Recently on a discussion board, someone asked about the book, The Bad Popes. I read this book about five years ago (or maybe longer- I don't remember), and I then wrote this review. I rarely argue against Roman Catholicism by trying to dig up facts about how awful or sinful a particular pope may have been. I choose not argue this way, because the argument against Rome is about Biblical doctrine, not about the personal lives of Popes (or contrarily about the personal lives of Luther or Calvin).
I picked up The Bad Popes by E.R. Chamberlin for two reasons: First, it was cheap. Barnes and Noble had a stack of them for $7.95. Secondly, I was at Barnes and Noble for the specific purpose of buying the pro-Roman Catholic work, Surprised By Truth (Edited by Patrick Madrid, Perhaps at some point I will post my thoughts on this book). Ah, nothing like a little balance to even out one’s thoughts.
The author of The Bad Popes seems to have fairness in mind also: he relied on both Roman Catholic historians as well as Protestant in order to document the history of the papacy (see p.290). When the facts are hearsay, he says so. When the sources may be tainted, he says so. Chamberlin, an English writer, wrote the book in 1969. The book gives historical accounts of (primarily) seven popes from the “critical periods in the 600 years leading into the Reformation” (inside flap). After reading this book, I can see how the Reformation was the eruption of hundreds of years of Papal abuse.
What struck me immediately about the book was its attention to history and its lack of theology. This is not a book of Bible verses pointing to perceived doctrinal Roman Catholic errors. There are no discussions of whether the concept of the papacy is Biblical. There is no discussion about the papacy fulfilling end times prophecy. There is no mention of ex-cathedra statements. There is little or no mention of any comments a Pope has made on the Bible or sacred tradition. The book is history: fascinating at times, while dull at other points. Facts and names fill every page. Had I known that each page would be littered with multiple names, I would have kept notes early on to recall who is who. It’s also easy to get lost in the myriad of battles between the major powers of the day. Having a map of Italy would help, since many of the histories of individual towns and who controlled them takes up major space in this book. If you are looking for a “Let’s bash the papacy” book, this one is not pop-cheap-easy anti-catholic rhetoric. You will have to read, and read carefully.
Primarily, I was struck by the awesome political power of the papacy during this period. War after war, and a vast political machine, while authentic religion takes a secondary role. It sounded like CNN reporting world news at times. The author documents political conflicts between the papacy and just about everybody, and the conflicts were not over things like transubstantiation or free will. Rather, the conflicts over commerce and country: territories and rulers take center stage.
I hesitate to offer a few examples from the book of papal abuse that I found most distressing. Some of these examples I posted on a Roman Catholic discussion board while working through the book, and things did not go well. I am not Roman Catholic, nor do I believe in the papacy. I think the primary battle should be fought in the Scriptures themselves. However, I can only note the tremendous benefit I have had from reading about my Reformed forefathers. They were indeed not perfect, and some did atrocious things also. I have learned that my faith must be in Christ and his gospel, not in Zwingli or Calvin. The difference then, is my Reformed forefathers were not said to be the infallible-God-ordained-head-of-the-church. I have heard one prominent Roman Catholic apologist say “folks- Catholics are responsible for every word the pope utters" (The "folks" part should make it clear who I mean). The abuses of political subterfuge, simony, nepotism, and Papal wars are too numerous and complex to put forth here. Therefore, skim through a few of these minor facts that E.R. Chamberlin offers in passing while documenting the bigger picture. If they bother you, do some research and lets talk about it. I am by no means an expert, you may be. If so, I would be thankful to learn truth from you.
Pope Stephen VII put the corpse of the previous Pope (Formosus) on trial after he had been dead for eight months. Formosus was dragged from the tomb, dressed again in sacerdotal robes, and given council. Stephen VII condemned him, and the three fingers of benediction on the right hand were hacked off Formosus. The late pope was then dragged through the palace, and hurled into the Tiber by a yelling mob.
Stephen VII himself was later strangled. Following this, within 12 months four popes met their demise as political factions struggled to control the papacy.
The Popes from 926-1046 were from the House of Theophylact. Chamberlin documents the legend of Pope Joan, and discounts it as myth. But like some myths, elements of the fiction have been drawn from historical accounts. The women from the House of Theophylact had a grip on the papacy, as it placed there own nominees in papal power. One paved the way for her lover to take the papacy, Pope John X.
Pope John XII is referred to as a Christian Caligula, with charges that he turned the Lateran into a brothel. He and “his gang violated female pilgrims in the very basilica of St. Peter; …offerings of the humble laid upon the alter were snatched up as casual booty”(p.43). Some bishops who dared to take part in a trial condemning John’s abuses came under the rage of this pope. “One had his tongue torn out, his nose and fingers cut off; another scourged; the hand of a third was hacked off”(p.60). John XII is rumored to have been killed by an angry husband who caught the Holy Father in the act, but Chamberlin is cautious to say that perhaps this was perhaps gossip of the day with no verification.
Pope Benedict IX sold the papacy for 1,500 pounds of gold to Giovanni Gratiano. Rumor has it, he wished to cease being pope to marry. The reason he is said to have sold it, is because Benedict, while willing to cease being Pope, was not willing to give up a luxurious lifestyle.
Perhaps the saddest tale of all is the story of Peter of Morone, who became Pope Celestine. He was a “holy man who hung his cowl upon a sunbeam, whose hours of devotions were marked by the tolling of a supernatural bell”(p.79). He lived in a cave high up on Monte Morone. Chamberlin calls him a “simple good man”(83). Celestine, once Pope, longed to be a recluse monk again. He abdicated, and then Boniface VIII stepped in. Boniface feared the followers that Celestine had, so he decided to have the ex-pope arrested and brought back to Rome. Bonfice eventually did capture him, condemned all that Celestine had done as Pope, and imprisoned him for the remainder of his life.
Bonifice VIII was known for simony and nepotism. Bonfice though, countered these charges by holding that, “a pope could not, by definition, commit simony, for he was the church and the church was he and all that it possessed was at his ordering” (p.94). Also known for “witty” speech, Boniface is recorded as saying something like, “Sexual immorality? Why- there is no more going to bed with women and boys than in rubbing one hand against the other” (p.111). He is also to have said, “”A man has as much hope of survival after death as that roast fowl on the dining table there” (p.111), this remark made on a fast day. Chamberlin implies that perhaps Boniface was kidding, yet those writing his every word made sure to include these statements. Boniface is also known for the bull Unam Sanctum which “made explicit what had been implicit: It is necessary for salvation that all human creatures shall be subject to the Roman Pontiff”(p.119).
John XXII was a banker. “He destroyed the little friars who had arisen with their terrible heresy that Christ and his disciples had been poor men, that the amassing of wealth was contrary to his teaching” (p.131).
Clement VI was “a happy, splendid priest with a vast taste for the table, considerable culture, and an indiscreet love of women” (p.132). He “made no secret of his liking for feminine company” (p.132). One contemporary said of him that, “…when he was an archbishop he did not keep away from women but lived in the manner of young nobles, nor did he as pope try to control himself. Noble ladies had the same access to his chambers as did prelates and among others, the Countess of Turenne was so intimate with him that, in large part, he distributed his favors through her” (p. 133).
Urban VI was known as a man with a bad temper. The cardinals at the time thought of him as a madman. To an adviser who doubted his powers to excommunicate one for the mildest misdemeanor he yelled, “I can do anything, anything!” (p. 143). He was said to have physically attacked the cardinal of Limoges in consistory, whereupon many of the cardinals drifted away from Rome. Eventually, a few of the cardinals began devising a plan to remove him from the papacy. Urban was alerted, and had those cardinals “put to the question,” which involved old cardinal Sangro “hoisted to the ceiling three times by the strappado and each time was dropped heavily to the floor” (p.153). Urban, unable to hear Sangro’s screams, directed the examiners to improve their questioning by torturing the old man more severely.
Pope Alexander VI's first mistress bore him four children, and he strove to have those children in power and to also become pope. He was fourty years senior his second mistress.
Pope Leo X offered a profound statement, “How very profitable this fable of Christ has been to us through the ages” (p.223) after an advisor quoted from the gospels.
These are but a few examples from the book. After reading The Bad Popes, it was no wonder that the Reformation occurred. One could spend the whole year reading books on Luther’s life or the sixteenth century, and miss the centuries of corruption that provoked the Reformation.