Bad Popes, Good Religion
Staying true to my faith despite human error
God save my Franciscan education, but there has been a distressing trend in the history of our Church. Various popes in our nearly 2,000-year history have been, shall we say, far, far less than admirable? I suppose it’s a mere statistical matter that out of 265 successors to Saint Peter at least a handful would be indefensibly terrible. From the Inquisitions to burnings and the Crusades, the papacy has sponsored some of the most disgusting acts of human cruelty in recorded history.
As a recovering history major, I spend hours of my free time reading books that reflect my studies. This winter, I completed a 1969 work by historian E. R. Chamberlin entitled The Bad Popes. The book is made up of brief biographical portraits of the absolute worst of the white smoke-trumpeted. Lowlights include one pope who put his predecessor’s corpse on trial, another who murdered his lover’s husband, and Pope Boniface VIII, who is spending eternity in literary hell in the pages of Dante’s famous Inferno. Yet the centerpiece of The Bad Popes is Pope Alexander VI. If you’ve been tuning into Showtime’s The Borgias, then you already know a few things about his record. For the uninitiated, let me list some of the “fun” facts associated with him:
- He allowed the city of Rome, which he ruled, to fall into total disrepair.
- He permitted the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the New World (think Christopher Columbus, 1492) to enslave the native populations under the guise of forced conversion.
- He fathered at least seven to ten children.
- With the help of his son Cesare, Alexander imprisoned and murdered countless opponents, including cardinals.
- Upon Alexander’s death in 1503, the clergy of the Vatican refused to say a funeral mass for him, with the reasoning: “It is blasphemous to pray for the damned.”
After reading about Alexander VI and the rest of these less-than-decent popes, I fell into kind of a spiritual tailspin. Certainly Chamberlin’s book was excellent and informative, but it was also damning. How could the Holy Spirit let the Church select such awful rulers? Couple that history with the recent sex abuse scandals and my passionate disagreement with various social issues the Church espouses and I suddenly begin feeling like a big phony sitting in church every Sunday trying to determine how I can continue connecting with my faith at all.
First responder to social conflicts
After thousands of years of disgrace, how is one to stay Catholic? Many of my peers look to the recently beatified Blessed John Paul II as a source of admiration and inspiration. But for me, it takes clinging to a person I can relate to a little bit better than a pope on the road to canonization. Fortunately, one random rainy weekend I found myself watching a documentary about fellow New Yorker and Saint Bonaventure alumnus (my heart leaps at that one), Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM — a man who’s already a saint in my book.
The Franciscan friar, priest and chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, is notable for his untimely death on September 11, 2001. But he was much more than that. Born in Brooklyn, Judge spent most of his time in New York. He had been a first responder for many social conflicts that others would shy away from, including mental illness, homelessness and the AIDS epidemic. Judge ministered to the gay community who yearned for kindness during the time when the epidemic was at its peak. Ignoring many of the hardliners, he practiced the simple virtue of compassion. In the last years of his life, Judge served the proud NYC Fire Department as their humble spiritual leader. In my eyes, this man’s life serves as a powerful counterpoint to the mistakes committed by the aforementioned Church leaders. While I accept the failures of the past, I embrace the future and what it could be. I imagine a Church reborn in the style of Judge’s charisma.
I believe the most beautiful thing about the Church is its ability to make religion accessible to the masses. We have saints who appeal to almost every walk of life and are examples of pious living on earth. Fr. Mychal Judge is certainly a saint (though not officially) of my generation. We should revere the ideals of the one martyred in the trial of our time, 9/11, and reject the more close-minded opinions that can congeal around organized religion. For my own part, I’ll do my best to try to imitate his respect and passion for the rights of all people regardless of race, religion, wealth or sexual orientation.
Recently, a distressing trend has appeared in some more radical Catholic groups. Using buzz phrases like “defending the faith” and “spiritual battle,” they use hyperbole to paint the Catholic experience as a constant battle against outside forces. One of the most distressing terms I’ve come across is the insistence of some that Christians must be “soldiers” against the powers of evil. Using military terms in our personal prayer life seems to me to invoke zealotry. If any of us are on the spiritual battlefield then we should strive to be medics, simply helping heal those who request a better life, with kindness and good deeds. This is the only way for our Church to survive. We must be open and offer spiritual compassion to all groups.
The reason is simple. Catholics have a rich tradition of two thousand years. From the smell of incense to flowing liturgical robes, we are driven by the past. Our churches are filled with statues and stained glass windows of countless martyrs and holy men, who were diametrically opposed to stories like Pope Alexander VI. Yet to be an active member of any community — be it based on nationality, ethnicity or religion — one must learn about the whole past. We cannot simply put our fingers in our ears and sing “Ave Maria.” We should remember and accept the fact that the Catholic Church has done things that make our stomach churn, and even cause us shame, and then strive to honor and emulate the most arresting examples of our church’s true values, like Fr. Mychal Judge and John Paul II. Then, in what hopefully becomes a more realized and less abstract reality, we can transform into the kind of people God yearns for us to be.