Pontiffs, Palaces and Pornocracy—A Godless Age

A. Burt Horsley, “Pontiffs, Palaces and Pornocracy—A Godless Age,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 65–78.

The godless age of pornocracy and the infamy of its leaders has frequently been the favorite theme of those who have sought to oppose the papacy and its position in Christian history. The term itself is obviously denigrating and might imply many things. And, although the most desirable method of approach to the study of a great institution—and the history of the idea or concept which has perpetuated it through the ages—would be to avoid entirely all disparaging biographical references, and to steer clear of burdening this great system with the imperfections of its individuals, the scope and dimension of the situation place it beyond the point of passing over without notice.

In the history of the papacy we find singular instances, here and there, of popes who did not measure up to the dignity and trust of their callings. We also find a period of nearly three hundred years during which an almost constant line of disgraceful, sensual, despots ascended the “throne of Peter” allowing only brief intervals of relief. Needless to say, a whole block of history cannot be ignored entirely. It would not serve the interests of history itself to refuse to admit that it was there, or that it happened. Even the most ardent Catholic writers, who are dedicated to the preservation of the dignity of the papacy and who are inclined to try to minimize as much as possible the events and people of this age, are faced with the necessity of accounting for it and giving some kind of an explanation.

Those Catholic writers who are genuinely objective in their approach are just as reliable as others who may have no such vested interest as defenders of the faith. It is inevitable, however, that reputations of people attach quite frequently to the organizations which they represent; and the papacy is no exception. Thus, the lives of its people are rather inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the whole history of this great institution. It is impossible to disentangle the one without bringing some of the other with it. It is very much like the study of history as it relates to theology. It is likewise impossible to study the history of the church, it being so completely and closely interwoven with the fabric of its theology, in such a way that the history could be extracted without bringing some of the theology with it. Very frequently the history grows out of the theology, and not less frequently, the theology grows out of the history.

In the case of the Roman papacy, the threads of biography of individuals are very much a part of the greater pattern of the history of the institution. The historian Draper has said, “The signal peculiarity of the papacy is that, though its history may be imposing, its biography is infamous” (Draper 1:378).

As we turn to a general history of this period, beginning about the middle of the eighth century and continuing into the eleventh, we discover years of endless disorder, almost three centuries of continuous invasion, war, rapine, and destruction. Those who lived in this period were frequently victims of the great compelling forces which worked together to produce the kind of environment and the general atmosphere of impiety. The integrity of the ecclesiastical system had generally collapsed of its own internal rot. There had been a decline in the moral caliber of those who had come into positions of prominence both ecclesiastical and secular. To a marked degree, the hierarchy of the church had succumbed to much of the influence of the feudal system lending its support and becoming a victim of its own unique manifestations: it was not unusual for people in high places ecclesiastically to also hold prominent positions politically. It was a time in which there was little clerical discipline. The respect for the clergy had disappeared generally, and there was a great dearth of learning.

Many of the clergy knew only the bare rudiments of theology and many were unlearned in terms of the classic languages usually identified with training in the clergy. Those were the years of darkness (757–1046), a period in which there was a great neglect of formal priestly education. For the most part, those bishops who were zealous of preserving the old traditions of holiness of life were in the minority. They came into the picture at rare intervals and then disappeared again quickly.

The papal office was burdened with the unfortunate fusion of civil, military, and temporal responsibilities into the ecclesiastical office with the accompanying exercise, prerogatives and functions which pertain to such things.

Father Phillip Hughes, one of the outstanding Catholic church historians writing in English in the last half of the twentieth century says,

Whenever the masters of the Roman See were the military aristocracy, it might almost be taken for granted that a bad election would be made, and once the empire of Charlemagne had really disappeared, the only competition was between the rival Roman families (Hughes 89).

In view of the great emphasis which has traditionally been placed upon the concept of apostolic succession and priesthood authority by the Catholic church, the implications for priestly and ecclesiastical integrity are obvious.

The election of popes who were not qualified for office, the practice of lay investiture, putting into office those who have no training for such things—the granting of recognition and authority to popes because of their political prestige or their family influence or the fact that they had been great military figures—make it very difficult to preserve a traditional line of apostolic authority and succession.

Indeed, the circumstance of the time bore such evil fruit that its effects were felt right down into the very lives of the lowest of the laity. Quoting from Hughes, the popes in this age were very much “like the brutal, illiterate and licentious baronage from whom they sprang” (Ibid. 93). There was a defiance of law and tradition in the conduct of those who led. In the office of the pope there was particular disregard for the traditions of the cloth, including celibacy. The sanctity of the holy orders had definitely disappeared. Instead, secret marriage, incontinency and the attempt on occasion to transmit covertly the authority of the See to the illegitimate heirs of the bishops of Rome were commonplace.

There appears to be ample historical evidence to sustain the conclusion of correlation between the beginning of the age of pornocracy and the formation of the papal states. In the middle of the eighth century during the papal reign of Stephen II, a document of donation was drawn up between the pope and Pepin, father of Charlemagne, providing for the transfer of large land holdings which would become the foundation of the papal states. During that same mid-century period, in the reign of Stephen III, certain specific examples of brutality, including the torture blinding of the anti-pope Constantine II, who had occupied the papal throne for eighteen months, signaled the beginning of worse things to come. In spite of recognition by both Charlemagne and his brother Carloman; Stephen III proved to be ecclesiastically impotent in trying to control the excesses of some of his agents in their retaliations against the opponents of the pope.

At a later time, family members of Hadrian I, 772–795, seeking to perpetuate dynastic control turned against his successor Leo III, 795–816, and, although failing in an attempt to blind and assassinate him, forced the pope to leave Rome and seek the protection and support of Charlemagne. Another quotation from Father Phillip Hughes provides a general overview of things yet to come in that age:

The situation at Rome was complicated by the magnitude of the prize which the see offered to wickedness, by the new tradition of lay domination in the—nominal—election of the pope, and by the permanent place in the papal State of a barbarous and unruly baronage. [The time] between the murder of Pope John VIII (882), and the council of Sutri (1046), . . . marks the definite end of these horrors (Hughes 93).

It is true that there was a “definite end of these horrors” temporarily, and a few generations of relief from it. But it is not to be assumed that this brought a final or permanent end to such things. Eventually, there would be more popes undeserving of the respect identified with the dignity of the office. In fact, the Renaissance popes, although not of the deliberately wicked and completely demoralized type, were little more than profligates. Some of them sought to perpetuate their names and to give themselves some distinction and honor as connoisseurs of fine art, collectors of relics and decorators of the palaces at Rome. But they were popes who were more concerned with building architectural monuments to themselves than with the welfare of the people. Hughes is justified in saying that in terms of the obscene wickedness which had continued during that long period there was somewhat of an end of it at that point, and continuing with the quote:

there were in a hundred and sixty years, thirty-seven popes. By no means were all of these bad men. The majority were good, and among them were many energetic reformers. But far too many of these good popes died violent deaths at the hands of their opponents (Ibid.)

Indeed, one of the greatest problems of succession had to do with identifying those popes who were recognized by the church as having been in office with proper authority and with proper consecration. In the traditional list of popes, the Catholic church identifies those who were not properly in office with the title, “anti-pope”—one who sought to contest the valid claim of another pope and was successful in assuming the office temporarily. There were a great number of these. In the traditional listing of popes, the pages are completely interspersed here and there with the words “anti-pope,” indicating that this individual was not accepted as one who held the office with proper authority As in cases already cited, the office was often regarded as apolitical plum, something to be coveted, to be used, and over which there was a great deal of contention until one faction or party was victorious and able by force or violence to have the pope of its choosing inaugurated. In fact, a particularly infamous family, the house of Theophylact, controlled the papal office for almost seventy years (897–964) while making appointments of their own choice, among them the most controversial and corrupt of all the bishops of Rome.

Apart from the coincidence of the formation of the papal states as a political entity and the beginning of the age of pornocracy, what were some of the other possible causes of the deterioration of the papacy? What additive factors present in the culture were likely to contribute to such a condition? It would be very easy to oversimplify by noting that these people were all merely victims of the time: they lived in a godless age and they responded accordingly. It would be more realistic to acknowledge the position of strength and potential for despotism inherent in the office of the pope. It would be inevitable that certain individuals would actively seek the power of the office to use it for less than worthy purposes. In the fusing together of tremendous political, temporal, and military strength along with ecclesiastical authority, there was produced, albeit unintentionally, almost unlimited potential for despotic power. Joseph Smith, the American prophet of the early nineteenth century, recognized this as a temptation even in the simplest leadership setting:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39).

He cautioned against this abuse of power, saying that it is a dangerous thing and that it can eventually mean “amen” to that man’s priesthood and his authority.

There is no question but that the position of the pope was unique in this respect. Eventually, with the disappearance of civil authority in the West, greater authority became vested in the pope. Critics who were prone to show the papacy in a bad light frequently cited contrast between the ideal and the real. Martin Luther was an expert in this form of critique. He liked to have his artists draw cartoons depicting a situation as it should exist as compared to the situation as it had existed during the Middle Ages. A favorite cartoon in the Reformation period was one in which Christ was pictured on one side, possessing very little of worldly goods and depending upon the assistance of others, whereas, on the other side was depicted the pope of Rome with his vast resources and wealth. Another portrayed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey with all evidence of austerity and frugality, bearing in his hand an olive branch, contrasted to the pope riding on a great steed, dressed in armor, with the papal tiara, the three-leveled crown, on his head and holding in his hand a weapon of some kind, a sword or staff, indicating military power, great prestige and wealth.

Other critics have made a great deal of the pomp and ceremony of Rome in terms of the wearing of great and elaborate ermine robes and habiliments in contrast with the simple apparel of the true religionist. There is no question but that the accumulation of this wealth was accompanied by the temptation to do something with it, and as the Savior had pointed out and as has been borne out in so many instances in human experience, the accumulation of some wealth usually tends to incite the desire for the accumulation of more.

Certainly there were many factors which brought about the situation which developed in the Roman papacy. Of significance is the proximity of the Roman popes to the Roman institutions of government.

Perhaps this proximity of the popes to the government would also explain how the pope came to claim the title Pontifex Maximus. Prior to the empire, the title was used by great Romans. Later, it came to be used in reference to the emperor as the supreme link between the people and the council of government. It would seem natural that, because of the frequent, very close relationship between church and state, the pope himself would eventually assume the title.

The word pontifex derives from the words pons, meaning a bridge, and facere, meaning to make, or, the bridgemaker. Maximus means highest. So, we have the highest bridgemaker or supreme representative. Since the pope had evolved into viewing himself as over earthly rulers or as all men’s liaison with God, he became Pontifex Maximus: he lived the role.

Finally, it might properly be said, that these pontiffs, or popes, were in a general sense like the rest of the people, succumbing to the general apathy and ignorance of the age. There were popes elected who were not qualified intellectually. They assumed office because they were militarily strong enough to force their way into it violently, and in this sense it might be said that they were just simply representative of the time in which they lived. However, other factors being considered, certain barbaric intrusions into Roman life had already brought with them an insensitive disregard for the sacred and holy institution of Christianity beginning as early as the first century. A carry-over of the old Greek mystery cult and pagan traditions into Christian life was inevitable. Those who had been sent out to do missionary work and proselyting on the fringe of the Roman Empire or to the far reaches of the expanding church, in their contact with barbarian people, frequently absorbed into their own life styles the things that they found. These were synthesized into the Christianity which was gradually developing.

Many of the earliest traditions of the Christian ideal were incompatible with the adoption of newer ideas which were being introduced through contact with new cultures and more people. Basically, that which was evolving as nominal Christianity was a combination of many great forces, consisting of a synthesis of Jewish tradition, the old Roman way of life which formed the mainstream, and the intrusion of the Greek culture. Superimposed upon all of this were the new components, which were derived from many extraneous sources. The emerging product was a nominal Christianity or Catholicism, a synthesis of both old and new. It cannot help but be adulterated because it has partaken of too many other elements.

One of the earliest departures seems to have been an abandonment of the concept of revelation. The idea of inspired personal communion had long since gone by the way, and out of this began the assumption of self-sufficiency.

Turning again to a further detailing of specific examples of godlessness in the period after Charlemagne and Pope Leo III, it is apparent that subsequent generations failed likewise in the “achievement of better things,” that Tertullian had already hoped for in the third century.

Even Leo, though probably not guilty of such behavior himself, had come under severe censure for his way of life and had been the victim of attempted violence upon his person by the “nephews” of his predecessor. Leo’s immediate successor, Stephen V, was forced to flee Rome to escape the indignation of the people, and Paschal I died after having been charged with acts of atrocity and murder.

In the decade from 872–882, the Muslims continued to expand their sphere of influence beyond the Near East and encroached the environs of Rome. This confusion was compounded by the presence in Rome of Italian princes alien to the interests and objectives of the pope. The constant struggle against the princes dissipated whatever strength Pope John VIII might have had to fend off the intrusions and threats of the Saracens. Consequently, he was forced to pay tribute to the invaders. The situation was further complicated by the alliance of the bishop of Naples with the Muslim leaders. Several high churchmen were involved in the conspiracy to murder the pope, including Formosus who, in the following decade, would himself be elected pope.

Reading from Platina’s Lives of the Popes, written in the fifteenth century, we touch on a problem that has perplexed papal biographers since the end of the ninth century. Even Catholic writers have been among those who allowed for the possibility that a woman served as pope during this time, and although Platina may not be thoroughly reliable, his comments are enlightening with respect to this issue. Modern research discounts such a claim, but Platina dealt with the possibility of its truthfulness in the person of John VIII:

John, of English extraction but born at Mentz, is said to have arrived at the Popedom by evil arts; for disguising herself like a man, whereas she was a woman, she went when young with her paramour, a learned man, to Athens, and made such progress in learning under the professors there, that, coming to Rome, she met with few that could equal, much less go beyond her, even in the knowledge of Scriptures; and by her learned and ingenious readings and disputations, she acquired so great respect and authority, that upon the death of Leo (as Martin says), by common consent she was chosen pope in his room. As she was going to the Lateran Church, between the Colossean theatre (so-called from Nero’s colossus) and St. Clement’s, her travail came upon her, and she died upon the place having sat two years, one month, and four days [in the papacy], and was buried there without any pomp. This story is vulgarly (ie. popularly) told, but by very uncertain and obscure authors, and therefore I have related it barely and in short, lest I should seem obstinate and pertinacious if I had omitted what is so generally talked. I had better mistake with the rest of the world; though it be certain, that what I have related may be thought not altogether incredible (Gontard 206).

The sinister reign of Stephen VI (VII) 896–897, was characterized by actions and events so sadistic, so macabre, that it is difficult to discover their equal in the annals of the most corrupt secular history, much less reconcile such things with the tradition of the church.

Stephen had the body of Formosus dug up after nine months in the grave, an act of contempt against Formosus and his defiled priesthood. The rotted corpse, dressed in the papal vestments, was trussed up on a throne and tried on various charges. The three fingers of the right hand used to gesture the blessing of the bishop of Rome were cut off and the body first thrown into the river and then ignominiously buried. The indignant populace of Rome joined supporters of Formosus in protest against Stephen, who was incarcerated and strangled.

The turn of the new century would see the rise to power in Rome of three women, a harlot mother and her two daughters, whose influence would cast an even greater shadow of infamy and shame upon the papacy. For more than half a century, by their amorous and devious manipulations, they contrived to control the highest office in the church. These were the infamous women of the Theophylact dynasty.

Theodora, a woman who had taken the title, Senator of Rome, was responsible for placing no less than two popes in office. Living with Pope Sergius III as his lover, she used her political support in combination with his use of force of arms to place him in the office of pope. Later, she abandoned Sergius for another lover, and again, using her influence, the new lover became Pope John X.

John, not content to enjoy the papal office with its customary political and secular powers, turned his attention to the glories of military life. Speaking in his favor, as head of his own troops and with the support of other military confederates, he led a campaign which prevented the Saracen Muslims from capturing Rome.

Although John had gained the papal throne by the power and influence of his mistress Theodora, he lost it by the intrigues and treachery of her daughter Marozia—equally skilled in the art of seduction and harlotry. The pope’s brother, Peter, was killed by Marozia in the Lateran Palace while John, being taken prisoner himself, looked on helpless to do anything about it. History records that the pope was smothered to death at the instigation of Marozia.

In the interim from May 928 to February 931, Marozia installed two more puppets on the throne of Peter, both of whom were probably murdered like their predecessor.

In March 931, Marozia was successful in obtaining the papacy for her own son who took the title John XI. A power struggle within the family, however, made his reign of limited duration.

The question of the paternity of its favorite sons now plagued the family of Marozia. The gossip mongers of Rome insisted that Pope Sergius III was John’s father and that any one of her lovers could have fathered John’s brother Alberic. Marozia herself was uncertain but decided to attribute them both to her former husband, Alberic, after whom she named the one son.

Alberic, who managed to undermine his mother’s political power in Rome, subsequently reigned for more than twenty years as “Prince and Senator of the Romans.” Not even his brother, the pope, and their mother were spared the consequences of his uncontrolled jealousy. They were both imprisoned and murdered.

During the next twenty years, four rather innocuous popes presided over the church at least partly under the control and influence of Alberic. Before he died in 954, Alberic succeeded in obtaining, by coercion, a promise from the then pope and the other Roman nobility that Alberic’s son would be raised to the papacy. This son was trained for the priesthood while still a boy, and came to the papal office at age twenty already many years sophisticated in the ways of wickedness and corruption. He took the title John XII and for ten years ravaged the holy office with contempt and satanic indulgence.

The Emperor Otto I passed off lightly earlier reports of irregularities in the behavior of this pope with the remark, “The pope is still almost a child who is easily led astray. The example of honest men will make him better” (Benham 1:224–25).

He eventually changed his opinion of John and called an ecclesiastical synod in November 963 to investigate the numerous charges brought against the pope. Pope John XII was indicted for simony in the sale of several bishoprics, incest and adultery in the Lateran Palace, blinding a priest and castrating a deacon, witchcraft, insobriety, and squandering away the treasury of St. Peter in wagering and gambling.

Forced from the throne, he returned eventually to seek revenge against his successor and his supporters. He died as a consequence of a beating received at the hands of a cuckold husband whose wife he had debauched.

In subsequent years, these examples of abject depravity and corruption would be repeated time and again with apparent impunity on the part of the princes of the church. In 985 Boniface VII, who had thrown his predecessor, Pope John XIV, into prison and starved him to death, was himself a victim of the indignation and uprising of the people of Rome. No longer willing to tolerate such conduct, the populace rose up and assassinated Boniface dragging portions of his mutilated corpse through the streets.

In the succeeding quarter of a century, seven popes would come to power, some of them reigning for less than a year. Most of them were so embroiled in dynastic politics that they functioned more as rulers of the pontifical state than as ecclesiastical reformers.

In 1044 Benedict IX, who had exploited his papal office for twelve years, was forced to leave Rome. In the following year, he sold the papacy twice, once to Sylvester III, who was soon deposed, and again to the reform leader Gregory VI. Although the stigma of simony eventually forced Gregory from the throne, it must be said to his credit that, aside from the manner in which he obtained office, he sincerely intended to reform and restore its dignity and sanctity. Such then was the condition of the papacy at the midpoint of the eleventh century.

In summary, there was definitely a period of moral decline during which time the office of the pope was held by people who were not worthy of the calling. They represented, in a sense, the age in which they lived, but that was only one factor. These were black pages of Catholic history, so recognized by its own historians and by its own interpreters of the time.