Pope John Paul ii is no stranger to controversy. Yet, the leader of the world’s 1 billion-plus Catholics remains undaunted. Even with failing health he shows himself to be a man driven. But driven to what? His supporters claim that, nearing the end of his life, he is on an intense personal spiritual pilgrimage. However, an honest look at the facts reveals that he is pursuing an international political quest. John Paul’s final days will be best known as the great effort to position the papacy at the forefront of world politics—specifically in the Middle East.
Here is some recent papal controversy. At mass on March 12, the pope stated, “As the successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy, the church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.” This was John Paul’s plea for divine forgiveness for sins committed by his church over the past 2,000 years. It was a public confession of guilt. But was it a good confession?
I was raised Roman Catholic. To make a “good” confession I was taught to be specific, to be sorry for my sins and to promise never to do them again. The pope may have been sorry, but he definitely was not specific, and he didn’t make any promises for the future.
Accompanying the papal self-pardoning was a 19,000-word document titled “Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past.” Though extensive, this paper is also not specific. It mentions “past faults,” and “scandals of the past.” But these sweeping statements can cover a multitude of nameless sins. Some praised John Paul for his candor. But others are concerned about his lack of specifics. In fact, it is the lack of specifics that causes many to question the motives behind his statements.
Historians recognize that the Roman Catholic Church is humanity’s oldest continuing institution. The life of the church spans nearly two millennia. For centuries, and most of our modern times, the church has been happy to operate away from the public eye. However, John Paul’s popularity and near-celebrity status have moved his church consistently into the spotlight. It is clear that the Vatican officials like it and desire a formidable public role during the third millennium.
Unfortunately, there is a problem. Church officials recognize that multiple volumes of secular history exist that expose the universal church’s scandals of the past and past faults. Church fathers would like to see this history remain forgotten and not dragged into the spotlight. Why? Much of the scandalous history in the church has to do with its favorite sons—the popes!
In our age of media criticism, it is unlikely that any public figure can escape bad history—even the Roman Church. So the next best thing is to attempt to clean it up with apology. But will a sweeping apology wipe out papal history? Never! Some of the popes have lived incredibly dark, base and bizarre lives. Here are several short biographies of some of the more nefarious bishops of Rome.
The history of any pope is tied to the history of Europe and, more specifically, to the Holy Roman Empire. In essence, we can only understand the popes in their historical context.
Sabinian, the 65th pope, was one of the most loathed pontiffs in history. He came into power in A.D. 606 during the Lombard invasion of Italy. The continual military conflict over Italian soil had caused great famine. Sabinian maintained a tight control over food supplies in Rome. In fact, he sold food to the poor for profit. Sabinian was so hated that when he died in 606 his funeral procession was diverted outside of the city walls to avoid public protest. He was buried in a secret location in the Lateran Basilica.
Stephen VI (VII)
One of the most bizarre historical accounts involving the papacy involves an event known as the Cadaver Synod. Stephen, made pope in 896, ordered the exhumation of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and had him tried for alleged crimes against the church. Formosus had only been dead for about nine months. Stephen dressed Formosus’ corpse in papal robes and sat it in a chair. Stephen presided over the trial.
E.R. Chamberlin writes, “The corpse was provided with a council, who wisely kept silent while Pope Stephen raved and screamed his insults at it. The pretext for the trial was that Formosus, contrary to canon law, had accepted the bishopric of Rome while he was still bishop of another diocese. But few, if any, in the council chamber, were impressed by the charge. The real crime of Formosus was that he had been a member of the opposite faction and had crowned ‘emperor’ one of the numerous illegitimate descendants of Charlemagne after having performed the same office for the candidate favored by Pope Stephen’s party” (The Bad Popes, 1969, p. 20).
Formosus was declared guilty. His remains were dragged through the streets of Rome and then thrown in the Tiber. The effect of the Cadaver Synod backfired on Stephen. Formosus’ supporters, appalled by Stephen’s macabre trial, rebelled. He was deposed, imprisoned and strangled to death.
Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame, Catholic priest and author of the 1997 book Lives of the Popes, puts Sergius on his list of the 24 worst popes. Sergius was a murderous individual. He had his predecessor, Leo v, and Leo’s rival, Christopher, murdered to secure his office. Sergius was made pope in 904, which was the same time the Theophylact family held sway over Rome.
Theophylact was a senator and commanded the local militia. Theophylact’s wife, Theodora, and her daughter, Marozia, held sway over much of the affairs of state. They used illicit sex to maintain their power and influence. Sergius was a favorite of the family. McBrien writes: “Sergius was so close to his [Theophylact’s] family, in fact, that he was reputed to have had a son (the future Pope John xi) by the 15-year-old daughter of Theophylact’s wife, Theodora. So corrupted were Sergius and his immediate successors by the Theophylact family, that the subsequent decades have been called the ‘pornocracy’ of the papacy” (Lives of the Popes, p. 151). Essentially, throughout his base pontificate Sergius did the bidding of the Theophylact women. Some historians refer to his pontificate as “the rule of the harlots.”
Listening to John Paul II’s request for forgiveness, any student of history would naturally ask, which past sins? Could John Paul have been referring to the papal Inquisition? Most journalists believe he was. In “Memory and Reconciliation,” while referring to John Paul’s letter, “Tertio millennio adveniente,” it is stated, “The church is invited to ‘become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children.’ …Some of these are explicitly mentioned, like the separation of Christians, or the ‘methods of violence and intolerance’ used in the past to evangelize” (p. 5). Certainly the Inquisition represents the darkest of Roman Church history. The blood of millions was shed supposedly in the name of Christ.
It was Pope Gregory ix who established the papal Inquisition under the direction of the Dominicans in 1221. The Dominicans, known as the preachers, were not tied to any one location but were dispatched like an army on the move. Their mission was to search out all Albigensian heretics and bring them back into the Roman fold. The Albigensians rejected not only papal authority but also other false teachings of the church. With the approval of Emperor Frederick ii, Gregory ordered the Dominicans to crush the Albigensians. The Dominicans, also known as Black Friars, were very effective at their job. They became accuser, judge and jury. They turned their victims over to the civil authorities. At that time most heretics were burned alive.
It was Innocent iv, made pope in 1243, who approved the use of torture to extract confessions of heresy. He aggressively applied the principle that “the end justifies the means.” It is shocking to learn about the deranged instruments of torture that were used on so many innocent people. One of the most famous people to suffer at the hands of Roman inquisitors was Galileo. The church condemned Galileo for claiming that the earth revolved around the sun. It is interesting to note that Galileo was “rehabilitated” posthumously by John Paul ii in 1992.
Of course, the 700-year Spanish Inquisition is more notorious than the Roman. It was Sixtus iv who authorized the commencement of the council in 1479 under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand ii and Isabella of Spain. The Inquisition’s primary targets were Muslims and Jews, but then it quickly broadened to include witches and political enemies. The council’s methods included torture, confiscation of property and execution through burning. Sixtus appointed Tomas de Torquemada, a Spanish Dominican, as its first Grand Inquisitor.
At first, the Inquisition forced the conversion of Jews and Muslims. Eventually Torquemada ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. Then he initiated the genocide of the Moriscos—converted Muslims living in Spain who had retained some Islamic practices. The Spanish Inquisition was widely expanded into Europe and came to full fury during the Protestant Reformation. The Inquisition proved to be an effective counter-Reformation weapon. It is estimated that over 50 million people were executed by the church. The Spanish Inquisition was not finally abolished until the 19th century.
It was Paul iv who gave the Spanish Inquisition its most effective means of prosecuting heretics. He created the Index of Forbidden Books. Anyone caught in possession of books on the list was in danger of excommunication, torture and death. Reuters reported on January 22, 1998, that the Holy Bible was one of the books on the list. It came as a surprise to many that handwritten copies of the Bible had ended up on Inquisition heretical-book bonfires. The greater sin, however, was that many Christians known as Waldensians were executed for owning copies of Scripture. McBrien also states this about Paul iv: “He was bitterly anti-Protestant and anti-Semitic, confining Jews to a special quarter in Rome and forcing them to wear distinctive headgear” (Lives of the Popes, p. 437).
It is interesting to note that the Roman Congregation of the Inquisition was never abolished. In 1965 Pope Paul vi renamed it Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the office’s present head. It is also interesting that the Index of Forbidden Books was not abolished until 1966.
John Paul’s millennium repentance was also viewed by many as an attempt to heal the wounds caused by Pope Pius xii’s failure to rescue the Jews during the Holocaust. In essence, John Paul was apologizing for Catholic inaction during World War ii. Pius xii has been accused of remaining silent and turning his head the other way while millions died. In 1999 John Paul made a proposal to canonize the wartime pope. Jewish leaders are bitterly opposed to such a move.
Questions concerning the Vatican’s responsibility with regard to the persecution of the Jews came into sharp focus in the 1990s. Several well-documented and condemning books were published showing that the Vatican was more than just silent during World War ii. Mark Aarons and John Loftus wrote a book titled The Unholy Trinity, which provides abundant documentation that the Vatican heavily sponsored the ignoble “Ratlines” used to help most of the Nazi leaders escape the Allies after World War ii.
Catholic historian John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius xii, published in 1999, shows that prior to his election as pope, Pius xii, as the Vatican representative in pre-war Berlin and then as its secretary of state, helped stamp out opposition to Nazism in the German church. He also abandoned Catholic political parties opposed to Hitler.
Cornwell then charges Pius xii of failing to use his influence in favor of the Jews. The pope did have access to information about Hitler’s extensive killing of Jews. He mildly objected to their persecution rather late in the game. And then, during his objection, he didn’t even mention the Jews by name. Pius xii has also been criticized by other historians for failing to warn the Jewish community in Rome before their roundup. There is also cause for concern that Pius never protested the Nazi murder of 20 percent of the Polish Catholic clergy.
Jewish leaders and many thinking people feel that, even at its best, John Paul’s confession was inadequate because of its vagueness. Some analysts believe that his obscurity could be symptomatic of internal struggles taking place among high-ranking Vatican officials. It was John Paul’s personal desire to make the confession. His critics within the Vatican, however, did not agree that the church should acknowledge past wrongs.
John Paul has been little affected by his critics. He has stood his ground on issues such as birth control, abortion and the ordination of women as priests. Earlier this year, Karl Lehmann, bishop of Mainz and president of the German Bishop’s Conference, suggested that John Paul step down because of his advancing age and the visible affects of Parkinson’s disease. By suggesting resignation, Bishop Lehmann expressed more the desire for a change in leadership than a concern over health. The pope refuses to resign his office.
We must realize that John Paul ii is a brilliant man. The history of his papacy proves that he is a well-seasoned politician. In 91 journeys, John Paul has traveled to well over 125 countries during his 21 years as pope. In fact, he has logged more miles than all previous popes combined. George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul ii, shows that this pope will be most remembered as a statesman who sped the collapse of communism, brought reform to Latin America and the Philippines and opened healing talks with Judaism.
It is more likely that John Paul’s public confession was a carefully worded statement to put a better face on a papacy with a history. Recognize that while on his Holy Land trip, besides audiences with heads of state, he held meetings with religious leaders. There were Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. Four of those groups have had rough dealings with past papal faults.
David Van Biema reported in Time on April 3, “And timing has always been his gift. Just when the Soviet Empire was ripe for the tipping, the Polish pope provided a nudge. When Cuba’s relationship with America was so sour that Fidel Castro might have grabbed at almost anything to improve it, John Paul arrived, provided an opportunity and—not incidentally—revived the rights of Christians on Castro’s island. When deeds needed to be put to Vatican ii’s words in 1986, this pope knew enough to visit a synagogue.”
Although the Holy Land trip was touted as a personal pilgrimage, the pope was rarely alone. While he prayed and meditated, journalists and cameramen surrounded him. The visit to the Holy Land was a well-scripted, well-timed media event with a purpose. Could the purpose have been to quell the world’s ill feelings against papal authority?
There are those who recognize that John Paul will not long be able to discharge his office. The 80-year-old bishop of Rome is suffering from blackouts, dizzy spells and convulsions. Vatican insiders are already preparing to focus the world’s attention on the Sistine Chapel. In fact, there are some anxiously awaiting the time when the conclave of 120 cardinals will take the seats under Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment and begin the balloting for a new Pontifex Maximus. Who will that man be? There is much speculation. There are some clear favorites, but in reality there is no obvious choice. Whoever he is, we can be sure that because of John Paul ii’s efforts, he will play a significant role on the world’s political stage.