The Bad Popes – book review

The Bad Popes by E.R Chamberlin was first published in 1969, then re-issued by Barnes & Nobel in 1993. I got a copy very inexpensively from the bargain bin in Barnes and Nobel, and it turns out to be a fascinating read. It is a non-fiction work about the worst popes in history.

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There have been a lot of bad popes through the centuries, but Chamberlain focuses on some of the incredibly bad leaders of the Roman Catholic Church from the period 900-1535.   A bad pope in those days was a lot more of a problem for the people in Europe than it would be today, simply because of the tremendous power of the Catholic Church at that time.

For one thing, the Church directly owned or controlled land consisting of the center 1/3 of Italy (the “Papal States”). The church had an actual army with thousands of men who were well equipped, well trained soldiers.  In addition, the Church had tremendous influence over all the Catholic kingdoms of Europe. Kings and Queens needed papal approval for coronations, and annulments.

The Church also had tremendous economic power even outside the Papal States. Throughout Europe, the Catholic Church owned vast estates, business, breweries and vineyards. Cardinals were referred to as “Princes of the Church”, and they were princes in every real sense . Cardinals were wealthy and powerful men running vast business enterprises. They were also intensely jealous of each other and were always scheming for ways to get more power usually by taking it from a competing Cardinal.

So a pope had to be able to expertly run a vast international organization with religious, military and economic power. A good pope could help provide peace, economic prosperity and spiritual comfort to millions.

A bad pope was a disaster, not just for the Church, but for the millions of ordinary people who lived under its control. It might seem that electing a truly holy man as pope would be the best solution. In 1294 the Cardinals, fed up with the corruption and in-fighting in the Church did just that. Instead of picking a Cardinal, they elected as pope a man who was a devout Benedictine monk who lived an austere life of prayer. The monk became Pope Celestine V and Christens throughout the world rejoiced.

Their joy was short-lived. The monk was totally out of his depth as pope. His life of prayer had not taught him anything about how to run one of the largest economic and military organizations  that ever existed in the world. He was naive and easily tricked by various power groups wishing to manipulate him. Corruption and in-fighting was worse than ever and he soon became hated throughout Europe. He was, however, intelligent enough to recognize that he was not the right man for the job, and humble enough not  to have any use for the power. He became the first pope in history to resign. He returned to his life as a monk and happily lived out the rest of his life in quiet prayer and meditation.

Unfortunately, other bad popes did everything they could to hold on to the title and to gain ever more power for themselves.  Kings and the Cardinals loyal to them got very involved in the election of new popes. At one point the Catholic church even had 3 popes  simultaneously,  with  3 different  Cardinals claiming to be pope. The Cardinals split among country lines and there was a “pope” in Italy, one in Spain, and one in France all protected by various armies and all issuing conflicting decrees and proclamations.

Probably the most famous bad pope was Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI who ruled from 1492-1503 . He had children who he appointed as Cardinals, had enemies murdered, and stole every ounce of gold he could find. He and his sons were so lustful, vicious and corrupt, that Showtime turned it into a series. The Borgias were know for having orgies, having enemies “disappear”. They even sold papal pardons for even the most violent of crimes if the price was high enough.

The Bad Popes is a well written and well documented book. It makes fascinating reading about parts of history the Catholic Church would like very much to forget about.

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