Monday, October 19, 2015

Church History Apologetics: The Bad Popes

Matt Swaim will appreciate that we are not discussing The Bad Popes, a band in Greenville, SC. Instead we are going to talk about how to answer questions about "The Bad Popes" of Church history, popes who lived scandalously corrupt personal lives, committing nepotism, violating their vows of celibacy, etc. Listen live here after the 6:45 a.m. Central time news break with Annie Mitchell.

As the chaplain at St. Paul's Parish-Newman Center, Father William Carr, reminded us when he taught us Church History, the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals; he is not impeccable, unable to err or sin. Popes can and have sinned personally, made errors in judgment, failed in good management, etc. Mike Aquilina expresses it well in his introduction to Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons:

What do we mean when we say the pope is infallible?

We certainly don't mean that he's always right about everything. The pope is a human being like everyone else. He may be uncommonly good. In the last few centuries, we have had more popes who were uncommonly good than otherwise. But there have been times when the pope was an uncommonly bad man. And even an uncommonly good pope can still trip over the carpet or mispronounce a word. If he falls flat on his face, he doesn't have to pick himself up, brush himself off, and say, "I meant to do that," in order to maintain the truth of papal infallibility.

Papal infallibility is something much more limited and much more comforting. Because Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would protect the Church from error — and because Christ keeps his promises — we know that when the pope, acting in his official capacity as leader of the Church, defines a doctrine that is a matter of faith or morals, he cannot teach error. But the pope can be wrong about astronomy. He can be wrong about biology. He can be wrong about all sorts of things, and — being human — he frequently is.

This distinction is important when somebody points to a notoriously corrupt pope and asks, "How can you say your pope is infallible?" No one has any trouble with the obviously good popes, the ones like St. Leo the Great, who steered the Church through perilous waters and stood up heroically for the faith against long odds. But it's really the bad popes who make the best argument for infallibility.

When we read history, it's clear that God's graces do not depend on our works. He makes his sun rise on the evil popes and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (see Matthew 5:45). Bring on the worst popes in history! If even they, with all their power, haven't been able to make a dent in Catholic truth, then it really does look as though something more than natural is going on. The Spirit really must be protecting us, because even the legendarily immoral Benedict IX and Alexander VI never managed to teach error in matters of faith and morals.

One of the bad popes Chamberlin put in his 1969 book was Pope Clement VII, the pope who did not grant Henry VIII the decree of nullity he sought re: his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Clement VII was  not a nepotist, although he had benefited from his cousin Pope Leo X's "enjoyment" of the papacy. He may have been too much of a Medici and picked the wrong sides in the conflicts between France and the Holy Roman Empire, etc., but he was not a morally reprehensible man. He did uphold the validity of Henry and Katherine's marriage.

Some authorities have thought that Pope St. Pius V erred with the Papal Bull Regnans in Excelsis, both in timing and in content, deposing Elizabeth I and encouraging her subjects to rebel against her, depose and replace her; it came too late to aid the Northern Rebellion and provoked Elizabeth and her Government to pass stricter recusant laws and persecute Catholics.

The other bad popes Chamberlin identifies:
  • Pope Stephen VI (896–897), who had his predecessor Pope Formosus exhumed, tried, de-fingered, briefly reburied, and thrown in the Tiber.
  • Pope John XII (955–964), who gave land to a mistress, murdered several people, and was killed by a man who caught him in bed with his wife.
  • Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048), who "sold" the Papacy
  • Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303), who is lampooned in Dante's Divine Comedy
  • Pope Urban VI (1378–1389), who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when Cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured.
  • Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503), a Borgia, who was guilty of nepotism and whose unattended corpse swelled until it could barely fit in a coffin.
  • Pope Leo X (1513–1521), a spendthrift member of the Medici family who once spent 1/7 of his predecessors' reserves on a single ceremony
Next month: the Legend of Pope Joan.

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