Let’s Raise a Glass to the Bad Popes!


It may seem odd, on the feast day of the Roman Fact, to discuss the less-than-stellar occupants of the Chair of Peter. I would propose that it is precisely these weak and sometimes sordid men who offer one of the most startling historical and apologetical claims for the indefectibility of the church. Catholics ought not to be reticent or ashamed about such men. A frank analysis of their weaknesses shows that often the Church survives in spite of the papacy, while the office endures as a witness to the seamless garment of Church tradition.

The demerits of some of the popes can be broken down into three categories: the inept, the imprudent, and the immoral.  It is astonishing among the 265 holders of the office that so few can be charged with any of these (indeed around a third of all popes are recognized as saints). Nonetheless they are to be found; weaklings who refused to teach when teaching was necessary, spectacularly imprudent miscalculators, and downright seedy and Augean characters.

The last category has been one of the most popular sticks with which to beat the Church. Alexander VI (1492-1503) is quite well known, more so now because of recent television adaptations –though it must be admitted there are few families more tailor-made for HBO than the house of Borgia. What can be said of Alexander? He did it. Almost every single immoral thing of which he is accused. In fairness, he did not do one thing his enemies alleged: commit incest with his daughter Lucrezia. . .What a moral superhero.

Like the Borgia pope, others too had illegitimate children, Alexander’s predecessor Innocent VII (1484-1492) set the stage in that respect. Sometimes other vices came into play, such as the brutal anger of Pope Urban VI (1378-1389), who verbally and sometimes physically assaulted his own cardinals, so much that they started the Great Western Schism. Want worse than that? The only thing that saves the papacy of the tenth century from the HBO treatment is its remoteness and lack of much historical material (it is sometimes charitably called the saecula obscura). This is the period of the “Pornocracy” (can one think of a worse name?). In it we see popes complicit in the murders of their predecessors, all under the ruthless tyranny of the Theophylact family of Rome. Some of the charges against John XII (955-964)—elected at 18 years old—are not fit for digital print.

Abbot Desiderius of Cassino, later himself elected Pope as Victor III (1086-1087) wrote the following about Benedict IX (1032-1044; 1045; 1047-1048…yes you read that correctly, he claimed the papacy on three different occasions):

There was a certain one, blessed in name (Benedict IX), but certainly not in deeds, a son of the consul Alberic, but more the progeny of Simon Magus rather than a follower in the footsteps of  Simon Peter, since he bought the papacy for himself by freely spending his father’s money. Indeed, after his assumption of the priesthood, how dishonest, how loathsome, how foul, and how execrable has been his life, I shudder to relate . . . . After robberies, murders, and other abominable acts, the Roman people, unable to bear his iniquity any longer, caused him to be cast out of the city, and drove him from the episcopal chair of Rome.

Few nations or corporations can hit a 200 year “rough patch” of bad leadership and survive.  The Church has done it several times over.

The Popes above are the headline grabbers. In spite of their personal immorality Church business went on.  Under John XII, the Order of Cluny grew and Otto I was crowned, bringing religious and secular stability back to Europe. Under Alexander the Treaty of Tordesillas meant the continued age of Exploration, without a world war between Spain and Portugal. Far more damaging to the Church were Popes who were outright inept and corrupt. The papacy is the inventor of nepotism and the powerful position of “Cardinal-nephew” spanned hundreds of years, occasionally producing a St. Charles Borromeo, but more usually it resulted in people like the dishonest nephew of Paul IV (1555-1559), Carlo Cardinal Carafa. Particularly detrimental were those who failed to teach at critical times. A Pope like Honorius (625-638) squandered all of the significant papal achievements since Gelasius (492-494) in the Christian east, by sending a non-committal letter regarding the heresy of Monothelitism, a magisterial misstep (not however, a doctrinal error) that was to have long lasting effect.

The history of the papacy is also rife with notoriously bad prudential decisions. Clement VII’s papacy (1523-1534) was a string of colossally irresponsible determinations. He was the fiddler while the Church of Rome burned. His response to the Reformation was tepid and his dogged opposition to the Catholic emperor Charles V is historically inexplicable. His fast-dealings resulted in the defection of some of Charles’ troops, placing the blame for the disastrous sack of Rome in 1527 squarely on the pope’s own shoulders. His terror at the chimera of conciliarism prevented the early assembly of the Council of Trent. The one principled decision he made—to maintain the validity of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage—lost almost the whole English-speaking world to the Catholic Church (not that it was an incorrect decision, but for the hapless Clement even correct actions had terrible consequences). His namesake, Clement XIV (1769-1774) suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773, in the midst of the Enlightenment and on the cusp of revolution. Clement did not just shoot the Church in the foot by this declaration, indeed by destroying this elite intellectual order, Clement shot the Church in the head.

Nor are good and holy popes immune from imprudent decisions. St. Pius V’s promulgation of Regnans in excelsis (excommunicating Elizabeth I and authorizing her overthrow) attempted to resurrect a doctrine of papal power encrusted with desuetude, and in so doing, immeasurably increased the difficulties of the small Catholic remnant of England. Even the prudence of Pius XII we have seen questioned aggressively in our own day.

Sometimes papacies are so disastrous that they change the course of history. Martin IV (1281-1285) was one of these. In four short years he squandered the signal achievements of the great medieval pontiffs stretching back to Sts. Leo IX and Gregory VII. Instead of being a Pope for Christendom, he decided to favor France (a predilection that continued, inexplicably and sometimes catastrophically, in the papacy for the next several hundred years). He compromised a carefully worked out solution to the Eastern schism, solely for the short term advantage of the Angevin monarchy, by maliciously excommunicating the Byzantine emperor and giving French lords permission to attack him. When Sicilian rebels overthrew the French crown, Martin issued Crusading bulls to put down the rebellion—Catholics “crusading” against other Catholics, the final nail in the coffin of the crusading ideal. His papacy led to a short term reaction which resulted in the tragedy of Anagni and finally to the Avignon papacy. Martin IV was a bad pope.

Historical interpretations can certainly vary, but examples could be multiplied. In the end however it was to such men as Martin IV that Christ entrusted His Church. Of all of the Apostles Christ chose the impulsive, malleable, and sanguine Peter. Chesterton puts it best in Heretics:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

Just as God exalts the humble and the weak and raises up saints, so the power of God shines through the weakness of these men. Could there be a more signal proof of the Divine assistance and the indefectibility of the Church? This great feast marks the Apostles who poured out into that See, as Tertullian said, “not only their blood, but their whole doctrine.” Today we should raise our glasses (and some much needed prayers) to and for these weak, corrupt, and sometimes downright bad men. They too are weak links in the chain that did not and cannot break.

Donald S. Prudlo


Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Assistant Professor of Theology and Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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  • Ultramonta

    There is no question that there have been bad popes; in a line of 260+ sovereigns that is to be expected (particularly when every king in Europe was looking to get his hands onchurch property and therefore did his best to get conrol over cardinals elected from his country).  I stopped reading the list of horribles half way through this article because it was so duplicative and showed little discernment. 

    To put this list into perspective, let’s also chronicle the less than stellar record of the mere 45 presidents of the US.  Besides the impeached A. Johnson and Clinton, there was Richard Nixon who resigned in disgrace and Warren Harding of the Teapot Dome imbroglio.  That is just big time corruption.  If one adds in sexual imbroglios besides Clinton, there have been other  sexual abuse scandal lurking for over fifty years with Kennedy’s dalliance with 19 year old Mimi Alford and a two hundred year plus sexual abuse scandal of Thomas Jefferson with the 15 year black slave Sally Hemings who was his baby mama while he was Ambassador to France.  Also in the field of sexual harassment: Dwight Eisenhower was sexually harassing his driver while he was Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe and Franklin Roosevelt was sexually harassing one of his wife’s employees Lucy Rutherford.  Then in the 19th Century Cleveland had his ow baby mama drama too.

    If one adds in stupid decisions that changed the course of history as this author does in mentioning Matrin IV’s tilt toward France, our Presidents’ peccadilloes are legion: starting with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the most populous country in the Middle East as the result of Obama’s tilt toward the Tahir Square rebels and going back through time to such dumb moves as those of Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson and FDR’s tilt toward Joe Stalin and against the people of Poland and Central Europe, etc. 

    Likewise, the reading of Charles V as blameless in the sack of Rome (and it was all the Pope’s fault) is a classic reductio ad absurdum.  Even worse: to take up Protestant propaganda on the supposed imprudence of Regnans in Excelsis and anti-Catholics’ attacks on Pius XII without any analysis  shows how much overkill there was in this list of “papal horribles.” 

    I could go on.  Should we do the sexual peccadilloes of the English Monarchy or its dumb moves?  This is easily done stuff and really accomplishes little.

    • Patrick Eoin Brogan

      Actually, there have only been 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland was #22 & 24).  That is the reason BHO is numbered #44.  If you really want to get picky, our next president will be the “real” #44 since, IMHO, BHO will be found out as the impostor that he is.

    • Dunraven

      Eisenhower?????? Proof please!….just that this is news to me but then there is much I don’t know about our greats and our not-so-greats.

    • Jacindaramsey

      I disagree.  It accomplishes a lot.  Most of what you posted, Ultramonta, is covered in history class in school.  NONE of the history of the popes is.  Popes aren’t even mentioned for the most part.  This article not only (briefly) examined some bad popes but also pointed out that the church has survived in spite of them and why! 

  • poetcomic1

    Even the Blessed Virgin had some bad apples on her family tree.

  • FaithfulinPrayer

    Great article, especially for you as a new Catholic. I’ve often been up against people who are quick to point out these less than stellar leaders of our faith.  However, we have to understand who is really in control of the church and that is our great Lord and Savior.

    • FaithfulinPrayer

      I meant “me as a new Catholic” not you.

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  • Excellent article!

  • Jim J. McCrea

    That is the miracle of the Catholic Church.

    Even though there have been bad popes, not one has taught anything contrary to Catholic teaching as binding on the whole Church.

    In that area, the Magisterium has the infallible protection of the Holy Spirit.

  • toddyo1935

    I subscribed to this rag over 20 years ago until I figured out what a “progressive” so-called religious magazine was.
    You must have Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kathleen Sibelius and Chris Dodd on your advisory board. Did you hit up George Soros for a donation. He lobes this kind of stuff.

    Another bunch of heretics to pray for…

    • Andkaras

      What an odd conclusion to come to.What do you base your assessment on?

    • Allan

      Progressive?  Heretics?  Are you serious Todd?  Are you actually under the impression that every pope of the Church was perfect?  Is your self-esteem so low that a criticism of some of the less-than-effective popes crushes you and your faith?

      You’re deluding yourself if you think people aren’t aware that some of our popes have been less than perfect.  There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that fact.  And frankly, it’s pure idiocy to compare the author of the magazine to the likes or Pelosi and Biden.  I think you better pray for yourself before the “bunch of heretics” here.

      • toddyo1935

        Good grief! I owe you all an apology. Crisis is a great magazine, your article was just fine. I’ve been so into Jim Wallis and HIS rag Sojourners wrt being BHO’s “spiritual advisor”  that I had a senior moment and flipped out. That one I did cancel. It ain’t easy gettin’ old.

        Did you ever hear about the Pope and the lawyer who died at te same time? They got to the Pearly Gates where St. Peter was handing out the mansions. The lawyer went first and he got this beautiful estate to have for all time. He was so excited he wanted to see what the Pope got. St. Peter gave him a cottage with a white picket fence. The lawyer was puzzled and asked St. Peter why if the Pope served God all his life and was only rewarded with a cottage. Peter said, “You have to understand, we have over 200 Popes up here, but you’re the first lawyer.” (That should account for a few bad popes who might be residing elsewhere.)

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    For me, even better evidence of the indefectability of the Church is provided by the uninspiring popes.

    From Sixtus V, who died in 1590, to Leo XIII, who was elected in 1878, we had a virtually unbroken succession of popes, who had risen through the ranks of the Vatican bureaucracy and who were, by habit, taste and training, administrators.  Even Benedict XIV, better remembered today as Prospero Lambertini, the great canon lawyer, fits this mould.

    It is not unfair to describe the result as one of assiduous mediocrity.  Even in Catholic countries, they had the same impact and the same popular appeal, as the average Secretary-General of the United Nations or President of the World Bank.  Pio Nono was popular because he was pitied.  Meanwhile, we had the Church riven by the Thirty Years War, the Quietist controversy, the Jansenist heresy, the Gallican controversy, Josephism, the suppression of the Jesuits, the French Revolution and its aftermath, and the Risorgimento, in none of which can the Holy See be said to have distinguished itself.

    And yet, the Church survives it all

  • Fr. Arasu Lazar SDB

    Surely in the at least in the last 100 years we have had very saintly popes. Thanks be to God.

  • Nonnobisdomine

    hmmm.  Delving into the shame of the papacy shows the glory that can only be brought by the Savior’s promise. Very well done.

  • Realy, Clement XIV was bad for suressing the Jesuits?  St. Pius V’s imprudent decision to excommunicating Elizabeth I was imprudent?  I do agree about bad popes and the point of the article, but this seems to be an odd take on history to say the least.

    • Al_Kilo

      The Jesuits at that time were a different bread than the modern version (although they have changed for the better in the last 20 years, imo). The decision to suppress them was political.

  • espolon

    con respecto a los malos Papas, en la historia hay muchos de ellos, ahora miremos un poco lo que más interesa para un católico, aunque lo ideal sería un papa Santo , pero veamos antes muchos Papas caían en pecado moral que son pecados personales a los que Nuestro Señor les pedirá cuentas; aquí viene a lo que yo me refiero, los pecados son todos malos a los ojos de Dios, pero ¿ qué es peor ? , ¿un pecado en lo moral o de ira etc, o una herejia ? el gran problema de hoy es pos concilio vaticano II ,que trajo consigo  el peor pecado de todos los tiempos en donde los papas cometen las peores herejias y sacrilegios, pecados que llevan a millones de almas a la perdición con una doctrina nueva y contraria a la que Cristo manda a cuidar y difundir como el gran tesoro , hoy las jerarquias de la nueva iglesia, no la católica son los precursores del Anticristo que le están preparando el camino; a todo esto para un católico debe ser una esperanza dado que nos estamos acercando al acortamiento de los tiempos que Nuestro Señor nos enseño . para finalizar aclaremos que también un papa puede pecar en lo personal aunque mejor seria que no lo hiciera , pero la traición a Cristo es el peor de todos los pecados, no guardar la fe y la difusión de un falso ecumenismo heretico.

    • Notgiven

      Seria cortesia contestar en ingles cuando visite Ud. un blog en que la mayoria de las personas no pueden leer espanol.  Gracias.   Obviamente, por lo que dice en su respuesta, Ud si puede manejar el ingles.

      It would be a courtesy to respond in English when you visit a blog in which the majority of the people cannot read Spanish.  Thank you.  Obviously, by what you say in your response, you can manage the English.

  • Bill Bannon

    Most saint Popes were made such in the first millenium. Only 5 were canonized in the second millenium when the process tightened up and martyrdom was less likely…Second millenium poduced only: St. Leo IX, St. Pius V, St. Pius X, St. Celestine V, St. Gregory VII. In contrast, the first 35 Popes were all saints…then Liberius….then the next 12 were all saints. Whereas for the last thousand years, we had 5. I think this is a process difference also.
    The 11th century and the 13th each have two Popes who were “blessed” but never moved on to canonization…the 14th century has one.

  • Al_Kilo

    Good article.
    So how could these Popes be “infallible”?
    It is despite their fallibility that the Church survived.
    This seems to be an argument for modifying the doctrine of Papal “infallibility”.
    The Church is only “infallible” in the long run by the Grace of God, but no human, Pope or otherwise, is individually divinely “infallible”.
    The Pope’s can claim final authority on doctrinal matters as a mater of dogma, Church tradition and governance, but only God is infallible.
    This doctrine seems to show a certain lack of faith in Christ’s foundation of the Church by those that introduced this dogma less than 200 years old, it seems to me.

  • Sue3232ewtn

    As I recall Peter, one of the twelve apostles, was the very First Pope.  Was he perfect? By no means!  He lived for years with Jesus and loved him so much but, denied Jesus three times.  Noone ever would assume that our Popes are perfect;  just chosen to do as Peter did. 

  • Jrioux

    “For when I am weak, then am I strong.”

  • Lindapdolan

    Interesting take. We need not feel shame about our bad popes, but understand that they too were men.

  • Michelene

    and the CHURCH goes on