Book Review: The Bad Popes

The Bad Popes, by E.R. Chamberlin

What makes a pope bad?  Any institution that goes on for any length of time is going to end up at times with some questionable leadership at the top, but what makes some popes particularly poor choices involves a look at the varied responsibilities and demands that are placed on the papal office as well as the question of how such leaders are chosen.  This book is a restrained and balanced look at the failures of some half a dozen popes over the period between 900 and 1550, and the popes chosen here were all notable failures for one reason or another.  As counterpoint reading to my readings on and about Luther and the relationship between Germany and Italy in medieval Christianity [1], this book made obvious sense.  The author does a good job of placing the medieval papacy within a context that allows one to make sense of its ambitions, its complexity, and ultimately its failures.  It takes some bad popes to throw away the legitimacy granted by its position to the point where Christendom is disunited and the city of Rome itself is sacked by an imperial army, as happened in 1527, and this book explains what these bad popes did that was so bad.

The book itself opens with Rome in 900 AD and over more than 250 years proceeds to discuss those popes that brought shame and dishonor on the papal tiara.  This is not a book that shows a high degree of criticism of Roman Catholicism or the Papacy as a whole, but rather criticizes those who did the job poorly.  The book begins with a discussion of Marozia the Senatrix of Rome, remembered in a garbled history as “Pope Joan” and part of a dynasty of 10th century popes whose local ambitions led the papacy to become embroiled in factionalism and warlordism, always a bad sign for any office.  The combination of kingly and papal authority also did not do the Popes well.  The book explores the sale of the papacy as well as the way that Papal behavior led to the influence of Germanic Emperors on Italy, generally seen as a bad thing.  After this look at the bad popes of the 10th century, the book moves to the late 13th century and gives a critical view of Pope Boniface VIII, whose ambitions and aggression dramatically led to the rise of the Avingon Popes and to the decline of papal power.  Pope Urban VI comes in for a drubbing for his role in fostering the Great Schism.  Then the author takes on Pope Alexander VI Borgia and two Medici popes for their role in encouraging the corruption and decadence of the office and their failure to prevent the division of Christendom, with Rome ending up ultimately prostate to interstate warfare from great powers like France, Spain, and Germany.

So, to answer the question asked, what makes bad popes bad according to this book, the answer is a somewhat complicated one.  Bad popes were bad because they tarnished the spiritual authority of their office through flagrant sin, and pursued too much simultaneously, from temporal authority over the fractious city of Rome to dominance over Italy as well as power over the great monarchs of Europe.  They were human beings from human backgrounds who often wanted to benefit their families and local communities and sometimes forgot that the spiritual authority of the Papacy depended on the trust that others had in its universality.  The fact that the Popes were corrupt Italians, for the most part, with a high degree of condescension towards Germans and others did not help matters either.  A result of sordid intrigues, colossal ambitions, and terrible application of realpolitik made the failures of many of these popes fairly obvious and unsurprising.  The wonder is that so many popes did such a good job at all of managing to keep everything together despite the tensions and contradictions of the role of the medieval papacy.  This is a restrained and worthy effort in explaining the failure of the Papacy between 900AD and the Reformation.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: The Bad Popes

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Signs Of Life | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Dictator Pope | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: To Change The Church | Edge Induced Cohesion

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