Rorate Caeli

Intervention against a disastrous Pope: When Emperor Otto the Great saved the Church

A guest post by James Bogle. I've put a comment on my own blog.
Later representation of the Emperor Otto I “the Great”.

To most Americans, heavily influenced by Hollywood film productions, anything calling itself an “Empire” is seen to be bad, and good governments are obliged to style themselves by names such as “the Federation”.

However, for Catholic Christians, “Empire” was never a dirty word but referred to the Christianised Roman Empire that was the political bedrock of Christendom, not only in Europe but throughout the whole world.

Its leading figure, the Holy Roman Emperor, was, like the Roman Pontiff, elected.

The Holy Roman Emperor was not a dictator, still less a despot, but a focus of loyalty and Christian symbolism, the first among the Christian sovereigns.

Few states were ruled directly by the Emperor and those that were so ruled regarded it as a high honour to be unmittelbar - “unmediated” - answering directly to the Emperor and not to some intermediate ruler.

The Emperor also had the right – and duty – to call, and to preside over, all Ecumenical General Councils of the Church. He, in fact, did so for the first 1100 years of Christian history.
True, the decrees of those Councils could not be considered teaching with ultimate authority unless they were ratified by the Roman Pontiff but it was the Roman Emperor that called and presided over these gatherings of bishops and cardinals, not the Pope.

This dual separation of powers was central to the Constitution of Christendom, established by our Lord [Luke 22:38] and taught by the first pope [1 Peter 2:13-14, 17].

The Roman Emperor also had power to veto the election of a pope and could remove a pope who had been declared self-deposed by a Council, even a Council called by the Emperor for that purpose.

It was Emperor Otto the Great who intervened to use that very power in order to save the Church in AD 963 from the corrupt Pope John XII.

Emperor Otto I (23 November 912-7 May 973) was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 962 in old St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, by Pope John XII, the very pope he later removed from office.

This was during a period called by historian, Cardinal Baronius, the saeculum obscurum or “dark age” of the Papacy because papal elections from 904 to 964 were staged and controlled by the wife and daughter of Theophylactus, Count of Tusculum, Theodora and Marozia who ruled Rome and ensured that their paramours and sons were made popes.

Marozia, styled patricia and senatrix of Rome, had been the concubine of Pope Sergius III (who had allegedly ordered the murder of his 2 predecessors, Popes Leo V and Christopher) and her son became Pope John XI. She had her former lover Pope John X imprisoned and murdered to make way for her then current favourite, Pope Leo VI.

Pope John XII, the grandson of senatrix Marozia, was elected pope on 16 December 955.

Opposed by the Roman nobility, not least King Berengar II of Italy, Pope John decided to appeal to the by now powerful Otto.

Together they ratified, on 13 February 962, the Diploma Ottonianum, the first effective guarantee of imperial protection since the end of the Carolingian Empire.

The sacred crown of the Sacrum Romanum Imperium - the
Holy Roman Empire - with which Charlemagne was crowned
by Pope St Leo III and Otto the Great crowned by the corrupt
Pope John XII whom Otto later overthrew.
However, Otto began to learn that John “passed his whole life in vanity and adultery” and sent a strong admonition.

John ignored Otto’s admonition who then marched upon Rome. Pope John fled, taking the papal treasury with him.

Emperor Otto then decided to exercise his legitimate imperial power to save the Church from a corrupt and dangerous pope. He summoned a Council of Cardinals and bishops in Rome to decide the issue.

This Council demanded that Pope John XII present himself and defend himself against a number of charges.

Pope John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who attempted to depose him and then went hunting in the Campania hills.

The Council declared Pope John XII to be self-deposed and proceeded to elect Pope Leo VIII, although he was still a layman (he received all orders in one day from the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia).

Emperor Otto returned to his kingdoms in Germany whereupon, John, re-entering Rome in February 964, and having bribed the Roman clergy and nobility, summoned a counter-synod which declared his deposition illegal and sought to annul the election of Pope Leo VIII.

John then ordered his enemies to be mutilated, returned to the Pontifical throne and sued for peace with Emperor Otto, hoping to be left untouched. But in the intervening period, on 14 May 964, John died, thereby rendering further dispute otiose.

According to Liudprand of Cremona, John died, in flagrante delicto, murdered by the husband of his adulterous concubine.

Contemporaries complained that Pope John was coarse and immoral and the Lateran Palace a brothel.

After John’s death, the Romans elected a new pope, Benedict V, despite the fact that Pope Leo VIII was still alive.

Upon hearing of this, Emperor Otto mobilized his troops anew and marched on Rome, compelling the Romans to accept the elected Leo and exiling Benedict.
Statue of the Magdeburger Reiter considered
to be a representation of Emperor Otto I the Great.

Leo VIII died on 1 March 965 and Benedict V died in July, so another Council elected, with Otto’s approval, Pope John XIII in October 965.

However, John XIII proved unpopular with the Romans, so that they seized and arrested him. He, too, appealed to Otto for help.

Otto again exercised his authority as Roman Emperor and marched upon Rome, restoring John XIII in November 966 and quieting the rebellious Romans.

Otto then took up residence in Rome to maintain order, celebrating the Sacred Triduum at Easter with John XIII in Ravenna.

The true canonical position of the various elected pontiffs continues to be disputed but no-one disputes that Emperor Otto saved the Church.
But there is a difference today. 

We now live in a world where there is no Catholic emperor and the Church is entirely dominated by clerics and clericalism. There is no countervailing lay power or champion to defend the Church from a bad pope.

Indeed, some even regard this as a good thing.

But there must now be considerable doubt about that view, given the problems being experienced throughout the Church through misgovernment by so many bishops, not least on the issue of clerical abuse of minors.

Never before, one might suggest, has the lack of a countervailing lay temporal power, and the separation of powers, been more evidently felt.

The world’s temporal powers are either indifferent to the travails of the Church or actively hostile.

Consequently, instead of a benevolent Catholic lay power stepping in to stop the rot, the indifferent or hostile secular powers may – and indeed probably will – do so and they will not necessarily do so with the best, or long-term, interests of the Church at heart.

As reported by Rorate Caeli, Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of paedophile priests in ways that survivors of abuse, and the Pope’s own advisers, seriously question.

Italian priest, Rev Mauro Inzoli, had his punishment much reduced by the Pope but then was later convicted by an Italian secular criminal court for further sex crimes against children as young as 12.

It is reported that Italian prosecutors requested information about Inzoli from the Vatican but such information was refused on the order of Pope Francis, presumably on the pretext of “mercy” and clemency.
Pope Francis is now under challenge from some Cardinals but will his leniency
 to paedophile priests lead to an intervention by international secular authorities?

Clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who had been convicted of raping or molesting children.

Pope Francis, however, in taking such a very lenient approach, even to sacking Vatican officials who are inclined to be more robust, invites disaster.

Anti-Catholic activists like Professor Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson QC have already tried to take legal action against a pope for allegedly “covering up” child abuse allegations and protecting clergy from justice.

This is no longer an idea in the realms of fantasy.

International judges like Geoffrey Robertson QC have already
called for international tribunals with power to put popes on trial.
Indeed, since Pope Francis himself has seen fit to try to compromise the independence of the Sovereign Order of Malta, he could hardly complain if the secular authorities, discontented with what they might see as Vatican “shielding” of criminal clergy, decided to terminate the sovereignty of the Vatican City State.

This, too, is no longer an idea in the realms of fantasy.

Suppose the secular authorities were to remove the sovereignty of the Vatican City State. No military power would come to its aid and moral powers would have to depend upon the Vatican’s own reputation internationally.

Two lessons emerge, I suggest.

First, the Cardinals had better start thinking carefully about the reputation of the Vatican under this pontificate, not least as regards cases like that of Fr Mauro Inzoli.

Second, perhaps the Church stood better protected, internally and externally, in the days when it had a supreme lay sovereign as its defender against clerical malfeasance.

Otto's great ancestor whom he succeeded as Emperor,
Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne.
Nowadays we have no such champion. We are left to rely only upon the prescience and courage of the Cardinals.

But can we rely upon them to do that job?

Failure might lead to severe restriction of the Church’s ability to spread the Gospel and aid the poor.

And no-one should think such a thing inconceivable. It has occurred within living memory. The popes were “prisoners” of the Italian state from 1870 until 1929, when the Vatican City State was created by Mussolini.

That occurred because of the invasion of the Papal States in 1870 by revolutionaries and not for any fault of the popes themselves.

How much the worse then if the sovereignty of the Vatican were to be lost but this time because of misgovernment by the Pope and the Curia themselves.

JAMES BOGLE is the author of Heart for Europe, a biography of the last Emperor of Austria, Blessed Charles I of Austria. James Bogle is the former President of the International Una Voce Federation, a lawyer and former cavalry officer and a descendant of Charlemagne, the first to revive the "Roman Empire in the West” since the first Christian (or “Holy”) Roman Emperor was, in fact, Theodosius, the successor of Constantine.