When I read Mother’s request for a talk on ‘Bad Popes’ I was both surprised and alarmed. In truth her request was for a talk on ‘Good and Bad Popes’ but it was the ‘bad’ part which took my attention. Did I really want to dig into the sad past of Holy Mother Church? But my initial reluctance only goes to show my lack of realism. I am like the Ostrich and prefer to hide my head in the sand! Mother understands that we should not be afraid of the truth. I have managed to identify twelve ‘Bad Popes’. Twelve out of a total of 266 Popes is very small but nevertheless nothing to be proud of. But I suspect that a talk detailing all twelve will be hard to bear so I will concentrate on only eight of them.

To start please forgive some thoughts of my own. Mother will doubtless correct anything I get wrong! We can ask: ‘Why were there bad popes?’ The dates of these Popes range from 896 to 1523 when communications were not as they are today.  We can imagine the outcry today which would be heard if a well known person of ill-repute was to be even mentioned as a future Pope. But back in the time of the Bad Popes there were no such communications. Power struggles took place between families who vied for the ‘Top Job’. History shows that ‘power corrupts’ and those who fought for the Chair of St. Peter are further proof of that fact. Some Popes would nominate their son to take the chair of St Peter after them.

A starting point is a quote from Father Henri Nouwen the Dutch born Catholic priest who was well known for his 40 books on the spiritual life. In his book ‘Bread for the Journey’ he wrote:

‘Over the centuries the Church has done enough to make any critical person want to leave it. Its history of violent crusades, organised massacre, power struggles, oppression, excommunications, executions, manipulation of people and ideas, and constantly recurring divisions is there for everyone to see and be appalled by.’

That is food for thought before we even start thinking about Bad Popes! 


We start with a problem and the possibility of dishonouring the wrong person. I have previously mentioned a total of 266 Popes but some lists only have 265. That is because of the election of Pope Stephen II in 725. He died three days after his election. Because he had not been consecrated some lists leave him out. But he had been elected therefore he should be included.

Pope Stephen VII  896 to 897 (Also known as Pope Stephen VI) The first Bad Pope I want to talk about is Pope Stephen VII who on some lists is given as Pope Stephen VI. He had been ‘sponsored’ by the Spoleto family who at that time were the Royal Family of Italy.  He is chiefly remembered in connection with his conduct towards the remains of Pope Formosus, his last predecessor but one. Under pressure from the House of Spoleto he carried out his fury against Formosus who had himself had an eventful life as a cleric. He had been accused of ‘conspiring with certain men and women for the destruction of the papal see’ and had been sentenced to excommunication which was later withdrawn. Nevertheless his name does not appear as one of the twelve Bad Popes. In his fury Pope Stephen VII, lacking all Christian Charity, had Formosus rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in vestments and placed on a throne where it was ‘put on trial’ in what was called the Cadaver (corpse) Synod. Formosus was found guilty and was  sentenced to have the three fingers of his right hand cut off (the fingers which he would have used for anointing) and his body was thrown into the River Tiber. It was later recovered and re-interred in St. Peter’s.

The instigators of the atrocities may have been the Royal House of  Spoleto but even so Pope Stephen should have had the strength to stand up to such pressure. The appalling acts against Formosus caused a tumult and led to Pope Stephen being imprisoned and he eventually died by been strangled. 

Pope Benedict IX  Three terms as Pope between 1032 and 1048 The three elections of this Pope clearly demonstrate the chaos which existed in those times when electing a pope. In the fist place ‘the Papal Chair was obtained by his father’. We have to wonder how that came about. No democracy there. This Pope led an extremely dissolute life with none of it apparently having anything to with being a pope. St. Peter Damian described him as ‘feasting on immorality’ and ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’ and those are the words of a saint! (I have checked and St. Peter Damian did live in the time of this Pope). Pope Benedict IX was accused of ‘many vile adulteries and murders’.

We have to wonder how he became Pope on three separate occasions. Vile dictators gather around themselves equally vile protectors who do all they can to keep their friend in power. To add to Pope Benedict’s roll of horror in 1045 he resigned to pursue marriage, having ‘sold’ the office of Pope to his Godfather who became Pope Gregory VI.

Eventually he gave up his claims to the Papacy but nothing is known about his death.

Pope Boniface (Benedetto) VIII  1294 to 1303 Benedetto’s father was a member of a minor noble family. When his uncle became a bishop he went with him and from then he became part of the Roman Curia. He became secretary to a Cardinal and led to him becoming a Cardinal Deacon then a Cardinal Priest. His predecessor, Celestine V, did not die in office but it was said that Benedetto convinced him to resign. Benedetto was elected Pope in 1294 and one his first acts was to imprison his predecessor (though my information doesn’t explain why). Celestine died in that prison.

Apart from that evil start to his pontificate Pope Boniface’s other misdemeanours are less apparent than the other Popes we have already heard of. They appear to be of a political nature. He involved himself with foreign affairs and spent his Pontificate falling out especially with the King of France Phillip IV. He also issued Papal Bulls which were pompous and certain to create dissent. His Bull of 1302 Unam Sanctum proclaimed that ‘it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff’. Another Bull stated ‘God has set popes over kings and kingdoms’.

Eventually his uncharitable Bulls led to him being badly beaten, nearly executed and dying from ‘shame’ a month later in 1303.      

Pope Urban VI  1378 to 1389

This pope was born in Naples and became a devout monk. At the conclave when he was chosen, the people of Rome let it be known that they wanted a Pope to be from their city. When it was discovered that the chosen one was from Naples it caused a furore so much so that the cardinals who had made the choice, under some haste and pressure, fled the city.  Not only was he not a citizen of Rome but he wasn’t even a Cardinal. Not a good start for a new Pope. Nepotism soon showed itself as he elevated four nephews as cardinals and sought to place one of them in control of Naples. Of his character it was said: ‘He lacked Christian gentleness and charity. He was extremely violent and imprudent and when he came to deal with the burning ecclesiastical question of the day, that of reform, the consequences were disastrous’.   

After that awful start things went from bad to worse. The French Cardinals enraged by Pope Urban’s attitude elected an Antipope Clement VII. Pope (not included in any list of Popes). The antipope proceeded to excommunicate Pope Urban (though how a non elected Pope can excommunicate one who has been elected I don’t understand. The whole situation is very bizarre). Catherine of Siena summed things up by calling the French Cardinals ‘devils in human form’. One of Urban’s supporters was Jane I the queen of Naples. But she changed her allegiance to Clement and for that disloyalty Urban had her imprisoned and killed.

There followed many political intrigues far too involved to either understand or describe except that it involved further murders and the outcome was that Urban died from injuries after falling off a donkey although there were also rumours of poisoning.

The Borgias

When I told friends that I had been asked to arrange a talk on Bad Popes many of them said “wait till you get to the Borgias, then you will find out about really bad popes”. They were right. But they were even more astounded when I told them that the talk was for an Enclosed Order of Carmelite Sisters! “What are you going to tell them” my friends asked. I replied “I’m going to tell them the truth”. So here it is!

The Borgias were a noble Italian family of Spanish origin. They were brilliant but also evil, ruthless and treacherous. They have been accused of many different crimes, generally on considerable evidence, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest and murder (especially murder by poison).

Pope Callistus III  1455 to 1458

The first of the Borgia Popes is Callistus III. Of him it was said that he was amongst the twenty-five most evil people of the 15th Century. One of his first acts was to make two of his nephews cardinals. One of them later became Pope Alexander VI another a Borgia Pope.

Pope Callistus was only Pope for three years but he is remembered for melting down church property such as gold to fund his obsession against the Ottoman Empire. He converted major churches in Rome and Europe into fully operating torture chambers and fully satanic temples involving the daily ritual sacrifice of innocent men, women and children. People were hung from rafters to slowly die. Humans were used as candles. Cannibalism and depraved sexual acts were carried out prior to slaughter.

He also sold indulgences, sainthoods, offices of cardinals to the highest bidder to increase his personal wealth.

Pope Alexander VI  1492 to 1503

The next Borgia Pope is Alexander VI who, it was rumoured, in his desire for the papacy, had succeeded in buying the largest number of votes. The rumour included a mention of four mule loads of silver as a bribe. The conclave was a very expensive campaign with sums of 200,000 gold ducats and another 100,000 being spent. When Borgia was elected, taking the name of Alexander VI a future Pope, Leo X said, “now we are in the power of a wolf, the most grasping perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.”

Alexander seemed to work on two quite separate levels. In one he was Pope and carried out Papal functions but in the other was a normal layman and had mistresses, several illegitimate children and led a life of debauchery. Nepotism became a trademark of his life as he made a seventeen year old illegitimate son Archbishop of Valencia.  The whole aim of his life was to become as rich as possible by confiscating property, selling indulgences and creating twelve Cardinals from who he received 120,000 ducats.      

In 1503 he was taken ill with fever and suffered a terrible death. His stomach became swollen and turned to liquid and started to bleed profusely. He died after accepting the last rites and making a confession. His last words were said to be “Wait a minute…”.

Pope Leo X  1513 to 1521

Compared to the last two popes this one almost led a blameless life! He was of the powerful Medici family and this power is shown in that he was made a cardinal at age sixteen. Two days after he had been elected pope, aged 37, he was ordained.

In his favour he was lavish in charity building retirement homes, hospitals, convents, looking after discharged soldiers, pilgrims, poor students, exiles, cripples and the sick. He showed favour towards the Jews permitting them to erect a Hebrew printing-press in Rome.

But he was involved in a lot of political intrigue. He was extremely extravagant living in personal luxury which meant that within two years he had exhausted all the savings of the previous pontiff.  To raise money he sold Cardinals hats, indulgences and even resorted to pawning palace furniture, table plates, jewels and even statutes of the apostles. 

In 1517 Marine Luther, concerned at the way the Church was being conducted, led a revolt by declaring his ninety-five complaints (theses). One of these was against the selling of indulgences which obviously favoured the rich who could afford them. Instead of looking seriously at the complaints Pope Leo eventually excommunicated Luther which led to the Protestant Reformation.

Pope Clement VII  1523 to 1534

This Pope, who was also a Medici, had the misfortune of reigning during the time of Henry VIII with all the problems which that presented to the Roman Catholic Church. But that was not his only problem. He could not make his mind up which way to go politically and changed his allegiance as his mood changed. That led to the ‘Sack of Rome’ encouraged by the fact that 34,000 Italian troops who had won a battle against the French had not been paid and took their revenge out on Rome. This led to Pope Clement taking refuge in the mausoleum of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome which had been built by Hadrian in 135 A.D. He was there for six months and eventually escaped disguised as a peddler. 

There is mention of an illegitimate son which suggests that Clement had a mistress.  Nepotism took place when he made that son a Duke. He is said to have died from eating a ‘Death Cap’ mushroom. A few days before his death he ordered Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

Saint Francis Borgia  1510 to 1572

There is light at the end of the tunnel as I am able to complete this talk by telling of a Saint who was member of the evil Borgia family. Francis was the grandson of Juan the second son of the infamous Pope Alexander VI.  Juan’s wife, Francis’ grandmother, was of a different stock than the Borgias. She came from the family line of Catholic King Ferdinand of Aragon in Spain. After the assassination of her husband she entered a convent of Poor Clares along with her daughter. It was through these two women that sanctity entered the Borgia family and began the work of reparation which Francis Borgia was to crown.  Francis was born in a family of wealth and power but due to the spiritual training of his grandmother and aunt he never succumbed to extravagance and led a holy life. After an excellent education he married. Due to his great charm he was made a Marques and equerry to Empress, wife of Charles V of Spain. Francis recalled an occasion when he was  travelling and he passed a poor man who servants of the Inquisition were leading to prison. Their eyes met and Francis later discovered that he was looking at Ignatius of Loyola. Little did he realise that one day they would be united by the closest ties.

The Empress died and Francis’s final duty as equerry was to convey her remains to the funeral where Blessed John and Avila preached the sermon which led to Francis admitting that he wanted to change his way of life. On the death of his father he inherited the title of a Duke and for the next few years he carried out the duties of that state. But when, in 1546 his wife died, he abdicated the Dukedom in favour of his brother and commenced his religious life.

In 1550 he left his estates to see them no more. He went to Rome where of threw himself as the feet of  Ignatius of Loyola. His humility was inspiring to those who remembered the ancient power of the Borgias. He was ordained and commenced preaching. The whole of Spain talked about his change of life. Whilst he wanted to be isolated he had to tear himself away from prayer in order to preach and his burning words, his example, and even his mere appearance stirred profoundly.

Fr. Francis went on the hold many important positions including being Vicar General of the Society of Jesus, founding several colleges and assisting the foreign missions. He was so well thought of that he when travelled people would shout “We wish to see the Saint”.

Pope Julius III wanted to make Francis a cardinal but nothing was further from his own intentions and on his behalf Ignatius of Loyola prevailed on the Pope to reconsider this decision. Two years later it may have happened again but Pope Pius IV and Pius V loved Francis too much to impose upon him a dignity which would have caused him distress. In 1572 Pope Gregory was resolved to overcome Francis’s reluctance and make him a cardinal. But Francis had the last word as he died before that could happen.

In 1607 Francis’ grandson having seen his granddaughter miraculously cured through the intercession of Francis caused the process for his canonization to begin, which came to fruition 1670 under Pope Clement X. 

St. Francis Borgia, by his penitent and apostolic life has repaired the sins of his family and rendered glorious a name, which but for him, would have remained a source of humiliation for the Church. His feast is celebrated on the 10th October.