The theologian may indulge in the
pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended
from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy
duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the
inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she
contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak
and degenerate race of beings.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), The Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire
The origins of the Church hierarchy are not what most Christians
might imagine. Here we shall see how the Church hierarchy originated,
how and why it developed as it did, and how well its record
matches its claims.
Archbishop: A Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to
that attained by Christ.
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
Over the centuries the Christian Churches have developed an
elaborate hierarchy of priestly ranks. The following is a summary
of some of the main ones.
Deacons At the lower end of the modern hierarchy
are deacons. They are mentioned both in the New Testament and
in other early writings. Deaconesses are also mentioned and
there is no reason to doubt that in the early Church they were
exact counterparts of deacons. It is also notable that appointment
as a deacon was apparently for life rather than a probationary
stepping stone to higher office. The original duties of a deacon
seem to have been the collection and distribution of alms.
Priests The New Testament does not mention
priests except in the sense that all believers are priests*;
and believers were regarded as priests only in the sense that
all Jews had been regarded as priests in the Old Testament (Exodus
19:6). Nowhere in the New Testament is the ministry of Jesus"
followers described as a priesthood. Neither is any follower
referred to as a priest, except in the general sense that all
followers were priests.
Some followers are referred to as presbyters. The
Greek word presbyter means elder, and references
in the New Testament to presbyters are not to priests but to
community elders. Nevertheless, the early Church soon changed
its presbyters into priests, borrowing much of the significance
from pagan religions where priests were holy men who enjoyed
a special relationship with God and made sacrifices to him.
A priesthood was thus created without any biblical justification,
a fact that may have contributed to the priesthood's reluctance
to allow people to read the Bible. When people did read the
Bible for themselves and failed to find the word sacerdos
(priest), only presbyter (elder), the result was widespread
anger. Indeed, the lack of biblical justification for a priesthood
was one of the main complaints of Church dissidents and reformers,
and it is for this reason that Presbyterian sects have rejected
a priesthood in favour of lay leaders called elders.
Other Churches suspicious of an official priesthood call their
officers ministers or pastors.
The Roman Church holds that presbyters developed into priests
in the early Church with divine approval, and therefore retains
them. Anglicans hover between the two extremes high church
priests and low church ministers. Many Anglican priests are
more usually referred to by their specific role: rectors ("rulers")
or vicars. A vicar is a rector's or a priest's deputy (vicarius
Bishops. Bishops are mentioned in the New
Testament, but their functions and status bear little similarity
to those of modern bishops. The word bishop is derived from
the Greek word episkopos, which can be translated literally
as overseer or supervisor. In the Septuagint
the word is used for minor taskmasters and petty officials.
In the Authorised Version of the New Testament the word bishop
is used to translate both episkopos and presbyter,
but in most modern translations episkopos is generally
rendered as overseer, and presbyter as elder.
Modern translations are strictly more accurate, but the practice
of Authorised Version translators is justifiable, since the
two Greek words are both used for holders of the same office.
Thus for example the same people are sometimes referred to by
both titles*. In other
words there was no separate rank of bishop in the modern sense.
Bishop was simply an alternative name for a presbyter.
This explains why early writings refer to a twofold arrangement
of deacons and bishops*
and why the epistle to the Philippians is addressed only to
deacons and bishops. It also explains why the Roman Church technically
recognises only two Holy Orders: deacons are in one, priests
and bishops together in the other.
and Archbishops The bishop
of the metropolis of each imperial province came to be styled
metropolitan. These metropolitans came to dominate
their fellow bishops as the bishops had dominated their fellow
presbyters. By the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa
(325) they were given certain powers of veto.
The bishop of the primary see in each state came to be styled
primate ("first" or "principal").
Outside the Empire the title primate was used much
as the title metropolitan was used within it. In England
the bishops of Canterbury and York squabbled for centuries over
the primacy, and are now both styled Primate. (The Archbishop
of York is Primate of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury
Primate of All England.)
In the fourth and fifth centuries the bishops of important
sees such as Alexandria and Antioch came to be considered super-bishops
and started being styled archbishops. The custom was adopted
by metropolitans and has since been extended to other important
Cardinals The title cardinal was
originally appliedto any priest permanently
attached to a church. Later it was restricted to deacons, priests
and local bishops in or near Rome. In practice the title has
been used for centuries as a separate rank in the Roman Catholic
hierarchy, though cardinals are still properly cardinal deacons,
cardinal priests, or cardinal bishops. The observation that
"there were no cardinals at Nicæa" has long
been popular amongst those critical of the role of cardinals
within the Roman Church.
Popes In early times the title pope
was widely used by leading figures in the Church. It is a variation
of the Latin word papa, Greek pappas, English
pa-pa. Bishops and patriarchs were accorded the title
pope by those who stood in a filial relationship to
them. Thus for example the African bishops addressed their own
primate in Carthage as pope, but called the Bishop
of Rome merely bishop. So too, a Patriarch of Alexandria
could refer to his predecessor as "our blessed pope"
in the third century*.
There is no record of a bishop of Rome being accorded the title
before the late fourth century , and it was not until the time
of Leo the Great (pope 440-461) that the title started to be
used by the Western Church specifically of the Bishop of Rome.
In fact it was not claimed exclusively by the Bishop of Rome
until 1073, and the Orthodox Church
has never accepted this claim.
Patriarchs The first centre of Christianity
was Jerusalem. Jerusalem remained the natural centre until the
Ebionites were expelled along with other Jews after the uprising
in AD 135. Lacking a single focus, Christians from Egypt and
Libya looked to Alexandria, those in Asia Minor (modern Turkey)
to Antioch, and those in southern Italy to Rome. In the fourth
century the heads of the churches in Rome, Alexandria and Antioch
were all being accorded the honorific title of patriarch, and
the Bishop of Constantinople soon joined them. In the fifth
century Christian communities had again grown up around Jerusalem,
and the Bishop of Jerusalem was also accorded the title*.
The title was adopted from the Old Testament*
and was universally accepted as the highest honorific available.
In the East the Patriarch of Constantinople became first among
equals and was accorded the style Ecumenical Patriarch.
The bishops of Rome, keen to establish themselves as superior
to their brother patriarchs, awarded themselves the same title,
Ecumenical Patriarch, and later appointed their own patriarchs
of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Founders
of religious orders were also called patriarchs.
Modern patriarchs include the heads of the Russian and other
Orthodox Churches, along with the heads of various other Churches
that have accumulated over the centuries. The head of the Coptic
Church, for example, is styled Patriarch of Alexandria, and
the head of the Syrian Church, Patriarch of Antioch. There is
also a patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox
The Biblical Hierarchy Nowhere in the gospels,
the writings of the apostles, or the early Church Fathers is
there a hint of the need for metropolitans, primates, archbishops,
cardinals, popes or patriarchs. In the earliest times there
were not even bishops or priests, merely people who acted as
community elders or overseers. The whole edifice of ecclesiastical
ranks and titles is a later development. On the other hand the
Bible does explicitly mention a hierarchy of appointments sanctioned
by God, with seven ranks. First are apostles, second prophets,
third teachers, fourth miracle workers and healers, fifth helpers,
sixth administrators, and seventh those who can speak in different
tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28). For a generation or two this
divinely sanctioned hierarchy seems to have operated well enough*.
Why it disappeared is something of a mystery. There is a possibility
that it was suppressed by the bishops, keen to promote their
own power. In this respect, it is instructive to remember the
"heretical" Montanists, who reacted against the increasing
organisation of the early Church. Like other Gnostic Christians
they challenged the authority of priests and bishops and were
This new hierarchy (of metropolitans, primates and so on) led
to new forms of abuse, as powerful men sought ever more powerful
positions. Many of the most famous Christian leaders were rich
laymen whose offices were not gained by piety, merit, election,
or hard work, but by influence and bribery. Rich families routinely
bought Church offices: St Augustine, St Jerome,
Origen and Eusebius were
just a few of the lucky recipients. St Ambrose was consecrated
Bishop of Milan a mere eight days after his baptism.
the Middle Ages the Church had implemented its own seven-fold
hierarchy. Selected boys at the age of around seven started
a thirty-year climb up the ladder of Ostiarius (doorkeeper),
Exorcist, Lector, Acolyte, Subdeacon, Deacon, and Presbyter
(or sacerdos, or priest). In the Western Church these
positions were developed into minor orders (Ostiarius, Exorcist,
Lector, and Acolyte) and major orders (Subdeacon, Deacon, Priest
and Bishop). Some of these differed in the Eastern Churches,
and some have now been abandoned. The existence of Exorcists
for example became something of an embarrassment. In England,
the exorcism of infants when they were baptised was dropped
from the second Edwardian Prayer Book, and the minor orders,
including the office of Exorcist, disappeared from the Ordinal
(the book of instructions for daily services) in 1550. The Roman
Church suppressed the offices of Ostiarius and Exorcist in 1972.
What village parson would not like to be a pope?
Voltaire (1694-1778), Letters on the English
There is no suggestion that the earliest elders/overseers went
through any sort of ordination or consecration, that they wore
special garb, or that they wielded significant power. At some
stage leading elders/overseers seem to have monopolised the
title bishop, and acquired pre-eminence over their
fellows. Initially they were merely first among equals, and
for centuries to come they would address other presbyters as
"fellow presbyters". Soon St Ignatius
of Antioch. (AD c.35-c.107) was claiming that "we ought
to regard the bishop as the Lord himself"*
and suggesting that bishops preside in the place of God*.
The Orthodox Church still holds that a bishop is a living image
of God upon Earth*, and
a "monarch" in his own diocese*.
Other clerics also liked the idea, and adapted it to their needs.
According to St Benedict, for example, a monk must obey his
abbot as Christ himself.
Catholics are still encouraged to think
of priests as representing Jesus Christ himself
During the second century it came to be accepted that there
should be only one bishop in each city, so avoiding conflicts
of authority. As time went by bishops laid claim to more and
more authority. Already around the end of the first century
St Clement of Rome.
had adopted the idea of apostolic succession*.
The basic idea had been first developed by Gnostics who listed
their teachers, and their teachers" teachers, and their
teachers, all the way back to Jesus himself. This idea was developed
into the proposition that the first bishops were the apostles
(or at least were appointed by the apostles), and that all subsequent
bishops were authorised by ones already appointed. Thus it should
be possible to trace back a succession of bishops from any modern
bishop to at least one of the apostles. Bishops became the spiritual
heirs of their predecessors, so only bishops could consecrate
new bishops. By the 250s apostles and bishops were being equated,
and the chain of succession was being used as an explicit argument
for authority and obedience
In theory, this is true of all Churches that claim to be apostolic,
including Eastern, Roman, and Anglican Churches. The authority
of bishops is largely justified on this principle, although
few bishops in the Western Churches, if any at all, can reliably
trace their succession in this way. Nevertheless, the theoretical
link to the apostles has allowed bishops to claim apostolic
authority. Imperceptibly, there has been a change from a theme
of service and humility to one of authority and command. Bishops
were soon pointing out that disobedience to them amounted to
disobedience to God. To fail to obey a priest or a judge was
deserving of death, and bishops were both priests and judges.
They quoted the text of Deuteronomy 17:12: "And the man
that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest
that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or
unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put
away the evil from Israel". By the fifth century bishops
were important people, expecting others to kiss their hands.
Abject obedience is still expected in
the Catholic Church and reflected in the practice of prostration
The hierarchy of the Church grew by repeated applications of
the principle that the first among equals becomes superior to
his fellows. This was how priests had come to be above the common
people, and how bishops had come to be placed above priests.
It was how metropolitans came to be placed above bishops, and
how patriarchs came to be placed above metropolitans. The Patriarch
of Constantinople became Ecumenical Patriarch (i.e. universal
patriarch) by the same process again. By the beginning of the
fourth century it was apparent that ambitious bishops were coveting
more powerful bishoprics. By moving to another see they could
become a metropolitan or even a patriarch. To put a stop to
this, in 325 the Nicene code of canon law forbade bishops moving
from one see to another. But the practice continued. Bishops
still jockeyed for position, "translating" from one
see to a better one. As a council held at Sardica in 341 noted,
the practice of translation was a wicked source of corruption:
"all are aflame with the fires of greed, and are slaves
of ambition". The sale of bishoprics was a scandal within
the Church, and would remain so for many hundreds of years.
From 451 Christianity was the official religion of the emperors.
The Roman Empire, transformed into the Byzantine Empire, became
a Christian theocracy. The Emperor was the head of the Christian
Church, performing priestly and even semi-divine functions.
He exercised supreme authority over the Church. He was responsible
for all matters theological, including doctrine. From the time
of Constantine, emperors possessed the power to call a Church
Council. Constantine himself had called and presided over the
Council of Nicæa and dictated its decisions. From his
reign onwards the Church was effectively a Department of State
advising the Emperor on matters spiritual. Noble families who
had previously provided priests for the official pagan religions
now provided the priests and bishops for the official Christian
Church. Family property was transferred to the Church but kept
under the control of the family, thus avoiding taxation on it.
Generally, the more powerful the family, the greater the Church
The greatest Church officers, the patriarchs, were answerable
directly to the Emperor. The Bishop of Rome was one of these
patriarchs, and also a duke of the Empire, with control of a
duchy and the rights and duties that went with it. When Constantine
had moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium in 324 he had set
in motion a train of events that resulted in the division of
the Empire in 395, and the deposition of the last Western emperor
in 476. After this date the Bishop of Rome was left as the most
powerful individual in the old capital, and over the coming
centuries he arrogated to himself more and more worldly power.
The Emperor in Constantinople still nominally governed Rome,
but papal claims multiplied. Pope Gregory I, who reigned from
590 to 604, increased and consolidated the Western Church's
political power. In 756 the Frankish ruler Pepin III, deceived
by a papal forgery, allowed the Pope to set up the first Papal
The next step was to create a new empire, or at least to annex
half of an existing one. Since the Emperor in Constantinople
was usually crowned by the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Bishop
of Constantinople), Pope Leo III hit upon the idea of crowning
his own emperor. Thus it was that in St Peter's , on Christmas
Eve in AD 800, Leo approached Charlemagne from behind while
he was praying and, without Charlemagne expecting it, crowned
him as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Copying an ancient
Roman ceremony, the Pope then prostrated himself in an act of
emperor worship. Western Christendom now had its own emperor,
sanctified by his own patriarch. The real emperor in Constantinople
and his patriarch could only fume impotently. In time popes
would make increasingly ambitious claims of temporal power for
themselves, notably that God had offered the imperial throne
to the papacy, and that the Papal States were inherited from
St Peter himself. Popes such as Innocent III claimed to have
been given the whole world to rule over by God. Innocent thus
considered himself qualified to offer the imperial throne to
Otto IV and declared him to be King of the Romans, elected by
the grace of God and of the Pope.
feudalism developed, it permeated Western Christianity. When
a vassal paid homage to his lord, he knelt and put his hands
together in front of him. His lord then put his hands around
the vassal's as the feudal oath was sworn. This position of
the vassal is the position still adopted by modern Christians
at prayer, offering their hands for their lord to take between
his, as though to renew a feudal bond. Ancient Christians had
prayed in a quite different manner, standing and with their
arms held out, palms upwards. The modern method dates from the
flourishing of the feudal system in the twelfth century. Feudal
ideas were so strong that they appeared everywhere. Christians
even imagined witches paying feudal homage to Satan.
Bishops praying the original Christian
way and a little girl praying the feudal way
The papacy occupied a pivotal role in the feudal system as
intermediary between Heaven and the material world. Serfs owed
allegiance to their local lords, who in turn owed their allegiance
to barons. Barons owed their allegiance to the great lords.
The great lords owed allegiance to the king (or emperor). Kings
and emperors owed their allegiance to the Pope, who in turn
held the whole world in fief from God. This system paralleled
the Western Church hierarchy: believer, priest, bishop, metropolitan,
patriarch and pope. Directly or indirectly, everyone in Western
Christendom was therefore subordinate, both spiritually and
temporally, to the Pope. In theory the rest of the world was
too, and still is; but God omitted to mention this important
intelligence to anyone outside the Catholic Church.
Feudal hierarchies were more of a network than a pair of distinct
hierarchies. For example new bishops and abbots paid feudal
homage to the king, swearing feudal fealty like any other feudal
tenant. Bishops were royal functionaries. They helped kings
to govern, they ran chanceries and exchequers; they were politicians
and judges, local potentates and tax collectors, diplomats and
royal emissaries. In many respects kings were senior churchmen,
often having total control over the Church within their realm.
On formal occasions kings dressed like senior bishops, and the
ceremony of crowning a European monarch was similar to that
of consecrating a bishop. Both involved ritual processions to
a cathedral church followed by a formal ceremony. The new king
or bishop dressed almost identically. In the course of the ceremony
there was the same formal confirmation of religious orthodoxy,
followed by the anointing with holy oil, modelled on the ancient
Jewish practice of anointing messiahs. The monarch or bishop
was then invested with a ring and staff, and the ceremony concluded
with a kiss of peace and a Mass.
the Pope sat at the pinnacle of the feudal pyramid of worldly
power, monarchs vied with each other for papal favours. Powerful
men applied to the Pope for the title of King , as Alfonso-Henry,
Count of Portugal, did when he thought he had earned the right
to be King of Portugal. Once they had a crown, kings vied for
other honours. Henry VIII of England was famously awarded the
title of Defender of the Faith by the Pope, before
his problems with the Roman Church. The King of France was styled
"His Most Christian Majesty" and the King of Spain
was, and still is, "His Catholic Majesty". The courts
of worldly rulers were seen as reflections of God's divine court.
The heavenly king sat on his throne, wearing a gold crown, dressed
in ermine-lined robes, holding a bejewelled sceptre and orb,
surrounded by courtiers and so did earthly kings. By
copying each other's trappings God and kings validated each
other's rights and each other's hierarchies. Popes were especially
fond of stressing how their role paralleled that of God. In
some late medieval art God was portrayed like a pope. The Eastern
Church used a similar technique: in Byzantine art Christ and
emperor are often indistinguishable.
God was a bigger and better king than any earthly monarch,
but he was still a king. Medieval men followed the same conventions
in respect to both earthly and heavenly monarchs. In their presence
they took off their hats, bowed their heads and knelt. Kings
of Heaven and Earth were treated in the same way because, essentially,
they were the same. The civil crown and the heavenly crown were
almost identical. The divinely appointed earthly hierarchy mirrored
the divinely appointed heavenly hierarchy. It must have been
difficult for many Christians to distinguish fully between the
members of these hierarchies, especially when they were all
addressed as Lord: My Lord Earl and My Lord Bishop
wielded almost indistinguishable temporal and spiritual swords.
They were answerable to My Lord the King and My
Lord the Pope, both on behalf of the Lord God.
Jesus-God wearing a royal crown
Jesus-God wearing two royal crowns
they had first appeared as a separate rank in the early Church,
bishops had been freely elected by the Christian community.
Once the Church hierarchy was in place, senior members of it
started to interfere with these free elections and eventually
won the right to appoint bishops themselves. The bishops of
Rome for example had been elected by the citizens of Rome until
the eighth century. Everywhere the franchise was gradually removed
from the common people. By the third Lateran Council, called
in 1179, lay influence had been eliminated in Western Christianity,
and all power was now invested in the clergy. So it was that
the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy became self-appointing, though
vestiges of the original rights of free election remain in the
East to this day*. With
no accountability to its members, the Church potentates pursued
for centuries a policy of self-enrichment. Bishoprics were valuable
property, and in the tenth century the office of bishop could
be left in wills to near relatives, even to female relatives*.
Bishops and abbots lived like secular princes. They imposed
taxes, sold offices, led armies, dispensed justice, maintained
their own prisons, kept concubines, and traded in slaves. On
their deaths, their sons often replaced them in the family business.
While bishops ranked alongside earls, archbishops ranked alongside
dukes. Both archbishops and dukes were, and still are, addressed
as Your Grace. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, archbishops
and dukes were limitted by the two kings to 20 horses and 50
servants, Bishops and earles were allowed a mere 10 horses and
The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman
Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan
The traditional position of the Church is that bishops are
called by God, and that they represent him here in the observable
world. One might therefore expect that bishops would be, as
they have claimed to be, more holy, more wholesome, more moral,
more just, and less fallible than those who are not inspired
by God. It is not always easy to square these expectations with
the historical record. From the third century onwards we find
all manner of venality and immoral behaviour. We find bishops
leading heresies and schisms, and executing each other. We find
every sort of criminal activity from piracy to incest. We find
bishops selling Church offices. We find them appointing their
sons and other relatives to rich offices. We find them acquiring
and misusing power over the secular authorities their
actions frequently driven by political considerations.
We have already seen how the power play between the patriarchies
largely determined the development of Christian orthodoxy. The
patriarchs jockeyed for position while fighting off threats
from their own flock. Their position was precarious, even up
to recent times. As one authority noted of the Bishop of Constantinople
(the Ecumenical Patriarch) "Out of 159 patriarchs who have
held office between the fifteenth and the twentieth century,
the Turks have on 105 occasions driven patriarchs from their
throne; there have been 27 abdications, often involuntary; 6
patriarchs have suffered violent deaths by hanging, poisoning,
or drowning; and only 21 have died natural deaths while in office"
*. Offices were often
bought and sold. For many centuries after the Turks took Constantinople,
the ecumenical patriarchs bought their Offices from the Sultan
* , bishops bought theirs
from patriarchs, priests paid their bishops, and the priests
raised the money by taxing the laity.
The position was much the same throughout Christendom at least
until the Reformation, but one patriarch excelled his brothers
in many respects. The bishops of Rome were over-achievers, needing
to match the ecumenical patriarchs in all respects. We have
already seen how Pope Leo III created his own emperor, Charlemagne,
in Rome to match the real emperor in Constantinople.
We will look more carefully at the Bishop of Rome, not only
because as Pope he is the head of the Roman Church, but also
because he is one of the five great patriarchs of the undivided
Orthodox Church, and is even recognised by the Anglican Church
as a valid bishop. We will, however, concentrate on beliefs
held by many Roman Catholic adherents. They are
- that the Pope is the head of the whole Church.
- that Popes have always been elected according to fixed
rules, in elections assisted by God.
- that there has been a continuous line of known, canonically
appointed popes since St Peter.
- that popes have been uniformly pious, their records being
consistent with God's involvement in their selection.
Let's look at some of the evidence that historians have claimed
to be at odds with these beliefs. Most of the information concerning
the records of the popes can be verified in The Oxford Dictionary
of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly, which gives a comprehensive
list of original sources. Much of the most interesting information
comes from records left by authorities such as Bishop Liutprand
Early Christian writers agreed that all bishops were equal.
But metropolitans and patriarchs soon established themselves
as superior to ordinary bishops. Roman patriarchs were particularly
adept at advancing their own status, helped along by the fact
that their city had been the capital of the Empire. As other
bishops took over the role of governors, the bishops of Rome
gradually took over the role of the emperors. They made many
claims for themselves. They alone, they said, are entitled to
be called Pope. They are above their fellow patriarchs. They
are God's deputies on Earth. They are superhuman. They must
have not merely their hands, but also their toes kissed by ordinary
people. They are infallible. They rule the whole Universe. How
did all this come about?
In the earliest years there do not seem to have been any remarkable
claims about the position of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed there
is no reason to believe that there was a bishop in Rome. The
only "bishop" in early times was the leader of Jesus"
followers in Jerusalem. Other bishops were invented in the East
generations after Jesus" lifetime. The idea that St Peter
had been the first Bishop of Rome seems to have been invented
around AD 220. Soon tentative efforts were being made by bishops
of Rome to establish themselves as special. In the middle of
the same century Pope Stephen I developed an ingenious argument
to support his claim to pre-eminence. His argument was later
developed by other popes, and is now enshrined in canon law*.
It may be summarised as follows :
- The apostle Peter had enjoyed pre-eminence among the apostles.
- Peter had been Bishop of Rome.
- Subsequent bishops of Rome were successors to Peter and
so enjoyed the same pre-eminence that he had.
Prelude To Dogmatic Papal Infallibility
from Qui pluribus,
On Faith And Religion, Encyclical of Pope Pius
IX, November 9, 1846.
Although it is not immediate obvious, this text summarises
the three-part argument justifying the Papal claims to
supremacy and infallibility.
has set up a living authority to establish and teach
the true and legitimate meaning of His heavenly revelation.
This authority judges infallibly all disputes which
concern matters of faith and morals, lest the faithful
be swirled around by every wind of doctrine which
springs from the evilness of men in encompassing error.
And this living infallible authority is active only
in that Church which was built by
Christ the Lord upon Peter, the head of the entire
Church, leader and shepherd, whose faith He promised
would never fail. This Church has had an unbroken
line of succession from Peter himself; these legitimate
pontiffs are the heirs and defenders of the same teaching,
rank, office and power. And the Church is where Peter
is, and Peter speaks in the Roman Pontiff, living
at all times in his successors and making judgment,
providing the truth of the faith to those who seek
it. The divine words therefore mean what this Roman
See of the most blessed Peter holds and has held.
All three of the elements of this argument are questionable.
First, the proposition that the apostle Peter had enjoyed
pre-eminence among the apostles. The most common view in
early times in the Pauline faction of the Church was that all
the apostles shared power equally. In the wider Church if any
one had enjoyed pre-eminence it was undoubtedly Jesus"
brother James, who headed the Christian community at Jerusalem,
the centre of Christianity. The earliest Church historians refer
to the throne of the see at Jerusalem but to no other bishop's
throne. It is clear enough that Peter had no special legislative
power* and that if anything
Peter felt himself subordinate to James. Despite the evidence
Stephen found support for his claims in the Matthew gospel,
where Jesus addresses Peter:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this
rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not
prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
The passage relies heavily upon a pun that works in both Aramaic
and Greek (and other languages) in which the name Peter is the
same as the word for a rock: Aramaic Cephas, Greek
Petros. Many of the earliest Church Fathers had considered
this passage, but none had interpreted it as Stephen did. The
next verse of the Matthew gospel was also taken as supporting
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven:
and whosoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven:
and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in
heaven Matthew 16:19
The "power of the keys" was interpreted
as disciplinary power and was enjoyed by all bishops in the
early church, and the power to bind and loose was not
peculiar to Peter either. Jesus granted it to the disciples
generally in Matthew 18:18. Roman Catholic apologists have cited
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, as affirming that Jesus had set
up a single bishopric (unam cathedram) and had given
the primacy to Peter, who enjoyed jurisdiction over the other
apostles. But these details are found only in the papal version
of the text in question. In the received text these statements
are not made. On the other hand the received text states that
all of the apostles enjoyed the same authority*.
It is not known how the papal version came into being, but it
may be significant that the idea that the Bishop of Rome enjoyed
any special power was a product of forged documents such as
the Capitularies of Benedict the Levite, included in
the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.
Second, the proposition that Peter had been Bishop of Rome.
It is not at all certain that the apostles regarded themselves
as belonging to any Christian Church. If they did, there is
no reason to suppose that they took charge of particular parts
of it. Early Christians seem to have thought that the apostles
had belonged to the whole Church. As far as is known, no one
thought of them as belonging to geographic regions as bishops
were later to do. The identification of apostles with specific
places seems to have developed over the first few centuries.
(Although James had been based in Jerusalem, his authority extended
over the whole Christian community, worldwide.) Ironically,
one of the earliest geographical identifications was that St
Peter had been the head of the Christian community in Antioch,
and he was thus referred to as the first Bishop of Antioch*.
There is not even a hint in the New Testament that Peter was
Bishop of Rome. Neither is there any contemporary evidence that
he was, or that he took charge of the Christian community there.
Indeed Peter seems to have spent only a short time in Rome*.
His name does not appear amongst those addressed in St Paul's
letter to the Christian community there: St Paul sends greetings
to many individuals in Rome (Romans 16:1-16), but nowhere mentions
Peter. Worse, there is an early record that the first Bishop
of Rome was called Linus. His name appeared first on the earliest
lists of bishops of Rome, and also in 2 Timothy 4:21, where
final greetings are sent to Christian notables in Rome. Again
Peter's name did not appear at all. Irenaeus
of Lyons, writing before the year 200, confirms Linus as
the first Bishop of Rome, and so did a solemn decree (an Apostolic
Constitution) issued in 270. Only later did the convention arise
of describing Peter as a bishop of Rome.
Third, the proposition that subsequent bishops of Rome
were successors to Peter and so enjoyed the same pre-eminence
that he had. Even if Peter had been granted some special
position by the words reported in Matthew 18, it is still far
from clear that they can be applied to anyone else. The passage
in question is addressed specifically to Peter. Stephen's argument
depends on an extension of the principle of apostolic succession.
By virtue of being Bishop of Rome he claimed to inherit St Peter's
power. But there is no suggestion in the gospels, or anywhere
else, that such power could be inherited. The principle of apostolic
succession is no use in itself, for this principle shows only
that bishops are successors to the apostles generally. Not one
of the great Fathers of the Church recognised any special mode
of succession for the bishops of Rome. None refers to them as
Peter's successors. There is no suggestion of any special office,
or of any inheritance, or of any bishop being identified as
a rock like Peter*.
Those who conceded that Rome has special rights did so specifically
on the grounds that it was the centre of the Empire (which it
was until Constantine moved his capital to Byzantium in 324).
The claim to special pre-eminence by virtue of a link with Peter
had not occurred to earlier bishops of Rome, even when they
needed it to bolster their claims. For example, towards the
end of the second century, a bishop of Rome (Victor) purported
to excommunicate some fellow Christians in Asia for failing
to follow his own innovations concerning the date of Easter.
He was "sternly rebuked" by other bishops in the West
and was obliged to stop*.
Many years were to pass before Stephen developed his argument
and asserted his unique authority. His claim carried spectacularly
little weight when it was first used. Stephen was trying to
establish his authority over Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage.
But Cyprian would have none of it and affirmed the orthodox
view (still held by the Orthodox Church) that all bishops were
equal*. Stephen backed
off when another patriarch, Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria,
intervened. It was to be many years before Stephen's claim swayed
an argument even within Western Christianity. Constant repetition,
the dimming of memories, constructive forgery, and a respectable
patina of time seems to have lent authority to it. The Eastern
Church has held the same position ever since the claims were
first made: it rejects them absolutely. None of the Greek Fathers
of the Church mentions, or even suggests, that they considered
themselves subject to the Bishop of Rome. No one at all in the
whole of the early Church appealed to Rome as final arbiter
to settle disputes concerning matters of faith. Indeed parts
even of the Western Church rejected the views of the bishops
of Rome, as the African Church had done when Stephen had tried
to settle Cyprian's baptismal problem*.
Of the scores of controversies in the first six centuries of
the Christian Church, not a single one was settled by reference
to the Bishop of Rome.
It is clear that in early times Rome did not enjoy supremacy
over the other patriarchies. Even after the fall of Jerusalem,
Rome was no more important than Antioch or Alexandria although,
as the capital of the Empire, its name was usually listed first.
These great centres did not lay claim to dictate doctrine. Ecumenical
councils settled doctrine, and these councils were not called
by the bishops of Rome. In fact the bishops of Rome did not
even attend many of them, including the most important, the
Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in 325. At this council just
two presbyters represented the Bishop of Rome. At the next ecumenical
council, there were no bishops from Western Christendom present
Eastern bishops always regarded the bishops of Rome as analogous
to other patriarchs, and they continued to do so, being successively
bemused and outraged by Rome's increasing claims, and the forgeries
that were produced to support them. Over the centuries the Roman
Church manufactured a large number of forgeries. Even the decisions
of the Council of Nicæa were tampered with. For example
the sixth canon confirmed that the bishops of Alexandria enjoyed
authority similar to that of the bishops of Rome and Antioch.
Clerks in the papal chancery added the words "The Roman
Church has always had the primacy". The faithful in the
West believed it, having no way of spotting the imposture, but
the Eastern Churches knew better because they had original documents.
In time the fraudulent version would be cited at Chalcedon,
though it fooled no one, and failed to stop Constantinople being
established as the court of appeal from provincial synods*.
The claims of Rome continued to multiply. In 343 the synod
at Sardica (modern Sofia) had laid down that appeals should
be referred to the See of Rome. This convention was set out
in the Sardican canons. As papal claims grew, it became expedient
to claim this role for Rome not only within Western Christianity,
but also throughout the whole Church. In the Roman chancery
the Sardican canons were appended to those of the Ecumenical
Council of Nicæa, so giving them spurious universal authority.
Bishops of Rome then made claim on the strength of them. Zosimus
for example tried to impose his rule in Africa on the basis
of them, but the Africans obtained a true copy of the Nicæan
canons from the East and revealed the imposture.
As the centuries rolled by, the bishops of Rome made grander
and grander claims about their rights and abilities. Around
378, Damasus I held a synod that declared he should not be compelled
to appear in court. It was Damasus also who started to refer
to his fellow bishops as sons rather than as brothers.
Soon, bishop Siricius was self-titling himself "Pope"
and claiming the status of imperial decrees for his edicts.
In the fifth century Pope Boniface I made the claim that "it
has never been lawful for what has once been decided by the
apostolic see to be reconsidered".
Further papal claims were bolstered by more forged documents.
One such was produced by Pope Symmachus, who reigned between
498 and 514. He was charged by the Emperor with celebrating
Easter at the wrong time, fornication, and the misuse of Church
property. Symmachus's response was to produce what are now called
the Symmachan Forgeries. This set of documents purported
to demonstrate that a pope cannot be judged by mere human beings,
no matter what he might have done. For centuries, popes would
produce this work of fiction to prove that they were above human
justice, sometimes with success. In 664, the argument about
the Bishop of Rome being the successor of St Peter scored a
major success. Roman representatives at the Council of Whitby
convinced members of the Celtic Church that the Bishop of Rome
was the successor to St Peter. Since he held the keys to the
gates of Heaven, the Celtic Church abandoned its independence
and, in effect, joined the Roman Church.
Ever-increasing claims created friction with the other patriarchs.
A particular problem was the title of Ecumenical Patriarch accorded
to the Bishop of Constantinople. In the sixth century Pope Gregory
I had warned his fellow patriarch about using such a proud and
sinful title, but without effect. Within a century bishops of
Rome were using the title for themselves. By 680, in the reign
of Pope Agatho, the Easter synod was confident enough to assert
for the first time that Rome enjoyed not merely primacy in the
whole Church but supremacy over it. The identification of the
Pope with St Peter continued. When in 710 the Pope ordered that
the Archbishop of Ravenna be blinded, the verdict was presented
as coming from St Peter himself.
St Peter or not, the Pope was still a duke of the Empire. His
duchy still belonged to the Emperor, and he still paid taxes
accordingly. But by the first half of the eighth century popes
felt powerful enough to stop paying. Now they were independent
and able to exercise power on their own authority. Their new
claims to additional power were supported by more forged documents.
The most famous of these was the Donation of Constantine.
This was a document, supposedly dating from 30 th March
315, that purported to confer on the reigning pope, and his
successors, primacy over the patriarchs as well as temporal
dominion over the West, along with the imperial insignia. The
Cathic encyclopedia gives a fair summary of it:
(Latin, Donatio Constantini).
By this name is understood, since the end of the Middle Ages,
a forged document of Emperor Constantine the Great, by which
large privileges and rich possessions were conferred on the
pope and the Roman Church. In the oldest known (ninth century)
manuscript (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, manuscript
Latin 2777) and in many other manuscripts the document bears
the title: "Constitutum domini Constantini imperatoris".
It is addressed by Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-35)
and consists of two parts. In the first (entitled "Confessio")
the emperor relates how he was instructed in the Christian
Faith by Sylvester, makes a full profession of faith, and
tells of his baptism in Rome by that pope, and how he was
thereby cured of leprosy. In the second part (the "Donatio")
Constantine is made to confer on Sylvester and his successors
the following privileges and possessions: the pope, as successor
of St. Peter, has the primacy over the four Patriarchs of
Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, also over
all the bishops in the world. The Lateran basilica at Rome,
built by Constantine, shall surpass all churches as their
head, similarly the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul shall
be endowed with rich possessions. The chief Roman ecclesiastics
(clerici cardinales), among whom senators may also be received,
shall obtain the same honours and distinctions as the senators.
Like the emperor the Roman Church shall have as functionaries
cubicularii, ostiarii, and excubitores. The pope shall enjoy
the same honorary rights as the emperor, among them the right
to wear an imperial crown, a purple cloak and tunic, and in
general all imperial insignia or signs of distinction; but
as Sylvester refused to put on his head a golden crown, the
emperor invested him with the high white cap (phrygium). Constantine,
the document continues, rendered to the pope the service of
a strator, i.e. he led the horse upon which the pope rode.
Moreover, the emperor makes a present to the pope and his
successors of the Lateran palace, of Rome and the provinces,
districts, and towns of Italy and all the Western regions
(tam palatium nostrum, ut prelatum est, quamque Romæ
urbis et omnes Italiæ seu occidentalium regionum provincias
loca et civitates). The document goes on to say that for himself
the emperor has established in the East a new capital which
bears his name, and thither he removes his government, since
it is inconvenient that a secular emperor have power where
God has established the residence of the head of the Christian
religion. The document concludes with maledictions against
all who dare to violate these donations and with the assurance
that the emperor has signed them with his own hand and placed
them on the tomb of St. Peter.
This document is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere
between the years 750 and 850.
What the encyclopedia does not mention is that the donation
was apparently concocted in the papal chancery around AD 754,
and was used by Pope Stephen II (III)*
to deceive the Frankish King Pepin III. It was a great success.
Not only did Pepin feel obliged to protect Stephen from his
enemies, but he also wrote a new document, the Donation
of Pepin, confirming the claims made in the fabricated
Donation of Constantine. The Donation of Pepin
was confirmed in turn by Charlemagne in 774.
Using these documents, a long succession of popes claimed not
only seniority over the Eastern patriarchs, but also the exclusive
right to judge the clergy, and the right to the imperial crown.
As the centuries passed the validity of the Donation of Constantine came to be widely accepted. However, the document
was so badly fabricated that it was only a matter of time before
it was exposed as a fraud. For example, it referred to Byzantium
as Constantinople, a name acquired by the city after
the time when the document was purportedly written. In 1439
a papal aide revealed it as a fraud by highlighting a variety
of such blunders, but the truth was suppressed*.
By the sixteenth century many scholars knew it to be a fraud,
but Rome still asserted its authenticity. For centuries one
infallible pope after another refused to acknowledge it as the
fabrication that it is now universally accepted to be (a fact
about which the Catholic Encycopedia is extremely evasive*)
The ninth century saw another celebrated set of papal forgeries:
the False Decretals (or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals).
These were attributed to St Isidore of Seville, who had died
in 636. They consisted of hundreds of documents, some completely
bogus, some genuine but tampered with. Once again they sought
to enhance papal claims. They set out precedents defining the
rights of bishops and asserting the superior authority of the
reigning pope over synods and metropolitans, and indeed the
whole Church. It affected all of Western Christendom, including
England. As a legal authority puts it:
The Isidorian forgeries were soon accepted at Rome. The popes
profited by documents which taught that ever since the apostolic
age the bishops of Rome had been declaring, or even making,
law for the universal church. On this rock or on this sand
a lofty edifice was reared*.
The decretals were invoked by Pope Nicholas I (pope 858-867,
now St Nicholas) to support his own claims. It is now known
from forensic evidence that the decretals were compiled in France,
probably around AD 850*.
For centuries scholars have known them to be forgeries, but
the Roman Church placed any writing that said so on the Index,
its list of prohibited books. It was not until 1789 that Pope
Pius VI admitted the truth.
In the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII claimed that he had
sole right to the title Pope, an honorific that had been widely
used in the early church, and not conferred on the bishops of
Rome until the second half of the fourth century. Gregory conceived
of the whole world as a divinely established feudal state with
himself at its head, in the role of St Peter, Christ's vicar
on Earth. In the face of all precedents Gregory required all
bishops to take an oath of personal loyalty to him. From that
time onwards Roman Catholic bishops took their position not
merely by apostolic succession, but by favour of the Pope. He
also claimed that the Pope is incapable of making a mistake.
In his Dictatus papae of 1075, largely based upon forged
documents, Gregory spelled out the implications of this. Amongst
- The Pope cannot be judged by any other human being.
- The Roman Church has never erred and never will.
- The Pope alone is entitled to imperial insignia.
- The Pope can depose emperors and kings and can absolve their
subjects from allegiance.
- All princes must kiss the Pope's feet.
- By the merits of Peter, a properly elected pope is necessarily
exalted position guaranteed him personal sanctity inherited
from Peter and supremacy over all earthly rulers, both spiritual
and temporal. This last claim was undermined when the German
King, Henry IV, deposed him.
In 1123 Pope Callistus II became the first pope to convene
a Church Council (the First Lateran Council) that was regarded
as ecumenical in Western Christendom, though not of course in
the East. The Blessed Eugene III, who ascended the papal throne
in 1145, expounded the doctrine that Christ had devolved upon
the Pope supreme authority in temporal, as well as spiritual,
matters. Popes also expounded on their power in Heaven. For
1,000 years saints had been declared locally, or had simply
arisen by common consent. Around 1170 Pope Alexander III tried
to reserve to the papacy the power to create saints.
power was confirmed by Pope Innocent III, who ascended the papal
throne in 1198. To his credit, one of his first acts was to
root out the nest of forgers operating in the papal chancery.
Innocent saw himself not as the Vicar of St Peter,
but as the Vicar of Christ*.
He claimed to be set midway between God and man, and to have
been given not only the Church but also the whole world to govern.
He succeeded in extending the papacy's feudal power, acquiring
as fiefdoms Portugal, Aragon, Hungary and England , and purporting
to reassign important feudal properties of Raimon VI of Toulouse
a precedent that is still mourned to this day. He stated
that every cleric must obey the Pope, even if he commands what
is evil, for no one may judge the Pope.
Innocent IV (pope 1243-1254) confirmed his total dominion over
all earthly rulers. Gregory IX (pope 1227-1241) declared himself
to be the Lord and Master of the whole Universe, not merely
of people, or of living creatures, but absolutely everything.
Boniface VIII (pope 1294-1303) defined as official doctrine
the proposition that every human being must do as the Pope tells
him. The pontiff, he said, is the repository and fount of all
law. From this he drew the conclusion, in the closing sentence
of his bull Unam sanctum, that blind submission to
his authority was necessary for salvation : ".... we declare,
state, define and pronounce that for every human creature to
be subject to the Roman pope is altogether necessary for salvation".
It was heresy to deny this infallible truth. He also claimed
to be the bodily presence of Christ. He would on occasion dress
in imperial robes and claim to be Emperor as well.
claims were accompanied by appropriate symbolism. By the eleventh
century a coronet had already been added to the rim of the papal
tiara. A second was added around 1300, and a third a few years
later, so producing the familiar triple crown, which symbolises
papal dominion. These claims of dominion have never been rescinded,
and popes still sport their triple crown, confirming their absolute
rule. Similarly, they took to adopting other super-symbols.
Since archbishops carried crosiers with one cross piece, and
patriarchs carried crosiers with two cross pieces, the Roman
popes adopted one with three cross pieces.
supporters of papal claims often depicted
emperors and kings humbling themselves before popes.
his bull Fidem catholicam, of 1338, Pope Benedict XII
proclaimed that imperial authority derives directly from God
himself. In fact there seems to have been some confusion between
God and the Pope. In the late Middle Ages God was portrayed
as the Pope, even wearing the pope's triple crown. Both Van
Eyck and Botticelli painted pictures showing God sporting a
Divine claims were at least partly responsible for the Reformation.
"I do not know" wrote Luther "whether the Christian
faith can bear it, that there should be any other head of the
universal church on earth than Christ himself". But papal
claims were not to be retracted. Pius V (pope 1566-1572) confirmed
that he could appoint anyone, including emperors, for any reason
and whenever he pleased. He also denied that it could ever be
lawful to disobey unjust papal orders. For centuries, one pope
after another was to confirm that, by virtue of his office,
he enjoyed total dominion, both secular and religious. In 1568
Pius V stated that this was not merely law, but an eternal law.
had exercised absolute power over the Papal States, a large
stretch of Italy that had been acquired by the sword, since
the Middle Ages. A series of popes made increasingly unlikely
claims about them. When Napoleon seized them in the nineteenth
century, Pius VII demanded their return on the grounds that
"they are not our personal inheritance, but the inheritance
of St Peter who received them from Christ". By 1870 Garibaldi's
army had captured the Papal States and unified Italy. In that
year the dogma of papal infallibility was declared. According
to this, when speaking ex cathedra on faith or morals
the Pope is literally infallible.
XIII firmly believed that his power extended over the whole
world. In 1900 he dedicated the whole human race to the sacred
heart of Jesus. His successor Pius X convinced himself, and
others, that he possessed supernatural powers, and was subsequently
made a saint on the strength of them. Many papal claims have
been replaced by more modest ones, but none has been explicitly
abandoned. There may be more claims to come. To this day, Roman
Catholic bishops take an oath to maintain, defend, increase
and advance the rights, honours, privileges and authority of
their lord the Pope.
have not always been elected in the way they are now. In the
earliest times they were elected, like other bishops, by local
citizens. Pope Stephen III (IV) curtailed this right in 769.
From then on the Roman clergy were, in theory, eligible to elect
their bishop. A new system giving control to cardinal bishops
was introduced at the Lateran Synod of 1059. Then in 1179 the
cardinals won exclusive rights to elect their bishop, who by
this time was reserving to himself the title of Pope.
In practice neither the people nor the cardinals or other clergy
were always able to elect the candidate they wanted. Sometimes
Roman mobs took matters into their own hands. In 896 for example
a rioting mob forced the election of Boniface VI, despite his
having been twice degraded for immorality and defrocked. More
often popes were appointed by whoever exercised the most power
at the time. An Ostrogoth king had terrorised the electorate
into choosing a Subdeacon, Silverius, as pope in the sixth century.
The Empress Theodora wanted a more sympathetic bishop of Rome,
so Silverius was arrested and deposed, and the Emperor forced
through the election of Pope Vigilius. At the beginning of the
tenth century the Western Emperor Otto took a dislike to the
rightful pope, Benedict IV. Benedict grovelled at the Emperor's
feet, declared himself to be an impostor, and claimed that the
Emperor's man was the true pope. So it was that the Emperor's
man became Pope Leo V in 903.
At other times popes owed their position to some other European
power, or to the influence of a powerful Italian family. Once
in power, many popes did their best to keep the papacy in the
family. Pope Silverius for example was the son of Pope Hormisdas.
Pope Gregory I was directly descended from Felix III (II). Stephen
IV (V), Sergius II and Hadrian II all belonged to the same aristocratic
family. Alexander IV was the nephew of Gregory IX, himself the
nephew of Innocent III, who in turn was the nephew of Pope Clement
III. Hadrian V was a nephew of Innocent IV; Pius III of Pius
II; Paul II of Eugene IV; Julius II of Sixtus IV, and so on.
Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope
Alexander VI ) an infamous libertine,
depicted in The Borgias (TV Series 2011)
For centuries, the papacy was passed around the leading families
of Italy and Europe. The Colonnas tried hard for many years
to place their man on the papal throne, finally succeeding with
Martin V in 1417. Pope Alexander VI , a Borgia, was the nephew
of Callistus III. Paul III , previously known as Cardinal
Petticoat, owed his advancement to his sister who had been
the mistress of Alexander. Pius IV in turn owed his position
largely to his elder brother, who had married into the family
of Paul. Both Leo X and Clement VII were members of the Medici
family (they were cousins), and so was Leo XI , nephew of Leo
X. The Orsini family managed to place on the papal throne Celestine
III , Nicholas III and Benedict XIII.
The Banquet of Chestnuts (or Ballet of
Chestnuts), refers to a supper held in the Papal Palace
by Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on
30 October 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved
in a Latin diary titled Liber Notarum, by Protonotary
Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard.
"On the evening of the last day
of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in
his chambers in the Vatican with 'fifty honest prostitutes',
called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the
attendants and others who were present, at first in
their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra
with the burning candles were taken from the tables
and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around,
which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands
and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare,
and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were
announced for those who could perform the act most often
with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes,
barrets, and other things."
At the beginning of the tenth century the papacy was controlled
by a man called Theophylact and his wife Theodora. This period
of dependency is generally known to historians as the pornocracy
of the Holy See. It extended through the reigns of Popes
Sergius III, Anastasius III, Lando, John X, Leo VI, Stephen
VII (VIII) and John XI. According to Bishop Liutprand of Cremona,
John XI was the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III and Theodora's
15-year-old daughter. In 935 an influential aristocrat, Alberic
II, prompted a revolt against Theophylact's puppet pope, John
XI. John was imprisoned and treated like a slave, while Alberic
appointed his own pope, Leo VII. Alberic was also responsible
for the next pope, Stephen VIII (IX), who tried to exercise
a measure of independence and as a result found himself imprisoned,
mutilated and murdered. Alberic's next two popes, Marinus II
and Agapetus II, were more amenable. Next came Alberic's own
illegitimate son, Pope John XII, who was elected in accordance
with his father's instructions and in contravention of existing
election decrees. Alberic's family (the Alberics of Tusculum)
managed to place 13 of their members on the papal throne over
Often, a number of valid popes were alive at the same time.
For example, the Emperor Otto appointed Pope Leo VIII to replace
Pope John XII after John had been deposed in 963. John subsequently
returned to Rome and deposed Leo. After John's death in 964,
the Romans elected a new pope, Benedict V. Otto now laid siege
to Rome. The citizens handed Benedict over to the Emperor. He
was deposed and degraded, stripped of his papal robes, and his
papal staff broken over his head by Otto's nominee, Leo , who
was then reinstated. John XII, Leo VIII and Benedict V are all
now considered to have been valid popes.
After Otto's death in 973, a faction of the Crescentii family
tried to get their nominee on the papal throne as Boniface VII.
The fact that Otto's nominee Benedict VI still occupied it had
to be overcome by Boniface. He instructed a priest called Stephen
to strangle Benedict, and the pious Stephen complied. But now
another candidate appeared with more powerful backing, so Boniface
fled with the papal treasure. The new pope was Benedict VII,
another kinsman of Alberic, who enjoyed the support of the Emperor.
When Benedict died in 983, the Emperor, Otto II, appointed Pope
John XIV apparently without even consulting the people or clergy
of Rome. Otto II died in December 983. Without his support John
was vulnerable since the new Emperor was only three years old.
Boniface VII soon reappeared, and had John imprisoned, deposed
and murdered. Boniface himself died in 985, probably the victim
of assassination. Pope John XV succeeded him with the approval
of the Crescentii family. The period of Crescentii supremacy
was turbulent, and by the age of 15 the new emperor, Otto III,
felt obliged to visit Rome to attend to matters personally.
The Pope died of a fever before Otto arrived, so Otto was free
to appoint one of his own relatives, who became Pope Gregory
V. Aged 24 he was Otto's senior by nine years. When Otto returned
to Germany the Crescentii family drove Gregory from Rome, and
put their own man, John Philagathos, on the papal throne. He
lasted only until Otto could reassert his influence, after which
Gregory V was restored. John was blinded, and his nose, tongue,
lips and hands mutilated, then he was tried, condemned and imprisoned.
After the death of Pope Gregory V in 999, Otto appointed a new
pope, Sylvester II, who was popularly believed to have made
a pact with Satan. Otto died without an heir in 1002 and when
Sylvester followed him to the grave the following year, the
Crescentii family were again able to put their puppet on the
papal throne. The puppet Pope John XVII lasted only a few months
and was succeeded by another Crescentii puppet pope, John XVIII.
His reign ended in mysterious circumstances in 1009, although
he kept his life for the time being. Another Crescentii puppet
was then installed as Pope Sergius IV.
In 1012 the house of Tusculum (descended from Theophylact)
gained ascendancy over the Crescentii family. The reigning pope,
Sergius, and his predecessor, John XVIII, were both murdered.
The house of Tusculum placed its man on the papal throne as
Pope Benedict VIII. On his death in 1024, his younger brother
became Pope John XIX. Not being in Holy Orders, he was elevated
from layman to pope in a single day. Such promotion was unusual
and called for particularly lavish bribery. After John's death
his brother, now head of the family, bribed the electorate once
again and succeeded in getting his own son elected. The son
was still a layman, or perhaps lay-child would be a more appropriate
term. In the space of a single October day in 1032 this "mere
urchin" became His Holiness Pope Benedict IX. He led a
scandalous life, and when his family's fortunes were reversed
in 1044 he was obliged to flee Rome.
The Crescentii family regained power and promptly installed
their own pope, Sylvester III, early in 1045. Within a few months
Benedict's supporters expelled Sylvester, who also fled Rome
to the safety of lands under Crescentii control. Benedict was
restored as Pope, but within a few months he decided he had
had enough of the papacy, and wanted to settle down with an
attractive female cousin. He dispensed himself from his obligation
of celibacy, and arranged to have himself bought off for over
1,000 lb of gold, though as he pointed out, he was only recovering
his father's original expenditure. He then abdicated in favour
of the man who bought him off, who happened to be his own godfather,
and who now became Pope Gregory VI. Benedict's affection for
his attractive female cousin was not reciprocated, so he changed
his mind and sought to regain the papal throne. Details of his
arrangement with Gregory became public. The German Emperor,
Henry III, called a synod over which he presided himself. He
assured himself that simony had been committed and deposed both
Gregory VI and Benedict IX (and also a surviving Crescentii
pope, Sylvester III). He then imposed a new pope, the first
of a line of four German popes he was to nominate: Clement II,
Damasus II, Leo IX (now a saint), and Victor II. Pope Victor
II died in 1057, a year after the Emperor Henry III, while the
new Emperor, Henry IV, was still a baby. Seizing their chance,
the Romans conducted what seems to have been a fair election,
and the product of this remarkable event was Pope Stephen IX
In the thirteenth century the Kings of Sicily managed to get
their nominees on the papal throne as Hadrian V, Martin IV and
Celestine V. The pope who succeeded Celestine V, Boniface VIII,
is reported to have gained his throne in 1294 by taking advantage
of Celestine's naïveté. He bored a hole into the
wall of Celestine's bedroom at the Castel Nuovo in Naples, then,
in the middle of the night, he whispered through the hole a
message that Celestine should lay down his office as it was
too great a burden for him. In obedience to the Holy Ghost,
as he thought, Celestine abdicated, and the perpetrator of the
fraud reaped the fruits of his deception by taking his place
on the papal throne. Celestine lived out the rest of his life
imprisoned by Boniface in a castle tower.
the popular mind there has always been an undoubted line of
valid popes in Rome and for a short while also a line of anti-popes,
a succession of rivals who set up shop in Avignon in defiance
of the true popes. This conception is wrong in almost every
The fact is that often there were two or more papal claimants,
and no one knew who the real pope was. This happened countless
times, and the city in which the claimants lived was not much
of a guide. Many men now considered to have been valid popes
never even visited Rome, or Avignon for that matter. What generally
happened was that two men would claim to be the rightful pope,
each denouncing the other as an impostor. Often they both had
as good a claim as each other, having been elected by different
groups of electors. Election rules were continually changing,
and different factions naturally tended to support sets of rules
that favoured their own candidates. On occasion two popes could
both claim to have been elected by the same electors. On many
occasions one pope was deposed and replaced by another. If the
first one was not murdered or imprisoned (as he often was) he
would do his best to get himself reinstated. All he needed to
do was to rally support from the political factions he was likely
to favour if he regained power.
So how did Avignon come into it? The story is this: Pope Boniface
VIII annoyed a number of monarchs by his papal claims. Early
in the fourteenth century an agent of Philip, King of France,
accompanied by the head of the Colonna family, captured Boniface
with the intention of trying him for murder, idolatry, sodomy,
simony and heresy. Within a month he was dead, but he was posthumously
put on trial. His successor Benedict XI failed to appease the
king, and soon he too was dead. The cardinals chose as the next
pope Clement V, whom they expected to stand up to Philip, but
Philip bought him off without too much trouble. Clement was
obliged to stay in France for years, before being allowed to
move to the safety of Avignon, not then in France, but under
the watchful eye of the French King. Once the papacy was in
the pocket of the King, there followed a string of French popes,
whose election became successively easier as the college of
cardinals was packed with Frenchmen: of the 134 cardinals appointed
while the papacy was held by Frenchmen, 112 were French.
So it was that a succession of perfectly valid popes never
set foot in Rome. Altogether there were seven French popes in
a row, all based in Avignon: Clement V, John XXII, Benedict
XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V and Gregory XI. This long
absence from Rome, extending from 1305 to 1378, is generally
known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy. The
last of these popes in Avignon, Gregory XI, returned to Rome,
and when he died in 1378 the Romans let it be known that they
wanted a Roman pope, even though there were no realistic candidates.
Indeed there were only four Italian cardinals left. 16 cardinals
met in conclave to elect a new pope, knowing that their lives
depended on their decision. They duly elected an Italian, Urban
VI, an event that apparently tipped the balance of his mind.
The French cardinals immediately made off to safety, where they
claimed that they had acted under duress. They denied that Urban
was the rightful pope and elected another one, a cousin of the
King of France, who took the style Pope Clement VII. As usual,
Christendom divided on political lines: the French and their
allies Scotland, Spain and Naples supported Clement, while the
Italians supported the increasingly insane Urban, as did England
and other northern countries, apparently on the grounds that
anything was preferable to another French pope. Over the next
30 years there were two lines of popes: Urban VI in Rome was
succeeded by Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII, while
Clement in Avignon was succeeded by Benedict XIII.
1409 a council was convoked at Pisa by leading churchmen of
the day who felt that this schism had gone on long enough. They
solemnly declared that both reigning popes (Gregory XII and
Benedict XIII) were heretics and schismatics, and they elected
a new pope, Alexander V. Neither Gregory nor Benedict recognised
the council, so now there were three popes. Each claimed absolute
authority, and each excommunicated the other two. Another council
was called at Constance in 1414, this time with more success.
In 1415 Gregory abdicated, and Benedict was deposed, as was
Alexander's successor, John XXIII. A new pope, Martin V, was
elected in 1417, and generally accepted throughout Western Christendom,
although a line of successors to Benedict continued for many
years, gradually sinking into historical oblivion.
Views as to who was the rightful pope changed as often as the
balance of power, as did views as to who had been rightful popes
previously. When the appointee of one family became pope, he
would often make adjustments to the historical record to reinstate
his papal relatives. Over the centuries the same claimant could
be regarded as a rightful pope, then as an heretical anti-pope,
then as pope again, then as anti-pope, and so on. Evidence
of the level of uncertainty about who was, and who was not,
a rightful pope is not difficult to find. For example a pope
called Stephen, who reigned for three or four days in 752, was
not counted as a pope immediately after his death. Later he
was recognised as a pope and designated Stephen II. Then, in
1961, he was dropped again, so at the time of writing he is
not counted as a pope. The effect of this has been to confuse
the numbering of subsequent popes called Stephen. His successor,
who also took the name Stephen, was originally designated Stephen
II. Later, when the short-lived earlier Stephen was reinstated
as Stephen II, his successor had to be upgraded to Stephen III.
Now that the first Stephen has been dropped again his successor
has gone back to being Stephen II, but to avoid confusion he
is generally known as Stephen II (III). Subsequent Stephens
are now known as Stephen III (IV), Stephen IV (V) and so on
right up to Stephen IX (X). Similar problems occur with popes
Another indicator of the confusion is the fact that current
lists of past popes have no John XX. It seems that the numerous
papal claimants who took the name John led to such a mess that
no one even claimed the number XX. Neither was there a John
XVI, although there are Johns up to XXIII. Indeed, there have
been two John XXIIIs. There had been one in the fifteenth century,
but a new pope took the name and style of John XXIII in 1958.
There was widespread surprise and puzzlement, since it was well
known that there had already been a John XXIII. In fact there
is little doubt that the first John XXIII had been the rightful
pope, but he had been an acute embarrassment and had been deposed
by a council in 1415. (Actually he got off lightly: only 5 of
the 54 charges against him were pursued. As Gibbon noted: "The
most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ
was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest".)
In 1958 cathedrals suddenly had to revise their lists, as the
fifteenth century John XXIII was now deemed to be an anti-pope.
The tomb of the first Pope John XXIII,
in the Florence Baptistry adjacent to the Duomo. It reads
"John the former pope XXIII. Died in Florence A.D.
1419, on 11th day before the Calends of January"
The Catholic Church now considers this pope to have been
Again, according to modern official lists, there was never
a valid pope called Alexander V, although there was one with
this designation who is now considered an anti-pope and there
were also Alexanders VI, VII, and VIII. Neither was there a
valid Benedict X, though there have been Benedicts numbered
up to Benedict XVI (who became pope in 2005). Another oddity
is that some anti-popes are regarded as saints, even by the
modern papacy, which simultaneously dismisses them as pretenders
to St Peter's throne. For example, St Hippolytus,
one of the most important figures in the Western Church in the
early third century, was elected as Bishop of Rome in competition
to Callistus. Each regarded the other as a heretic. Callistus
is now reckoned a true pope and St Hippolytus
merely an anti-pope.
It is clear that some properly elected popes are now on the
list of anti-popes while many (perhaps most) of the official
popes were elected irregularly. One of the most striking examples
of a rightful pope being regarded today as an anti-pope is one
called Celestine. An old man, he was elected, properly and unanimously,
on 15 th December 1124. During his installation an armed gang
broke in on the ceremony, acclaimed their own man as Pope Honorius
II, and attacked Celestine, who died of his injuries soon afterwards.
Yet Honorius is now considered a rightful pope, while Celestine
is a mere anti-pope.
It is of little relevance to consider which of two contenders
reigned as de facto pope in Rome. Often the pope now
considered the real pope was a powerless exile, while the one
considered the anti-pope was happily ensconced in Rome and exercising
his office. Pope Victor III, for example, was obliged by rioting
mobs to flee from Rome in 1086 before he had even been consecrated.
A rival claimant, Clement III, was installed in the Lateran
basilica. He was highly regarded, and managed the papal office
far better than many others. For example, he was strongly opposed
to the simony that had characterised the papacy for so long.
He carried out papal functions with success and performed the
customary crowning of a new emperor. He also instigated reforms
that in time would lead to the founding of the college of cardinals.
Victor meanwhile languished in exile. At times he gave up his
papal claim and returned to his previous career as an abbot.
There is no record that he achieved anything of any significance.
Clement exercised the office of pope right through the reign
of Victor, and through much of the reign of his successor. Nevertheless
we are assured that Clement was an anti-pope, and the blessed
Victor was a real pope.
Some claimants are considered popes even though their elections
were clearly invalid, and some had little or no experience in
the Church. Many had not been bishops, some had not been priests
or even deacons before their elevation. Pope Leo VIII was a
layman who was rushed through religious orders in a single day.
Pope Gregory X, by inclination a warrior rather than a holy
man, was ordained as a priest and consecrated as Pope on a single
day in March 1271. Hadrian V, who reigned for a few weeks in
1276, was never made Bishop of Rome. The simple fact is that
there is no objective way of knowing which of two or more claimants
was the rightful pope. Official lists are of little use since
they have been changed so often, and might change again tomorrow.
Even after 1,000 years, the truth can easily be massaged. A
man who was universally recognised as pope can suddenly be demoted
to an anti-pope. Take for example Boniface VII. He became Pope
in 974 after having Benedict VI murdered. When the locals turned
against him he fled with the papal treasure and was excommunicated.
In 980 he returned to Rome and re-established himself, displacing
his successor Benedict VII, but fled again when the Emperor
turned up with an army. In 984 he returned once again and deposed,
imprisoned and murdered his new replacement, Pope John XIV.
Boniface himself died suddenly the following year, possibly
the victim of a palace conspiracy. His body was stripped and
dragged through the streets of Rome, and then left, naked, for
public ridicule. Grateful for the opportunity, citizens amused
themselves by trampling and stabbing it. None of this is remarkable,
and it is easy to find other popes whose reigns were far less
illustrious, and whose crimes were far greater. In old official
lists he was invariably agreed to have been a valid pope. Nevertheless,
it was announced in 1904 that Boniface VII had not been a real
pope at all, merely an anti-pope, so God had managed without
a personal deputy on Earth for a year, from August 984 to August
Another difficulty with the idea that bishops of Rome owe their
appointment to God is that, if this is the case, then God seems
to have displayed a certain lack of foresight. He failed to
foresee not only the amount of crime and venality that his elect
would become involved in but also the fact that in some cases,
such as Urban VI and Stephen VI (VII), they might promptly lose
their minds. Others had limited lifespans. The Stephen who was
elected Pope in 752 suffered a stroke three days after his election
and died the day after. Boniface VI died of gout 15 days after
his election in April 896. Celestine IV fell ill two days after
his election in 1241 and died a few days later, apparently without
having performed any official act, or even having been consecrated.
Urban VII fell ill with malaria the day after his election on
15 th September 1590 and died a few days later, before his coronation.
In 1978 "God's candidate" John Paul I died in his
bed just three weeks after his investiture, having achieved
none of his planned reforms.
Simony has always been common in Rome. It would be a bold historian
who asserted that more popes have gained the throne through
merit than by bribery. From the fourth century onwards Roman
nobles were exchanging their secular robes for clerical ones,
or rather their priestly robes of the old religion for new priestly
robes of the new Christian one.
The modern Roman Church was essentially a creation of the Roman
nobility. For many centuries the papacy was to be a prize, awarded
to the currently most powerful Roman noble family, that enabled
the winner to extort vast sums from the whole of Western Christendom.
The sale of cardinals" hats and other Church offices has
been a bottomless well of treasure. Simony is still commonly
known as one of the two papal crimes, the other being
nepotism. Many popes had illegitimate children, and the convention
was to call them nephews. Numerous popes advanced the careers
of their nominal nephews, and their real nephews, giving them
cardinals" hats, and preparing the way for their succession.
The word nepotism was coined to describe this scandal. It is
derived from the Latin word for a nephew, nepos.
Sergius II, who ascended the papal throne in 844, made his
brother a bishop, and the two of them sold bishoprics and other
Church offices to the highest bidder. Clement V appointed five
close relatives as cardinals and misused the papal treasures
to such an extent that his successor instituted legal proceedings
against his family to recover some of them. Boniface IX, who
ascended the papal throne in 1389, was an outstanding nepotist
and simonist arguably the worst ever. He raised vast
amounts of money by auctioning Church offices and marketed indulgences
in ways that were considered outrageous even by papal standards.
Pius II created a nephew, the future Pius III, an archbishop
and cardinal at the age of 21. The fifteenth century pope Sixtus
IV appointed numerous relatives (three sons and six others)
as cardinals, one of them the future Julius II. The chief interest
of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI seems to have been the promotion
of his family's wealth and influence. Indeed he appears to have
aspired to keep the papacy in the family indefinitely. To this
end he attempted to crush all potential opposition by murdering
members of other leading Roman families and seizing their property.
He appointed his own son to several bishoprics at the age of
18 and gave him a cardinal's hat the following year. This reign
is generally recognised as marking the high point of papal greed
Paul III gave important parts of the Papal States to his son
Pierluigi, and gave cardinals" hats to two grandsons aged
14 and 16. His main interest seems to have been to establish
his family among the great houses of Italy. Urban VIII was so
extravagant a nepotist that his successor Innocent X, who ascended
the papal throne in 1644, tried to recover some of the illegal
gifts distributed to Urban's relatives. Almost any high Church
office could become a sinecure. Such offices were often granted
to provide their holders with incomes. Even children could be
given them. For example, Pope Leo X , the second son of Lorenzo
de" Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) was appointed a cardinal
at the age of 13, before having the papacy purchased for him
by his father.
Far from being elected by their flocks, many popes were positively
hated by them. Sabinian, for example, had incurred the hatred
of Romans by profiteering during a famine. After his death in
606 they tried to seize and dismember his corpse, and his funeral
procession was obliged to pass outside the city walls. In 799
Pope Leo III, an extremely unpopular man, was attacked by a
mob, which tried to cut off his tongue and tear out his eyes.
Pope Paschal I was given to blinding and beheading his opponents.
He was so unpopular that when he died in 824 a public uproar
prevented his body being buried in St Peter's . John VIII was
poisoned by members of his own entourage in 882, and was then
finished off by being clubbed to death. Stephen VI (VII), arguably
the most insane of all popes, was deposed by a Roman mob, gaoled,
and strangled in 897. The next pope, Romanus, was also deposed
after a reign of a few months, and the next one, Theodore II,
died of causes unknown after a reign of 20 days. Leo V managed
only 30 days as pope before being overthrown by his own clergy
in 903 and subsequently murdered.
John XIII, who ascended the papal throne in 965, was widely
hated. The citizens of Rome attacked, imprisoned and banished
him. They probably regretted that they did not kill him, for
he returned with the protection of the Emperor, and punished
them with a brutality that was considered remarkable, even by
papal standards. Gregory VII was less disliked, but was denounced
at the Synod of Brixen in 1080 for having studied magic at Toledo
and for having taken up necromancy. Pope Lucius II, in an attempt
to assert his authority over the self-governing commune that
had been established in Rome, led an armed force on the Capitol
in 1145. Unimpressed by His Holiness, the opposition forces
stoned him to death. Alexander III was also obliged to leave
Rome, but after his death in 1181 his body was returned for
burial. The low opinion of him held by the citizens of Rome
was reflected by the insulting graffiti lavished on his tomb.
Pope Urban III lived in Verona, since popular hostility in Rome
prevented him from living there.
J H W Tischbein Conradin of
Swabia and Frederick of Baden
Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples,
III, who reigned from 1187 to 1191, was the first pope for decades
to establish himself safely in Rome, a feat he achieved by the
liberal distribution of bribes. Urban IV (pope 1261-1264) was
so unpopular that he was never able to reside in Rome and never
even visited the place. Neither did his successor Clement IV,
again because of popular hostility towards him. One of his less
endearing acts was to engineer the execution of the popular
young prince Conradin, a ward of the Holy See, whose rights
the papacy had sworn to protect. Martin IV, who became pope
in 1281, was another who was so unpopular that he was unable
to live in Rome.
Urban VI was clearly insane. Because of the circumstances of
his election, most of his cardinals deserted him and purported
to depose him. Although he appointed new cardinals, they soon
became acquainted with his mental incompetence and paranoia,
and so started considering a council of regency. Learning of
this he had six leading cardinals tortured. Only one escaped
with his life. Despite his mental state, Urban reigned for 11
years, at the end of which he died in suspicious circumstances,
possibly the victim of poisoning. Who was responsible is difficult
to assess, for he was detested not only by the cardinals who
had originally elected him under duress, but also by his own
new cardinals (such as survived). He was loathed by the clergy
at large, the citizens of Rome, many of the monarchs of Europe,
and even his own mercenaries.
Innocent VII was exceptionally unpopular and was able to remain
in Rome only because of protection from the King of Naples.
As a favour to him, one of his nephews had eleven leading citizens
murdered. A violent mob stormed the Vatican, and Innocent was
lucky to escape with his life. Eugene IV was also the victim
of mob violence, and was obliged to leave Rome in disguise.
Paul IV, a man of exceeding brutality, had earned his reputation,
like many popes-to-be, as head of the Inquisition before ascending
the throne in 1555. He had several claims to fame: he was a
spectacularly successful simonist, he burned more books than
any other pope, and he created the Jewish ghetto. He was feared
and hated throughout his four-year reign, but only after his
death did the citizens of Rome dare to express their opinion
of him. A mob attacked the Inquisition's offices, released its
victims, and overturned and mutilated His Holiness's statue
on the Capitol.
Pope Sixtus V had already earned a fearful reputation as an
inquisitor. As pope he had thousands publicly executed in the
Papal States. Loathed by the people of Rome, his statue was
torn down from the Capitol by a rioting mob when they learned
of his death. Pius IX was yet another extremely unpopular pope.
His Prime Minister was murdered, and Pius was obliged to flee
Rome in disguise. His reign generated a great deal of anticlerical
feeling throughout Europe. When he died in 1878 a Roman mob
tried to seize his body and throw it into the Tiber.
It is difficult to find more than a handful of popes who led
lives that could be objectively assessed as other than scandalous.
Even the most revered seem to have been not quite as they are
often portrayed. Pope Gregory I (St Gregory the Great), for
example, who is often described as the greatest pope ever, owed
his election in 590 to his connections. He belonged to Rome's
richest family, the same one as Popes Felix III and Agapetus
I. He devoted much time to writing accounts of monstrous births
(which he believed to be omens) and other bizarre phenomena.
He urged the sequestration of pagan temples and encouraged the
bribery of Jews to assist conversion. He expressed delight at
the murder of the Emperor in 602, apparently because the Emperor
had failed to accept Gregory's claim to primacy over the Eastern
It is true that Gregory stands out as exceptionally competent,
but that is only because of the comparisons available. The following
selection is not untypical. St Callistus was an embezzler and
a bankrupt who had fled his creditors. He became Bishop of Rome
in 217. John XII, a "dissolute boy", became Pope at
the age of 16 in 955. The citizens of Rome said that he slept
with his mother, that he had turned the Lateran Palace into
a brothel, and that he toasted the Devil at the High Altar.
His behaviour was so bad that a synod was convoked. A bishop
recorded the charges, all confirmed under oath: he was a simonist,
he had had sex with numerous women including a relative, he
had blinded one cleric and castrated another (a cardinal who
had died as a result). Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, felt
obliged to write to him saying that everyone accused him of
homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with his relatives, including
two of his sisters, and with having invoked Jupiter, Venus and
other demons. John refused to answer the charges, so Otto deposed
him and a new pope, Leo VIII, was installed. John went into
exile until Otto left Rome, then he returned to torture, maim
and murder those he felt had not been sufficiently understanding
with regard to his behaviour. Leo fled to the imperial court,
and in his absence John deposed and excommunicated him. When
Otto returned to sort matters out, John fled once again. Soon
afterwards, in 964 John was suddenly incapacitated as he lay
in bed with a married woman and died a week later. Some said
that he had suffered a stroke. Since he was only 24 at the time,
the more likely account was that his stroke had been assisted
by a hammer blow to the back of the head, delivered by the man
whose wife His Holiness had been ministering to at the time.
Stephen VI (VII) was one of the more colourful popes. In 897
he had the body of Formosus, an earlier pope, exhumed. He then
had it dressed in pontifical vestments and placed on the papal
throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. He presided over
a trial of the dead pope, found him guilty, hacked a few fingers
off the corpse, and had it thrown into the Tiber. This event
is generally known as the Cadaver Synodor (or in Latin,
the Synodus horrenda). Stephen was himself deposed by
a Roman mob and strangled. What was left of Formosus's rotting
body was recovered and allowed to rest peacefully for a few
years, until another pope, Sergius III (who had been present
at the Cadaver Synod) had it exhumed and condemned again. This
time it was beheaded, and a few more fingers were hacked off.
Once more it was cast into the Tiber, and once again it was
detail from Le Pape Formose et Étienne
VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"),
by Jean-Paul Laurens,1870.
Pius II had been a well-known libertine before he ascended
the papal throne in 1458. The father of a number of illegitimate
children, he was also the author of celebrated erotic works
such as Lucretia and Euryalus and the comedy Chrysis.
Julius III (pope 1550-1555) was a well-known paedophile. He
created a scandal by picking up from the streets a boy called
Innocenzo. Unaffected by public opinion he made Innocenzo a
The idea that priests have always been expected to be chaste,
or even celibate, is severely compromised by the record of the
papacy. St Peter (whether one counts him as a pope or not) had
been a married man before he became an apostle. Hadrian II had
been married before he became Pope in 867. So had Clement IV
before his election in 1265. He is known to have had two daughters.
Many popes were the sons of priests and bishops, and many were
married and had children themselves. For example, Felix III
(pope 483-492) was the son of a priest and had at least two
children of his own. The sixth century pope, St Agapetus, was
also the son of a priest. The next pope, St Silverius, was the
son of St Hormisdas (pope 514-523). Theodore I (pope 642-649)
was the son of a bishop, as was Boniface VI. The only English
pope, Nicholas Breakspear, who became Hadrian IV in 1154, was
the son of a monk at St Albans. Other popes were renowned libertines
and had impressive broods of illegitimate children. For example,
the late fifteenth century pope Alexander VI had a large but
unknown number. The sixteenth century pope Paul III kept a mistress
by whom he is known to have fathered at least four children.
Innocent X (pope 1644-1655) was unusually dependent upon his
sister-in-law and was so close to her that their mutual interests
were widely believed to extend well beyond Church matters.
Popes were also murderers in great style. Often they murdered
each other. In 366 Damasus had himself proclaimed Bishop of
Rome, having hired a gang of thugs to expel Ursicinus, who had
just been elected. Damasus's mob climbed onto the roof of the
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his opponent's supporters
were gathered, stripped off the lead tiles, and hurled them
down on the congregation below, killing over a hundred. Damasus
was later charged with murder but escaped through the intervention
of powerful friends. He is now revered as pope and saint. In
537 Pope Silverius was murdered by Pope Vigilius, who in turn
was later murdered by Pelagius I. In 653 Martin I was accused
of treason, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He was
publicly flogged and his sentence commuted to banishment. Abandoned
by his Church and its new pope, he soon died under the harsh
conditions to which he was subjected. Both Leo V and the anti-pope
Christopher were murdered by Sergius III in 904. Pope Benedict
VI was charged with unknown crimes, imprisoned, and strangled
on the orders of his successor (Boniface VII), who also had
John XIV murdered. John XVIII and Sergius IV were both murdered
by Benedict VIII in 1012. Clement II was reputedly poisoned
by Benedict IX in 1047. The Borgia Pope Alexander VI enjoys
the distinction of being the only pope to have murdered himself.
He seems to have intended to poison a cardinal one day in 1503,
but somehow the poison was mistakenly given to Alexander and
his son instead.