Various Controversial Popes

Originally posted 12/7/2009.

Some reliable sources’ discussions of and responses to charges of vice against various oft-maligned pontiffs.

Pope St. Marcellinus (6/30/296-4/1/304)
There were even later reports in circulation that accused him of having given up the sacred books after the first edict, or even of having offered incense to the gods, to protect himself from the persecution. But the sources in which this reproach is clearly stated are very questionable. … The Donatist Bishop Petilianus of Constantine in Africa asserted, in the letter he wrote in 400 and 410, that Marcellinus and the Roman priests Melchiades, Marcellus, and Sylvester (his three successors) had given up the sacred books, and had offered incense. But he could not adduce any proof. In the Acts of confiscation of the church buildings at Rome, which at the great Carthaginian conference between Catholics and Donatists, were brought forward by the latter, only two Roman deacons, Straton and Cassius, were named as traitors. St. Augustine, in his replies to Petilianus, disputes the truth of the latter’s report (“Contra litteras Petiliani”, II, 202: “De quibus et nos solum respondemus: aut non probatis et ad neminem pertinet, aut probatis et ad nos non pertinet”; “De unico baptismo contra Petilianum”, cap. xvi: “Ipse scelestos et sacrilegos fuisse dicit; ego innocentes fuisse respondeo”). One can only conclude from Petilianus’s accusation that such rumours against Marcellinus and Roman priests were circulated in Africa; but that they could not be proved, otherwise St. Augustine would not have been able to assert the innocence of the accused so decidedly, or safely to have referred to the matter at the Carthaginian conference (Kirsch).
Pope St. Liberius (5/17/352-9/24/366)
But the strongest arguments for the innocence of Liberius are a priori. Had he really given in to the emperor during his exile, the emperor would have published his victory far and wide; there would have been no possible doubt about it; it would have been more notorious than even that gained over Hosius. … Further, the pope’s decree after Rimini, that the fallen bishops could not be restored unless they showed their sincerity by vigour against the Arians, would have been laughable, if he himself had fallen yet earlier, and had not publicly atoned for his sin. Yet, we can be quite certain that he made no public confession of having fallen, no recantation, no atonement (Chapman).
Pope Vigilius (12/2/537-6/7/555)
The change in his position is to be explained by the fact that the condemnation of the writings mentioned was justifiable essentially, yet appeared inopportune and would lead to disastrous controversies with Western Europe (Kirsch).
Pope Honorius I (10/27/625-10/12/638)
The charge against Pope Honorius is a double one: that, when appealed to in the Monothelite controversy, he actually taught the Monothelite heresy in his two letters to Sergius; and that he was condemned as a heretic by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the decrees of which were approved by Leo II. But in the first place it is quite clear from the tone and terms of these letters that, so far from intending to give any final, or ex cathedra, decision on the doctrinal question at issue, Honorius merely tried to allay the rising bitterness of the controversy by securing silence. In the next place, taking the letters as they stand, the very most that can be clearly and incontrovertibly deduced from them is, that Honorius was not a profound or acute theologian, and that he allowed himself to be confused and misled by the wily Sergius as to what the issue really was and too readily accepted the latter’s misrepresentation of his opponents’ position, to the effect that the assertion of two wills in Christ meant two contrary or discordant wills. Finally, in reference to the condemnation of Honorius as a heretic, it is to be remembered that there is no ecumenical sentence affirming the fact either that Honorius’s letters to Sergius contain heresy, or that they were intended to define the question with which they deal. The sentence passed by the fathers of the council has ecumenical value only in so far as it was approved by Leo II; but, in approving the condemnation of Honorius, his successor adds the very important qualification that he is condemned, not for the doctrinal reason that he taught heresy, but on the moral ground that he was wanting in the vigilance expected from him in his Apostolic office and thereby allowed a heresy to make headway which he should have crushed in its beginnings (Toner).
Pope Stephen VI (5/22/896-8/897)
Whether induced by evil passion or perhaps, more probably, compelled by the Emperor Lambert and his mother Ageltruda, he caused the body of Formosus to be exhumed, and in January, 897, to be placed before an unwilling synod of the Roman clergy. … Fortunately it was not granted to Stephen to have time to do much else besides this atrocious deed. Before he was put to death by strangulation, he forced several of those who had been ordained by Formosus to resign their offices and he granted a few privileges to churches (Mann).

He did hold a local synod in the early part of 897, the strangest synod ever held and the most gruesome. Although he had been consecrated bishop by Pope Formosus, Stephen seems to have belonged to the opposite faction. But probably the moving spirit in this horrid business was the house of Spoleto. It will be remembered that Formosus, after crowning young Lambert, had called in Arnulf to become emperor and put down the Spoletans. Driven out of Rome by Arnulf and threatened in Spoleto itself, Lambert was saved by Arnulf’s sudden sickness. Then he cleared out Arnulf’s officials and took over central Italy. In January 897 Lambert and his mother, the fiery Ageltruda, entered Rome in triumph. But Formosus was beyond vengeance. He was dead and buried with honor as pope. This last fact could still be canceled. … When Lambert had to leave to fight the marquis of Tuscany, the Romans rose against Stephen. Then he was seized and himself stripped of the pontifical robes. Clad in a monk’s habit, he was thrown into a dungeon, and in August, 897, Stephen VII was strangled (Brusher).
Pope Sergius III (1/29/904-4/14/911)
Sergius at once declared the ordinations conferred by Formosus null; but that he put his two predecessors to death, and by illicit relations with Marozia had a son, who was afterwards John XI, must be regarded as highly doubtful. These assertions are only made by bitter or ill-informed adversaries, and are inconsistent with what is said of him by respectable contemporaries [such as Flodoard] (Mann).
Pope John XI (3/931-12/935)
Through the intrigues of his mother, who ruled at that time in Rome, he was raised to the Chair of Peter, and was completely under the influence of the Senatrix et Patricia of Rome. … In this way Alberic became ruler of Rome, and the pope, who suffered by his mother’s fall, now became almost entirely subject to his brother, being only free in the exercise of his purely spiritual duties. All other jurisdiction was exercised through Alberic. This was not only the case in secular, but also in ecclesiastical affairs. It was at the instance of Alberic that the pallium was given to Theophylactus, Patriarch of Constantinople (935), and also to Artold, Archbishop of Reims (933). It was this pope who sat in the Chair of Peter during its deepest humiliation, but it was also he who granted many privileges to the Congregation of Cluny, which was later on so powerful an agent of Church reform (Kirsch).
Pope John XII (12/16/955-5/14/964)
“There cannot be a doubt that John XII was anything but what a Pope, the chief pastor of Christendom, should have been (Mann IV:241).

The temporal and spiritual authority in Rome were thus again united in one person — a coarse, immoral man, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium. War and the chase were more congenial to this pope than church government (Kirsch).

John XII has a bad reputation, but it is only fair to remember that many of the stories told about him come from political enemies, especially that evil-tongued old gossip, Liutprand of Cremona. But even after allowing a generous discount for prejudice, enough remains against John XII to rank him as one of the few bad popes (Brusher).

He [John XII] brought to the Chair of St. Peter only the vices and dissolute morals of a young debauchee; and though Luitprand must have exaggerated the disorders of this Pope, yet there remains enough of truth in the account to have brought down the scandal of the pontificate through succeeding ages, like a loud blasphemy, which makes angels weep and Hell exult … John XII looked upon his new dignity only as a means of more fully indulging his licentious passions (Darras II:592).
Pope John XIII (10/1/965-9/6/972)
John XII might have been called John the Bad; John XIII was called John the Good. … John XIII died peacefully at Rome, September 6, 972. Though noticeably under Otto’s influence, he was a good pope (Brusher).

John XIII … reigned from A.D. 965 to A.D. 972. The most impartial writers speak loudly in his praise. He was “un dignissimo papa” according to Muratori [An. 972 p. 283] (Miley II:340).
Pope Benedict IX (10/1032-5/1/1045)
He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter. … But it is more probable that the truth lies with the tradition of the Abbey of Grottaferrata, first set down by Abbot Luke, who died about 1085, and corroborated by sepulchral and other monuments within its walls. Writing of Bartholomew, its fourth abbot (1065), Luke tells of the youthful pontiff turning from his sin and coming to Bartholomew for a remedy for his disorders. On the saint’s advice, Benedict definitely resigned the pontificate and died in penitence at Grottaferrata. [See “St. Benedict and Grottaferrata” (Rome, 1895), a work founded on the more important “De Sepulcro Benedicti IX”, by Dom Greg. Piacentini (Rome, 1747)] (Mann, Benedict IX).

“That [Clement II] was poisoned by the partisans of Benedict IX is a mere suspicion without proof” (Mann, Clement II).
Pope Boniface VIII (12/24/1294-10/11/1303)
Pope Clement V (6/5/1305-4/20/1314)
The memory of Clement V comes down to us charged with having ambitiously intrigued for the tiara, by promising to Philip the Fair to rescind the acts of Boniface, and to condescend to his will on some important point, not then disclosed. This compact originally rests on the authority of Villani, a partisan of the schismatical Louis of Bavaria. On the same suspicious testimony, his supposed amours with the countess of Perigord have been too lightly credited, notwithstanding the silence of his early biographers, six in number (Kenrick 420).
Pope Clement VI (5/7/1342-12/6/1352)
Villani has attacked the moral character of Clement VI, but I feel dispensed from vindicating it, whilst it is assailed only by the professed enemy of the lawful Pontiffs (Kenrick 420).
Pope Urban VI (4/8/1378-10/15/1389)
Pope Paul II (8/30/1464-7/26/1471)
The sudden death of Paul II, who was found dead in his bed, arose from an unwholesome supper on melons; and was not attended with any disgraceful circumstances. Although his life was not austere, there is not any ground for censuring his conduct, unless, perhaps, his failure to observe the conditions to which, in common with the other cardinals in conclave, he had bound himself. This, however, may be accounted for by the necessity of his situation, in which he deemed it injurious to observe restrictions unwisely imposed on an authority which Christ willed to be free. Above a century before, Innocent VI had declared such engagements to be radically null (Kenrick 420-421).
Pope Innocent VIII (8/29/1484-7/25/1492)
Although Pope Innocent meant well, he contributed to the decline of papal prestige by his open acknowledgment of his illegitimate children in the Vatican. His son Franceschetto, who was living a dissolute life, was no help to the Pope. Then too, Innocent was very hard pressed for funds. To get them he increased the number of purchasable offices. This in turn caused graft and corruption among official. … But his pontificate, on the whole, did little for the Church. He himself seemed to realize this, and on his deathbed he asked the cardinals’ forgiveness for having done so little and begged them to elect a better successor. … Innocent VIII died devoutly on July 25, 1492 (Brusher).
Pope Alexander VI (8/11/1492-8/18/1503)

(Parsons )
Pope Julius II (10/31/1503-2/21/1513)
The ardor of the martial Julius II betrayed him in youth into excess, of which a daughter was the acknowledged fruit. Her children were promoted to the purple. Since St. Francis de Paula is known to have foretold to him his elevation to the papal throne, we have reason to believe, that after his entrance into orders, his morals were blameless (Kenrick 421).

Julius II was chiefly a soldier, and the fame attached to his name is greatly due to his re-establishment of the Pontifical States and the deliverance of Italy from its subjection to France. Still he did not forget his duties as the spiritual head of the Church. He was free from nepotism; heard Mass almost daily and often celebrated it himself; issued a strict Bull against simony at papal elections and another against duels; erected dioceses in the recently discovered American colonies of Haiti (Espanola), San Domingo, and Porto Rico; condemned the heresy of Piero de Lucca concerning the Incarnation on 7 September, 1511; made various ordinances for monastic reforms; instituted the still existing Capella Julia, a school for ecclesiastical chant which was to serve as a feeder for the Capella Palatina; and finally convoked the Fifth Lateran Council to eradicate abuses from the Church and especially from the Roman Curia, and to frustrate the designs of the schismatic cardinals who had convened their unsuccessful council first at Pisa, then at Milan (Ott).

He was vigorous, irascible, a man of his own counsel, very much a man of his own age, an outstanding personality in an age of individualists. He is chiefly remembered for two things: he rebuilt the papal kingdom, and he made Rome a Mecca for artists and art-lovers. … After ailing for some time Julius II died peacefully on February 21, 1513. His death was regretted by the Romans, for if he had not been a great Pope, he had been a good king. Julius II shocked many by his open display of power politics, but it must be said that if Julius worked like a secular prince, it was not to promote the glory of his own family, but the welfare of the papal kingdom. He has been called the second founder of the papal states (Brusher).
Pope Leo X (3/9/1513-12/1/1521)
The only possible verdict on the pontificate of Leo X is that it was unfortunate for the Church. Sigismondo Tizio, whose devotion to the Holy See is undoubted, writes truthfully: “In the general opinion it was injurious to the Church that her Head should delight in plays, music, the chase and nonsense, instead of paying serious attention to the needs of his flock and mourning over their misfortunes”. Von Reumont says pertinently–”Leo X is in great measure to blame for the fact that faith in the integrity and merit of the papacy, in its moral and regenerating powers, and even in its good intentions, should have sunk so low that men could declare extinct the old true spirit of the Church” (Löffler).
Pope Paul III (10/13/1534-11/10/1549)
Paul III owned as his son Pier Luigi Farnese, who was alleged to be the fruit of a secret marriage, before his father entered into orders. His grandson Alexander was promoted to the purple, which he adorned by his virtues. Paul was truly a great Pontiff, whose administration was most advantageous to the Church: but the lustre of his reign was tarnished by family attachments (Kenrick 421).

Though he entered the service of the Church and was created cardinal in 1503 by Alexander VI, he lived a loose life. But he gradually improved, and when in 1519 he decided to become a priest, he turned over a new leaf and thenceforth lived chastely. … Paul III … was a good pope, a strong pope, sagacious, energetic, and largely devoted; not entirely devoted, for he was guilty of favoring his relations. But he compensated for this dangerous fault by his great work in promoting the Catholic Reform (Brusher).

Not all the popes repose in monuments corresponding to their importance in the history of the Church; but few will be disposed to contest the right of Farnese to rest directly under Peter’s chair. He had his faults; but they injured no one but himself. The fifteen years of his pontificate saw the complete restoration of Catholic faith and piety. He was succeeded by many saintly pontiffs, but not one of them possessed all his commanding virtues. In Rome his name is written all over the city he renovated. The Pauline chapel, Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine, the streets of Rome, which he straightened and broadened, the numerous objects of art associated with the name of Farnese, all speak eloquently of the remarkable personality of the pontiff who turned the tide in favour of religion. If to this we add the favour accorded by Paul to the new religious orders then appearing, the Capuchins, Barnabites, Theatines, Jesuits, Ursulines, and many others, we are forced to confess that his reign was one of the most fruitful in the annals of the Church (Loughlin).
Pope Julius III (2/7/1550-3/29/1555)
Julius was a well-meaning but easy-going man. He favored his relatives, spent money lavishly, and loved good times. But on the other hand, he did continue Paul III’s work in favoring the forces of reform. At the instance of St. Ignatius he founded the famous German College to provide zealous and learned priests for the afflicted Empire. … Julius showed excellent good sense and tact in his dealings with England … He was rewarded by seeing England once more a Catholic country. … Julius might have been more fond of ease and jollification than suited either his state or the times, but it is to his credit that the work of reform did continue (Brusher).

At the beginning of his pontificate Julius III had the earnest desire to bring about a reform in the Church and with this intent he reopened the Council of Trent. That the council was again suspended was due to the force of circumstances. His inactivity during the last three years of his pontificate may have been caused by the frequent and severe attacks of the gout to which he was subject. The great blemish in his pontificate was nepotism. Shortly after his accession he bestowed the purple on his unworthy favourite Innocenzo del Monte, a youth of seventeen whom he had picked up on the streets of Parma some years previously, and who had been adopted by the pope’s brother, Balduino. This act gave rise to some very disagreeable rumours concerning the pope’s relation to Innocenzo. Julius was also extremely lavish in bestowing ecclesiastical dignities and benefices upon his relatives (Ott).
Works Cited
*Brusher, Fr. Joseph, S.J. Popes Through the Ages. 7 Dec. 2009 <>.
*The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. <>.
*Kenrick, Francis Patrick. The Primacy of the Apostolic See Vindicated. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1855. 7 Dec. 2009 <>.
*Mann, Rev. Fr. Horace Kinder. The Lives of the Popes In The Early Middle Ages, vol. IV. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., Ltd., 1910. 7 Dec. 2009 <>.


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