October 2, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: The greatest scandal in papal history

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the ascension to the papacy of Pope Benedict IX, a layman in his 20s when he was selected by the Tusculan family, which ruled Rome at the time, in 1032. He was the nephew of the two previous popes.

Benedict was a competent pope for 12 years, but then, in 1044, another insurrection in Rome forced him to flee the city. The Crescentian family, which had ruled Rome from 1000 to 1012 and appointed three popes, regained control of the city and had another man installed as Pope Silvester III. Benedict, though, rallied his forces and retook the city. He resumed the papacy and excommunicated Silvester.

Then came the greatest scandal in papal history. Benedict abdicated the papacy, and turned it over to his godfather in exchange for a huge sum of money. In effect, Benedict sold the papal office and then moved to family properties near Tusculum. The man who paid the money assumed the throne of Peter as Pope Gregory VI in 1045.

All this was too much for King Henry III of Germany. He crossed the Alps and went down to Rome to clean up the mess. He commanded Benedict IX, Silvester III and Gregory VI all to appear before a synod held at Sutri, near Rome, in 1046.

The synod condemned Silvester as an invader of the Holy See, and sentenced him to confinement in a monastery. It pronounced Gregory guilty of simony for buying the office of pope and sent him in exile to Germany. Benedict chose not to obey Henry’s command to appear at the synod, but he was formally deposed at another synod in Rome a few days later.

So now, instead of Roman families determining who the pope would be, it was the German king. Henry brought a German bishop with him to Rome. He was dutifully elected, took the name Pope Clement II, and was enthroned on Christmas Day of 1046. On the same day, he crowned Henry III as emperor.

Pope Clement appeared to be a vigorous pope, but on a trip to the abbey of Santo Tommaso in October 1047, he suddenly became ill and died there. An examination of his remains performed in 1942 showed that he died of lead poisoning.

After Clement’s death, Pope Benedict IX decided to return to the papacy—for the third time. He managed to regain the throne for eight months—the only pope in history to reign three different times.

Then Emperor Henry intervened again, nominating a German bishop with the name Poppo. He took office as Pope Damasus II. But Henry had the darnedest luck, to say nothing of Damasus, who died 23 days after his consecration, probably of malaria.

So Henry nominated another German bishop, Bruno, who reigned as Pope Leo IX. He showed great promise, but made the mistake of personally leading a small army against the Normans, who had invaded southern Italy. He was captured and imprisoned for nine months. He died shortly after his release in 1054.

To be continued next week. †

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