferno

Pope Urban VI (Papa Urbano VI, Bartolomeo Prignano, c.1318-1389)

Pope Urban VI, elected in 1378, found himself at the center of one of the most significant crises in the history of the Catholic Church: the Western Schism. His election initially brought hope for ecclesiastical reform, but his harsh and uncompromising leadership style soon alienated many within the Church hierarchy. Urban VI’s abrasive behavior and propensity for violence towards dissenting cardinals were critical factors that led to the schism, as these cardinals, feeling threatened and disillusioned with Urban’s governance, elected an antipope, Clement VII, thus dividing the Christian world.

This schism was not merely a personal conflict but reflected deeper tensions within the Church regarding authority, reform, and the role of the papacy. Urban VI’s attempts to assert his authority and implement reforms were met with resistance, partly due to his approach, which lacked the diplomacy and patience necessary for such a tumultuous period. The division resulted in a nearly 40-year-long schism, with rival papal claimants in Rome and Avignon, respectively, each supported by different political and ecclesiastical factions across Europe.

Urban VI besieged by Charles III in the castle of Nocera
Urban VI besieged by Charles III in the castle of Nocera, source

The impact of Urban VI’s pontificate and the ensuing schism was profound, weakening the papacy’s moral and spiritual authority and giving rise to calls for significant reform within the Church. This period of division ultimately underscored the need for a more unified and conciliatory approach to leadership within the Church, setting the stage for the conciliar movement and later reforms.

Pope Sixtus IV (Papa Sisto IV, Francesco della Rovere, 1414-1484)

Pope Sixtus IV is a prominent example of the Renaissance’s fusion of cultural patronage with political strategy. His pontificate significantly contributed to the architectural and cultural development of Rome, most notably through the commissioning of the Sistine Chapel, a masterpiece of Renaissance art named in his honor, and the founding of the Vatican Archives, which played a crucial role in preserving the Church’s historical documents.

However, Sixtus IV’s tenure was not solely defined by his contributions to art and culture. His papacy was deeply enmeshed in the political intrigue and nepotism that characterized the period. Sixtus IV notably advanced the positions and fortunes of his nephews, elevating them to cardinalships and other significant secular positions, thereby enhancing the power and influence of the Della Rovere family within the Italian peninsula.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Sixtus IV’s papacy was his involvement in the Pazzi Conspiracy, a bold but ultimately failed attempt to overthrow the Medici rulers of Florence.  

Pope Alexander VI (Papa Alessandro VI, Rodrigo de Borja, 1431-1503)

Pope Alexander VI, a member of the infamous Borgia family, embodies the complexities and contradictions of the Renaissance papacy. His ascent to the papal throne was shadowed by accusations of simony, casting a long shadow over his reign, which became notorious for its melding of political maneuvering with scandalous personal conduct. Alexander VI’s papacy was marked by a relentless pursuit of power, not just for the Church but significantly for his own family, which he sought to establish as a preeminent political force within the fractious Italian city-states.

Nepotism was a hallmark of his tenure; Alexander VI placed numerous Borgia relatives in influential positions, leveraging the papacy’s authority to secure their political and financial dominance. This blatant favoritism not only compromised the perceived integrity of the Church but also exacerbated the political tensions within Italy and among the European powers of the time. Furthermore, his personal life, replete with allegations of sexual liaisons and even complicity in murders, fueled the controversies that surrounded him, contributing to the enduring image of the Borgia papacy as a high point of ecclesiastical corruption.

Borgia’s relationship with Vannozza dei Cattenei produced four children: Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffre, between 1475 and 1482. Appointed as the cardinal-bishop of Porto by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, Borgia later saw his son Cesare legitimized by the pope in 1480. His influence grew as he secured church positions for his children and amassed benefices, becoming the wealthiest cardinal by 1483 and Dean of the College of Cardinals.

Despite these significant moral and ethical lapses, Alexander VI’s impact on the cultural landscape of the Renaissance was undeniable. He was a significant patron of the arts, contributing to the era’s artistic and architectural blossoming. Under his papacy, Rome became a vibrant center of Renaissance culture, attracting artists, writers, and scholars who found in the papal court a patronage that was essential for their creative endeavors.

Pope Julius II (Papa Giulio II, Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513)

Pope Julius II, often referred to as the “Warrior Pope,” is a figure of contrasts in the history of the papacy. His aggressive pursuit of territorial expansion for the Papal States through military campaigns and strategic alliances with European powers established him as a formidable political and military leader. Julius II’s involvement in conflicts, notably the wars to push back against the encroachments of powerful Italian city-states and foreign powers, was aimed at consolidating and expanding the temporal power of the Church. This militaristic stance, however, was at odds with the traditional spiritual role of the papacy, sparking controversy and debate among his contemporaries and historians alike.

At the same time, Julius II’s pontificate is celebrated for its unparalleled patronage of the arts. His decision to commission the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica marked the beginning of the High Renaissance in Rome, attracting the greatest artists of the age, including Michelangelo and Raphael. Under his guidance, the Vatican came to possess some of the most sublime artistic achievements of Western civilization, transforming Rome into a center of art and culture.

Pope Leo X
Portrait by Raphael featuring Pope Leo X alongside his cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi, source

Pope Leo X (Papa Leone X, Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1475-1521)

Pope Leo X, a member of the illustrious Medici family of Florence, is a crucial figure in the history of the Catholic Church, particularly for his role in the events leading up to the Protestant Reformation. His pontificate is most notably marked by the controversial sale of indulgences, a practice that allowed individuals to reduce the punishment for sins through financial contributions to the Church. This practice, intended to fund the construction and beautification of Church properties, including the ambitious rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, became one of the flashpoints for the reformers who challenged the Church’s teachings and practices.

Leo X’s administration of the Church’s finances came under intense scrutiny, with many criticizing his lavish spending and the financial burdens he imposed on the Church’s resources. His enthusiasm for the arts and culture, while contributing to the Renaissance’s flourishing, also led to extravagant expenditures that strained the Church’s budget. The need to finance these projects motivated the aggressive sale of indulgences, which Martin Luther and other reformers vehemently opposed, viewing it as a corrupt practice that exploited the faithful.

The backlash against the sale of indulgences and the broader critique of papal authority and Church practices culminated in the Protestant Reformation, dramatically altering the religious landscape of Europe and leading to centuries of conflict and division. Leo X’s inability to foresee the consequences of his financial policies and his underestimation of the growing calls for reform contributed to one of the most significant schisms in Christian history.

Despite the controversies, Leo X’s pontificate was also a period of cultural and intellectual richness, highlighting the complex legacy of a pope whose actions inadvertently set the stage for one of the Church’s most profound crises.

Pope Paul III (Papa Paolo III, Alessandro Farnese, 1468-1549)

Pope Paul III emerged as a significant figure in the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation, most notably through his convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. This council marked the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, a crucial movement aimed at addressing the doctrinal and administrative issues that had contributed to the Protestant schism and at reaffirming the core tenets of Catholicism. Paul III’s papacy, therefore, is often seen through the lens of these crucial reformative efforts, which had a lasting impact on the Church’s structure and doctrine.

However, Paul III’s pontificate was not without its controversies. Before and after his election as pope, he faced accusations of simony—the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, offices, or emoluments—and immorality, reflecting the broader issues of corruption within the Church that the Reformation sought to challenge. Moreover, his tenure was characterized by notable nepotism; he appointed several members of his own family to significant positions of power within the Church, a common practice among Renaissance popes but one that nonetheless attracted criticism for its perceived contribution to the erosion of ecclesiastical integrity.

In 1537, Pope Paul III’s bull Sublimis Deus recognized the rights of indigenous peoples in the Americas, asserting their freedom and property rights. However, it was annulled the following year due to opposition from the Spanish Crown and conflicts over patronato rights. In 1545, Paul III repealed a law that allowed slaves to claim freedom in Rome and affirmed the legality of the slave trade, including the purchase of Muslim slaves in 1548.

These familial and political entanglements often complicated Paul III’s efforts to steer the Church through one of its most turbulent periods. While he was instrumental in initiating reforms that addressed some of the criticisms leveled by reformers, his own papal administration sometimes mirrored the very practices that had sparked calls for reform in the first place. This juxtaposition highlights the complexity of Paul III’s legacy: he was a pope who recognized the need for and initiated significant reform within the Church, yet his pontificate was also emblematic of the challenges and contradictions facing the Catholic Church at the dawn of the Reformation.

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Pope Paul IV (Giovanni Pietro Carafa, 1476-1559)

Pope Paul IV, remembered for his fervent participation in the Counter-Reformation, embodied the Catholic Church’s rigorous effort to consolidate its doctrine and discipline in response to the Protestant Reformation. His papacy was marked by a profound zeal for maintaining the purity of Catholic faith, leading to significant actions such as the establishment of the first Index of Forbidden Books. This index aimed to protect the faithful from heretical and dangerous ideas by prohibiting the reading, sale, and possession of certain books. It was a measure reflective of Paul IV’s broader commitment to safeguarding the orthodoxy of Catholic teaching against the tide of Reformation.

However, Paul IV’s tenure was also characterized by an authoritarian approach to governance and the implementation of repressive policies, particularly against the Jewish community. His papacy saw the imposition of severe restrictions on Jewish life and freedom, including the enforcement of wearing distinctive clothing and the confinement of Jews to ghettos. These measures were part of a broader set of actions against perceived threats to Catholic orthodoxy but resulted in significant suffering and marginalization for Jewish people. The restrictive policies instituted by Paul IV against the Jewish community left a lasting impact, contributing to the long history of anti-Semitic practices in Europe.

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