The Worst-Ever Pope?
Pope Francis, the American Facebook commenter pronounced with a certainty that permitted no dissent, “is the worst pope of all time”.
Obviously that person is not a fan of the Holy Father. Personally, I believe that Pope Francis will be regarded as one of the greatest, most courageous and most Christ-centred popes, though I’d shy away from absolute claims. St Peter, the first pope (in a manner) was more courageous and more Christ-centred than Francis or most other bishops of Rome.
Anti-Francis Facebook Guy didn’t just deal in hyperbole but also in ignorance. His comment called to mind the right-wing protester on the streets of Finsterwalde in eastern Germany who on TV pronounced Angela Merkel’s migration policy “the lowest point in Germany’s history”. The lowest?
One casual glance at the history of successions of medieval and Renaissance popes will indicate that Pope Francis does not even have a claim to contend for the mediocre mid-table of papal worstness.
Many an Innocent, Clement or Pius was possessed of neither innocence, nor clemency, nor piety. The material and moral corruption of some popes, and their cruelty, was repugnant. The notorious Alexander VI is the poster child of bad popes, but he was not an aberration.
Sometimes the papal psychosis was grotesque, such as the time in 897 when Pope Stephen VI had the cadaver of his predecessor but one, Pope Formosus, exhumed from the grave and dressed in papal vestments to try him in court.
Duly found guilty, the dead pope had the papal vestments torn from his body, the three blessing fingers cut from his right hand, and the corpse thrown into the Tiber. There’s a sequel to that story, similarly bizarre.
Pope Benedict IX
Another strange pontifical case was that of Pope Benedict IX, who occupied the Chair of St Peter three times between 1032 and 1048, having sold the papacy in between, leading to seller’s remorse.
Born Theophylactus of Tusculum, he was the nephew of Pope John XIX. Thanks to bribery by the aristocratic Tusculum clan, Theophylactus succeeded his uncle. He was 20 years old.
Predictably, the youngster wasn’t very good at being pope. He lived a dissolute lifestyle; Bishop Benno of Piacenza accused Benedict of “many vile adulteries and murders”. After 12 years of that, in 1044, the Romans had suffered enough and turfed Benedict out. Pope Sylvester III was elected to succeed him in January 1045.
But Sylvester didn’t last long: within two months he was deposed by Benedict’s faction, supported by the emperor. Benedict IX took the throne for the second time.
But Benedict wasn’t really into being pope anymore. He wanted to get married. So a month after toppling poor Sylvester, he approached his godfather John Gratian, and offered to sell the papacy to him.
Keen to get rid of such a scandalous pope, the well-meaning John agreed to a “reimbursement” of Benedict’s “election expenses”, and thus bought the papacy to become Pope Gregory VI.
Soon Benedict changed his mind again and wanted the papacy back. He and his troops took Rome, and Benedict laid claim to the papacy, while Gregory was the officially recognised pope. Sylvester said neither of them was the pope, and made his own claim to the papacy.
Pope Three Times
The stand-off was resolved in 1046 when Emperor Henry III came to Rome. Benedict and Sylvester were deposed, and Gregory abdicated, having engaged in the mortal sin of simony.
The emperor had the bishop of Bamberg, a good man, succeed that trio as Clement II. Alas, within a year, in October 1047, Clement died. Cue the return of Benedict. He took the basilica of St John Lateran—the cathedral of the bishop of Rome—and began his third stint as pope.
German troops finally expelled him in July 1048, and a semblance of peace returned.
Benedict was excommunicated but he is said to have repented before he died around 1056.
Was Benedict IX the worst-ever pope? He certainly is a formidable contender. Is Pope Francis “the worst pope of all time”? Well, in some peculiar corners of the social media, he apparently is.