The bad popes

I was brought up a Catholic yet never questioned the fact that for 1400 years the head of the religion was also monarch of a state within Italy. I never even thought of it, yet now it seems odd: surely there must be a conflict of interest? The values of politicians never seem to be very spiritual, yet that was what the pope was, a politician. The head of an organisation promoting the views of a man who said his kingdom was not of this world was the head of a kingdom of this world, and a very wealthy kingdom. It was conquered by Italy in 1870, but is still a sovereign state, though diminished in territory.

This investigation was suggested after reading The Bad Popes by ER Chamberlin (Dorset Press New York 1969), a scholarly and well documented account of the career of seven popes. The essay itself relies on facts taken from Wikipedia. The opinions are mine.

The development of the Christian church of Rome is a central strand in the history of both Christianity, and of the West. But political and religious history are inextricably confused in this development, and we know the popes mainly as politicians. Investigating the history of the church, I found some pretty unsavoury popes.

Christian history in the West begins in 337 AD with the deathbed baptism of the Emperor Constantine the Great. Although a church had existed in Rome from the time of Paul, about 80 AD, little was known about it save pious legends. It takes prominence from the death of Constantine.

Constantine was a Serb who spent most of his life battling rivals for the position of Roman Emperor. In 313 AD he issued the Edict of Milan, an announcement of religious toleration, affirming an earlier edict of 311 AD, under which all faiths in the empire were to be free of oppression and persecution. This in effect was a recognition that the refusal of participation in the state cults of Roman religion which had earned both Christians and Jews persecution in earlier reigns was now seen not as seditious and an act of treason, but as merely a cultic practice. (It also made allies of politically useful minorities). Constantine practised a form of Christianity, Arianism, which was to be outlawed as a heresy at the church council of 317, a meeting which produced the Nicene Creed. He also worshipped the sun, through the classical cult of Apollo, and perhaps the practice of Mithraism. His most significant act for later generations was to order the building of a new city at Byzantium, known as Constantinople, later a centre of Greek and Roman culture and of the Christian religion, which ensured both these survived the destruction of the western Empire by German tribesmen. Although Constantine died a Christian, baptised in the heresy of Arianism, nothing is known of his personal beliefs. Despite this, the (non Arianist) church quickly claimed him as a patron and saint. About 750 AD a forgery known as the Donation of Constantine claimed Constantine had bequeathed temporal power and authority in the West to the Roman papacy. The claim was dropped in the 15th century when the forgery was proved.

Because the West was Christian the armies of Islam were fought and defeated at two important battles. The Battle of Tours of 732 AD saw the defeat of a major Muslim army by Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, which contained Islam in the Iberian peninsula until the Reconquista ended in 1492 AD with the fall of Granada. All through the 1680s and 1690s AD the Holy League of eastern European powers battled the armies of Islam and finally secured the freedom of Poland and Hungary in 1698. But for these campaigns Europe would have been part of the empire of Islam, and the founding fathers of the United States of America perhaps a group of Shi’ite refugees from the dominant Sunni branch of the faith.

The Popes
Peter, the ‘rock’ Simon is claimed as the first Roman pope and as the leader of the first followers of Jeshua. The ground for the latter claim is based almost entirely on a grammatical analysis of one word in the gospels, documents written fifty to a hundred years after the death of Jeshua in Jerusalem. Slightly earlier than the gospel accounts are the letters of Paul, who refers to the Jewish followers in Jerusalem being led by James the brother of Jeshua, and to Peter as founding the church at Antioch (after the destruction of Jerusalem the most important of the early Christian churches). Paul also mentions that Peter, being an observant Jew, wished to restrict the teachings of Jeshua to fellow Jews, and as objecting strongly to Paul’s teachings, probably opposing the doctrine that Paul had evolved of the meaning of Jeshua’s death. Apart from this we have no information about Peter, other than that by 200 AD claims were being made about him founding the church in Rome, to bolster the authority of the hitherto minor gentile church there.

Early church leaders writing in the second century AD identified a Linus as one of several possible leaders of the church in Rome in the first century. They give contradictory accounts of him, so it would appear nothing was known with any certainty about Linus. The same goes for Cletus or Anacletus, said to have succeeded Linus. Clement, author of a surviving letter dated about 100 AD, is also often claimed as an early bishop of Rome, as is Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus I, Telesphorus, Hyginus, and Pius I. All these claims are traditions, not history. Another tradition recounts the first attempt being made to stamp out heresy and create a unified orthodox faith in the period when Anicetus was bishop of Rome in the mid second century AD.

It was not until Damasus I became bishop of Rome in 366 AD that Rome was seen as the primary centre of Christianity in the West. The Emperor Gratian gradually gave primacy to the Christian religion in the period 360-380 AD, and imposed sanctions on the classical religions that hitherto had been the official state religions. Government and church were now centered in Constantinople, and the West was soon to be threatened by invasion by tribes from Germany and abandoned by Constantinople.

Damasus is the first of the bad popes of whom we hear. He was one of two rival popes elected in 366 AD (there was also a third pope who had earlier been exiled), and supporters of the rival popes clashed in bloody battles during which many people were killed. Such was the religious rivalry at the time that the civil authorities had to intervene to restore order. Damasus therefore had a career similar to Constantine, battling rivals for his position and obtaining it by defeating them in war. Here is a sign that the papacy was acquiring considerable power, even though theoretically the head of the Christian church was now in the new capital of Constantinople. In the West there was a power vacuum to be filled.

Damasus commissioned Jerome to make a revised Latin translation of the bible. Known as the Vulgate, it became a tremendously influential document in later centuries.

He participated enthusiastically in the persecution of Arianism, a major heresy and schism of the early church, whereby he defined the Roman pope (pope was at first a general term, like bishop, for the administrative head of a local church) as a pillar of orthodoxy (and authority and power). Arius was a bishop who raised the perplexing question of the relationship of Jesus to god. Was Jesus begotten, created by god and hence inferior to god, a kind of divine agent similar to an angel, though fully human? Or was he unbegotten, co-existant with god through all eternity? If the latter, were there two gods, not one, as the Jews believed? Logically this would make Jesus a heretic in his own religion, as he was a practising Jew in his lifetime. Logic, however, did not enter into the question. Another name for the imposition of orthodoxy is power politics, and a lot of people died to secure uniformity of belief. You either believed what the church ruled on abstruse matters such as the trinity, or you died. Far less justifiable a cause for murder than the Romans executing Christians (martyrs) for what they believed an act of sedition.

An ominous sign of the times was the sack of Rome in 410 AD by Alaric king of the Visigoths, which, however, left the church intact. In religious matters pope Zozimus held an enquiry in 417 AD into the heresy of Pelagianism, a doctrine propounded by an Irish monk that claimed human beings were responsible for their good or evil actions, and had the power to achieve salvation through exercise of personal virtue. This was declared heretical, the orthodox view prevailing that mankind was evil by nature, corrupted by Original Sin, and needed intercession by the church and its ministers to achieve salvation. Pelagius’ doctrines struck at the validity of church bureaucracy and function, and was outlawed.

The primacy of the bishop of Rome, not only in the West, but in all Christendom, was asserted by Leo I, who was pope when Attila the Hun made his abortive attack on Italy in 452 AD. Leo was also influential in outlawing Monophysitism, which raised a debate on the nature of Christ. Was Jesus one person, with one nature, both divine and human, or two? In the absence of any knowledge of the terms ‘person’, ‘nature’, ‘divine’ and ‘human’ (still undefined to this day) it is no wonder the debate was conducted with maximum violence and personal abuse. However, it did help with Leo’s claims for supremacy over other bishops. The claim was based on the Roman popes’ succession in office from Saint Peter, and this could have been the time when the claim of Saint Peter as first bishop of Rome was first made, and the list of early popes first drawn up, though the published list dates from the next century. When the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer in 476 AD, the pope of Rome was firmly established as the head of a stable, well organised alternative administration.

Symmachus was pope 498 -514 AD. He was opposed by a rival pope, and again there was faction fighting in the streets as groups of supporters clashed. Symmachus was charged with unchastity and of simony, of having bought his election. In return he claimed that as pope he was above human law and could not be charged with any crime. The ten year conflict helped worsen the widening gap between Eastern and Western churches, and also affirmed the administrative control of the papacy over the Frankish churches in Gaul. As Italy succumbed to waves of invasion from the Lombards which destroyed most civil administrations, the papacy repudiated both Monophysitism in the Eastern church at Constantinople and Arianism among Goths and Visigoths and attempted to carve out a principality for itself in the area of Rome.

During the papacy of Leo III, about 800, a treaty was made with the Frankish king Charlemagne whereby he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, a meaningless but valued title, by the pope, and in return the papacy acquired some of the territory previously occupied by the Lombards, who had been defeated by Charlemagne, to create the principality of the Papal States. Disputes with a weakened Constantinople at this time hinged on iconoclasm: the East had abolished the use of images in worship, the pope demanded they be venerated.

The direction in which the Renaissance papacy was to develop was prefigured in the rule of Nicholas I, 856-867, who used the weapon of excommunication to intrigue among the nations of western Europe so as to assert papal superiority over secular rulers, at the same time throwing off any suzerainty claimed by the church at Constantinople.

Another bad pope was Sergius III. He was pope (904-911) at a time when a wealthy Roman aristocratic woman, Theodora, exercised supreme power in the city, to the scandal of most commentators, for whom female rule was against nature. Not only that, but her daughter, Marozia, was just as powerful. She was the mistress of Sergius, and bore him a son called John, later pope John XI. One of Sergius’ other sons also became pope. The women, and Sergius, owed their position to the military power of the Count of Tusculum, Theophylact, Theorodora’s husband, commander of the only viable military force in Rome. Sergius was one of two anti popes, and was duly excommunicated by his successful rival before securing the papacy for himself and then having his two rivals murdered. Typical dynastic rivalry and intrigue for the times, but a long way from the holier than thou pretensions the papacy was making at the same time.

Even worse was the career of John XII, who was pope 955 to 964. John scandalised members of the papal court by the number of his mistresses, the readiness with which he was willing to sell offices in the church to those offering a good price, and his apparent atheism. He was equally inept as a politician, betraying each of his allies in turn as he became engulfed in the rivalries between Germans, Franks, Magyars and Byzantines. As a consequence the papal states were severely reduced in territorial extent.

Some think the mythical Pope Joan, who was said to reign at about this time, was a memory of one of John’s mistresses. Others think the legend came about by distorting the story of the rulers Theodosia and Marozia and Marozia’s son John.

Another bad pope was Benedict IX, who was pope 1032 to 1048. He was alleged to be immoral, homosexual and a rapist. During his reign there were three rival popes who alternated holding the papacy. Benedict added to the number by selling the office to a willing buyer. He was eventually tried for simony and excommunicated.

It was during the papacy of Leo IX, in 1054, that the Roman and Byzantine churches, both menaced by armies, from Germany and France in the West and the Normans and Arabs in the East, finally split into two churches, the Pope and the Patriarch of course abusively excommunicating each other in the process. The spurious Donation of Constantine was used to bolster the Pope’s claim to supremacy over all other Christian churches. These pretensions reached an extreme form with the claim made by Innocent III (1198-1216) that the pope was supreme over all monarchs, emperors and churches, king of the world.

These claims were taken to even greater extremes by Boniface VIII (1294-1303) who lived at a time when the feudal society of Western Europe was reforming to begin to create the nation states of today. Boniface issued several manifestos with claims such as “it is absolutely necessary for their salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff”. Unfortunately, while he was affirming the political power of the Papal States and persecuting powerful Roman families who opposed him, he also came into opposition with the German Emperor and the King of France Philip IV. Philip cut off the pope’s major source of income, from the churches of France, forcing Boniface to look elsewhere. Charges of simony and corruption followed. Finally Boniface was captured by the French, beaten, then died in prison. He was charged with the murder of his predecesor Celestine in order to secure office. For 800 years the papacy had claimed to be a political power in the states of Europe: Boniface was the most powerful, then least successful of these claimants.

Probably the most famous of the bad popes was Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borja/Borgia) who was pope 1492-1503. The keynote of Alexander’s tenure in office was nepotism. He intrigued to find thrones and cardinalates for relatives and four of his natural children, including the infamous Lucrezia and Cesare. He won the election in 1492 because he was able to bribe the cardinals more successfully than the other two contenders. In 1493 he bestowed the Americas equitably on Spain and Portugal, and assented to the native peoples becoming slaves. Alexander had no scruples about raising money by the sale of indulgences and the creation of many new cardinals. He lived an opulent and self indulgent life, had many mistresses and children by them, and did his best to provide for them with church offices. He was an astute politician, and spent most of his life in intrigues with the national powers of France and Spain designed to strengthen his temporal power in Italy. He had many enemies, and his death may have been caused by poisoning.

The search for power
The church, in its search for power, was to participate in many acts of cruelty in future centuries. Concerns for orthodoxy were to result in not one but several Inquisitions, Roman and Iberian, during which people were tortured till they confessed a ‘heresy’, then legally murdered by being burnt to death, first being stripped of their wealth. The church, in concert with their national governments, participated in the outrage of colonialism, willfully destroyed native cultures around the world, sanctioned slavery, promoted national conflict, engaged in anti Semitism and persecution of Muslims in the West and fought to restrict the printing of bibles in the national languages of Europe. Virtually all early translators were tortured and burnt for their pains, including those on whose work the KJV is based. The search for political power justified the genocide practised against the South American native cultures, the export of their wealth to Spain (which was bankrupt the following century), and the face saving practice of forced baptism before execution of millions of ‘converts’. Anyone who has followed Soviet suppression of dissent on gulags will recognise the procedure.

With a claim to uninterrupted succession from Jesus Christ which was at best untenable, at worst fraudulent, and a claim to supreme authority also bolstered by a forged document (the Donation of Constantine), the church at Rome used both political manoeuvring and the spiritual weapon of excommunication to carve out a kingdom in central Italy (I think anyone who uses excommunication for their own gain automatically loses the power to use it at all). It raised income from the tithe, the one tenth tribute all Christians had to pay the church for the good works it performed, but had no problem supplementing that income by selling sacred offices, including the papacy, and at one time offered indulgences that removed the terrible punishment otherwise meted out in the afterlife, and raised enormous sums from their sale. The church sold a product to the peoples of Europe that outlined in lurid detail the powers of satan, and the danger they were in from sin, and the punishment reserved for sinners. Then offered to remove those dangers and punishments – for a price. Perhaps the people were a little gullible. But we shouldn’t criticise them too much, as we do the same thing today. Religion is still the world’s most profitable business, still capitalising on our fear of death and the unknown. And, paradoxically, the church still passes on the words of Jeshua: “my kingdom is not of this world”; “the kingdom of god is within you”. This stands in strong contrast to the political machinations of the popes of Rome, who include almost 50 antipopes who disputed the succession with other men. Edward Gibbon thought that history was “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” and the popes can bear him out.

Many will counter this type of criticism by saying, the bad popes were not that many, there were saintly men and women in the church who did a lot of good. And it’s true. But I can’t help but think of the billions who lived their lives in fear. Churches are bureaucratic structures that rely on fear for their continued existence and prosperity. Shouldn’t we all try to deal with this fear, rather than pay someone else to relieve it? That would seem to be the message of many of the great religious teachers, none of whom were interested in founding a church (most were critical of such institutions). Jeshua was very critical of the church of his day. Collectively the churches own billions of dollars worth of assets (LDS, over $30 billion, CofE, over £4 billion). Yet they are not taxed because they are non profit! Meanwhile the poverty level is growing higher, more people are without a house to live in, education is becoming more ineffective and the indications are that general comprehensive levels are declining. Capitalism is a system that concentrates wealth, not shares it, we have no solution yet for inequality of opportunity in so called democracies. But there must be a better solution than the wealthy paying guilt money to the churches, who then become bureaucratic businesses instead of religious organisations.

Faith has nothing to do with this situation. Many popes were venal, squabbling politicians competing with other states and princes for existence. Modern churches have lost their way in the intricacies of capital investment. All through history god has become a threat to intimidate opponents, not an aim for spiritual enlightenment. The end never justifies the means.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.



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