28 February 2021

Good Popes and Bad Popes

Given the situation in the Church today, this is a timely reminder that not all Popes are Saints. Indeed, some of them have been very wicked men.

From Tumblar House

By Charles A. Coulombe

(Taken from the book Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes)

The Pope of Rome is the best known and most influential moral and religious leader in the world. Pick up the paper, turn on the T.V., and there he is. Every government in the world has to deal with him somehow. Love him or hate him, there is no denying his importance. It’s this way today, and it’s been this way since Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century.

In all that time, there have been wonder-working saints, lecherous murderers, and many, many, mediocrities on the Papal throne—every kind of human being imaginable. Most books about the Popes have either tried to whitewash every sin any Pope has committed, or else to make them all out to be anti-Christs. On this emotional topic, writers seem to have left very little middle ground.

But the truth is that there have been obviously good and obviously evil Popes, controversial Popes and forgotten Popes. In this book, they will all have their day in court. One by one, each Pope will be profiled, and their rich history, with all its pageantry, intrigue, holiness, and crime, will be unveiled. Formosus was so hated by his successor, the corrupt Stephen VI, that his rotting corpse was disinterred and subjected to a court trial. St. Leo the Great frightened Attila the Hun into sparing Rome, while St. Gregory the Great banished the plague from the Eternal City by holding a procession. St. Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor by surprise on Christmas Day, but John XII (himself the son of a Pope) was killed by his mistress’ lover, and died in her arms. St. John Paul II raised the popularity of the Papacy to incredible heights, played a huge role in bringing down Communism—and exorcised the Devil from a girl during a public audience.


"Formosus was so hated by his successor, the corrupt Stephen VI, that his rotting corpse was disinterred and subjected to a court trial."

The history of the Popes is the history of Christianity, still the dominant religion in Europe and the Americas. Understanding the Papacy in its historical setting is key to understanding the modern world.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult task for the modern English speaker. A major problem is cultural. In Great Britain, as in much of northern Europe, the secular authorities threw off Papal control of their churches during the Protestant revolt of the 16th century. Hatred of the Papacy and of still-Catholic nations became a part of the British national religion; from England this hatred was exported to and became part of the foundation of the United States, Anglo-Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the English-speaking world, Catholicism was worse than an enemy: it was a defeated enemy. On the one hand, this attitude produced the much written-of “Black Legend” school of history, wherein anything the Spanish ever did was evil. On the other, it produced in popular histories an ingrained view of the Papacy which veered from suspicion and contempt to pure loathing.

In the United States, this was further aggravated by the perception of Catholics as “foreigners.” One remembers the elegant quatrain coined by a Klansman in 1920’s Michigan:

I’d rather be a Klansman, in robes of snowy white, 
than be a Roman Catholic, in robes as black as night. 
For a Klansman is an American, and America is his home, 
But a Catholic owes allegiance to the Dago Pope of Rome.

In a word, Catholicism, since the Reformation, has been, to a greater or lesser degree, the enemy in English-speaking lands, despite the great numbers of Catholics who have made their homes in such places since the 19th century. Thus anti-Catholicism becomes the one form of bigotry still acceptable in polite society.

In the sphere of history writing, this means that it is often as hard to find a fair portrayal of things Catholic in American books written today as it was to find even-handed treatment of Capitalism in Soviet-era Russian histories. Thus we have the “Popes-can-do-no-good” school of history.

A second genre of writing about Popes is that of people—priests or lay—who, although of Catholic origins, echo slavishly the wildest charges of anti-Catholics. These are able to claim some extra knowledge of the topic because of their supposed faith.

As erroneous as the first two schools is that of well-intentioned Catholics who, in their zeal to defend their Church, whitewash the worst of Popes in the manner mentioned above.

On a purely ideological level, moreover, the Papacy is out of step with the deepest belief of the past two centuries: the cult of change. “Change is good,” we repeat as a mantra. But the role of the Popes from the beginning has been that of conservator or preservationist. The Coronation Oath of the Popes, administered since the Renaissance, declares that the new Pontiff vows “to change nothing of the received tradition, and nothing thereof, I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; To the contrary: with glowing affection as their truly faithful student and successor, to reverently safeguard the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort….” This shows a mentality entirely different from that of most of us.

Gregory the Great
"St. Gregory the Great banished the plague from the Eternal City by holding a procession."

The reason for this mindset is to be found in the very notion of Catholic tradition. The Church teaches that Divine Revelation, that body of knowledge necessary to be believed if one is to be saved (such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Transubstantiation, and so forth), ceased with the death of St. John the Evangelist, about A.D. 104. These teachings are considered to be factual things, as true of themselves as the laws of science—or more so. The Pope’s primary mission is to safeguard this deposit of Faith from change, which would be error; when doctrinal disputes arise, he must determine what the Church has always taught on the matter. While many are under the impression that “Papal Infallibility” and “defining dogma” mean that the Pope can alter or originate doctrines as he pleases, the reality is just the opposite. These terms actually mean that, when the Pope speaks at the highest level of his authority, the Holy Ghost will prevent him from defining untruths. Thus, before the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary could be defined, the Pope of the day had to be satisfied that, despite later denials by prominent theologians (including, in the case of the Immaculate Conception, St. Thomas Aquinas), the teachings had been held by the earliest Christians.

It is this wildly different concept of truth which has most often led modern Popes into conflict with the media and governments of our age. As guardians rather than owners of the Church’s doctrines, the Popes are simply unable to alter the Church’s stand on such topics as abortion, contraception, divorce, or women’s ordination. This inability to change doctrine has not merely brought them conflict in our day; where many modern women demand the right to abort their children, in times past certain monarchs and noblemen similarly wished barren wives killed or put aside in favor of fertile ones. New Queens were easy to obtain—not so Princes. Many a Pope ran into conflict over this question.

Another important part of the Papal conservatorship is that of safeguarding the Sacraments—in the Catholic view as necessary to salvation as right belief—and the various liturgies which embody them. J.R.R. Tolkien, for one, understood this very clearly. As he informs his son on p. 339 of his Collected Letters:
I myself am convinced by the Petrine [Papal] claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and re-arising. But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. “Feed my sheep” was His last charge to St. Peter; and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched—“the blasphemous fable of the Mass”—and faith/works a mere red herring.

JRRT’s historical conception of the Papacy was reflected, oddly enough, in his Lord of the Rings, by the figure of Gandalf, the great wizard. He belongs to not one of the nations of Middle Earth, and in a very real sense he is leader of all the free and faithful. This is so because his power is magical rather than temporal, just as the Pope’s is sacramental. To one character’s statement “there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor,” Gandalf replies, “the rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care...for I also am a steward.” Thus might Boniface VIII have spoken to French King Philip the Fair, or Gregory VII to Emperor Henry IV, or Innocent III to King John. Gandalf also reminds one of the Fisher-King in the Grail legends, who himself is a symbol of Peter-in-the-Boat, one of the earliest logos of the Papacy.

Of course, this ideal view certainly did not and does not apply to all Popes, by any means. As stewards or vicars of Christ, they have often failed. Infallibility does not, in Catholic teaching, protect most Papal statements, nor any Papal actions (save beatification and canonization of saints). It will prevent a Pope from defining heresy as dogma. But beyond that, the Pope is prisoner of his personality, his upbringing, and his circumstances, as are we all. It is interesting to note that before Vatican II, each night before retiring the reigning Pontiff went to confession and signed a renunciation of any liturgical mistakes he might have made during the day’s numerous ceremonies. This last was essential if any of his clerical flock were not to seize on such an error as a precedent for his own Masses.

Since the Pope’s flock lives in the world, and since the most pressing outside influence on any individual is that of his government, from the time of Constantine Popes have been concerned with politics. Of course, before Catholicism became legal there were such questions as whether the faithful could serve in the Imperial legions. But for the most part, Papal concern with civil rule was primarily in terms of being martyred under it.

With legalization, however, came responsibility. In a period when land meant power, property and then temporal sovereignty were seen as essential if the Papacy was to pursue an independent course in dealing with the great ones of this world. But these things had also the effect of sometimes diverting the Popes from or even blinding them to their spiritual duties. Yet, at least as often, temporal power has allowed them to exercise their spiritual interests freely in the face of powerful and unfriendly potentates.

All of this background is essential for a fair evaluation of the Popes we are going to meet. It is manifestly unfair to judge any religious leader by one’s own spiritual views or lack thereof. If the Dalai Lama does not impose Jewish or Muslim Dietary laws on his flock, we cannot blame him; for that matter, we ought not to be upset with the Islamic Caliphs for permitting polygamy, enjoined in the Koran. Indeed, if either had done differently, we would have to say he was a poor Buddhist or Muslim. Unless we are willing to claim that our own religion is right and that of the leader under discussion wrong (as un-modern a view as one could have), we can only judge him according to how well he safeguards his own faith, however odd it might appear to us.

So it is with the Popes. If we are to be fair with them, the only evaluation we can make of each of them is whether they did well by the Church’s own lights. If, in pursuit of this, many have done things which outrage our sensibilities, it should be borne in mind that our society allows many things which would have done the same for them.

It ought to be noted that there is a tremendous paradox at work in the Papacy. For in it we see flawed human beings attempting to exercise a position which Catholics believe partakes of and demands spiritual perfection. This creates an unending internal conflict. As Bela Lugosi observed of people at large in Glen or Glenda?, “One does wrong because he is right, another does right because he is wrong.” Some of the holiest Popes have made horrible decisions; some of the worst have, often unwittingly, done wonderful things.

This paradox continues unto our own day. As noted earlier, St. John Paul II was an internationally known figure. Due to his trips, his role in the fall of Communism, and the activities of Vatican delegations, the Holy See has never, perhaps, loomed so large in foreign affairs since the end of World War II.


 Within the Church, however, the Papacy has probably never wielded so little control since the French Revolution. As exemplified by former Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee’s rejection of Roman attempts to preserve his cathedral from radical interior alteration, and by former Cardinal Mahonyof Los Angeles’ discounting of Vatican regulations limiting the use of lay distributors of communion, many, if not most, Bishops today are “titularists;” accepting Papal authority in theory, they deny it in practice—as was seen by the attempts of so many of them to impede Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum; the Tridentine Mass is still far from being freely available to all and used as an example for the new liturgy, as the Pope clearly mandated.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this. One is the auto-demolition of Vatican control over dioceses initiated by Paul VI and continued by Benedict XVI—but there is another. Just as in Medieval Europe, similar situations developed when Bishops who were wealthy feudal lords—reflecting the civil power structure of the day—had the power to snap their fingers at the Pope. Today, reflecting the patterns of control in contemporary society, Bishops of larger dioceses are in effect CEO’s of major corporations. Some, such as Chicago or Los Angeles, are, in terms of disposable income, much bigger operations than the Vatican. Add to these two the widespread unbelief of Catholicism among the clergy and corresponding ignorance of it among the laity, and it would be hard to see how things can be other than they are.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends largely upon one’s point of view. But it is important to remember, as we shall see in the lives of the Popes, that the Church has known such times before, and doubtless will again. By the same token she will doubtless know further periods of revival and strength. At her heart lies what she considers to be a mystery: the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. It must surprise no one that her cyclical history, with its themes of death and resurrection, is likewise a mystery.

The famed 1950s-60s television psychic Criswell, as un-Papal a man as one is ever likely to meet, was wont to say, “We are all lighted candles in a darkened room, weary travelers on the road of life.” It is the contention of the Catholic Church that she and her Popes continue the work of Christ, that she is the Mystical Body of Christ; through this body alone, she maintains, can such travelers find the way to Salvation. To Catholics, she is “the light that shineth in darkness,” although the darkness does not comprehend it. To her enemies she is the most successful means of enslaving the mind of humanity that there has ever been. Whichever the reader believes, we will show the Popes as they were and are: wielders of great power on the one hand, and weary fellow travelers of us all on the other.

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