The pope is one of the most influential people in the world sitting at the center of the faith of nearly 2 billion Catholics. This position is expected to be held by a pious person that can meet the standard to be called the Vicar of Christ and a light to all the Christians around the globe. However, the papacy has had some very controversial figures since the end of the dark ages, some so evil that the church itself had to denounce them. To give you a clue, 78 popes became saints before the end of the persecution of Christians, but since the dark ages, less than ten popes have ever been canonized of the 266 popes the church has had. Here are the craziest badass ten popes the church wishes it never had.
Table of Contents
Pope Stephen VI, 896 – 897
Some sources refer to him as Stephen VII, but whichever position he held in the line of Stephens, his reputation is the most hideous in the history of the papacy. He was the bishop of Anagni, Italian dioceses at the time before becoming pope after the death of Pope Formosus. Immediately after ascending to the papacy, he ordered the exhumation of his predecessor accusing him of blasphemy. He had the pope redressed in papal vestments and put on trial before an unwilling jury ordering a deacon to answer for the dead pope.
The poor corpse was ultimately found guilty. He cut off two fingers that the former pope had allegedly used to give the sacrament, ordered the rest of the body to be dragged through the streets of Rome before being dumped into the Tiber river. He also forced all people that were given church duties by the pope to resign. His papal Tenure lasted about one year from 896 to 897 before one of his many haters strangled him to death.
Pope Sergius III, 904 – 911
The death of Pope Formosus ushered in a tumultuous time for the papacy, and Stephen VI was not the only evil figure that appeared during the time. There were at least three people all claiming to be the right pontiff including the antipope Christopher in 904 when Sergius came to power. Supporters of STEPHEN VI elected Sergius at the same time as Pope John IX who was chosen by the supporters of the late Formosus but later resigned. Sergius got the help of duke Tusclani Alberic I to gain enough military support to defeat Christopher in 1904 after the expulsion of Pope Leo V from Rome.
His first act as the pope was to reaffirm the Posthumous trial of Pope Formosus by Stephen VI ultimately throwing the church into chaos once more. He also ordered one of his supporters to kill his predecessor Pope Christopher after taking over the papacy. He is also believed to be the father of Pope John XI through his affair with Marozia, the daughter of Theophylactus. During his reign, he denounced many former popes including Pope Benedict IV. Most historians also agree that he was not celibate.
Pope Urban II, 1088 – 1099
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II made a speech that tore the line between Muslims and Christians until today. Christians had been making pilgrimages to the birthplace of Jesus Christ since the 6th century, but when the Seljuk Turks took control of the Middle East, they barred all Christians from visiting Jerusalem. Pope Urban found his opportunity to change this fact when the Byzantine emperor Alexius I requested his help in pushing back the Turks who threatened to overrun Constantinople.
He unified all Christians in Europe and used the words “God Wills It” to convince the whole of Europe that a war with the Ottomans was necessary to the survival of the holy land. It is not clear if his intentions were political or spiritual, but he managed to convince European nobles to send at least 100,000 people to take over Jerusalem although he died two days before the news of their victory actually arrived in Rome.
Pope Pius XII, 1939 – 1958
Many people still wonder about the actual role of the Catholic church in WWII, but this was the man at the center of it all who later became the first European Leader to condemn Adolf Hitler publicly. He is accused by some people of standing by as the Nazis killed people and praised for saving millions of lives in almost equal measure, but he was no silent pope. Until the 1940s, his role in the war mostly involved transferring classified information from Mussolini’s deranged army to the allies and helping hundreds of ships carrying Jews to escape the Nazi blockade. He, however, stood up to Hitler in the 1940s and condemned the evil acts his regime was perpetrating on the Jews becoming the first great European leader to do so. He was however condemned of doing nothing while Hitler slaughtered many Christians and Jews in Poland as well. Either way, he displayed some severe badassery of a very dark time.
Pope Benedict IX, 1032 – 1048
This is the famous man that sold the sacred office of St. Peter to his God Father. It remains one of the most controversial Papal tenures in history during which one man became a pope three different times. He was born in the powerful Tusculani family being the son of count Alberic who had earlier helped Sergius gain the papacy. His powerful family helped him gain papacy at a young age with his connection to Benedict VIII as a nephew, but his conduct as a pope was extremely immature.
He was forced to flee Rome after a riot arose against him in 1045. The church then elected Pope Sylvester III in his place, but Benedict’s powerful family forced him to flee Rome. Benedict then came back and sold the papacy to Gregory VI who was a priest in Rome and also his Godfather. Gregory was however charged with Simony (selling church assets for personal gain) and deposed after which Benedict came back to claim the papacy managing two short reigns in 1047 and 1048 before being fully expelled from Italy.
Pope Alexander VI, 1492 – 1503
Alexander was born in Spain, but his journey to the papacy was cleared by his uncle Pope Callixtus III who ordained him into the priesthood at a very early age. He later became one of the most loved popes in the history of Italy although his death revealed so much dirt about his papacy that most bishops distanced themselves from him. He is known for his administrative Genius which he achieved by dividing Rome into districts and allocating magistrates to deal with people’s complaints. His ascension to the papacy was however earned through bribes and coercion. He only managed the two-thirds majority through his own vote.
One of the members of the conclave that elected him wrote a letter that stated that mule loads of Silver had been delivered to the electorate to convince them to vote Alexander VI although the church later refuted the claims. He had been accused many times even before becoming the pope of gambling, drinking excessively and being a womanizer, a habit many believe he never stopped even after becoming the pope. He was famed for silencing all opposition by assassinating all his rivals. His legacy was further tainted by the many children he fathered during his papacy even leading to a Showtime TV series depicting his controversial papacy.
Pope Leo X, 1513 – 1521
Leo X was born Giovanni de’ Medici as a member of the Florentine noble family, but he decided to become a cleric at a young age. He ascended to the papacy in 1513 after the death of Pope Julius two who had tainted the papacy with wars and Simony. He sought to be the man that restored peace and established Rome as the great center of European power and culture. He was, however, a lavish spender and, in his bid to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica and fund dozens of campaigns and wars against the French and the Ottomans, he depleted the church’s resources.
He, however, wanted to retain the power of the papacy, so he resorted to nepotism putting members of his family in powerful church positions including naming his wayward cousin Giulio de’ Medici the archbishop of Florence. He also resorted to receiving money from nobles in exchange for Indulgences including the passage from Purgatory to heaven. This led to the rise of the Martin Luther campaign that saw Germany dominated by Protestantism leading to his legacy as the man who lost the church.
Pope John XII, 955 – 964
Some historians prefer this John XII as the worst pope instead of Stephen VI because of his chaotic life. His ascension to the papacy at his young age was fostered by the influence of his father Duke Alberic II who ordered the clergy to make his son a pope before his predecessor even died. The clergy was forced to comply crowning the youngest pope in history at just ten years of age. This ushered in one of the most tumultuous papacies in history.
His first act as pope was to go to war against Italian Duchies to reclaim lost papal states, but he was thrashed weakening the “holy army” even further. He then crowned Otto I like the Holy Roman Emperor in a bid to secure military support from Germany but later lost his support when he betrayed him leading to his temporary ouster from the throne. Most historians agree that this pope was not celibate. He turned the papal palace into a brothel bringing in many women. He even gave toasts to pagan gods as he gambled and drank wine in the palace. Legend has it that he died of a stroke in his mid-20s while in bed with a married woman.
Pope Urban VI, 1378 – 1389
This is probably the most bad-tempered pope in the church’s history. Pope Urban’s is primarily blamed for the Western Schism that saw the church in western Europe split from Rome and elect pope Clement VII as their pope. In a bid to solidify his hold on the remaining papal states, he started ordaining bishops all over Europe most of whom denied the appointments because they considered him an unholy man. His remaining loyal cardinals then attempted to put a stop to his mad trip around Europe which was raising more hate than love from the people. The Cardinals tried to arrest and even depose him, but he got word of their plot and had them arrested and tortured.
He is remembered for complaining that their screams were not loud enough as they were being forced to confess. He then excommunicated the King and Queen of Naples for their role in supporting the treasonous cardinals. The answer to this excommunication was a siege by the King of Naples on Nocera where Pope Urban was residing at the time. During the siege, he started excommunicating the soldiers and Nobles one by one by laying the papal curse on them through the window of the castle. He was later saved by his supporters who broke the siege five months later, but he proceeded to execute the cardinals that plotted against him.
Pope Pius V, 1566 – 1572
This is the famous pope that excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I from the church, an act that angered many papal states and alienated England from the church forever. He presided over one of the best papal reigns in the church’s history, but his high handedness on heretics often led to some crazy encounters. Having been a student and a leader of the Inquisition, he instituted some of the most stringent reforms in church history including driving all prostitutes out of Rome, setting penalties for missing Sunday mass and enacting strict rules on priests to adhere to their vows.
Papal indulgences also became stricter. He, however, gave an order to expel all Jews from papal states which started the antisemitic campaigns in Europe that have become a problem till today. He also uprooted Protestantism in Italy mainly achieved through torturing and threatening of protestants and their leaders.