The Bad Popes

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it”—Lord Acton

The history of the papacy brings into play most of the history of the Western world, as it brings into the picture the greatest of warriors and monarchs, of reprobates and saints, of statesmen, philosophers, and artists. Indeed, the complete papal chronicle, with its bewildering profusion of Johns, Piuses, Innocents, and the rest, with its epoch-making edicts and dogmas, with its supremacy in spiritual matters and ambitions in temporal ones, with its display of a ring finger, a mailed fist, a fine Italian hand, outlasts any secular crown or war-won empire. Concerning perhaps a dozen Popes, a reasonably informed layman may recall a dozen or two facts and fictions; and yet, to cite one of the most famous of them, more of us, I think, remember it was the Emperor Henry IV -who went as a penitent to Canossa than the name of the Pope he humbled himself before.

Front the long procession. E. R. Chamberlin has written in The Bad Popes (Dial, $12.50) of seven of them, and made It is text pretty well bear out his title. His black list is also a rather yellowed one, containing no Pope later than the Renaissance. To a nonspecialist, his book seems rewardingly researched, objective in tone, and minimally theological in its concerns. Doubtless much that he treats of is acutely controversial; doubtless also, with some of his Popes distance lends indistinctness to the view. But Mr. Chamberlin, despite a good deal of century-hopping, has given the book both narrative appeal and ecclesiastical decor, and has depicted an Eternal City as a scene of eternal strife, the setting lot pilgrimages and plunder, luxury and squalor, the assassin’s knife and the avenger’s sword.

The key to most of the book, and to most of the badness, may well be eighth-century Pepin’s giving the Holy See the actual keys to some twenty Italian cities; for this, by creating the Papal States, made the Pope not just a spiritual pontiff but an extremely rich feudal lord. It thus made the Chair of St. Peter a tremendous prize for great Roman and Italian families to compete for; indeed, conspire for; indeed, commit crimes for. Out of such secular wealth grew more and more temporal power, greater and greater dynastic ambition and nepotic nestleathering, family alliances with the reigning houses of Europe, worldly assemblages of cardinals and kings. Moreover, with a Pope crowning Pepin’s son Charlemagne as Emperor of the West, and with a Pope alone empowered to crown emperors to come, the papacy wielded a club outscoring any scepter.

Mr. Chamberlin begins in the dim light and murderous darkness of the late ninth century, when in one year four Popes “scrambled onto the bloodstained throne “ and tumbled off it into their graves, and when there emerged the vigorous House of Theophylact. Its vigor was woman-born, indeed strumpet-bred, for Theophylact’s undomestic wife, Theodora, became the ruler of Rome, and her debauched daughter, Marozia, the mistress of a Pope, the two women’s period of domination being dubbed a “pornocracy.” Theodora’s clerical paramour she helped make John X, who proved to be a good Pope; the husband she chose for Marozia, soldierly Alberic, proved to be a good ruler. But it is Marozia alone who remains on stage into the tenth century: fierce and licentious, but smart and capable, she made the papacy and the family one. In time Theodora’s paramour Pope was got rid of to make way for Marozia’s son; later, Marozia’s other son bade Rome rise against her most recent husband, had Marozia thrown into a dungeon, and ruled Rome himself. Stripping his half-brother Pope of all temporal power, he reversed matters on his deathbed and insisted that his young son Octavian be made prince and pontiff both. Octavian, as John XII, is the first of Mr. Chamberlin’s seven Popes.

Under John’s dual reign (955 to 963), Rome grew recklessly criminal, the Lateran was said to have become a brothel, and his “insatiable” sexual hunger led to his giving his women lands, lordships, and even sacred relics. As pontiff he added sacrilege to sensuality, rowdiness to irresponsibility; his life of pleasure only slowed down when Rome was faced with conquest. To survive, John appealed to the greatest leader in Europe, the Otto of Saxony who had slaughtered the Huns and now saved the Romans, and whom Joint crowned as the first head of that German-Italian jointure, the Holy Roman Empire. To him the Pope took an oath of fidelity, while Otto in turn swore never to usurp papal power. As soon, however, as Otto left Rome, John offered the imperial crown to Berengar, the Italian leader whom Otto had just defeated; then offered it to Berengar’s son it he would free Rome from Otto’s yoke. Father and son having declined the honor, John now opened negotiations with the Huns and the Byzantines. Otto, getting wind of all this, held off taking action with the statement that John was “only a boy” and with the assurance that “his sense of shame” must prevail. But when Berengar’s son at length accepted the emperorship, Otto turned back to smash him; and John, as Otto neared Rome, plundered St. Peter’s and lied. Otto summoned in Rome a synod of the Church to pass judgment on what had occurred: John’s own priests testified to such acts of his as copulating with a niece and castrating a cardinal subdeacon. Summoned by Otto to Rome, John went out hunting instead, was finally deposed by the synod, and a new Pope was elected. But the Romans rose against the new Pope, so that when Otto left Rome, John came back to it. And before Otto’s army could depose him again, he died—from being brutally beaten, it was said, fry a husband he had cuckolded.

The House of Theophylact provided, some seventy years later, a second Pope, fourteen-year-old Benedict IX. As distinguished from the first one, he added “cowardice to cruelty” and infused “knockabout comedy” into his role. Rome was again chaotically criminal, and six months after Benedict was installed, he escaped from a plot to murder him only through a two-hour eclijrse of the sun. Thereafter there were further escapes; once when Benedict fled Rome, a new Pope was proclaimed, himself to flee three months later when Benedict returned. Benedict, it seems, now wanted to marry, but the girl’s father forbade the match unless Benedict gave up being Pope. This he was willing to do, except for the loss of income, and to make up for it, he sold the papacy itself—to his godfather. As Gregory VI, the honest Christian godfather entered on his pontificate to face an even more anarchic Rome and to lack the money to police it; and soon an unmarried Benedict returned, assuming office, only for the Pope who had fled after three months to return also. Three Popes now sat, unable to unseat one another, so that, clamored for by the Romans, the Emperor appeared, summoned a synod, deposed all three Popes, and elected a fourth. Away goes the Emperor, back hurries Benedict, seating himself in a very wobbly Chair; back strides the Emperor, away scurries Benedict—this time forever, into the dark night of history.

A 250-year jump brings us to a conclave of cardinals who had been deliberating for eighteen months to elect a Pope. What caused the delay was that two great Roman families were fighting fiercely for the papacy—the Orsini because they had had the previous Pope, the Colonna because they had not. A fantastic compromise at last gave the tiara to Peter of Morone, a Neapolitan holy man in his eighties who lived in a cell on a side ol a mountain, up which now trudged princes of the Church and the King of Naples to salute a trembling Pope, and down which he tremblingly tottered, insistent on going not to Rome but to Naples, and on living austerely there. As Celestine V he was an ascetic anachronism among ecclesiastical schemers and sophisticates, and fifteen weeks after being crowned he quakingly summoned his cardinals, stripped himself of gorgeous robes, and abdicated. The great legalist cardinal Benedict Gaetani, who was said to have engineered the abdication, was now chosen Pope.

As Boniface VIII (1294 to 1303) he quickly abandoned Naples for Rome, to be installed there with magnificent ceremonial. Celestine, ordered to come back with him, made for his mountain instead, was pursued and brought back anti—regarded as dangerous for possibly still being the true Popeshut up in a fortress, but not before prophesying to Boniface: “You have entered like a fox, you will reign like a lion, you will die like a dog.” Able and vigorous, Boniface became the arbiter of conflicts all over Europe, only to become a byword at home for simony and nepotism. During his pontificate he pocketed a quarter of the revenue of the Holy See; to enrich and exalt his Gaetani relations, he acquired for them cities and territories within the States of the Church. As a result, older and greater families, notably the Colonna, were deprived and dispossessed, and in turn conspired to depose Boniface. When a Colonna swooped down on a caravan of Gaetani gold, he had simultaneously thrown down the gage: the Colonna issued manifestos, the Pope bulls and excommunications. The Colonna appealed to all Christendom, stressing Boniface’s tyrannical greed and ecclesiastical crimes; the Pope exonerated all who had committed crimes against the Colonna as “avengers of Christ.”It grew into ferocious warfare, with the downfall of all Colonna-controlled cities except historic Palestrina: if they would yield this, said Boniface, he would pardon them and restore their dignity. They yielded it, only for Boniface to demolish it and render it “eternally barren.” Thereafter, honoring the Italian proverb that “vengeance is a dish best tasted cold,” the Colonna bided their time.

Arbitrating, excommunicating, aggrandizing, Boniface prefigures the great Renaissance magniftcoes in his sumptuous style of living, bis imparting splendor to Rome, his love for sculpture, including countless statues of himself; Ins feeling for art, his pungent speech, his capacity to sin, his tendency toward cynicism. “All tongue and eyes,” he was deeply hated, not least by Dante; and because of his despotic methods and boundless aims, he was eventually challenged by France. To his demands Philip IV retorted: “To Boniface, who calls himself pope, little or no greeting.” “We can depose you,” Boniface spat back, “like a stable boy.” Philip soon after called a council, extravagantly accusing Boniface of simony, sodomy, parricide, nepotism, and heresy; and in time called for a Church council to depose him. Then, one morning, with a coldly vengeful Colonna at its bead, a group of armed men stole in upon Boniface’s palace at Anagni, where, enthroned and crowned, the Pope met them, awaiting his death. Instead be was imprisoned and taken back to Rome, where he imprisoned himself, to the within a month, stripped of will, sunk in despair, planning insane revenges.

Several generations later, ending the era of the rich, worldly Avignon Popes, the Neapolitan Bartolemeo Orignani was elected, as Urban VI, at Rome. Fiercely opposed by France and the affluent French cardinals, himself a strong-minded but short-tempered and up-the-hard-way pontiff, he exuded recriminatory bile and bad manners. At his opening session with his cardinals, he told one to shut up, called another a liar, a third a fool, a fourth a bandit, reserving a later day for physically attacking a fifth. In retaliation a hostile Frenchdominated Sacred College elected the bandit, Robert of Geneva, Pope. This created the great historic schism, nationalistic rather than theological in character, and dividing Europe, and even Italy, in its allegiances: Urban’s native Naples, under Queen Joanna, became in time his most troublesome enemy. Worsening his cause by nepotism, he struck at Joanna, excommunicated her, and saw her assassinated; was soon at open war with her chosen successor; clashed and even put to the torture the cardinals of his newly elected College. Though Urban by no means lacked character or courage, his rages wiped out all show of reason, his blunders made for destructive turmoil, while his death in 1989 far from ended the schism. For now two Popes were elected to succeed him, and when the Sacred College deposed them both, it elected a third, with all three deposed in turn at the Council of Constance in 1415. Yet another was chosen who, as Martin V, restored the legitimate line.

Far more familiar to most of us are Mr. Chamberlin’s last three Popes and the period they lived in, and just so they seem, despite their resplendent background, a touch less fascinating. The first of them is a Borgia, Alexander VI; the other two, Leo X and Clement VII, are Medici. With two intermissions, they wore the tiara over a period of forty-two years, the years of the High Renaissance, when their own black-marbled names were commingled with such others as Michelangelo and Raphael, Cellini and Castiglione, Machiavelli and Savonarola. The age was a great cornucopia of the arts, set flowing with Vatican gold, was a tremendous rebirth of the classics that gave the Renaissance its name, was an era when high station coalesced with high living, and when papal and palatial were synonymous. Sin, gorgeously attired, went everywhere, and so did distrust.

Alexander VI, as the “second richest cardinal,” outbid his rivals for the pontificate till he owned enough conclave votes to be elected. It was afterward said that he sold the Keys, the Altar, Christ Himself, but that he no doubt had a right to, since he had bought them. But there was nothing mercantile about his personality: he could be dominating, dignified, eloquent, and had the Borgia charm. He also “knew neither shame nor sincerity, neither faith nor religion" and had a “burning passion” to elevate his many children. Moreover, along with family aggrandizement there went the family thirst for power. Mr. Chamberlin might have reminded us that perhaps the most quoted maxim of modern times stems from a great Catholic’s stern rebuke of a Protestant’s leniency toward such wicked Popes as Alexander. “Power,”wrote Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton, “tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”And, less well known: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. . . . There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”Power, with the Borgias, not only corrupted the holder of it, it was corruptly contagious, with the infamous lather Alexander overborne by Cesare Borgia, the vile and nefarious son.

Meanwhile MUCH ensued: the simoniacally elected and nepotically inflamed Alexander faced a coalition of hostile cardinals and the King of France; his favorite son, the Duke of Gandia, was murdered; the grieving father resolved to reform, but the mood passed all TOO soon; the affectionate father was accused, no doubt falsely, of incest with his daughter Lucrezia; until, amid other scandals and other turmoils, Gesare, who had been made a minor French duke, made of himself a fiendish Roman dictator, with money for conquest his incessant demand, and murder his favorite hobby. In time lather and son fell together, both being taken violently ill and conceivably poisoned. The Pope died, and Cesare at length recovered, but a new Pope squashed his power; fleeing to Spain, Gesare died in battle there three years later.

Under the Medici—Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son Giovanni as Leo X and his illegitimate nephew Giulio as Clement VII—a rich and very Florentineminded family sat high in Rome. Giovanni, who had been bought a cardinal’s hat at fourteen, was spaciously, glitteringly pleasure-loving, the magnificent procession that followed his being crowned pacing his performances thereafter. No snob or tyrant, he was something of a High Renaissance playboy, exulting in grand-scale sport, living in Louis XIV-like grandeur. (At a banquet in his honor, the gold plate was tossed, course by course, out the window into the Tiber; during his pontificate prostitutes were so elegant and superior that they had their professions inscribed on their graves.) A dilettantish humanist who preferred the classics to the Gospels, Leo X jested: “How very profitable this fable of Ghrist has been for us through the ages!” He loved jests generally, he loved epigrams and classical ruins and art and theater and music and the Medici. In a more stable and moral world he might well have proved a powerfully civilizing influence. But in a world of treachery, he proved treacherous, twice letting sacrosanct safe-conducts be violated; in a world of cruelty, he put men harshly to the torture; in a world of vast luxury and venality, he created, at a stiff price, over thirty cardinals in one day, and raised into the thousands the salable offices in the Curia. His pontificate of “gay corruption’slighted gravel matters and grim portents. Even so, with a different address, he might have left behind a less disreputable name.

Giulio became Glement VII after a long, politicking conclave during which, to spur the cardinals to action, their food was reduced each day. Glement was sober, abstemious, reputedly avaricious, Mediciminded, and extremely unpopular. “His entire pleasure,” wrote the Venetian ambassador, was “talking to engineers about waterworks"; his overriding weakness was an incorrigible vacillation: his dragged-out handling of Henry VIII’s wanting to divorce Catherine of Aragon is a case in point. With conquest-minded France and Spain at odds, and Italy their prime objective, Clement’s two favorite advisers were a Frenchman and a Spaniard. Having made a secret treaty with a victorious Francis I of France, he abandoned a defeated Francis for Charles V of Spain; then, after conspiring elsewhere against Charles, he rejoined Francis, against Charles, in a holy alliance for liberating Italy. As Vicar of Christ, Clement behaved like the Vicar of Bray. What emerged from a resolve to liberate Italy was a barbarian invasion of it, followed by the Germano-Spanish Sack of Rome. While Clement stayed safely imprisoned in Sant’ Angelo, Rome was scoured for its wealth and treasure, despoiled of its relics, accursed with hunger and plague, its murdered citizens flung into the Tiber, its nuns raped and auctioned off, its churches loaded with corpses gnawed by dogs. When its invaders finally left, Rome itself resembled a corpse, with the continuance of a Roman papacy a decided question mark. Clement, now at Charles V’s mercy, left Rome in disguise for Orvieto, became a wanderer while all Italy was embroiled in war, and at length crowned Charles, being the last Pope to crown an emperor. For the rest, Clement finally censured Henry VIII, married a Medici niece to the son of the King of France and an alleged Medici nephew to a daughter of the Emperor Charles. It is to be regretted that he did not serve his God as he had served his kin.

Skipping across six centuries tea treat of seven men. The Had Popes simply leaves us, all in all, with seven portraits or careers. It provides nothing continuous or unified, and of the development and destiny ol the papacy, or of the Chinch, or of Italy and Europe, it takes in effect seven big, flavorsome, tainted bites. Yet I found much of it not only absorbing reading matter but offering enough historical background, involved with enough historic issues, and treated with enough knowledge as well as liveliness to be more than just a papal chronique scandaleuse. Sulfurously lighting up its ignominious background is the endless struggle for power in Europe, with a torn, disunited Italy again and again a field of battle and a form of booty. Coexistent and kindred with this, the papacy’s own craving for temporal power, and its attendant indulgences, is the real villain of the book and is hardly less the theme. In The Bad Popes, Church and State at odds, or Church and State as one, are ravenous to govern and grow rich. In dealing with bad Popes, Mr. Chamberlin shows no sign of personal bias, but does, to be sure, very much specialize in a particular breed—a breed that gave way, says Burckhardt in his great classic work on Renaissance Italy, to a “new, regenerated hierarchy which avoided all the great and dangerous scandals of former times.”□