Looking back across 2000 years of Christian history there are so many instances of depravity and corruption one might begin to wonder exactly why it is that this institution has been allowed to endure for so long. But, to be fair, we might say the same about a good many of our sociocultural tendencies, couldn’t we? Nevertheless, precedent suggests that institutions which graft their exercise of worldly powers onto those of heaven are prone to corruption, nepotism, and obscene forms of narcissism. Apologists and the historically-naive may view today’s excesses as exceptions, ‘accidents’, or a ‘few bad apples’, and this same ideologic blindness underlies society’s deeply-entrenched support of neoliberal capitalism – a worldview that’s broken at its core and is completely incapable of addressing the ‘apocalyptic crisis of the commons’. In both instances, deeply misanthropic sociopolitical institutions have managed to subvert large swaths of humanity into actively advocating against their best interests. Today this tendency manifests in forms as diverse as Tea Party activists who rail against “Obama the socialist”, educational critics who argue higher student-to-faculty ratios may not diminish educational obtainment, editorialists who claim Catholicism is one of modernity’s greatest ambassadors for rationalism, and cardinals who conflate homosexuality with pedophilia. But during the Middle Ages populations were much more unruly, and when agents of power abused their station the rabble was prone to take notice.
One pope which attracted a great deal of popular scorn was Pope John XII (955-964). He became pope at the ripe old age of 17, and the Catholic Encyclopedia records him as a “coarse, immoral man, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel”. For further elaboration of his character and career, let’s turn to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
His addiction to pleasure and vice caused grave scandal. According to the chronicler Benedict of Socrate, female pilgrims to Rome were abducted by this Pope because he “liked to have a collection of women”. In 962, numerous charges were brought against Pope John XII. A synod comprising 50 Italian and German bishops heard John had made a pact with the Devil and had offered a toast in his honour at the altar. More serious charges on the list included: “… committing incest with two sisters, of playing dice and invoking the Devil to assist him to win, of creating boy bishops for money, of ravishing diverse virgins, of converting the palace into a seraglio, of lying with his father’s harlot, with a certain Queen Dowager and with a widow called Anna and his own niece, of putting out the eyes of his father confessor, …of setting houses on fire, of breaking windows in the night …”
John was convicted of incest, adultery and murder, and deposed by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
Here’s another take on the accusations against John XII from the Patrologia Latina, an index of the historical writings of the Chruch’s Fathers:
Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi… They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins and the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.
John XII’s love of women was unambiguous. According to the Italian monk and chronicler, Benedict of Soracte, John XII “liked to have around him a collection of Scarlet Women” (cited in Gutman, The Inventor). During a trial in which he was accused of murdering an opponent, he swore an oath that he’d had incestuous relations with his sisters and raped his nuns. In further testimony he earned himself legendary status among frat boys by admitting that he and his mistresses had gotten so drunk at a banquet they accidentally burned down the building. Nevertheless, in spite of his despotism he managed to retain the Chair of Peter for nearly a decade before dying in a similarly memorable fashion: after breaking into a house and raping a woman with a protective husband, he was beaten so badly that he died from the injuries.
Emperor Otto, disgusted with the rampant corruption of the clergy, demanded that a priest of ‘respectable life’ succeed John XII, but they had difficulty finding anyone to qualify. The new pope the cardinals eventually settled on was Leo VIII, a layman drawn from the civil service who was put through all clerical orders in a single day:
Having been hurried with unseemly haste through all the intermediate orders, he received consecration two days after his election, which was unacceptable to the Roman populace. In February 964, the Emperor having withdrawn from the city, Leo VIII found it necessary to seek safety in flight, whereupon he was deposed by a synod held under the presidency of the restored John XII. On the sudden death of John XII, the populace chose Pope Benedict V (964–966) as his successor; but Otto I, returning and laying siege to the city, compelled their acceptance of Leo VIII. With the consent of all his would-be judges, Benedict was degraded to the rank of a deacon, Leo himself tearing the pallium from his shoulders (July, 964). – (Wiki)