The following information is taken from Father Richard Kunst’s Apologetics column in The Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper of Duluth, Minnesota in January, 2006.
Bad leadership often destroys the organization it is running. For example, Saddam Hussein hurt Iraq, Kenneth Lay ruined Enron, Jim and Tammi Faye Baker all but destroyed the PTL Club, and David Duncan brought down Arthur Anderson. Leadership, or lack thereof, can kill an organization. Even in a well-organized institution, bad leadership often is the downfall of that business or company.
The Catholic Church has had its fair share of bad leadership, but rather than calling them the bad popes I prefer to refer to them as the popes who should not have been. Here are a few examples of popes who should not have been:
Pope Formosus died in 896. His successor, Boniface VI, died after only 15 days in office. He was followed by Pope Stephen II, who was a bitter enemy of Formosus. Upon election, Stephen had Formosus’ body taken out of its tomb and put it on trial for usurping the papal throne. Of course, poor Formosus was found guilty only to have his blessing hand chopped off and his tongue torn out. Then the body was thrown into the Tiber River.
Pope Sergius III killed his predecessor, Leo V, in 904 and took up with a mistress by the name of Marisa, who, along with her mother Theodora, effectively ran the church until 932, when the son of Sergius III and Marozia became Pope John XI and basically got rid of his mother and grandmother.
Pope Benedict IX, thought to be the youngest pope ever, perhaps as young as 16, was pope three different times between the years 1032 and 1055. After his first election, he quit to get married; when he was re-elected, he sold the office to his uncle, Pope Gregory VI, only to be elected a third time and die in office at the ripe old age of 37.
Even with these few examples of popes who should not have been, we have to know that we have had far more saintly popes than not. But in looking at the history of the papacy, we have to see beyond our 21st century mindset. Up until 1870, the Vatican was a temporal nation more than it is today, so the pope was not only a spiritual leader, he was also a temporal leader. For a long period of time, the pope’s spiritual leadership made him the most important political figure in the world. Back when the whole Western world was Roman Catholic, leaders of nations would have to be approved by the pope, because in theory the spiritual took precedent over the temporal. That is why holy Roman emperors were always crowned by the pope. So if you were a king and you angered the pope, he could excommunicate you, and, in effect, your kingship would come to an end.
It is easy to understand, then, why powerful families and leaders from various countries would jockey to get their papal candidate elected to the most powerful office in the world. With power, often corruption is not far behind. At least 40 of our popes bribed their way into office; some of them are canonized saints.
All of these examples of papal problems go a long way in proving a very important point. If the pope cannot destroy the church, then no one can. The pope is the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government wrapped up in one person. The Holy Father has supreme authority in the church, and with some of the examples cited above, not to mention others, there certainly should have been a number of times in which the church collapsed. But it didn’t, and it hasn’t.
The “bad popes” are among the strongest arguments we have in making the case that the Catholic Church is divinely inspired. A little knowledge of church history makes clear that there can be no other explanation for the church’s survival.
And if all that doesn’t prove the point, it is also important to note that no pope in history has ever authoritatively taught anything contrary to the faith. None of the popes-who-should-not-have-been ever taught heresy. In fact, even some of our “bad Popes” have done some beautiful things for the spread of the Christian faith. Even though we have had many elderly popes, like Pope Agatho, who is said to have been 104 when elected and died at 107, we have never had a pope who has suffered from dementia or any other mental problems.
The bad popes have truly been good for the church. It is through them that we see most clearly that Christ is indeed with his church until the end of the age, as he promised his disciples after the resurrection.