Bad Popes in the History of the Church

Most of the people I have talked to (at conferences, emails, comments, etc) are very anxious about what is going on in Rome these days. In conversations I would ask them about the “Cadaver synod” and since they did not know about it I would explain it and then ask “how would the 24/7 news cycle or blogs react to that going on if it happened today?” Or if a Pope was so immoral that the Lateran would be called a ‘brothel’? Murders, buying the chair, etc? You hear of stories like the Jewish businessman that wanted to convert and told the priest, who was giving him instructions, I will get baptized when I return from Rome. The priest thought he lost this man because he would see the corruption and evil in Rome and not seek baptism. The man returns from his trip and asks for baptism. The priest was shocked and asked “Do you not go to Rome?” man responded, “yes”. “Did you not see the corruption and evil there?” the man said “yes”. The priest finally asks “and you still seek baptism and enter the Church?” the man responded, “Fr, remember I am a good businessman this Church has to be ran by God because if it was ran by man it would not last a fortnight.” This and other stories should give you hope and faith that the gates of hell is not going to prevail. It may prevail in countries in Africa, as countries where St Augustine and others resided are all now Muslim countries. It may prevail in North and South America.

In chapter V of Book III of St. Bellarmine’s work in his Controversies on the Word of God he writes, “honor is always due to the priesthood and the pontificate, even if by chance the person who sits on the chair is less than good.” Try not to fall into un-pious behavior of name calling and belittling bad bishops and bad popes. Christ the just judge will take care of that when they meet Him and if He said we would be judged on every idle word we say, I would guess that would go for typing as well. Personally, I do not want to have that thrown in my face come that terrifying day. Be sure to pray more for the priests, bishops, cardinals, and pope. If you have to then turn off the news and stop reading about it. It is good to know what is going on but not at the expense of your inner peace. You can still go to heaven under a bad pope and go to hell under a good pope. Recall that most of human history there was no internet and unless you lived in Rome, or nearby it, you may had no idea who the pope is, if he died (news traveled slower), definitely not everything he said everyday, etc. So there were many many many saints who lived under bad popes who did not know the evil things the pope was doing in Rome. Those saints did their duty of their state in life to the best of their ability, went to Mass and received the sacraments as much as they could, learned the faith, and loved God, His mother, and the saints. We can do that too.

Frank Sheed wrote:

“In the criticisms uttered by many… there is a failure to see Christ as the whole point. So much in the daily running of the Church they find depressing – the sermons, they say, take no one deeper into the reality of God or man; this priest or that cares for nothing but money, the sick are neglected, the old are rejected; the hierarchy know nothing of the emotional or intellectual problems which are eating away at their people’s faith, the Curia is simply a bureaucracy, using every trick to hold on to its power; as for the pope…

“It all adds up to ‘the Institutional Church’, with so many wondering if their spiritual integrity will permit them to remain in it.

“But Institutional Israel, the Chosen People, as the Prophets show it, was even worse than the harshest critics think the Catholic Church, yet it never occurred to the holiest of the Jews to leave it. They knew that however evilly the administration behaved, Israel was still the people of God. So with the Church: an administration is necessary if the Church is to function, but Christ is the whole point of the functioning. We are not baptized into the hierarchy, we do not receive the cardinals sacramentally, we will not spend eternity in the beatific vision of the pope.

“St. John Fisher could say in a public sermon, ‘If the Pope will not reform the Curia, God will’: a couple of years later he laid his head on Henry VIII’s block for papal supremacy, followed to the same block by St Thomas More, who had spent his youth under the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, lived his early manhood under the Medici pope, Leo X, and died for papal supremacy under Clement VII, as time-serving a pope as Rome had had.

“Christ is the point. I myself admire the present Pope [he was writing of Paul VI]; but even if I criticized as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I sometimes find the Church (as I have to live in it) a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, though I might well wish that he would. Israel, through its best periods as through its worst, preserved the truth of God’s Oneness in a world swarming with gods – and the sense of God’s majesty in a world sick with its own pride. So with the Church. Under the worst administration – say as bad as John XII’s a thousand years ago – we could still learn Christ’s truth, still receive His life in the sacraments, still be in union with Him to the limit of our willingness.”

So stay close to Our Lady (remember the 1st Pope denied Christ and Judas, a bishop, betrayed Him), read good books by the saints, read the bible, get good catechism, say your rosaries, offer up penances, have fervent communions, and stay away from anything that doesn’t lead you to Christ.

What follows are some accounts of Popes not acting like they should have.

From the Britannica website


Alexander VI, original Spanish name in full Rodrigo de Borja y Doms, Italian Rodrigo Borgia, (born 1431, Játiva, near Valencia [Spain]—died August 18, 1503, Rome), corrupt, worldly, and ambitious pope (1492–1503), whose neglect of the spiritual inheritance of the church contributed to the development of the Protestant Reformation. As vice chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church, Rodrigo amassed enormous wealth and, despite a severe rebuke from Pope Pius II, lived as a Renaissance prince. He patronized the arts and fathered a number of children for whom he provided livings, mainly in Spain. By a Roman noblewoman, Vannozza Catanei, he had four subsequently legitimized offspring—Juan, Cesare, Jofré, and Lucrezia—whose complicated careers troubled his pontificate.

In September 1493 Alexander created his teenaged son Cesare a cardinal, along with Alessandro Farnese (the brother of the papal favourite Giulia la Bella and the future pope Paul III). In the course of his pontificate Alexander appointed 47 cardinals to further his complicated dynastic, ecclesiastical, and political policies. His son Juan was made duke of Gandía (Spain) and was married to Maria Enriquez, the cousin of King Ferdinand IV of Castile; Jofré was married to Sancia, the granddaughter of the king of Naples; and Lucrezia was given first to Giovanni Sforza of Milan, and, when that marriage was annulled by papal decree on the grounds of impotence, she was married to Alfonso of Aragon. Upon his assassination Lucrezia received as a third husband Alfonso I d’Este, duke of Ferrara.

Tragedy struck the papal household on June 14, 1497, when Alexander’s favourite son, Juan, was murdered. Gravely afflicted, Alexander announced a reform program and called for measures to restrain the luxury of the papal court, reorganize the Apostolic Chancery, and repress simony and concubinage. Alexander had shown great forbearance in dealing with the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who usurped political control in Florence in 1494, condemned the evils of the papal court, and called for the pope’s deposition, and, even before the friar’s downfall in May 1498, theologians and men of affairs had expressed support for the papacy. Meanwhile, however, Alexander had returned to a policy of political intrigue.

As a patron of the arts, Alexander erected a centre for the University of Rome, restored the Castel Sant’Angelo, built the monumental mansion of the Apostolic Chancery, embellished the Vatican palaces, and persuaded Michelangelo to draw plans for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. He proclaimed the year 1500 a Holy Year of Jubilee and authorized its celebration with great pomp. He also promoted the evangelization of the New World. (1)


Stephen VI (or VII), (born, Rome—died July/August 897, Rome), pope from May 896 to August 897.

The era in which he was elected as the successor to Pope Boniface VI was torn by factions led by Roman aristocrats and by rulers of Naples, Benevento, Tuscany, and Spoleto (of whose ruling family Stephen was a member). Guy, duke of Spoleto, had been reluctantly crowned (891) Holy Roman emperor by Pope Stephen V (VI), and Guy’s son Lambert had been crowned co-emperor by Pope Formosus. Both of these preceding pontiffs had preferred the East Frankish king Arnulf, and in 896 Formosus abandoned the Spoletans and crowned Arnulf Holy Roman emperor, igniting a stormy conflict between the feuding factions. After Boniface’s two-week pontificate, Stephen, then bishop of Anagni, was elected pope, and the Spoletan party gained control of Rome.

Stephen was a partisan of Lambert, who induced him to conduct one of the grisliest events in papal history—the “Cadaver Synod” (or Synodus Horrenda). The Spoletans were so driven by hate for Formosus that they effected an unprecedented council (897) at which Formosus’ corpse was disinterred and arraigned for trial. Among the accusations against Formosus was that he had uncanonically transferred from the episcopal see of Porto to that of Rome (current church law forbade a bishop’s transferring from one see to another). The true purpose of the trial, however, was the appeasement and satisfaction of political enmity; the Spoletans charged that as leader of the rival faction Formosus had crowned an illegitimate descendant of Charlemagne after he had already crowned Lambert. Inevitably, Stephen’s party sought the destruction of the Formosan faction.

Stephen ordered the nine-month-old cadaver redressed in papal vestments and propped up in the papal throne. He then proceeded to annul Formosus’ pontificate and to declare his acts (including the holy orders he had conferred) void. Since Formosus had appointed Stephen bishop of Anagni, the annulment freed Stephen from charges of irregularity in his transferral from the see of Anagni to Rome.

Stephen concluded the trial by ordering that the corpse be dragged through the streets and dumped into the Tiber River.

In a few months an insurrection removed Stephen from office. Deprived of papal insignia, he was imprisoned and strangled, but his party found another leader in the murderous pope Sergius III. Twelve years of blood, intrigue, and terror followed.(2)


Sergius III, (born, Rome [Italy]—died April 14, 911, Rome), pope from 904 to 911, during a scandalous period of pontifical history.

Of noble birth, Sergius was a deacon when made bishop of Caere by Pope Formosus, during whose pontificate powerful Roman factions developed that involved the influential Tusculani count Theophylactus. Later, Sergius became a supporter of Pope Stephen VI (VII), who exhumed Formosus’ corpse, subjected it to a posthumous trial (the “Cadaver Synod”), and nullified Formosus’ pontificate and acts. The ensuing intrigue became complex and malicious, casting a shadow over the papacy: from 896 (Formosus’ death) to 904 (Sergius’ consecration) there was a bloodstained succession of seven popes and one antipope, most of whom were concerned either to rehabilitate Formosus’ memory or to degrade it again.

Sergius was elected pope by Stephen’s party in 898, simultaneously with the opposing faction’s candidate, Pope John IX, who later abrogated Stephen’s acts by exonerating Formosus. Sergius attempted to seize the papacy but was expelled from Rome by his adversaries. The antipope Christopher drove Pope Leo V out of Rome in 903, and, in the following year, Sergius, with the military help of the Tusculani Alberic I of Spoleto, reappeared in Rome and deposed Christopher, who with Leo was apparently strangled by Sergius’ orders. Sergius, consecrated pope on Jan. 29, 904, allied himself with Theophylactus, who became virtual dictator of the papal administration and, through the pope’s help, expanded his territorial claims.

Sergius held a synod that reaffirmed the “Cadaver Synod”—which had formally deposed the exhumed body of Pope Formosus—by once again invalidating all of Formosus’ ordinations, thus causing the church grave disorders. He considered John, Pope Benedict IV, Leo, and Christopher all as antipopes. Sergius is reputed to have been the lover of Theophylactus’ daughter Marozia, and the father of her son, the future pope John XI. Sergius restored the Lateran Basilica, which had collapsed from an earthquake during the posthumous trial of Formosus. was buried in St. Peter’s.

Wikipedia cites – Much of Sergius’ pontificate has been maligned throughout history, principally through the reporting of his character and the state of Rome at the time by Liutprand of Cremona. His recounting of the period was remarkable for the rise of what 19th century papal historians saw as a “pornocracy”, or “rule of the harlots”, a reversal of the natural order as they saw it, according to Liber pontificalis and a later chronicler who was also biased against Sergius III. This “pornocracy” was an age with women in power: Theodora, whom Liutprand characterized as a “shameless whore… [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man”and her daughter Marozia, the mother of Pope John XI and reputed to be the mistress of Sergius III, largely upon a remark by Liutprand.

Caesar Baronius, writing in the 16th century, and basing himself on Liutprand, was particularly scathing, describing Sergius as: ”a wretch, worthy of the rope and of fire… flames could not have caused this execrable monster to suffer the punishments which he merited. It is impossible to believe that such a pope was a lawful one.”(3)


The younger Alberic, after the downfall of his mother, Marozia (932), was absolute ruler at Rome. Before his death he administered an oath (954) to the Roman nobles in St. Peter’s, that on the next vacancy of the papal chair his only son, Octavius, should be elected pope. After the death of the reigning pontiff, Agapetus II, Octavius, then eighteen years of age, was actually chosen his successor on 16 December, 955, and took the name of John. The temporal and spiritual authority in Rome were thus again united in one person — a coarse, immoral man, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium. War and the chase were more congenial to this pope than church government.

On 6 November a synod composed of fifty Italian and German bishops was convened in St. Peter’s; John was accused of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest, and was summoned in writing to defend himself. Refusing to recognize the synod, John pronounced sentence of excommunication (ferendæ sententia) against all participators in the assembly, should they elect in his stead another pope. The emperor now came forward to accuse John of having broken the agreement ratified by oath, betrayed him, and called in Adalbert. With the imperial consent the synod deposed John on 4 December, and elected to replace him the protoscriniarius Leo, yet a layman. The latter received all the orders uncanonically without the proper intervals (interstitia), and was crowned pope as Leo VIII. This proceeding was aginst the canons of the Church, and the enthroning of Leo was almost universally regarded as invalid. Most of the imperial troops now departing from Rome, John’s adherents rose against the emperor, but were suppressed on 3 January, 964, with bloodshed. Nevertheless, at Leo’s request, Otto released the hundred hostages whom he had called for, and marched from Rome to meet Adalbert in the field. A new insurrection broke out in the city against the imperial party; Leo VIII fled, while John XII re-entered Rome, and took bloody vengeance on the leaders of the opposite party. Cardinal-Deacon John had his right hand struck off, Bishop Otgar of Speyer was scourged, a high palatine official lost nose and ears. On 26 February, 964, John held a synod in St. Peter’s in which the decrees of the synod of 6 November were repealed; Leo VIII and all who had elected him were excommunicated; his ordination was pronounced invalid; and Bishop Sico of Ostia, who had consecrated him, was deprived forever of his dignities. The emperor, left free to act after his defeat of Berengarius, was preparing to re-enter Rome, when the pope’s death changed the situation. John died on 14 May, 964, eight days after he had been, according to rumour, stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery. Luitprand relates that on that occasion the devil dealt him a blow on the temple in consequence of which he died. (4)


Benedict IX, original name Teofilatto, Latin Theophylactus, (died 1055/56, Grottaferrata, Papal States [Italy]), pope three times, from 1032 to 1044, from April to May 1045, and from 1047 to 1048. The last of the popes from the powerful Tusculani family, he was notorious for selling the papacy and then reclaiming the office twice (5).

The nephew of his two immediate predecessors, Benedict IX was a man of very different character to either of them. He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter. Regarding it as a sort of heirloom, his father Alberic placed him upon it when a mere youth, not, however, apparently of only twelve years of age (according to Raoul Glaber, Hist., IV, 5, n. 17. Cf. V, 5, n. 26), but of about twenty (October, 1032). Of his pontifical acts little is known, except that he held two or three synods in Rome and granted a number of privileges to various churches and monasteries. He insisted that Bretislav, Duke of Bohemia, should found a monastery, for having carried off the body of St. Adalbert from Poland. In 1037 he went north to meet the Emperor Conrad and excommunicated Heribert, Archbishop of Milan, who was at emnity with him (Ann. Hildesheimenses, 1038). Taking advantage of the dissolute life he was leading, one of the factions in the city drove him from it (1044) amid the greatest disorder, and elected an antipope (Sylvester III) in the person of John, Bishop of Sabina (1045 -Ann. Romani, init. Victor, Dialogi, III, init.). Benedict, however, succeeded in expelling Sylvester the same year; but, as some say, that he might marry, he resigned his office into the hands of the Archpriest John Gratian for a large sum. John was then elected pope and became Gregory VI (May, 1045). Repenting of his bargain, Benedict endeavoured to depose Gregory. This resulted in the intervention of King Henry III. Benedict, Sylvester, and Gregory were deposed at the Council of Sutri (1046) and a German bishop (Suidger) became Pope Clement II. After his speedy demise, Benedict again seized Rome (November, 1047), but was driven from it to make way for a second German pope, Damasus II (November, 1048). Of the end of Benedict it is impossible to speak with certainty. Some authors suppose him to have been still alive when St. Leo IX died, and never to have ceased endeavouring to seize the papacy. But it is more probable that the truth lies with the tradition of the Abbey of Grottaferrata, first set down by Abbot Luke, who died about 1085, and corroborated by sepulchral and other monuments within its walls. Writing of Bartholomew, its fourth abbot (1065), Luke tells of the youthful pontiff turning from his sin and coming to Bartholomew for a remedy for his disorders. On the saint’s advice, Benedict definitely resigned the pontificate and died in penitence at Grottaferrata. [See “St. Benedict and Grottaferrata” (Rome, 1895), a work founded on the more important “De Sepulcro Benedicti IX”, by Dom Greg. Piacentini (Rome, 1747). (6)

St. Peter Damian, for one, called him a “demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.” In his third book of Dialogues, Pope Victor III wrote of Benedict IX as having a “life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

Pope Nicholas III landed a spot in Dante’s eighth circle of Hell.

Pope Clement V played countries against one another, instituted oppressively high taxes and openly gave land to his supporters and family. Dante also placed him in his Hell.

Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) complained that he did not hear enough screaming when cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured.

Of course you have Pope Liberius and Pope Honorius.

Though from the PapaStronsay blog we find this on Pope Liberius:
The reputation of Pope Liberius has been unjustly ruined among traditional Catholics. The holy Pope Liberius suffered exile for his fidelity to the Nicean Creed and for his defence of Saint Athanasius before the Emperor Constantius. There is nobody who really knows what happened to Pope Liberius in that Roman equilvalent of the recent Russian GULAG system. There is no proof that Pope Liberius signed any formula at all during his captivity; nor that he unjustly excommunicated St. Athanasius. Historians have only long-disputed uncertain opinions based on the varied interpretation of manuscripts and the fragments of St. Hilary. However, what we do know for certain is this: Liberius was one of the very few Popes to whom Our Lady appeared. That apparation, verified in the Roman Breviary on August 5, is a proof that the Mother of God held Pope Liberius in good repute. Our Lady of the Snows, through apparition and certain miracle, bestowed on Pope Liberius the great privilege of building the first temple in Her honour: the Liberian Basilica of St. Mary Major. (7)

To read on Honorius please visit New Advent here as he was the first and so far only Pope condemned by an Ecumenical Council. (p 87 Vicars of Christ Coulombe)

Pope Sixtus V issued a botched revision of the Latin Vulgate. The edition was so filled with errors, so riddled with omissions and deformities of the text, that it was hastily recalled after his death by embarrassed Roman cardinals (Pope Fiction, Patrick Madrid). Everything was ready and the only thing left was for Sixtus to promulgate the new version. Advanced copies had been bound and delivered to all the cardinals in Rome along with advanced copies of the bull officially publishing it. And then he died. August 27, 1590 he died after a brief illness and he was in excellent health and very active. As Madrid says, “it seems the Holy Spirit fulfilled, once again, Christ’s promise that He would guide the Church into all truth.” (p.251 “Pope Fiction, Patrick Madrid)

Pope John XXII was one of those Pontiffs who taught erroneous opinions privately. It had been the common belief of Catholics that the just see God immediately after their death, the beatific vision. He had advanced this to even the saints will not see God until after the Final Judgment. He gave sermons on this topic, and imprisoned a Dominican who disagreed with him. On his deathbed he renounced his own teaching and subscribed to the traditional view on the matter. In 1322, Our Lady appeared to John and we get the “Sabbatine Privilege” from this.

Pope Celestine III’s Error on the Indissolubility of Marriage which you can read about here

In the Liber Pontificalis, we find the following entry under Pope Marcellinus (296-304):

Marcellinus, by nationality a Roman, son of Projectus, occupied the see 8 years, 2 months and 25 days. He was bishop in the time of Diocletian and Maximian, from July I in the 6th consulship of Diocletian and the 2nd of Constantius [296 A.D.] until the year when Diocletian was consul for the 9th time and Maximian for the 8th [304 A.D.]. At that time was a great persecution, so that within 30 days 17,000 Christians of both sexes in divers provinces were crowned with martyrdom. For this reason Marcellinus himself was dragged to sacrifice, that he might offer incense, and he did it. And after a few days, inspired by penitence, he was beheaded by the same Diocletian and crowned with martyrdom for the faith of Christ in company with Claudius and Cyrinus and Antoninus.

Another manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis contains an addendum to this episode, relating the penance and restoration of Pope Marcellinus and his eventual martyrdom at a local synod at Sinuessa in Italy:

And after a few days a synod was held in the province of Campania in the city of Sessana [Sinuessa], where with his own lips he professed his penitence in the presence of 180 bishops. He wore a garment of haircloth and ashes upon his head and repented, saying that he had sinned. Then Diocletian was wroth and seized him and bid him sacrifice to images. But he cried out with tears, saying, ‘It repenteth me sorely for my former ignorance,’ and he began to utter blasphemy against Diocletian and the images of demons made with hands. So, inspired by penitence, he was beheaded.(8)

As for bishops remember that in England only 1 Bishop in ALL of England stood up to King Henry VIII, St John Fisher who had his head removed from the rest of his body for it. The very first thing that newly ordained bishops that Christ ordained did was run away. St. Alphonsus, in 1774, wrote about the election of a new pope, “All the human science and prudence that there is cannot extricate the church from the present state of relaxation and confusion in which every section finds itself; the all powerful arm of God is necessary. As regards the bishops, very few of them possess genuine zeal for souls Almost all religious communities are relaxed. As a result of the present state of general confusion, observance has collapsed and obedience is a thing of the past. The state of secular clergy is still worse.”(9)

May God Bless us and the Virgin Protect us

  9. Selected Writings of St Alphonsus, TAN

3 thoughts on “Bad Popes in the History of the Church

  1. “The very first thing that newly ordained bishops that Christ ordained did was run away. ”
    Wrong. They were not ordained until after the Resurrection, when Christ ordered all things. He made them understand all scripture, ordered St. Peter as Pope, sent forth upon them the promise of the Father, and commanded them not to leave the city until clothed with power from on high – all after resurrecting.
    So you are teaching a false teaching. No one ran, they gathered and prayed and were rewarded by the coming of the Holy Ghost into their souls.
    You should not be preaching, should remove the site and should study harder. Pray for understanding before study.
    This was the second article I read of yours, the first was the Bishop Nuemann article. I have a relic of his, and a medal from when he was declared Blessed, before they started softening up his features and making him seem taller in artwork. In humility I ask for his intercession in many things as Venerable Bishop Nuemann. That evil man who broke the seven seals of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and rewrote the mass giving us the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not declared Nuemann a Saint, so that doesn’t count. Did you ever turn the signature of Paul VI upside down? He always signed in such a fashion that the 666 were right there in the signature when looked upside down. As the luciferians say “as above so below”. I even spied a Catholic Bible from his era in a thrift store. I took it off the shelves, found the signature and showed it to my friends, then turned the book upside down saying “there is the 666”. I had heads pop over from the other aisle to check it out too! Quite memorable. Not one Pope has reversed the wrongs of Second Vatican Council and the curse of Pius V is upon the whole counterfeit Unholy Anti-Catholic Church of the Perverse and Profane. You side with child abusers. Think about which side you want to be on.

  2. This is a good article. I stopped listening to the youtube videos of people who speak badly of Pope Francis. Silence is the best policy, following Jesus and Mary who were silent when Peter denied Jesus and while Judas was out betraying him although they both knew beforehand what would happen.

    Love and forgiveness, prayer and silence are the weapons we have to fight with. Those are the ones that Jesus used. Without Judas, Redemption would not have taken place. Without a bad ruler/pontiff (the Antichrist), Jesus will not come back as St. Paul says. So even the corruption of the Church, even the “death” of the Church when antichrist suppresses the Mass, will only be the beginning of the Final Triumph. Hatred in thought, word or deed of anyone will only have negative consequences.

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