You thought a little resignation was bad? How about the pope whose syphilis was so bad he couldn’t preach, or the one who threw orgies, or the one who had a kid with his sister? Caroline Linton runs through the biggest scandals the church has ever seen—from modern pedophilia all the way back to a dead pontiff on trial in 897.
Benedict XVI Resigns, 2013
Benedict’s resignation came as a real shock—he’s the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, with the last resignation being Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to end a church schism. The 85-year-old pontiff announced he would be stepping aside on Feb. 28 due to declining health, citing his “incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Taking over in April 2005, Benedict was a surprising pick for pope to begin with: Born Joseph Ratzinger in Germany in 1927, he was a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II, although he insisted he was never part of the Nazi Party. As a cardinal, Benedict was one of the most conservative in the church, making his pick all the more unusual after popular reformer Pope John Paul II.
Pedophilia in the American Church, 2001-present
There were always the whispers about American Catholic priests sexually abusing children—with one bishop apparently warning of the consequences as far back as the 1950s—but the church’s role in covering up the abuse came to light in 2002 when the Boston Globe published an in-depth investigation into defrocked priest John Geoghan, who had been suspected of molesting an estimated 150 children over a 30-year period. Geoghan would eventually be convicted in criminal court and sentenced to 10 years in prison and murdered two years into his sentence. But the real scandal was that the church had not only known about the allegations against Geoghan, they had moved him from parish to parish, sent him to therapy, and tried to cover it up—even after he was defrocked in 1998. After the Geoghan case, hundreds of other instances were uncovered, including in Los Angeles, where the church agreed to pay over $600 million in 2007 to settle with victims dating back decades.
Vatican Commission Endorses Birth Control—Then Pope Takes It Back, 1960s
The Catholic Church and birth control have had a long, complicated relationship. When the pill was introduced in the 1960s, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission called the Study of Problems of Population, Family, and Birth (featuring one Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla, who would go on to become Pope John Paul II) to study whether birth control could be incorporated into the church doctrine. But surprise, surprise: the commission recommended to Pope Paul VI, who had taken over in 1963 and expanded the commission to 58 members, that the ban on contraceptives be lifted. The findings were leaked in 1967, making it all the more heartbreaking for Catholics who wanted contraceptives when Paul rejected the findings in a 1968 paper called Humane Vitale. In the 40 years since, it’s believed that up to 98 percent of American Catholics have used artificial birth control at some point in their lifetimes.
Pope Pius XII and Holocaust, 1940s
The Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews has always been tumultuous—it wasn’t until 1965 that the Vatican rejected the notion that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, and the Vatican didn’t recognize Israel until 1993. Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, has long been known as “Hitler’s pope” for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust—especially since he served as No. 2 to the previous pope and before that as special envoy to Germany. At Israel’s national Holocaust Museum, a wall panel criticizes Pius’s conduct during the war, although it was updated in 2012 to include instances when the church’s “neutrality” saved lives. Fair assessment? The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy, and that if he had spoken out publicly, there could have been more deaths. And in a book published in February 2013, British historian Gordon Thomas claims Pius gave his blessing for the establishment of safe houses in Vatican City, and that he instructed priests to conduct a secret operation to hide Jews.
Secret Papers Published, 1869-70
It turns out VatiLeaks isn’t the only time secret papal papers have been leaked. At the First Vatican Council in 1869—convened by Pope Pius IX to deal with the creeping influence of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism—the church introduced what would later become one of its most important teachings: that the pope is infallible. But apparently the papal security is not so infallible: secret papers from the council ended up published in German newspapers.
Church Denies Galileo and Science in General, 1600s-1992
For those who despair over the Catholic Church’s opinion on birth control, there is historical precedent for reversing science—and even apologizing centuries later. Take Galileo Galilei, the 16th-century scientist who declared that Earth is a planet in the solar system and orbits around the sun. This, of course, went against church teachings at the time, which saw Earth as the center of God’s universe. When Galileo published his findings, the church banned the book, ordered him to appear before the Inquisition in Rome, and threatened him with torture. It doesn’t take a Zero Dark Thirty fan to guess what happened next: Galileo, age 68 and sick, publicly recanted his findings. Unfortunately, he didn’t live until 1822, when the Church finally lifted its ban on his book. (He made it until 1642). The Vatican in the 1960s endorsed Galileo’s findings, and in 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the actions taken against Galileo.
Pope Leo X and Indulgences, 1513-1521
Who wouldn’t want to buff up those church coffers? After all, St. Peter’s Basilica is pretty and not going to fix itself—and Johann Tetzel’s expression “as soon as the coin from the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs” is very catchy. That seemed to be Pope Leo X’s reasoning in the early 1500s when he not only allowed but actively encouraged Catholics to pay for their sins to be forgiven. But fear not, he was not totally devoid of scruples: he put heftier price tags on sins such as murder and incest. The whole scandal did not exactly blow over, as one outraged monk named Martin Luther announced his displeasure with the practice in document called the Ninety-Five Theses. The rest, of course, is Protestant history.
Pope Julius II Charged With Lewd Sex Acts, 1511
Even the whole indulgence thing was a step up from Leo’s predecessor, Pope Julius II. To start, Julius issued the dispensation that allowed Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon, despite that she had briefly been married before. Clearly not a fan of the church’s celibacy oath, Julius also fathered at least one illegitimate daughter and had severalmistresses. In 1511, the church brought charges of lewd sex acts against him, calling him a “sodomite covered with shameful ulcers.” He was known to spend most of time with small boys and male prostitutes, and he was the first known pope to contract syphilis. On Good Friday in 1508, he was apparently so ill with syphilitic sores that he couldn’t even deliver Mass. But his legacy is not all bad: a great patron of the arts, Julius laid the foundation stone for a new St. Peter’s Basilica, was a friend to several great artists of the time, and even commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, although Julius did force the artist to finish before he was ready.
Alexander VI, the Worst Pope Ever, 1492-1503
It’s such a dubious honor, but historians generally agree that Pope Alexander VI was the worst pope ever. A member of the notorious Borgia family, Alexander was famous for throwing orgies, including one rager in 1501 called the “Joust of the Whores,” in which 50 medieval-era strippers undressed around the pope’s table. Alexander and his family then threw chestnuts on the floor for the women to fight over—and the man who had sex with the most women would collect jewels and fine clothes. That’s not all. Clearly also not a fan of celibacy, Alexander had six sons and three daughters by various women, although he did give them some fairly decent jobs in the church. He died from a poisoned apple, likely coming from his pathological son.
Innocent VIII and the Golden Age of Bastards, 1484-92
Alexander VI (his tomb pictured here) must have been trying to live up to predecessor, Innocent VIII, who reigned over the “Golden Age of Bastards.” Innocent like to brag about his own “bastards,” having publicly acknowledged eight illegitimate sons (although many more were suspected). But he wasn’t just having sex with women—he also was firm believer that witchcraft existed and expanded the church’s crusade against witches in 1484.
Sixtus IV Has Child With His Sister, 1470s
Think about this the next time you visit the Sistine Chapel: it was commissioned by Sixtus IV, who had six illegitimate children—including one that was the result of an incestuous affair with his sister. He also collected a tax on church prostitutes and charged priests for keeping mistresses—although historians say this only increased the prevalence of homosexuality in the church.
Pope John XII Allegedly Murders Men, Turns Papal Palace into Whorehouse and More, 955-64
Maybe Alexander VI should be offended that Pope John XII holds the title of worst pope ever. Not only was John XII considered lazy and childish, he has also been accused of invoking demons, murdering and mutilating men, and was an arsonist and gambler. His reign as pope did not last long, as he died in his early 20s, allegedly in bed with a married woman. Oh right: he has also has been accused of turning the papal palace into a “whorehouse” with adulterous acts, including with his own niece and his father’s long-term girlfriend.
Pope Stephen VI Tries His Dead Predecessor, 896-97
Well at least it’s a scandal that is not about sex, right? Pope Stephen VI apparently wanted revenge against his predecessor, Pope Formosus—despite that Formosus had already died, so it would appear that Stephen had won whatever battle there was between the two of them. Stephen had Formosus’s nine-month-old corpse dug up, and then dressed up the cadaver and put it on trial. Perhaps unsurprising at this point, Formosus’s rule was declared invalid—and as extra revenge, Stephen had the three fingers that had been used to issue blessings chopped off. But history got the last laugh on Stephen: a deadly earthquake shortly afterward was taken as a sign from God, and rioters arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was later found strangled to death.
Pope Joan, the First Woman Pope, Est. 800
No, this is not the plot of a Louise Erdrich novel . There is a mythical tale of a woman known as Pope Joan, who in the 9th century disguised herself as a man and served as pontiff for two years. Although the Catholic Church dismisses it, there are an estimated 500 chronicles of her existence. Believed to have been born in Mainz, Germany, Pope Joan was allegedly led to Athens “dressed in clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers.” From there, she is believed to have made her way to Rome, where she became a cardinal and then eventually a pope. So how was her secret discovered? According to legend, she went into labor two-and-half years into her papacy. That’s where the story becomes less clear—some say she and the baby were killed on the spot (likely) or that she was sent to a convent and her son grew up to be bishop of Ostia (very unlikely, but so romantic).
Gasp! A Black Pope, 189-199
In days before most popes were Italian, second-century Pope Victor I hailed from North Africa, and he certainly made an impact on the church: he was the one who changed the language of Mass from Greek to Latin, although Latin Masses did not catch on until the fourth century. Victor has since been canonized, with his feast day on July 28.