The Vatican Hall of Shame
The Catholic Church has a history. Boy, does it...
“Lord, give me chastity and self-control — but not yet."
— Prayer of the young Saint Augustine, c.380 A.D.
1. Sergius III (904-11), known by his cardinals as "the slave of every vice," came to power after murdering his predecessor. He had a son with his teenage mistress — the prostitute Marozia, 30 years his junior — and their illegitimate son grew up to become the next pope. With top Vatican jobs auctioned off like baubles, the papacy entered its “dark century.”
2. The 16-year-old John XII (955-64) was accused of sleeping with his two sisters and inventing a catalog of disgusting new sins. Described by a church historian as “the very dregs,” he was killed at age 27 when the husband of one of his mistresses burst into his bedroom, discovered him in flagrante, and battered his skull in with a hammer.
3. Benedict IX, (1032-48) continually shocked even his most hardened cardinals by debauching young boys in the Lateran Palace. Repenting of his sins, he actually abdicated to a monastery, only to change his mind and seize office again. He was “a wretch who feasted on immorality,” wrote Saint Peter Damian, “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.”
5. All pretense at decorum was abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in southern France for 75 years. Bon vivant Clement VI (1342-52) was called “an ecclesiastical Dionysus” by the poet Petrarch for the number of mistresses and the severity of his gonorrhea. Upon his death, 50 priests offered Mass for the repose of his soul for nine consecutive days, but French wits agreed that this was nowhere near enough.
| Sixtus IV
| Alexander VI
8. The vicious Rodrigo Borgia, who took the name Alexander VI (1492-1503), presided over more orgies than masses, wrote Edward Gibbon. A career highlight was the 1501 “Joust of the Whores,” when 50 dancers were invited to slowly strip around the pope’s table. Alexander and his family gleefully threw chestnuts on the floor, forcing the women to grovel around their feet like swine; they then offered prizes of fine clothes and jewelry for the man who could fornicate with the most women. Alexander’s other hobbies included watching horses copulate, which would make him “laugh fit to bust.” After his death — quite possibly poisoned by his pathological son, Cesar Borgia — this pope’s body was expelled from the basilica of Saint Peter as too evil to be buried in sacred soil.
10. Incurable romantic Julius III (1550-55) fell in love with a handsome young beggar boy he spotted brawling with a vendor’s monkey in the streets. The pope went on to appoint this illiterate 17-year-old urchin a cardinal, inspiring an epic poem, “In Praise of Sodomy,” probably written by a disgruntled archbishop in his honor. • 11 May 2010
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Duffy, Eamon, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, (Yale, 2002); De Rosa, Peter, Vicars of Christ: the Dark Side of the Papacy (New York, 1988).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.