The Controversial Popes in the History of Catholic Church

Jhemmylrut Teng
Photo by Eleonora Patricola(Source: Unsplash)

In the 2,000-year history of the papacy, several pontiffs were recorded as having committed atrocities using the popedom. Other reports argue that some of these allegations against the popes were due to political rivalries during their reign. However, some controversies were too severe to conceal.

Based on the Catholic Encyclopedia records, here are the seven controversial popes in history that are evil personified.

Pope Stephen VI/VII (896–897)
Pope Stephen VI/VII (896–897)(Source: Wikimedia)

In the 9th Century, Pope Stephen VI (sometimes called Pope Stephen VII) was elected to the papacy. He was infamous for using his position to take vengeance on Pope Formosus, his nemesis, even though the latter was already dead.

During Pope Formosus’s reign, he favored the East Frankish King Arnulf as the Holy Emperor of Rome over the Spoleto, of which Stephen was a family member. When Stephen won the papacy, he took his vengeance by exhuming the rotten corpse of Pope Formosus and put it on trial. Such an event is known as the “Cadaver Synod,” which is considered the most disgusting incident in papal history.
French painter Jean-Paul Laurens depiction of Cadaver Synod(Source: Wikimedia)

Stephen ordered to dress the nine-month-old cadaver in papal vestments and propped it up in the papal throne. Formosus’s corpse was condemned and declared guilty of all charges. Stephen commanded the removal of the cadaver’s sacred vestment and its three fingers (the blessing fingers) in its right hand. The corpse was dragged to the street and dumped in the Tiber River.

This vicious crime removed Stephen from office and deprived him of the papal emblem. He was also imprisoned and strangled to death.

Pope John XII (955–964)
Pope John XII (955–964)(Source: Wikimedia)

Pope John XII gained the papacy at eighteen. His manner was labeled by many as slothful and childish. He came from the powerful dynasty of Tusculum counts, which dominated papal politics for half a century. During his reign, he had difficulty controlling Rome in the South, where the Lombards family ruled. He then sought King Otto I of Germany’s support and crowned him as emperor. However, King Otto later withdrew his support because of John’s countless scandals.

Recorded testimonies from church leaders in his time accused John XII of many crimes such as arson, murder, incest, and assault. He was also a notorious gambler, calling devils names whenever he played. He failed to perform vigil during canonical hours, nor did he make a sign of the cross.

The church leaders also claimed that John XII “turned the papal palace into a whorehouse” by committing adultery with numerous women, including two widows, his niece, and his father’s long-term girlfriend. In his late twenties, John died because of a stroke while in bed with a married woman. However, some reports stated that the woman’s husband killed him.

“John XII was worthy of being the rival of Elagabalus … a robber, a murderer, and incestuous person, unworthy to represent Christ upon the pontifical throne … This abominable priest soiled the chair of St. Peter for nine entire years and deserved to be called the most wicked of popes.” — Louis Marie DeCormenin

Pope Benedict IX (1044–1048)
Pope Benedict IX (1044–1048)(Source: Wikimedia)

Pope Benedict IX is considered the youngest pontiff in history. Ruling the Papal States at age of twelve, but other accounts argue that he became a Pope at twenty. He was the only pontiff in history seated to the papacy on three separate occasions, after selling his position twice for a vast sum of money. The first incident was in 1044, but after fifty-six days, he returned, disposing of his replacement, Pope Sylvester III. After reigning for over a month, he decided to leave his post to marry his cousin.

Benedict sold his papacy to his godfather, Pope Gregory VI. However, he regretted his decision and marched back to Rome to get rid of Gregory. Such turmoil in the papacy led Emperor Henry III’s intervention, removing Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI, and replacing them with a German bishop, Pope Clement II.

Benedict did not accept his disposal. Unfortunately, after ruling for nine months, Clement died on October 9, 1047. Benedict seized the Papal residence once again. However, he was dragged out by the German troops in July 1046, then excommunicated in 1049. Apart from selling the papacy, he had records of several vile murders and infidelities during his reign.

“It seemed as if a demon from hell, in the disguise of a priest, occupied the chair of Peter and profaned the sacred mysteries of religion by his insolent courses.” — Ferdinand Gregorovius, Historian of Medieval Rome
“[Benedict IX] his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” Pope Victor III

Pope Urban VI (1378–1389)
Pope Urban VI (1378–1389)(Source: Wikimedia)

Bartolomeo Prignano or Pope Urban VI was a devoted monk in his early life and trained in Avignon, where he gained powerful connections. After Pope Gregory XI’s death, the conclave proposed he will be the next pope.

However, the French cardinals were not fond of Urban and revolted against him. Later on, they had the support of other Italian cardinals, which led to declaring the pontiff’s seat vacant. The French cardinals, secretly backed by the King of France and elected Pope Clement VII. Such an episode began Western Schism, a time in history where the Catholic church divided into two factions with two popes raging war against each other.

Eventually, Urban became more viciously violent, particularly to the six cardinals reporting to him on the regency council. He had them seized and brutally tortured. Urban soon ordered the killing of the cardinals — either buried alive or stuffed into sacks and thrown to the sea. Only one cardinal was spared, Adam Easton, because the English King, Richard II, saved him.

According to E.R. Chamberlin’s book, The Bad Popes:

“Pope Urban VI, who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when Cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured.”

Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503)
Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503)(Source: Wikimedia)

Pope Alexander VI, born as Rodrigo de Borja, came from a prominent family in Spain, the Borgia. He was ordained as a deacon when his uncle, Pope Calistus III, won the papacy. Rodrigo worked in Curia, the administrative office of the Vatican, for four more Popes. He then gained wealth and influence during the process, which all paid off when he obtained the popedom in 1492.

In the early days of his reign, his government was praised for its stringent administration. However, it was not long until he injected nepotism into his power. He started giving favors and positions to his nuclear family, including his son Cesare, who was only eighteen years old when promoted to a cardinal. Alexander VI was believed to have fathered several children to his mistresses. But he only acknowledged four of them: Cesare, Gandia, Lucrezia, and Gioffre. Records say that the pope was a good-looking man, charming, and eloquent. Therefore, beautiful women were strongly attracted to him like an “iron is drawn to a magnet.”

Apart from nepotism and adultery, he used his favorite daughter Lucrezia as a pawn to form alliances with royalties through marriage. He would then annul the union when no longer needed and move on to another noble family. The most infamous tale was Lucrezia’s marriage to Lord Giovanni Sforza of Pesaro, Italy. When Alexander no longer needed Sforza’s connection, he declared his daughter’s marriage null and void, claiming that Sforza was impotent. Rumors started to spread in Rome that Alexander VI and his son Cesare had an incestuous relationship with Lucrezia.

Pope Leo X (1513–1521)
Pope Leo X (1513–1521)(Source: Wikimedia)

As early as eight years old, Giovanni de’ Medici, later known as Pope Leo X, was destined for an ecclesiastical career, which his father orchestrated. He came from the noble Medici Family, ruler of the Republic of Florence, with immense banking wealth.

Pope Leo X juxtaposed the character of his predecessor, the warrior pope, Julius II. Leo was a personification of Renaissance ideals. He had an immense passion for the arts, and to support his lavish lifestyle, he used the papacy’s money for his benefits and his relatives. Apart from nurturing his extravagance, he needed more funds to construct St. Peter’s Basilica, thus additional money was required for the projected crusade against the Turks.

To acquire more revenue, Leo encouraged worshipers to pay money for every committed sin. He started pricing indulgence, and crimes such as murder, incest, and theft in exchange for salvation. Hence, a guaranteed spot in heaven. Martin Luther criticized the corrupt practices of the Vatican in his Ninety-five Theses. When Luther’s teachings reached Rome, Leo tried to silence him. He excommunicated Luther on January 3, 1521.

“Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us.” — Pope Leo X

Pope Julius III (1550–1555)
Pope Julius III (1550–1555)(Source: Wikimedia)

After Pope Paul III’s demise, Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte was elected to the papacy and became Pope Julius III. Before becoming a pontiff, he was a successful diplomat. At first, Julius seemed determined to push for church reforms he believed essential. However, due to tension between King Henry II of France and Emperor Charles V, the pontiff quickly grew tired of the Papal affairs.

Julius’s reign in Holy See was controversial due to his involvement with Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte. Innocenzo was a teenage beggar in Parma, who Julius adopted as a nephew. According to records, Julius was smitten with Innocenzo, and when he became the pope, he promoted Innocenzo, then seventeen years old, as a cardinal.

The other cardinals were outraged by Julius’s decision. Many believed Innocenzo was Julius’s lover, and they shared a bed. It was a scandal that became the defining hallmark of his entire Papal reign. Also, Julius spent the Papal money for his palace, the Villa Guilia, created by Vignola, one of the greatest Italian architects, and decorated by Michelangelo.

Final thoughts

There have been more accounts of popes accused of illicit activities using the papacy. However, the allegations are still debatable. One of them was Pope Paul III, purportedly having an incestuous affair with his daughter and taking a cut from prostitutes’ earnings. Another one is Pope Boniface VIII, who, according to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, has a “special place in hell.” Then, Pope Urban II was the instigator of the First Crusade, which led to a killing spree of Muslims in the Holy Land.

Lastly, the wartime Pope Pius XII. He made headlines in 2019 when Pope Francis opened the Vatican’s archive for scholars to study whether Pius was a holy or unholy Pope. Up to this day, his canonization cannot be pursued, as many believed that he failed to condemn Adolf Hitler’s genocidal campaign against the Jews. Meanwhile, his supporters argue that he was a silent hero saving hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, making him eligible for sainthood.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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