Papal controversies these days are just not what they used to be. Take the current Pope Francis, a widely popular reformist who has nonetheless stirred some controversy. Progressive Catholics are unhappy that he is not liberal enough on matters of sex and sexuality, while conservative Catholics are unhappy with his emphasis on wealth disparities and progressive economic policies. However, that is pretty “meh” when compared to history’s most controversial popes.
Following are ten of history’s most scandalous Holy Fathers.
Stephen VI Dug Up a Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Pope Stephen VI’s time as Holy Father was brief, lasting for little more than a year between his selection as pope in May of 896, until his death in August of 897. However, that was more than enough time for Stephen to secure his place in the books, with one of the most controversial episodes in a papal history that has no shortage of controversy.
Plenty of popes knew how to hold a grudge. There is no dearth of pontiffs who schemed and plotted against their predecessors, or even murdered them. Nor does history have a shortage of popes who were highly vindictive towards the memory of their predecessors. None however came anywhere close to Stephen VI’s vindictiveness. This pope was the only one who was so vindictive that he exhumed a predecessor’s corpse and put it on trial, so he could finally tell him to his (dead) face what he thought of him.
Today, the papacy is a prestigious institute, and popes are highly respected figures. In Stephen’s days, however, popes were like Rodney Dangerfield, and got no respect. Italy and Rome back then were in the throes of anarchy, torn apart by fiercely competing aristocratic families. For them, the papacy was just another piece and prize in their Medieval Italian version of Game of Thrones.
Stephen was a member of the ruling family of Spoleto, an independent duchy in central Italy. In 891, an earlier Pope Stephen V had reluctantly crowned Guy, Duke of Spoleto, as Holy Roman Emperor. However, his preference had actually been for the East Frankish king Arnulf. In 896, his successor, Pope Formosus, who also preferred Arnulf, was forced against his will to crown Guy’s son Lambert as co-Emperor. While at it, the Spoletans also forced Formosus to make their relative, Stephen, a bishop.
A few months later, however, Formosus changed his mind, abandoned the Spoletans, and crowned Arnulf Holy Roman Emperor. That ignited a conflict, but Formosus did not live to see its conclusion, dying soon after changing his allegiance. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lasted only 15 days as pope before dying of gout. His successor, the Spoletan Stephen VI, was hopping mad at Formosus for the offense against his family.
Formosus was dead, but that would not stop the new pope from giving him a piece of his mind. Stephen VI ordered the rotting corpse of Formosus exhumed, and hauled to the papal throne. There, it was subjected it to an ecclesiastical trial before the Roman clergy that came to be known as the “Cadaver Synod”. With Formosus’ reeking corpse propped on the throne, Stephen VI conducted the prosecution, while a teenage deacon hiding behind the dead pope conducted the defense.
The proceedings were as macabre and ghoulishly farcical as one might imagine. Stephen would scream the accusations against Formosus’ cadaver. Then the deacon hiding behind the dead pope, imitating Formosus’ voice, would deny the charges. To no one’s surprise, the corpse lost the case, and was judged guilty. Stephen VI ordered the amputation of Formosus’ fingers, had him stripped of his papal vestments, dressed in rags, and dumped in a pauper’s grave.
Even that did not sate Stephen’s vindictiveness for long. Soon thereafter, still raging the insult to the Spoleto family, he again had Formosus’ corpse dug up, then ordered it loaded down with stones, and tossed into the Tiber river. This pope was clearly insane, which led to widespread rioting that finally ended with his ouster. The rioters got a hold of Stephen VI, and he was stripped of his papal vestments, imprisoned, and strangled to death in his cell.