By Antonio Lombatti
Università Popolare, Parma, Italy
Following up on my first op-ed on the mandatory celibacy of priests (Mandatory Celibacy of Priests: A Fertile Source of Impurity), I’d like to give you an idea on some of the popes who were trying to enforce celibacy on the clergy in the Middle Ages.
When sons and wives of married presbyters and bishops started to inherit the properties and goods of the Church, the battle to require celibate priests started to become stronger and stronger.
Despite centuries of vain efforts, in the IXth century the situation of the clergy was still the same as it had been for centuries. Along with the fact that ecclesiastical authorities could no longer tolerate the loss of its properties, the church wanted to create a Western religious identity, which had to be different, at least partially, from the Byzantine church where the clergy could still get married legally.
However, the example coming from Rome was really disgusting. To be fair, the IXth and Xth centuries were probably the worst years for the church. Pontifical palaces had been turned into brothels and there were even popes with known concubines, lovers and sons. This period has been rightly defined as the time of “papal pornocracy”. The popes, according to medieval chroniclers and a Catholic historian such as Cesare Baronio, were under the influence of corrupt women. A godless world was asking its priests not to marry.
Even the most traditional Catholic historians have to acknowledge the depravity of the men who sat on Peter’s throne. Stories of corruption and infamy, which turned the Church into a ridiculous institution in the eyes of the chroniclers of the time, abound. This period can be set between 757 and 1046. Priests were educated without any theological formation. Those who had ecclesiastical power: bishops, cardinals and popes, were inclined to appoint sons or nephews even if they were almost illiterate persons without a specific cultural Christian background.
Popes in those years were mainly brutal, ignorant and licentious. Pope Adrian I’s (772-795) relatives, trying to perpetuate their control over the pontifical throne, wanted to blind and kill the hated pope Leo III. He was forced to run away and found shelter with Charles the Great. Also the successor of pope Leo III, Stephen V, had to escape from Rome.
Pascal I died in 824 after having been accused of various atrocities and also of murder. Pope Stephen VI’s (896-897) pontificate was so incredible that it is almost impossible to find similar cases in the ecclesiastical annals. Among his many wickednesses, he exhumed the body of pope Formosus, ripped his papal vestments up, put him naked on a throne, and accused him of having become pope thanks to a philogermanic party. Stephen amputated the right hand fingers used to bless the faithful and threw them into the Tiber. The pope’s depravation angered the Romans who captured and strangled him. Nobody was surprised to see pope Adrian II living with his wife, Stephania, and their daughter in the Lateran Palace in 870.
Could it get any worse than this? Yes, it could. The new century was opening under the influence of three women, a whore and her two daughters. For about 50 years, their loves and their manipulations reached up to the top rungs of the church. They belonged to the Teofilatto family: the mother, Theodora, and her daughters Marozia and Theodora.
Marozia was so powerful that she was given the title of “senator” of Rome. She placed on Peter’s throne at least three popes. She was the lover of pope Sergius III and she succeeded in electing one of their sons as the new pope: Anastasius III (911-913). Then, she became the lover of a cardinal, the future pope John X (914-928). Finally, she imposed another son she had had with Sergius III as the new pope, John XI (931-935).
In 985, Bonifacius VII had thrown into prison his predecessor, pope John XIVth, and allowed him to starve to death in jail. This and other wickednesses done by Bonifacius, gave rise to a popular rebellion. The faithful caught him, cut his body into pieces and brought them into the streets of Rome. In short, these popes kept on asking their clergy not to marry. Who could ever follow the rules on celibacy with such examples as these?
Some priests continued to marry, as the historians inform us, and others lived with concubines. As well, some of the charges against the clergy relating to sodomy and child abuse have also reached us. Still in 1480, pope Sixtus IVth had a relationship with a 12-year-old boy. In 1490, pope Innocent VIIIth appointed his son cardinal at the age of 13. Also pope Julius II had a love affair with a teen. The clergy were forced to keep their male or female partners secret, because, after the Reformation, the Vatican could no longer tolerate that such charges were public and could be used against Rome by Lutherans and Calvinists. So, in 1542, pope Paul III established the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, and Paul VIth, in 1559, ordered that all cases of sexual abuses in the Church had to silenced and discussed only at the Holy Office tribunal.
It was a way out for the church to conceal any news about clerical abuses and deal with them only in the jurisdictional space of an ecclesiastical court. The reason of this measure was bright clear: Luther had not only burnt the excommunication bull, but the whole corpus of canon law, that he judged to be one of the walls on which the clergy sat above the Christian people.
In the centuries to follow, the Catholic church reiterated the superiority of the clergy and kept its canon law and the privilege of the tribunal for dealing with its depraved priests. So, confirming mandatory celibacy, the church prepared a comfortable shelter for those who infringed upon it, and for those accused of child abuse. Since the Middle Ages, and for centuries, clerical trials for “sollicitatio” have been hidden behind the impenetrable secrecy of the Holy Office, while guilty priests were simply moved from one parish to another in order to defend the good name of the church.
So, after Boston and the judicial proceedings in that city of 2002, for the first time ever, the sexual lives of the clergy have been openly discussed. Victims, after years of pain and suffering, simply want to see clerical pedophilia rooted out. But to root it out, one needs to prevent its cause. In my opinion, this cause can be found in the history of the invention of mandatory celibacy in the Christian church, which is contrary to both the Old and the New Testaments.
I’m sure that Dr. Lombatti, being Italian, is well aware of the most modern scholarship on the so called ‘papal pornocracy’ (Fedele, De Falco, Arnaldi, Morghen among many others) so I’m also sure that he knows very well the partiality of the source that tell us those events: a German pro-imperial source (when the emperor wanted to appoint the popes) that take his informations coincidentally from the Roman party adverse to these popes. No serious historian today would write about these stories without informing us about the bias of the source. Similarly any modern historian is well aware that when you find in history powerful and capable women the first method to discredit them is to accuse them to have acquired such power only because of their licentiousness and bad habits (calling them ‘corrupt women’ or even ‘whores’), a misogynist vision that should have no place in modern research, a research that should indeed denounce these methods and not to avail them taking as true what they say.
For the rest of the article I can not understand how to reconcile the alleged secrecy imposed by the popes mentioned by Dr. Lombatti with the fact that dozens of religious people were burned at the stake for sexual abuses: in those days there was nothing less secret than the burning at the stake where verdicts and motivations were read aloud to the people who crowded the streets.
#1 - domenico - 06/10/2013 - 10:07
Domenico, thanks for your comment. All bibliographical references and the historiographical debate on this dark centuries of the Church are given in my forthcoming book, which, I'm sure, you're going to buy!
#2 - Antonio Lombatti - 06/10/2013 - 15:49
For many centuries, both of Catholic and of Protestant domination, English opinion has had a very soft spot for Thomas Becket who resisted King Henry II in the name of Church jurisdiction over Church matters, including the matter of 'criminous clerks'. We have a tradition stretching all the way from Chaucer to the famous Richard Burton film and beyond. If we reconfigured Becket to imagine him as determined protector of priests with a shady sexual record a whole chapter of English culture would have to be rewritten.
#3 - Martin - 06/14/2013 - 19:06