Even Catholics don’t know very much about the Popes. If they did, they might well wonder how such an assortment of buffoons and villains could ever have been given the job. Why, it could make one lose faith in the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit! Presented below are some of the more interesting cases. Keep in mind that none of them are “Antipopes”–a different class of villain who illegitimately usurped the position–they’re legit. But it’s hard to imagine that these were much worse than the official ones mentioned below.
St. Callixtus (217-222) Blamed Jews when he lost money running a Christian bank and started a brawl in a synagogue. Declared that sex between slaves and their masters constitutes a valid marriage. Rioting objectors threw him down a well.
St. Fabian (236-250) Elected “Pope” when a pigeon landed on his head, which people took as a sign. (Yes, Bishops used to be popularly elected.)
St. Marcellinus (296-304) Unforgivably surrendered Church archives to the Roman authorities. Offered incense to Roman gods in a public ceremony. Synod was unable to depose him–he later admitted guilt. Still, he was canonized. Augustine later denied his offenses, yet posited the outlandish claim that only the Pope can judge his own guilt.
St. Leo the Great (440-461) Why’s he “great”? Well, he’s often praised for persuading Attila the Hun not to sack Rome. They don’t tell you that it came after the Battle of Troyes, when his army was depleted, nor that he did it by promising annual tribute payments. He’s also a hero for persuading Genseric to merely plunder Rome, not Vandalize it. Leo’s crucially responsible for the Petrine Doctrine, claiming Roman primacy over all of Christendom, which he first got the Emperor to accept in 445, then got ratified at the Council of Chalcedon. (Hence, the first official Pope.) Finally, he declared that even marital sex is evil.
Stephen II (752-757) Forged the Donation of St. Peter, fraudulently awarding the future Papal lands to the Papacy. Pepin was duped by it, and he and Charlemagne agreed to act as Papal muscle.
Adrian I (772-795) Responsible for the Donation of Constantine, fraudulently awarding most of Italy to the Church. A mere deacon when elected.
Stephen IV (986-7) Put the corpse of his predecessor Formosus on trial for having been “improperly elected.” (He’d been a unanimous choice!) Then he cut off the three fingers he used for Benedictions and tossed the corpse into the river.
Sergius III (904-911) Murdered his predecessor. Notorious whoremonger, his evil mistress Theodora ran the place with her evil daughter Marozia, who killed Pope John X. Her bastard sons became Pope John XI (931-936), imprisoned, and …
Pope John XII (955-963) Teenaged Pope! Made the Lateran a brothel, boasted of worshiping Satan at the altar, and bragged of having sex with his mother and sisters.
Leo VIII (963-964) Died having sex.
Sylvester II (999-1003) Used the end of the millennium as a scam to get people to turn over property to the Church. When the world didn’t end, he refused pleas to give it back. (Same trick St. Gregory of the Great pulled off, on a lesser scale, in 500.)
Adrian IV (1154-1159) Englishman. Awarded Ireland to England even though it wasn’t his to give, thus setting the stage for centuries of strife.
Innocent III (1198-1216) Ironic name. The most powerful Pope in worldly terms. Among his deeds: Starting the Inquisition, advising King John to repudiate the Magna Carta (even asking the King of France to invade over it), and the notorious Albigensian massacre–“Kill them all–the Lord will recognize his own.” Finally, said nice things about the horrible Children’s’ Crusade, using it to whip up another adult Crusade.
Gregory IX (1227-1240) Gave the Inquisition a permanent office.
Martin IV (1281-1289) Gorged himself to death on eels.
St. Celestine IV (1294) A much-admired hermit and ascetic who was elected Pope, but soon proved to be not up to the administrative responsibilities (not to mention being totally ignorant of Canon Law). But starting to give away Church treasures to the poor is what did him in. Cardinal Benedetto Gaetano installed a speaking tube in the cell where the Pope slept, and and night would say, “This is the Holy Spirit–Resign the Papacy!” The ninny did, and Gaetano became…
Pope Boniface VII (1294-1303) Another ironic name: “maker of good.” The new Pope had Celestine thrown in a dungeon, where he died of neglect. Boniface gave us the “Unam Sanctam” bull, declaring that everyone is subject to the Pope. He famously gloated, “What profits have we not derived from this fable of Christ?” When he died, he was tried and convicted posthumously of pederasty and murder.
Gregory IX (1370-1378) Hired Robert of Geneva, the Butcher of Cesena, to spread bloodshed through rebelling Papal states. Bob the Butcher’s battle cry: “Blood and more blood!”
Urban VI (1378-1389) “Urban the Terrible.” His vicious disposition and frequent rages made the Cardinals conclude he was mad, and try to depose him, for which there was no legal mechanism. Briefly replaced by the Butcher of Cesena as Antipope (in)Clement VII–another ironic name. Probably murdered five Cardinals who opposed him.
Alexander VI (1492-1503) Of the notorious Borgias, the original Mafia family. Bribed his way to power, yet not considered an Antipope. Had four known illegitimate children, all moral lepers. Held regular orgies in the Vatican.
Leo X (1513-1522) Had an unhealthy fascination with naked boys. They’d jump out of cakes for him.
Paul III (1534-1550) Made his teenaged nephews Cardinals. Imported the Spanish model of the Inquisition to Italy at the behest of his successor, Paul IV.
Pius IV (1559-1566) Issued anti-Semitic bull. (Enough Papal Bull!)
Gregory XIII (1572-1585) Not only approved of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, he congratulated the King of France, and issued a commemorative medallion for the nefarious slaughter of 10,000 Huguenots.
Sixtus V (1585-1590) Had an error-ridden personal Bible that a top-ranked Cardinal covered up. So much for Papal infallibility.
Urban VIII (1623-1644) Made Galileo recant of the heresy of the heliocentric solar system, a mistake the Church acknowledged a mere 400 years later.
Benedict XIV (1740-1758) Issued anti-Semitic encyclical.
Pius IX (1846-1871) Infallibly declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Antimodern zealot whose Syllabus of Errors denounced such things as Democracy, religious tolerance, public education and secular government. Kidnapped a Jewish boy and raised him Catholic, eventually making him a priest.
Leo XIII (1879-1903) Advocated the Death Penalty for heretics and other “disturbers of ecclesiastical unity.” Too close to modern times for comfort.
Now About John Paul II (1978-2005) Part of the process of canonization involves a man known as the Devil’s Advocate, whose function is to argue against sainthood for the candidate by presenting what negative information can be dug up about them. If I were to be Devil’s Advocate against John Paul II, here is what I’d present:
1) When a Papal Commission under Pope Paul VI voted to allow contraception, Bishop Karol Wotyla was instrumental in pushing a Minority Report that persuaded Paul VI to issue the Humanae Vitae encyclical. This decreed that every sex act, to be morally valid, must be “open to the transmission of life.” This asinine encyclical has roiled politics ever since, threatening individual autonomy and secular authority. (The flap over contraceptive coverage in “Obamacare” would not have happened without it.)
2) Let slide the suspicious death, after only 34 days, of his predecessor. (It’s suspected to have had something to do with the Vatican bank scandal, which included a Mafia connection and a bank official being found murdered. The Pope’s body may have been moved to his bed and positioned to look like he died there of natural causes.)
3) As Pope, JPII did not do enough to counter the epidemic of clergy sexual abuse (not to mention systematic church coverups). Major failure. Even worse, he was a good friend–even enabler–of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionnairies of Christ (an antimodern doctrinal reactionary order). A man who lived an opulent life on funds solicited for missions, who used drugs, who had at least two illegitimate children, and who has a long history of molestation with impunity. [Frontline, February 2014] JPII effusively praised him publicly while Ratzinger had been assigned to investigate him, making it harder to take any action.
4) He gave a prelature, a special honored status within the Vatican, to the pro-Fascist, self-torturing Opus Dei. (He should have banned them!) Even canonized Jose Maria Escriva, its founder.
5) Stated that it’s adultery (?) if a man has lust for his own wife. More sexually maladjusted nonsense from the Church.
6) As head of a church that’s involved in American politics, he ordered the liberal Father Drinan to resign his seat in Congress. (So much for his constituents’ choice.) He approved Ratzinger’s order to Thomas Reese, liberal editor of the Jesuit magazine America, to resign. (So much for Freedom of the Press.) And he silenced the liberal theologian Hans Kung. (So much for academic freedom.)
7) In 1994, JPII beatified two Italian women: Gianna Beretta Molla and Elisabeth Canori Mora. The first died of a uterine tumor in 1962 after passing on an operation that would have saved her life, but would have terminated a pregnancy. She left several motherless children. The second was honored for staying in a horribly abusive marriage. The Pope called them “models of Christian perfection.” Not good role models for sane women.
As far as I’m concerned, the Devil’s Advocate in John Paul II’s case fell down on the job. His rapid canonization (less than 9 years; some major saints took centuries!) was the result of popular acclaim and pressure from reactionary Catholics who adored him.
This has been a generous sample of Papal infamy. There are many others who deserve mention, but why belabor the point? Keep in mind, this is the information that has become known to history–one wonders what atrocities and outrages they managed to keep hidden?
 Real popes, who claimed and were acknowledged as having authority over the entire Church (at least in the West) did not exist until the fifth century. Nevertheless, the Church lists as Pope all archbishops of Rome previous to this time. Including Peter, whom the Scriptures indicate was in Judea (and answerable to James) during the time he was allegedly Pope in Rome.
 Popular acclaim was the original way Catholic saints were made, for several centuries. It led to a slew of lunatics and legendary but never-existing characters (many just retellings of pagan myth) being declared saints. The church has deleted a few of the latter and none of the former.
 This essay is the product of a very long period of saving little nuggets as I came across them. A lot of them can be found in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In specific, the item about “Pope” Fabian and the pigeon is in Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox. Other sources include A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, various history books and various encyclopedia articles. Even Lives of the Saints by the Catholic Book Publishing Company alludes to some of this, although they are not as blunt and straightforward as I have been.