Top 10 Most Controversial Catholic Popes

Top 10 Most Controversial Catholic Popes

Stephen VI had Formosus’ rotting nine-month-old corpse dug up, redressed in his papal vestments and seated on the throne so he could be tried.

No 1: Pope Stephen VI

Number one on our list of top ten controversial Popes is Pope Stephen VI (also sometimes known as Stephen VII). Talk about holding a grudge. Pope Stephen VI despised his predecessor, Pope Formosus, so much that even his death could not satisfy him — he wanted defamation.

In the Cadaver Synod — what has been called “the strangest and most terrible trial in human history” and “one of the grisliest events in papal history” — Stephen VI had Formosus’ rotting nine-month-old corpse dug up, redressed in his papal vestments and seated on the throne so he could be tried.

Somehow the corpse hadn’t built much of a defense, and Formosus was found guilty of what were likely bogus charges. As punishment, three of Formosus’ fingers were cut off (the three fingers on the right hand used to give blessings).

The corpse was then stripped of his sacred vestments, dressed as a layman, dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber River — where he was finally able to rest in peace.


No 2: Pope Urban VI

Pope Urban VI

Number two of our top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Urban VI. The papacy of Urban VI (Bartolomeo Prignano) got off on the wrong foot.

An Italian, he was elected to succeed Pope Gregory XI in April 1378 in a move intended to placate Romans bridling at the decades of French domination in the papacy. But once installed, Urban VI alienated his followers with a harsh leadership style.

Thirteen French Cardinals who feared that their new leader would favor his fellow Italians fled Rome, declaring within months that Urban VI’s election was “null because it was not made freely but under fear.” On Sept. 20, 1378, they chose their own Pope, French Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who became Antipope Clement VII.

The competing papacies launched the Western Schism that proved a thorn in the church’s side for four decades. If only Urban VI had played nice …


No 3: Pope Alexander VI

Pope Alexander VI

Number three on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Alexander VI. Corrupt, controversial and by some accounts wicked, Alexander VI was not a picture of papal purity.

A member of the prominent and wealthy Borgia family, he bought his way into St. Peter’s. Once there, he appointed family members to powerful positions, including his sons and family members of his mistress, Vannozza Catanei.

While some of the controversy surrounding Alexander VI is well-founded, other scandalous details may just be rumors, like his arranging murders or hosting wild orgies inside the papal palace.

He did, however, bear four children by Catanei. He made his daughter Lucrezia into a political pawn — marrying her off three times in the hope of securing alliances and power. Some even speculate that Alexander VI fathered one of Lucrezia’s children.

He did have one redeeming quality: his patronage of the arts. He persuaded Michelangelo to draw up plans for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, embellished the Vatican palaces and restored the Castel Sant’Angelo — all of which he is remembered for today.


No 4: Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII

No four on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Pope Pius XII. Quite popular during his time as Pontiff, Pius XII, who served at the Vatican from 1939 to 1958, has been the subject of heated debate in the decades since. As head of the Catholic Church during World War II, Pius has been pilloried in some quarters for not doing more to speak out against the atrocities of the Holocaust. In January 2010, the head of Rome’s Jewish community confronted Pope Benedict XVI over Pius’ perceived silence during the war. The church, however, has long held that Pius was active in saving Jews from the Nazis, a claim it says will be supported when Vatican documents related to the war are released to the public over the next half-decade.


No 5: Pope Benedict IX

Pope Benedict IX

Number four on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Pope Benedict IX. Pope Benedict IX was not exactly beloved. 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.” No wonder Benedict IX decided to stick it to all of them, resigning in 1045 — and becoming the first man in history to sell the papacy. The buyer: the priest John Gratian (Pope Gregory VI). Benedict IX later refused to face charges of simony and was excommunicated.


No 6: Pope Boniface VIII

Pope Boniface VIII

Number six on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Boniface VIII. Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) didn’t want to save your soul; he wanted to rule your life. Boniface VIII was one of the most ardent supporters of papal authority.

What started as a minor squabble with King Philip IV of France over a government’s ability to tax clergy members escalated until Boniface VIII excommunicated the king and released a decree stating that “every human creature [was] subject to the Roman pontiff.”

Boniface VIII sent mercenaries to destroy other people’s castles, declared all the prominent Italian Colonna family’s property forfeited and proceeded to parcel their land out among his family members. In September 1303, an army led by the Colonna family kidnapped the Pope and demanded that he abdicate. Held in captivity for multiple days, the Pope refused. He survived the attack and returned to Rome only to die a month later.

Although Boniface VIII was still alive when Dante — who had been personally exiled by the Pope for supporting papal limitations — wrote his famous Divine Comedy, the Italian writer placed him in his version of Hell anyway.


No 7: Pope Nicholas III

Pope Nicholas III

Number seven on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Nicholas III. It’s always good to be the Pope. But for the three years of Nicholas III’s reign (1277-1280), it may have been better to be the Pope’s brother. Or uncle. Or cousin. Nicholas III distributed principalities in the Papal States among members of his family, essentially giving them land and political power. This nepotism earned him a spot in Dante’s eighth circle of Hell.


No 8: Pope Clement V

Pope Clement V

Number eight on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Pope Clement V. Clement V (1305-1314) reversed Boniface VIII’s anti-France decrees and appointed 23 new French Cardinals, but his attempts to make amends were short-lived. When France’s King Phillip IV charged the Knights Templar with heresy, Clement V abolished them before the King could (retaining an appearance of supreme power). He played countries against one another, instituted oppressively high taxes and openly gave land to his supporters and family. Clement V had seemingly no qualms about his ability to be bought; for this reason, Dante also placed him in his Hell.


No 9: Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X

Number nine on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Pope Leo X. Pope Leo X had expensive tastes. A true Renaissance man, he built up the Vatican Library, accelerated the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and poured lavish funds into the arts. But his efforts to renew Rome’s position as a cultural center took money. So much money, in fact, that within two years he had drained the papal treasury completely, as well as a great deal of his own fortune.

To compensate, Leo X began selling off pieces of the Vatican palace — furniture, dishes, jewels and statues of the apostles. He also issued indulgences as a way to make up lost funds, essentially allowing sinners to buy their way out of damnation.

The indulgences helped, though in the end they would cost Leo X much more. Martin Luther harshly objected to what he saw as the buying and selling of salvation, saying, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Leo X dismissed Luther’s claims. By failing to take such criticism seriously, he contributed to the dissolution of the Western church and the rise of the Protestant Reformation.


No 10: Pope Sergius III

Pope Sergius III

Number ten on our list of top ten controversial Catholic Popes is Pope Sergius III. The truth about Sergius III has been lost in the mists of time — he lived more than one millennium ago. But he is believed to have the dubious distinction of being the only Pope to order another Pope’s death: in 904, Antipope Christopher is believed to have been strangled to death on the order of Sergius III — who took control of the papacy that same year. His shady doings didn’t end there. Sergius III is rumored to have dallied with Marozia — the daughter of Theophylactus, a powerful count who helped the Pope expand into more territory — and to have fathered her son. That son, incidentally, went on to become Pope John XI.


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