The vicars of Christ are a colorful bunch. Some were scoundrels, others unfairly maligned, and a few even earned their sainthood. In a trio of posts I’m going to do my own Divine Comedy: the seven worst popes (Inferno), the seven most maligned (Purgatorio), and the seven best (Paradiso).
We’ll start with the Inferno. As in Dante’s classic, it’s the most fun and prolific part. There are a lot of “bad popes” lists on the web and in print, and we’ll consider a few here.
A recent list I enjoyed was Ryan Moore’s Five Biggest Badass Popes though it includes a couple of peculiar choices. Moore rightly puts Alexander VI (1492-1503) at the top. (What wasn’t offensive about this guy?) But Pius II (1458-1464) is a curious choice (awarded a slot on account of his association with the historical Dracula, Vlad III Tepes). And Honorious III (1216-1227) actually makes the cut for being too pious (summoning demons to challenge himself and keep himself free of temptation, don’t you love it). I applaud the inclusion of Stephen VI (896-897) (so zealously self-righteous that he dug up the corpse of his predecessor and set it on a throne to face trial for perjury and coveting the papacy — the infamous Cadaver Synod). Finally, Sergius III (897,904-911) caps off the list as the only pope to be removed from office then later take it back (and for murdering many, including his predecessor).
Isabella Snow offers her own opinion of the Five Worst Popes Ever, but on the basis of the single criterion of sexual immorality. It’s hard to take this list too seriously, though it’s entertaining. The offending shaggers are John XII (955-964) (who was admittedly pretty bad), John XIII (965-972) (a lot like his father), Benedict IX (1032-1045) (became pope at the age of 12 and developed an affinity for animals), Clement VI (1342-1352) (so obsessed with sex he talked about it in his sermons), and Paul III (1534-1549) (habitually violated his daughter).
Russell Chamberlin, in The Bad Popes, singles out eight vicars for special indictment: Stephen VI (896-897) (on Moore’s list above), John XII (955-964) (on Snow’s list above), Benedict IX (1032-1045) (also on Snow’s list), Boniface VIII (1294-1303) (the notorious pope consigned to Dante’s Inferno, who pushed papal supremacy to an extreme and commissioned countless statues of himself), Urban VI (1378-1389) (who tortured his rival cardinals, and complained that he couldn’t hear them screaming loudly enough), Alexander VI (1492-1503) (of course), Leo X (1513-1521) (a spendthrift), and Clement VII (1523-1534) (whose incompetence got Rome sacked).
The most comprehensive ratings of the popes can be found in the appendix of Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Popes. McBrien lists 24 baddies, many of whom are included on the above lists, but a lot more post-Reformation popes. I was glad to see the modern Pius X (1903-1914) indicted (despite being canonized a saint) for his crusade against biblical scholars. Scholarship may not have been much to brag about at the dawn of the twentieth century (Schweitzer saw that better than anyone), but Pius’ anti-intellectual paranoia set the Catholic church back with a vengeance.
These are all good lists, but if I could put only five popes in hell, I’d have to go with the following:
1. Alexander VI (1492-1503) for, well, everything: buying the papacy, taking nepotism to new heights, letting murder and rape go unpunished, arranging mass orgies, and for all practical purposes adopting a greedy secular life, profiting by any means necessary. No suprise the Reformation followed hot on his heels.
2. Pius X (1903-1914) for anti-intellectualism, and his crusade against theologians and biblical scholars. He may have been a spiritual man (and canonized a saint for it), but didn’t deserve it; he opposed freedom of conscience with a vengeance.
3. John XII (955-964) for unbridled hedonism, adultery, rape, and incest. Though I’m usually not one to lambaste someone for sexual immorality, this guy was pretty horrible. He died in the bed of a married woman, no surprise.
4. Urban VI (1378-1389) for abusive rage, sadism and torture (he complained that he couldn’t hear his victims screaming loudly enough), and causing the Great Western Schism. His arrogance knew no bounds — he even turned on those who elected him.
5. Leo XII (1823-1829) for censorship, anti-Semitism, and his crusade against medical progress. Nothing like stifling free thought, confining Jews to ghettos, and denying vaccines to people. Leo had some problems.
That’s my papal Inferno. Next we’ll consider the most unjustly maligned popes (which will have to suffice for “Purgatory”), and then afterwards the best vicars who surely rest in the bosom of the Lord.