Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
May 12th, 2011

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.”
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.

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.

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.

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.

The Author : Kevin Kirby
Kevin writes about running, religion and history from his home in New York City. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure and former intern at Busted Halo.
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  • Kevin K

    Thanks everyone for the kind words and thoughtful comments on my thoughts. God Bless and Go Bonnies!

  • Matt

    The history actually gives me a lot of hope. That even such bad men as some of the past popes undoubtedly were never fell into teaching error in matters of faith and morals (regardless of what was going on in their personal lives) is the best testament I can imagine to the protection of the Holy Spirit.

  • Ann

    I think that Dan is correct in that the metaphor of “battle” should not be roundly dismissed, since our Lord and his disciples used those terms. Living the Christian life is indeed a challenge and I am sure that the beloved Mychal Judge also battled life’s obstacles in order to live the gospel in the profound way that he did.
    Ed, JP II and Benedict XVI were both important advisors at Vatican II and and have committed their papacies to helping see the intended reforms. We have actually been extremely blessed with the popes of the last century.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    I keep thinking that this is just like an abusive marriage. The justifications given here seem to be like the battered wife saying, “Well, he only beats me some of the time, when he’s had a bad day or is really stressed or in a bad mood. He’s really very good to me. He didn’t mean to hit me. It’s my fault I didn’t fold his shirts right (or whatever the excuse was.)” I’d say to that woman, get to a safe house and get yourself a good lawyer; what will it take for you to see he’s not going to change? The abuse is never going to stop; quit ennabling it.

    And by the way, the religious system of the ancient Egyptians lasted way longer than 2,000 years. I guess that was protected by the Holy Spirit too, then?

  • CJM

    Your writing continues to explore thoughtful and important questions. I very much related to your sentiment about feeling like a phony while at church. Thank you for writing this, Mr. Kirby. Your loyal readers look forward to your next article.

  • Dan

    I understand your comment that we should be medics on the spiritual battlefield, but the Holy Spirit has filled the Bible and the teachings of the Church with language along the lines of “Fight the Good Fight for the true Faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). Paul writes of donning the Armor of God. This is military language and it is appropriate because we ARE in a fight against evil. To deny it is to deny the clear teaching throughout the ages. Yes, we should seek to love all as Christ has loved us, but so also should we strive to fight for our faith and defend it with all our God-given strength.

  • Steve

    The continual existence of the Catholic Church for 2000 years is perhaps the best testimony to the protections of the Holy Spirit. Even though we can probably count all the “scoundrel Popes” on our fingers (out of 265 total), the fact that none of these guys every formally taught error to the Church is amazing. Luckily they were more preoccupied with their own worldly endeavors than changing doctrine.

    Also, for those interested in Fr. Judge, I would highly recommend learning about Fr. Henri Nouwen and getting familiar with his treasure trove of spiritual works (I like “Spiritual Formation”).

  • joseph p bell

    W.Grogan and E.Thomson : well written and to the point ; Benedict has been involved with the Bush family since 1998 (Cardinal Ratzinger ) search this name ,Neil Bush and the cardinal and you will see clearly what has happened to the CHURCH . okay ? at Parish level .

  • Ed Thompson, Sr.

    Our compassionate God comes to us in our weakness, whether we are middle-class Americans or the Pope in Rome. So perfection as we define it in our Greco-Roman culture is not what God wants. He wants to meet us in our weaknesses and our uncertainties.

    I too think that Mychal Judge is a saint. The church lost its way under JPII and now Benedict in that the promises of Vatican II have been rolled back by both pontiffs. Many of my friends say that their Catholic Church ends on the parish level. Withholding donations is not the answer. Find a parish that stresses sheltering and clothing the poor. Then give locally and generously. Wait for the church leaders to catch up. They will in God’s time.

  • William Grogan

    Nice article. I won’t hold out much hope that it will do much good for those that need it the most, American cardinals and bishops. A few have been in the news recently for their very non- compassionate responses to hospital administrators or political leaders who may have different points of view regarding social issues of the day. Fr. Michael Judge was, indeed, a hero and the very epitome of a saintly person. Yet I ask myself, had he lived, how much would he be appreciated by the afore mentioned bishops and cardinals for his compassion and ministry to gays? I keep hoping for a better and more welcoming response from the church hierarchy toward gay people but only get more of the same judgmental condemnation.

  • joseph p bell

    What Father Mychal reflected and proved with his strenght and faith in GOD , it was sad indeed but inspiring . At the tenth anniversary of this tragic event , have you ever wondered about the Official story ? or ,the actions of Rudy G and his group on the morning of 911 ? If you believe what Rudy G, says about anything ,think about his personal life and marital problems This will lead you to his cowardice ways on that fateful day : On line , you can buy this book “,Covering Catastrophe “, by Alison Gilbert . Just read the quotes by Andrew Kirtzman ,NYONE reporter , who followed Rudy, Kerik ,Von Essen ,etc. has they ran away from the WTC (Father MYCHAL refusing ,of course) (rudy knew what was about to happen ) to the safety of Police Academy ,where he stayed until Pitykaki arrived and they made “wonderful :”statements ,?? and then check out the LMDC (Roland Betts ,Bush’s favorite pal ;Texas Rangers owners ) . If you can find the picture of Bush ,etal at the Cathedral in Washington (newsweek ,sept. 24 , 2001 ,library should have copy ) read the caption below the picture ,,, Any way ,,, 911 was / is an inside job . todays Boston Globe and Washington Post , Obama needs to have Mueller 2 more years in FBI directorship to help the coverup remain intact . GOD Bless .

  • Gene

    Wow – you captured much of the essence of what I have reflected upon for many years in my own journey of faith. Excellent article.

  • Helen Cameron, IBVM

    The word in your posting on Facebook should be “sordid” history. It isn’t “sorted” yet – God will do that, we hope.

  • Frank

    Yes indeed — how could the Holy Spirit allow such miscreants to be Pope? Such a statement called the entire concept of such intercession into question for me a number of years ago.

    “Faith” as an answer isn’t going to cut it as an explanation. To do so means The Holy Spirit knowingly allowed evil, and the resultant damnation of souls, to abound in God’s own institution, an institution created to help avoid such damnation.

  • Adam

    Amazing article! This highlights a very important part of my faith journey; that is reconciling a sordid (at best) past with where I hope the Church will find itself in the future. Also your comments regarding militant language in the Church is arguably one of the most distressing and important trends in Christianity today. Remember, Jesus was tortured, humiliated, and killed by soldiers. A warrior mentality is not one we should strive to emulate.

  • Jack

    Really really good Kevin. I love the Dan Berrigan S. J. Quip “the church is a whore but she ‘s my mother”. You articlesaid it for a new generation

  • Liz

    Thanks, Kirbs. I especially LOLed at the Ave Maria joke, but overall, another great piece. You are a Bonnie through and through. :-)

  • Daryl

    I enjoyed this

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