Papal foulability: Political rot at the Vatican and Rome

If Benedict XVI was a poor pope, we should ask, compared to whom? John Paul II? How about Stephen VII and Formosus? Photo: Jean Paul Laurens, "Formosus and Stephen VII"

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2013 — Read, how there was a ghastly Trial once of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes ...

As the cardinals prepare for conclave at the Vatican, the world sees a church beset by scandal. The cardinals have been debating since Benedict XVI announced his departure, what kind of man does the Catholic Church need as pope?

If Benedict strikes many as a small pope, let us put him in context. He was preceded by a colossus, John Paul II, a man who bestrode the world political stage in the 1980s with Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, and Margaret Thatcher. Those names are attached to enormous events: the end of the Cold War, the destruction of the Soviet empire, and the collapse of Communism. Each of them played an important role, and John Paul’s part was not small.

Josef Stalin once sneered of the pope, “The pope! How many divisions has he got?” The election of Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyła to the papacy electrified the Polish people, and his prestige helped solidify the status of Solidarity. The answer to Stalin’s question turned out to be, “he has divisions enough to shake Moscow to its knees.”

Old age is a shipwreck, and some people remember only the diminished John Paul of his later years, but for a decade he was a storm that shook Europe and shook the church. If the cardinals chose an elderly placeholder in Benedict, a man who they hoped would leave the church in peace for a few years, who could blame them? How were they to guess that a placeholder was exactly what the church did not need, that it was about to go adrift and needed a strong hand on the rudder?

The 20th century was an unusual time for the papacy. There were only eight popes, and if we exclude John Paul I, who died suddenly (mysteriously?) after 33 days, their average tenure was almost 15 years. John XXIII was widely loved, Paul VI was widely respected, and John Paul II was just exceptional. The papacy was relevant to world affairs, and popes were admired, even outside the church.

Benedict was a disappointment and the church is beset by scandal? Look to the past. The ninth century had 21 popes and the tenth, 22. Life was riskier then, but the papacy came with risks that we associate more with being a bump on Richard’s road to becoming Richard III, or on Livia’s road to making Tiberius the emperor of Rome, than with being Christ’s vicar on earth.

John VIII was supposedly clubbed to death in 882. Adrian III was poisoned in 885. Stephen VI was strangled in 897. John X was suffocated in 928. Stephen VII was mutilated in 942. John XII was murdered in 964, Benedict VI strangled in 974, John XIV locked in a room and starved to death in 984, and Gregory V poisoned in 999.

And in 897, Pope Formosus was executed posthumously at the end of the Cadaver Synod.

And at the word, the great door of the church

flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,

the body of him, dead, even as embalmed …

They set it, that dead body of a Pope,

clothed in pontific vesture now again,

upright on Peter’s chair as if alive. …

Formosus was accused by Stephen VI (VII) of perjury and of stealing the papacy. Papal reigns were brief in the 10th century, in part because the papacy was a political office fought over by different Roman factions. Formosus had crowned as Holy Roman Emperor Lambert of Spoleto. Lambert’s father, Guy III, had been crowned by Formosus’ predecessor, John VIII, who had accused Formosus of attempting to usurp the papacy and had excommunicated him. Afraid of Guy, Formosus invited Arnulf of Carinthia to invade, and when he did, Formosus crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.

READ MORE: Sex and corruption at the Vatican

If that’s confusing, it was a normal month for the Holy See at the time. What wasn’t normal was Stephen’s decision, upon becoming pope, to take political revenge on Formosus. He had Formosus dug up, dressed in papal vestments, placed on the throne of St. Peter, and then convened a court to try him.

Shrieks Stephen in a beastly froth of rage

“Judge now betwixt him dead and me alive! …

He is un-poped, and all he did I damn.”

Formosus was duly convicted. The bishops and priests he had made were sent back to the laity. His acts were declared void. His vestments were stripped from him, he was decapitated, and the three fingers of his right hand that he used for consecrations were chopped off. The body was placed in a common grave, then on afterthought removed from the grave and thrown into the Tiber.

Following the corpse, they trailed from street to street,

Till into Tiber’s wave they threw the thing.

The people, crowded on the banks to see,

were loud or mute, wept or laughed, cursed or jeered …

and out spake a Jew,

‘Wot ye your Christ had vexed our Herod thus?’

Stephen himself was arrested and strangled in his cell that year. The Roman mobs had decided that the bits of Formosus that washed up on the banks of the Tiber were performing miracles, and Formosus was a saint. The spectacle of the Cadaver Synod put Stephen into disrepute, and so the mob eventually turned on him.

Romanus, his successor for a month,

did make protest Formosus was with God …

Formosus was rehabilitated, but it didn’t take. Romanus’ successor, Theodore, had been a judge at the Cadaver Synod. One of the few acts of his 20-day papacy was to reinstate the conviction of Formosus. John IX re-rehabilitated Formosus and condemned Stephen, but then Sergius III sided with Stephen, upheld the verdict, and re-condemned Formosus. And there, because no pope has seen fit to revisit the case, the matter rests.

So whose judgment was infallible? Which of Benedict’s predecessors spoke for God? “Fear ye not those who can kill the body but not the soul,” said Christ, “but rather fear him who can cast both soul and body into hell.”

This conclave promises to be extremely dull by the standard of the Cadaver Synod, and the pope it elects will be much less controversial than Formosus (and his name will be less interesting). And for that Catholics around the world can be glad. But the Vatican is still a stable that needs mucking. It will be interesting to see whether the cardinals have the courage to elect a hero up to the job.

Poetry excerpted from The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning.

READ MORE by Jim Picht at Stimulus That!

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He hopes the next pope will choose a name like “Anacletus,” “Telesphorus,” “Dionysius,” or even “Formosus.” He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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