Date: 4/11/2005


Sex and crime: Popes' murky past

AFP[ MONDAY, APRIL 11, 2005 09:30:23 AM ]

VATICAN CITY: They've plotted and deceived, they've been warlike, corrupt and power-hungry and they've sired children they shamelessly promoted: the history of popes, as cardinals mull who will succeed John Paul II, is decidedly murky.

Such accusations can in no way be levelled at John Paul II, who died on April 2 after a 26-year pontificate that inspired and enthralled many.

But it was not always so. "The history of the papacy is the history of one of the most momentous and extraordinary institutions in the history of the world," says Eamon Duffy in a study of popes entitled "Saints and Sinners."

As cardinals go into seclusion from April 18 to elect the next head of the Roman Catholic Church, they have a rich history of sinning popes to look back on.

In the early centuries of Christianity, popes struggled to establish their grip in an age when the Roman empire was collapsing and threats abounded from other cultures and religions.

They assumed more and more temporal authority as the papacy developed into a major secular power, at the cost of plunging to a level of corruption that left it morally bankrupt.

Pontiffs became absolute monarchs, with their own army, administration and lands, until other European kings re-asserted their own rights, shrinking the papacy's power and forcing it to revert to its age-old spiritual role.

One of the most notorious popes was Alexander VI, from the scheming Borgia dynasty, who was both intensely ambitious and wealthy.

During the 1492 conclave that elected him the successor to Innocent VIII, "money fell like rain," according to Peter Maxwell-Stuart of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

"The papacy had been bought." Alexander VI had six sons... ... and three daughters by several women and placed all his offspring into high positions.

His successor in 1503, Julius II, had three daughters while a cardinal and was a fierce warrior, leading his men into battle in silver armour against any who defied his authority.

Under Leo X, rampant corruption such as the selling of spiritual blessings in return for money led Martin Luther to start the Reformation.

Popes were kingmakers too, although not always successfully.

In the turmoil after the collapse of the Roman empire people looked to the papacy for leadership, but as proper nation states developed, popes resorted - like everyone else - to scheming and plotting and ad-hoc alliances in the myriad kingdoms and rival loyalties of Middle Age and Renaissance Europe.

Picking the wrong friends cost lives. Back in 882, John VIII was poisoned and clubbed to death, the first pope to be murdered.

A few years later, Pope Stephen VIII had a close predecessor, Formosus, dug up, dressed in pontifical garb and put on trial posthumously.

Stephen himself was later imprisoned and... ... strangled. Meanwhile Pope Sixtus IV was implicated in an inter-factional plot in 1478 that led to the murder of a leading member of the powerful Medici family.

According to Maxwell-Stuart, five pontiffs have been jailed, four murdered, one openly assassinated, one deposed and one publicly flogged.

One died of wounds in battle, another when a ceiling fell on top of him. Pope Urban VIII, a prodigious nepotist who reigned from 1623 to 1644, had astrologers draw up horoscopes of cardinals in Rome to learn when they would die because he was suspicious of them.

He also ordered a Dominican monk recently released from jail for heresy to perform a magical ceremony to ward off any nasty effects of an imminent lunar eclipse.

An enduring myth, which neither Maxwell-Stuart nor Duffy believe, is that of a pope named Joan in the ninth or 11th century - depending which medieval account you believe - who was only found out when she gave birth.

Still, as the authors argue, in 2,000 years of Christianity and 264 popes there are bound to have been a few rotten apples.

"For all its sins the papacy does seem to have been on balance a force for human freedom and largeness of spirit," says Duffy.