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Good historical notes on some bad popes | True Freethinker

“It is necessary for salvation that all human creatures shall be subject to the Roman Pontiff”

Unam Sanctam, 1302 AD

The following quotations are from a most interesting book titled “The Bad Popes” by E.R. Chamberlin (Dial Press, Inc.: New York, 1969 AD).

It is not a polemical or otherwise Catholic bashing book but merely a historical one that considers the following popes in particular and much of the historical context of their pontificate in general: Pope Stephen VI (896–897 AD) Pope John XII (955–964 AD) Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048 AD) Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303 AD) Pope Urban VI (1378–1389 AD) Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503 AD) Pope Leo X (1513–1521 AD)

Pope Clement VII (1523–1534 AD)

Be sure to consult the articles Roman Catholicism – Was Peter the Rock? Was Peter the First Pope? and Roman Catholic Basic Historic Background – How the Pope Became Supreme

RELICS, from p. 4

Malmesbury soberly records the discovery of the body of the giant Pallas, of whom Virgil sang, still incorrupt so that there was visible “the gash which Turnus made in the middle of his breast, measuring four and a half feet.” But, lapped though it was by pagan legend, Rome was preeminently the Sacred City of Christendom; and though the thronging pilgrims might marvel at the body of Pallas, they would turn from it with a shudder and cross themselves—the heroes of the old city being the demons of the new-and seek more holy relics.

The Romans made much profit by providing these gullible northerners with fragments of corpses—of dubious origins, but sanctified by the fact that they were purchased in Rome. And when the relics had been purchased and the shrines visited and the offerings of copper or gold made at the tomb of Peter, the pilgrims turned to explore the wondrous city, as pilgrims always had and always would.

IDOLATRY, from p. 11

…there was no major clash between emperor and bishop on a purely religious matter until about 726. The reigning emperor was Leo III, by birth a hillman and by training a soldier, a simple, direct man who brought to the complexities of religious disputations a simple, direct approach. It was disastrous.

His Christian subjects had nothing but praise for his edict that commanded the forcible baptism of Jews. But when he issued the first of his iconoclastic edicts, he spelled the doom of his empire in the West. The peoples of Italy were touched, for the first time, on a universally personal matter.

The primitive Christians had attacked image worship as the work of the devil and there had been wholesale destruction of every type of idol when Christianity had at last triumphed. But over the succeeding centuries, the images crept back, appearing under new names but, to the critical eye, with an identical role.
It was the Christians of the East who first began to feel that much of the pagan religion that their forefathers had destroyed, at such cost in martyrs’ blood, was insensibly being restored. Disturbed by the mockery of the neighboring iconoclastic Muslims, their devotion to images was in addition subjected to a strain of which their Western brethren were free.

In a decade, the infidel Muslims had overcome city after Christian city…The religious disputation inevitably became political, bringing with it riot and the ever-present threat of civil war. The forthright Leo solved the problem, as he thought, by coming down on the side of the iconoclastics. In 726 he issued his edict commanding the breaking of all images throughout the empire, in the West as well as the East.

PAPAL POWER, from p. 13

Imperial edict was followed by imperial action, and troops who could not be found to defend a province were swiftly available to enforce a theological point.
A fierce and bloody war was fought around Ravenna. The Byzantines retreated northward and the scenes of carnage were repeated, so frightful and bloody that for six years thereafter the inhabitants of the Po valley abstained from eating the fish of the river for fear of involuntary cannibalism.

After the violence of open warfare had abated, there remained still a nominal allegiance to the emperor. Gregory himself had no intention of usurping the temporal power but he had charted a path that others could not fail to follow.
Just nine months after his death in 731, the effective severance with the East was made when a synod in Rome pronounced excommunicate all those who would attack the images of the saints.

It was a discreet enough pronouncement, for the emperor was not mentioned by name. There was doubt, too, as to precisely who was excommunicating whom, but the implications were clear. The emperor and his theologians alike were rejected by Italy and it was inevitable that the bishop of Rome should fill the vacuum of power thus created.


To the “pope” and his successors, Constantine gave the diadem or crown, together with “the purple mantle also and the scarlet tunic and all the imperial trappings. We bestow upon him also the imperial scepter, with all the standards and banners and similar ornaments.”

It is fascinating to note that, specifically, the “pope,” as Chamberlin writes it, received a purple mantle and scarlet tunic since Revelation 17:3-6 states:

…I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.

This page continues with a statement about the accretion of papal power:

Christophorous was a cleric, anxious to maintain the little privileges and honors of his office and Constantine was therefore made to grant to the clergy a dignity similar to that which the Senate had enjoyed: “to ride on white horses adorned with saddle cloth of purest white, wearing white shoes like senators.”

But all this was mere garnishing to the central point—the establishment of the fact that the pope was not merely independent of the emperor, but was actually his superior. Christophorous made it appear that Sylvester had actually been offered the imperial crown, but had declined it as unfitting for the holder of a spiritual office and had accepted, instead, a simple white Phrygian cap, humble forerunner of the great triple tiara.

Nevertheless, the fact that he had been offered the imperial crown implied that Constantine afterward possessed it only on the pope’s sufferance. Christophorous went on to make the point abundantly clear by skillfully twisting the true reason for Constantine’s decision to establish his capital in the East.

“Wherefore, that the pontifical crown may be maintained in dignity, we hand over and relinquish our palaces, the City of Rome, and all the provinces, places, and cities of Italy and the regions of the West to the most blessed pontiff and Universal Pope, Sylvester.”

Constantine himself would depart forthwith to New Rome, as it was not fitting that an earthly emperor should share the seat of the successor of Peter.


[Pope John XII was] striving to overtop the rowdiest of his companions, and succeeding.
He was the son of the heroic Alberic, but he was also the grandson of Marozia and Hugh of Provence, the two most accomplished debauchees that Italy had seen in many years. It was their malign strain that swiftly dominated his nature, already under the corrupting influence of absolute power, and smothered whatever might have been noble.

The city that his father had cherished John saw as a treasury to be plundered, he himself protected by the swords of a faction for whom he could do no wrong so long as he maintained it in power. Rome lacked that middle class which, in her daughter cities of Italy, brought about even the limited democracy of the later centuries.
There were no merchants to create wealth and so act as buffer between nobles and people; for Rome’s chief income came through the coffers of St. Peter, her chief industry the production of priests and the exploiting of pilgrims. The sullen, inarticulate mass of the people was a wholly unpredictable element that could destroy but never mold, save when led by most rare geniuses…

John seems to have been urged toward a course of deliberate sacrilege that went far beyond the casual enjoyment of sensual pleasures. It was as though the dark element in his nature goaded him on to test the utmost extents of his power, a Christian Caligula whose crimes were rendered peculiarly horrific by the office he held. Later, the charge was specifically made against him that he turned the Lateran into a brothel; that he and his gang violated female pilgrims in the very basilica of St. Peter; that the offerings of the humble laid upon the altar were snatched up as casual booty.

He was inordinately fond of gambling, at which he invoked the names of those discredited gods now universally regarded as demons. His sexual hunger was insatiable…


When at length he [Otto] marched out of Rome, only a token contingent was left behind as bodyguard for Leo. As soon as the emperor had gone, John returned. The council that he summoned in February, 964, was composed of very frightened men, for most had voted for his deposition in November. But though John’s desire for vengeance was limitless, circumstances forced him to place a curb upon it. Over one hundred high ecclesiastics had attended the November synod: Fewer than thirty attended his own council, spectacular evidence of his collapsing power…

During his eight years’ rule, John had not so much debased his office as rendered it void of all significance outside Rome…Outside, the authority of Rome as center of the Church was compromised almost beyond redemption by the grotesque debaucheries of those Roman popes of whom John was prime example.

“Where is it written that the innumerable company of the priests of God, scattered over the earth and adorned by learning and merit, should be subject to monsters devoid of all knowledge, human and divine, and a disgrace to the world?”


“The Romans have found a singular means to palliate their insolent traffic in the election of popes,” the French monk Raoul Glaber observed. “When they have made choice of a pontiff which it pleases them to raise to the Holy Seat, they strip him of his own name and give him the name of some great pope so that his want of merit will be obscured by the glory of his title.” [Raoul Glaber, Chronique (Guizot. Paris, 1824 AD), chap. xlvi]

Octavian, the son of Alberic, had established a useful precedent when he changed his name to John XII [Octavian-John]. The pious or distant observer of Roman events saw only a stately procession of great names, conveniently masking ignoble identities, ascending the chair. Under the noble name of Benedict, there now appeared a youth who rendered his office not so much shameful as ludicrous.

Theophylact-Benedict added cowardice to cruelty, introducing an element of knockabout comedy into the consistent tragedy…the sacred-and unfortified-basilica of St. Peter. He would be murdered there. Choosing a feast day, the plotters entered the basilica, unnoticed among the great crowds. They could not carry swords, a too obvious declaration of intent, but each had a length of rope.

BLANK BULLS, from p. 82

The coronation took place in Aquila on August 29, when Peter of Morone took the name of Celestine. Two hundred thousand people were reported to have crowded into the little town, peasants and citizens from miles around flocking in to see the apotheosis of the south.

Pope Celestine V was a fellow countryman and, backed the power of the king of Naples, should do much to bring back the power and glory of the south, so long oppressed by the arrogant north. So the thousands thought, and apparently had their hopes justified when, in October, Celestine announced that he was setting his seat in Naples.

Gaetani again was the spokesman for some Rome—a violent spokesman—for he was almost beside himself with rage at the news. “Go with your saint,” he yelled, “for I’ll not come with you—nor let the Holy Ghost deceive me further about him!”…

The poor old man [Peter of Morone / Pope Celestine V] was utterly at a loss, utterly out of his depth in the sophisticated society into which he had so suddenly been thrown…Place-hunters swarmed at the court. Celestine had no conception of the value of the rich gifts he could now dispense, and was bewildered by the hunger for benefices, granting them casually at request.
Blank bulls made their appearances, peddled by the unscrupulous officers of the chancery to purchasers who filled them in as desired.

SALE OF THE PAPACY, from pp. 85-86

At exactly what point, or on whose advice, Celestine turned his mind toward the thought of abdication, no man could afterward say. Later, the Colonna put it about that Benedict Gaetani had begun the insidious process of self-doubt by introducing a hidden speaking tube into Celestine’s cell, and in the silence of night, he simulated a supernatural voice warning him to abdicate or face the flames of hell. Dante, for one, believed some such story, for after Gaetani had won his way to the throne, Dante accused him of having “gained the Fair Lady by fraud.”

It was natural that Celestine would turn to a lawyer of Gaetani’s status to seek advice on such an action as abdication. The precedents were both obscure and unsavory, involving as they did that sale of the Papacy one hundred and fifty years earlier…
Celestine’s own monks, aware that their master’s abdication would not only put an end to the long awaited rule of love but would also strip them of their privileges…

Ten days after Celestine’s abdication, the conclave met and, within twenty-four hours, elected Benedict Gaetani. He took the name of Boniface VIII.


…there was his own coronation to be celebrated with all the pomp that was dear to him. Celestine had ridden to his coronation mounted upon an ass—to some, an almost blasphemous symbolism.
He, Boniface, would ride like the Roman emperor he resembled, displaying himself for the adoration of the tumultuous Romans…the consecration and coronation at St. Peter’s, followed by a procession to the Lateran Palace where the new pope took formal possession of the ancient seat of civic government.

THE TIARA, from p. 90

The archdeacon removed the bishop’s miter from his head and in its place settled the great conical tiara, outward expression of the claim to universal earthly power. A little over two centuries earlier, the “crown” of the pope had still been the simple white cap that was all that the legendary St. Sylvester had accepted from Constantine. Even the Tusculan popes had been content with the symbol that made them temporal lord only of Rome and the Papal States. But, imperceptibly, it had grown with the growing status of the Papacy, and was now a crown as splendid as that of any emperor, a pretension made explicit by the formula uttered at the moment of coronation:

“Take the tiara, and know that thou art the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world, the vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whose honor and glory shall endure through all eternity.”

It was a formula that Boniface had every intention of turning into fact…

Passing on through the crumbling arches of the great emperors of the past, the procession flowed past a solitary tower and halted when Boniface himself came abreast of it. At its foot stood a deputation of the Jews of Rome, come to make their peace with the new ruler of Rome and accept his ritual spurning. The rabbi offered the law of Moses to Boniface, who took it, then returned it with the words, “We acknowledge the law but we reject Judaism, for the law has already been fulfilled through Christ”…


Boniface had a gift for pungent, pithy speech, a liking for witty, frequently punning epigrams which he tossed out regardless of their propriety, indifferent to the fact that busy little men might be recording them.

Sexual immorality? Why—there is no more to going to bed with women and boys than in rubbing one hand against the other.

Immortality? A man has as much hope of survival after death as that roast fowl on the dining table there—a remark made on a fast day at that, the shocked witness recorded.

It was difficult to assess his true beliefs, but his obiter dicta seemed all of a piece: the clever remarks of a learned man who was indifferent to, or even skeptical of, the inner mysteries of the religion he professed.
The god that the world saw him worship was the god of power.

The cardinals, who came into intimate daily contact with him, learned to hate him with a personal bitterness that surpassed even Dante’s. Inordinately proud men themselves, his pride and arrogance overtopped theirs, crushing them, reducing them to the status of court officials, contemptuously ignored unless their signatures were required on documents. Much of the trouble with the Colonna had sprung from his refusal—his inability—to recognize any will, any objectives but his own.

“The Cardinals all desire his death and are weary of his devilries,” Gerald of Albalato, residential envoy from the king of Aragon, reported to his master. Gerald was a toadying little man, eagerly picking up gossip from the “big dogs of the Curia” and relaying it to his master who, like so many others, was waiting for Boniface to make a false step.

But Gerald’s very spinelessness made him a safe recipient for the spleen of which the cardinals disburdened themselves. “Cardinal Landulf says that it is better to die than to live with such a man. He is all tongue and eyes but as the rest of him is rotten, he won’t last much longer. We have the very Devil to deal with.”

“All tongue and eyes”—a vivid phrase, summing up the impotent hatred of a subordinate writhing under the lashing of a master of invective, raked by the coldly contemptuous glance of a confident superior. But Landulf’s brutal remark that Boniface was rotten gave some explanation for the pope’s outbursts of uncontrollable rage.

SOLO PAPA, from p. 119

In November [1302 AD] forty-five bishops and abbots attended the much postponed council. And from that council emanated the last trumpet call of the papal monarchy as conceived by Boniface-the great bull Unam Sanctam.
It was Boniface’s supreme effort as lawyer. It stated nothing new, for ever since the Papacy had become a power independent of both emperor and Rome, the popes great and small had acted on the assumption that they now held both the sword and the keys. But Unam Sanctam made explicit what had been implicit: “It is necessary for salvation that all human creatures shall be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Temporal power throughout the earth lay in the hands of the pope; he could, and did, delegate it to monarchs and princes but he could, and would, withdraw it as he chose.


“Know that thou art the father of princes and kings—the ruler of the world.” So had run the formula at Boniface’s coronation; he had taken it literally and to its logical end, and—as logically—had been destroyed. But even those who had writhed under his arrogance pronounced themselves appalled at the manner of his going.

Dante, who had hated Benedict Gaetani with all the hatred that one man could feel for another, yet shared the sense of outrage that all Italians—all Europeans—felt for the sacrilege that had been committed on the person of Pope Boniface.

I see the fleur-de-lys Anagni enter And Christ in his own Vicar captive made I see him yet another time derided I see renewed the vinegar and the gall

And between living thieves I see him slain.

TERRIBLE HERESY, from p. 131

John XXII—the Banker of Avignon they called him. He destroyed the little friars who had arisen with their terrible heresy that Christ and his disciples had been poor men, that the amassing of wealth was contrary to his teaching.
It was John who had created the fantastically complex financial system, making church preferments a kind of chess game, at every move of which a shower of gold fell into Avignon. There had been a smell of heresy about him but a deathbed confession had expunged it, and perhaps better evidence of orthodoxy, he had left the treasury richer by four million florins.


It was an excellent principle for the nearby subjects in Avignon, less attractive for the more distant subjects who ultimately did the paying.
“The Apostles were commissioned to lead the sheep into pasture, not shear them,” Edward of England snarled and his parliament set about creating some form of barrier against the steady drain of gold. But gold continued to pour into Avignon, the fiscal system keeping pace even with Clement’s demands.

And the demands were huge. Artists were summoned to cover the bare walls of the palace with glowing frescoes. Goldsmiths, furriers, mercers, embroiderers, every type of worker in precious fabrics and metals, every merchant who could bring rare products found a ready market in the court of this splendid pope, precursor of the Renaissance. But it was not so much the extravagance that aroused the rage of moralists, as another more dubious channel through which the gold of St. Peter was diverted. Clement made no secret of his liking for feminine company.

Villani, the sober Florentine merchant, noted disapprovingly that

. . .when he was an archbishop he did not keep away from women but lived in the manner of young nobles, nor did he as pope try to control himself.
Noble ladies had the same access to his chambers as did prelates and, among others, the Countess of Turenne was so intimate with him that, in large part, he distributed his favor through her.

…it was Clemet whom Petrarch held responsible for the scandal of Christendom: Clement and his countess, “this ecclesiastical Dionysius with his obscene and infamous artifices and his Semiramis, soiled with incestuous embraces”
Courtiers came to know that the beautiful countess of Turenne held the keys to high office; she and her family grew rich on that knowledge.

PORNOCRACY, from p. 290

As it was impossible to ignore him, Baronius accepted him, though reluctantly, and so enshrined Liudprand’s version of the “pornocracy” as official history.

It seems impossible for even the greatest writers to maintain, on the subject of the Papacy, their habitual honesty and balance.
Polemics alone survived the trauma of the Reformation unchanged, seventeenth-century Puritans joining hands with fifteenth-century anti-papalists even while papal apologia achieved its extreme forms.


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