How Bad Were “the Bad Popes?”

A closer look at Alexander VI, Leo X and others.

Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525–1605), “Portrait of Pope Alexander VI”
Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525–1605), “Portrait of Pope Alexander VI” (photo: Public Domain)

Fifty years ago E.R. Chamberlin published his decisively (and derisively) entitled work The Bad Popes which, depending on how you read it, is either an unblinkered look at the low points of the papacy, or a point-blank vendetta against the Barque of St. Peter. The book, which has survived only by changing hands of the various publishers, is still available. But is it accurate?

Well, in one of its opening main points, no. Chamberlin spends an excessive amount of space making room for, not a bad pope at all, but for the legend of “Pope Joan.” The key word here is “legend,” as nearly every serious historian refers to this as “a medieval fable.” Thus it seems a strange way to introduce a book on putative “bad popes” by beginning with a fictitious “female” pope who never existed and whose story was completely discredited by the 17th century.


John XII

After an opening 40 pages of throat-clearing, Chamberlin finally begins with his first of the “bad popes” —Pope John XII (955-964), whose one chief main fault in life seems to have been that he was born an illegitimate child. From this beginning, Chamberlin indulges in tall tales that have no basis in factual history, the most outrageous being that Pope John turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel.

Back in the world of reality, Pope John was very much concerned with being both a temporal and spiritual ruler, and if he often leaned more toward the former than the latter, he can hardly be accused of being the first, or worst, offender. For good or ill he inaugurated the Holy Roman Empire which, surprisingly, lasted until 1806.

Another apocryphal story that cannot be proven is that Pope John died of a stroke while with a married woman. While it is impossible to disprove this salacious story, it is equally impossible to refute it—but legends like this die hard.


Benedict IX

The next “bad pope” that Chamberlin takes to task is Benedict IX (1032-1046). According to Chamberlin—that is, according to legend—he was made pope at the age of 12 which is, of course, impossible, and scholars now agree that he was probably in his late 20s. His main offense seems to be that he was deposed at least twice, though never fully completely. This self-resuscitation of his own office seems to offend Chamberlin, as Benedict, who helped reignite the great Benedictine motherhouse of Monte Cassino.

Benedict was charged with simony (the selling of offices and benefices), and there are claims that he willingly left the papacy in 1044 out of a desire to marry—though there is no proof that this was his motivation, let alone something he followed through with. Indeed, the one thing that can be said for certain of Benedict is that he ended his days leading a contemplative life in a monastery. Perhaps this was his “penance” for the dissolute life Chamberlin claims he lived, or maybe he simply wasn’t quite as bad a pope or person as anti-Catholic authors have made him out to be.


Boniface VIII

Pope Boniface VIII was, by any standards, a genius. And, like many geniuses, he was his own worst enemy in that he had a knack for creating enemies, too. That said—and Chamberlin makes chapter-length material out it—even a protestant theologian like J.N.D. Kelley admits that “he was a patron of learning, founding a university at Rome in 1303 and planning one for Avignon, and of artists (including Giotto and dei Cambio). He recodified canon law, catalogued the papal archives and libraries, and, in an effort to tamp down the acrimony between the secular clergy and the new mendicant orders (Franciscans and Dominicans), composed the bull Super Cathedram. However, like Popes John and Benedict, above, he fought the wars of the Roman families, (the Colonnas, Barberinis, et al.) and the temporal rulers of Germany and France. In this he was not unique or even particularly cruel. However, he was undoubtedly high-handed, autocratic and had a few too many statues of himself erected. I’m not sure that makes him a “bad” pope per se, but certainly not one we would recognize as “the Servant of the Servants of God” today.


Urban VI

Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) was elected pope while a mob outside the Vatican clamored for “a Roman—or at least an Italian” since they feared the papacy being usurped by the French at Avignon again. Through no real fault of his own, Barolomeo Prignato, the archbishop of Bari, was the closest and quickest candidate for pope and he was elected in a hotter-than-a-pepper-sprout-fever, which quelled the Italian crowds.

On the one hand, Pope Urban was efficient, austere and conscientious. On the other, he could be obdurate, hot-headed and a “my-way-or-the-highway” kind of leader. In fairness, these later items did help get things done, one of which was to tone down the over-the-top lifestyle many cardinals of the time were leading. However, his methods were severe, to say the very least, and his fear of the Church reverting back to France bordered on paranoia—though, again, to be fair to Urban, the antipope Clement had set up court in Avignon. Despite the fact that he extended the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the entire Church and instituted a Holy Year every 33 years, Chamberlin claims that due to his paranoia and the hatred of his confreres, Urban was poisoned—though there’s no proof of this.


Alexander VI

Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was, it is almost universally agreed, the nadir of the papacy. Rodrigo Borgia, of Spanish extraction, sired heirs, lavished gifts on his family and had the reforming Dominican friar Savonarola burnt at the stake (at least through his agents). It should come as a shock to absolutely no one that both in the U.S. and the U.K. television series named “The Borgias” focus on the excesses of “the Spanish Bull” (as he is called by Chamberlin), and not, on his reforming relative, St. Francis Borgia, who was, by all accounts, the second founder of the Jesuits.                       

Despite Pope Alexander’s many excesses, he seemed to at least realize that he could not lead a life of complete dissipation without surrounding himself with a capable curia to do the day-to-day work of the Church. He foresaw the coming of the great renaissance talents of Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael, and, since his home country had begun to colonize the Americas, set in motion the Christian evangelization of the New World. Whatever else he might have been, no one can accuse Pope Alexander of enjoying being pope.


Leo X

Part of the problem with Pope Leo’s (1513-1521) legacy is that is bookended by the brilliant Pope Julius II (who tore down the old Saint Peter’s Basilica in order to build the new one), and the reforming Dutchman Hadrian VI (who was pope for barely a year). He followed the former’s sale of indulgences to finance the new massive construction effort—which, to be even-handed, was probably well worth the cost—but did not or could not understand the reforms that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Henry VIII et al. wanted. He simply saw them as heretics—which, indeed they were. However, in not handling the situation correctly, he unwittingly helped fan the flames of their hatred for him in particular and the Church of Rome in general. By the time of his death, the Protestant “Reformation” was turning into the Wars of Religion.


Clement VII

Like Pope Leo, Clement (1523-1534) was of the famed Medici family. And, like Pope Leo, he had the ill fortune of being placed historically between Hadrian VI the Reformer and Pope Paul III, who finally took the bold step of convening the Council of Trent, which would begin the Catholic Reformation. He seemed to have learned nothing from Leo’s mistakes (and, for that matter, from Hadrian’s reforms), but he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel. He also patronized Machiavelli, author of The Prince (a sort of philosophical guide book on how to lead and get your way) and at the time of his death had seen Great Britain split from the Catholic Church, too.

So how bad were these bad popes? Well, one can safely say they were not exactly “saints” as we imagine many of the great popes to have been. But most of them were products of their times (which were rife with nonstop intra-European wars) and families (who were constantly vying with one another about who would steer St. Peter’s Ship).

Bad popes? Maybe. Bad men? Someday, we’ll find out.