Vatican scandal – a history of papal skullduggery


Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne ...

Pope Alexander VI played an important role in ...

Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044; 1045; 1047–1048) ...

The Vatican is currently mired in another scandal which could easily be nicknamed – what the butler saw! But if Benedict XVI is feeling he’s surrounded by unfair allegations of corruption at the Holy See, he could always take comfort that the Vatican has survived far worse.

The Borgias ran St Peters like a family enterprise at the end of the fifteenth century. Alexander VI was the most infamous Borgia, the nephew of a preceding pope, Callixtus III.  Alexander was alleged by the lawyer Stefano Infessura to have bought the papacy with mule loads of silver and his claim to have gained a two thirds majority is highly suspect. Needless to say, Alexander had several children who he brazenly installed in major ecclesiastical positions – most notably, Cesare Borgia. His daughter, Lucrezia, was married off to a nobleman but reputed to have an incestuous relationship with her father. She was also claimed to be an adept poisoner.

When the empire of Charlemagne was slowly imploding in the ninth century, the Holy See fell to the cardinal of Porto – Formosus. He was accused in his lifetime of various acts of church corruption but may have fallen victim to the power politics of the time, in which he was an active participant. After his death, his opponents decided that the small matter of not being alive should be no barrier to being put on trial. And so his corpse was exhumed, dressed in papal vestments and interrogated at the so-called Cadaver Synod. Formosus was found guilty of all charges, stripped of the aforementioned vestments, his fingers cut off to stop any benedictions from the grave and his body was tossed into the Tiber.

The following century saw the pontificate of John XII who really was a lively character. Celebrating mass without bothering to take communion was small beer compared to his other sins. He was reputed to have turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel and to have ordained a ten year old as a bishop. Blinding and castrating his enemies and toasting the devil – there was nothing John wasn’t capable of! He eventually died after suffering “paralysis” while in bed with a lady.

In 1032, the Count of Tusculum installed his own son as pope – never mind that he was barely 12 years old! Benedict IX went on to hold the papacy three times before his death at 43 years of age. His second term as pope ended when he decided to sell the office to his godfather! He then changed his mind and came back, seizing the papacy for one last time.

Another pope who took cash for religious positions – the crime of ‘simony’ – was Boniface VIII, the pope much lampooned by Dante in his book, the Divine Comedy.

In my own lifetime, I remember when the former head of the Banco Ambrosiano – a bank strongly linked to the Vatican – was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in my home town of London. This was back in 1982. Roberto Calvi was dubbed ‘God’s Banker’ and while his death was supposed to look like suicide, it didn’t escape the attention of many that the secretive P2 masonic lodge that dominated Italy’s elite at that time was known as the ‘frati neri’ – or black friars!

The death of John Paul I after only 33 days as pope in 1978 is now a largely forgotten papal scandal – but at the time, the conspiracy theories flew around like a blizzard. There’s even a story element in the movie Godfather III that alludes to the mysterious nature of his demise. Suffice to say that the Vatican did nothing to dampen the speculation by its hopeless handling of the story.

3 thoughts on “Vatican scandal – a history of papal skullduggery

  1. And of course at the time of the Templars the Vatican had it’s share of controversy as well with the process that King Phillip IV (the fair) used to unseat the papal authority through his main henchman William de Nogaret (the Kings Counsel), yes he was an attorney. He was the one responsible for kidnapping Pope Boniface VIII and then it was speculated that he also poisoned Benedict XI in order to pave the way for Clement V to become the French Pope and this split the Vatican Cardinal ranks and created the reign of the French Papacy in Avignon. Controversy and corruption is just part of the inner workings of the Holy See it would seem.

  2. Indeed! And Clement V of course moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon beginning what was described as the “Babylonian captivity” of the popes, under the French king’s thumb for most of the fourteenth century.

  3. Barbary Alan says:

    Reblogged this on Barbaryalan's Blog and commented:
    Absolute Power anyone?

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