Rorate Caeli

De Mattei: Who was the worst Pope in the history of the Church?

Roberto de Mattei
Corrispondenza Romana
December 4, 2019
Who was the worst Pope in the history of the Church? Many maintain that it was Alexander VI, a Pope excessively criticized. According to St. Robert Bellarmine it was John XII (937-964), whom he defines “omnium pontificum fere deterrimus”, “practically the worst of all pontiffs” (De Romano Pontifice, l. II, cap. XIX, in De controversiis christianae fidei, Apud Societatem Minimam, Venetii 1599, p. 689).

Alberic II of the Counts of Tusculum (the Roman princeps from 932 to 954) some days before dying, asked to be taken to St. Peter’s and on the Apostle’s tomb, in the presence of Pope Agapetus, had the Roman nobles swear, that at the death of the Pope in office, they would elect to the Papal Throne, his son, to whom he had given the auspicious name of Octavian. When the Pope died, in December 955, Octavian was elected under the name of John XII, even if he hadn’t reached the canonical age to become pope, being only eighteen years old. According to an unanimous description of the sources, the young Pope was a dissolute pontiff, who didn’t interrupt his life of reckless abandon in unbridled pleasures, even with his election to the Papal Throne.

In the autumn of 960, having gotten into a conflict with the Marquis  Berengar of Ivrea, (who had proclaimed himself King of Italy) and also with his son Adalbert , the new Pope called on the aid of Otto I, the King of Germany. Otto led his army into Italy, defeated Berengar and Adalbert and continued on to Rome, where, on the Feast of Candlemas, February 2, 962, he was solemnly crowned Emperor by the Pope. This coronation was the foundational act of what would later be known as  “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”. This act was followed a week later by the concession of what is termed the Privilegium Ottonis  a copy of which is still kept in the Vatican Archives. If the document, on the one hand, confirmed the territorial concessions made to the Holy See by Pepin the Short and Charlemagne, constituting in fact, the Church State, on the other hand, it made the Holy See submit the papal elections to the prior approval of the Emperor and his successors.  Otto then went back to Pavia, but John betrayed the vow of fidelity he made to Otto and struck up a new alliance with his old adversary, Adalbert.

In a well-known text recently reproduced in version philologically accurate, Liutprando, Bishop of Cremona, describes the conflict between the Pope and the Sovereign during the years 960  to 964 (De Iohanne papa et Ottone imperatore, by Paolo Chiesa, Edizioni del Galluzzo, Firenze 2018). The editor of the volume also included other documents in the Appendix, which help  to provide a more complete picture of those events, starting with the pages dedicated to John XII in the Liber pontificalis (pp. 97-100 of the Appendix).

When he discovered that the Pope had struck up an alliance with Adalbert, Otto the Emperor convened a Synod in St. Peter’s, in which the bishops and archbishops of his retinue, the clerics and Roman Curia, the leaders of the city and representatives of the people, all took part. John XII however, had quit the Eternal City. When the Emperor asked the reasons for his absence, the Romans replied that they were to be found in the Pope’s immorality, which was described in a long list of crimes: simony, sacrilege, blasphemy, adultery, incest, abstention from the sacraments,  use of weapons and trafficking with the devil. All of them, clerics and laity alike, declared that “he had turned the Holy Palace into an actual bordello”; “he had blinded Benedict, his spiritual father, who died shortly afterwards; he had killed John, Cardinal Subdeacon, by cutting off his genitals; he had set fires; he girded himself with a sword and armed himself with helmet and shield: they testified to all of this. All of them, both clerics and laity, cried out that he would toast to the health of the devil; they said that in games of dice he would invoke the help of Jupiter and Venus and other demons; that he would not celebrate Matins and the Canonical Hours, and wouldn’t make the sign of the cross.” (p.15).

After the accusers confirmed their declarations under solemn oath, on November 6, 963, Otto, in the name of the Synod, sent a letter to John, asking him to come in person to exonerate himself. “Know, then, that thou  have been accused – not by a few, but by all, laity and ecclesiastics alike – of homicide, perjury, theft of sacred objects, of incest with thy relatives and two sisters. They also aim another accusation at thee, too horrible even to hear: that thou toasted to the health of the devil, and that in dice games thou invoked the help of Jupiter, Venus and other demons.  We strongly entreat thee, father, do not refuse a return to Rome to defend thyself against all these accusations.” (p.19).

John, nonetheless, refused to appear before the assembly. The Romans asked the Emperor then to depose him and replace him with a new Pope of high moral standing. “An unthinkable pestilence must be extirpated by an unthinkable cauterizing. If his corrupt morals, were of harm to him alone and not to everyone, in some way they might be borne. But many who were chaste have become depraved in their desire to imitate him! How many good men have been perverted because of the example he gave! We thus ask thy Imperial Majesty that this monster, which no virtue has been able to redeem of his vices, be cast out of the Holy Church of Rome” (p.23). 

On December 4, 963, John was condemned and deposed and Otto requested that the Synod elect a successor. The clergy and the Roman people chose (with the name of Leo VIII (963-965)) a layman, the Head of the Lateran Chancellery, who, after being ordained deacon, priest and bishop that same day, received the approval of the Emperor and was consecrated in St. Peter’s. When Otto departed, John, the deposed Pope, came back to Rome and forced Leo VIII to flee. John XII convened a new Council wherein he excommunicated Leo and began to take revenge on those who had abandoned him, by having the right hand cut off one of them (Azzone); and another, (Giovanni) his nose, tongue and two fingers.

While the Emperor was preparing his return to Rome, on May 7, 964, John XII had a seizure, brought about - according to Liutprando - by the devil during a sexual sin, and died eight days later, May 14, 984, without receiving the sacraments. He was twenty-seven years old and was buried in St. John Lateran’s. The Liber pontificalis, describes him as infelicissimus, as vitam sua in adulterio et vanitate duxit, “he spent his entire life in adulteries and frivolities” (p.99).

Those who think that the Holy Spirit elects and guides infallibly every Pontiff are proven wrong by facts and risk rendering a great disservice to the Church. The Holy Spirit never abandons the Church but in that dark century, the laity responded with greater piety to His influence more than the Popes did. Despite John XII’s protests against the canonical illegitimacy of his deposition, the Church ranks Leo VIII in its official chronology as his legitimate successor. 

An aura of sanctity surrounds the throne of Otto I, whom Robert Bellarmine describes as “pius imperator”. His wife was St. Adelaide; his mother St. Matilda, who, after becoming a widow, retreated to the Quedlinberg Abbey, founded by her; St. Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne, was  his brother. Otto I’s nephew and his third successor, St. Henry the Emperor, married St Cunigunde; Henry’s sister, St. Giselle, was the bride of St. Stephen I, King of Hungary and was St. Emeric’s mother. This family network of saints was at the origin of Medieval Christian Europe, at a time the Papacy was going through a period of serious decadence. Then, a century later, from Cluny the great movement of reform of the Church began, which culminated in the Pontificate of St. Gregory VII and the event of the Crusades, inaugurated by Blessed Urban II. The Church, as She always does, forged ahead victorious in the storm.

Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana