I’ve read that a respectable number of disrespectable popes in the early Roman Catholic Church had illegitimate children. I understand that many of these children became cardinals in the church, some eventually ascending to the papal throne with infallibility. Does the Catholic Church officially acknowledge these transgressions, and, if so, how does it rationalize them? Also, is there any truth to the scandalous story of an ancient pope’s bastard daughter disguising herself as a man, becoming a respected cardinal in the church, and finally getting elected pope by his/her peers–only to be stoned to death by an angry Roman crowd that discovered “him” hiding an advanced pregnancy under those heavy velvet robes? –Jeffrey Russell, Madison, Wisconsin

A lot of the rumors about the “bad popes” are true, Jeffers, but let’s not get ridiculous. The female pope story, for one, is generally regarded as a fabrication. “Pope Joan,” who supposedly served from 855 to 858, was said to be an Englishwoman who disguised herself as a monk to be with her cleric boyfriend. She went to Rome, where she so impressed others with her learning that she was elected pope. Her secret was discovered when she gave birth during a procession, whereupon she was slain. The story is bogus, although it was possibly inspired by actual events, about which more in a moment.

But many other papal horror stories are entirely legit. In many cases, in fact, weaknesses of the flesh were the least of the popes’ sins. In the Middle Ages many popes were elevated to office following the murder of their predecessors. During one particularly grim period from 882 to 1046, there were 37 popes, some of whom served only a few weeks.

Leo V (903), for instance, had been pope for only a month before being imprisoned and tortured by one Christophorus, who then enthroned himself. Both men were killed in 904 on the orders of Pope Sergius III (904-911). Sergius later had a son by his teenaged mistress Marozia who became Pope John XI (931-935). In 914, according to one chronicler, Marozia’s mother Theodora installed her lover on the papal throne as John X (914-928). (Theodora and Marozia effectively controlled the papacy through their menfolk and may be the source of the Pope Joan legend.) John XII (955-963), who ascended to the papacy at 19, was accused, perhaps falsely, of sleeping with his father’s mistress, committing incest with his niece, and castrating a deacon.

Murder gave way to bribery as a route to the papacy in later centuries; some 40 popes are believed to have bought their jobs. But the lax attitude toward celibacy remained unchanged. In large part this was because the Church was an important route to wealth and power. Sons of influential families were pushed into Church careers much as we might send a kid to MBA school, apparently with similar expectations regarding morals. Noblemen with mistresses saw no reason to adjust their life-styles just because they had taken vows.

The spectacle of cardinals and popes putting their “nephews” into cushy jobs was a standing joke in Rome for centuries. Innocent VIII (1484-1492) had a son and daughter who lived with him in the Vatican. The notorious Alexander VI (1492-1503), born Rodrigo Borgia, had at least four illegitimate children while still a cardinal, among them the cutthroat Cesare Borgia and the reputed poisoner Lucrezia Borgia (actually, she probably never poisoned anybody). Clement VII (1523-1534), himself illegitimate, had a son whom he attempted to make duke of Florence. Paul III (1534-1539) had four kids; two teen grandsons he made cardinals. Pius IV (1559-1565) had three children, and the list goes on.

The Catholic Church has been reasonably forthcoming about the bad popes, having opened the Vatican archives to historians in the 19th century. The Church acknowledges that the office has been held by unworthy men, but maintains that their spiritual capacities were unimpaired by their temporal failings–a line that may sound familiar to former supporters of Gary Hart. The doctrine of papal infallibility applies only to certain formal pronouncements on faith and morals, so it can be argued that the bad popes did not lead the church permanently astray. But it’s not a position I would care to defend before a congressional committee.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.