Monday, January 24, 2011

A Ghoulish Tale of Popes and Pimps

We will come back to the history of anti-Catholicism in America in a few days but I am anxious to return to the topic of the Pornocracy of the late ninth and tenth centuries—the moral low point of the papacy when two women, Marozia and her mother, Theodora, controlled the papacy, being each the mistress of a pope, and Theodora being the grandmother of, and Marozia the mother of a pope. But it is not the sex scandal I want to talk about today but rather I want to backpedal a bit to a particularly ghoulish episode that predates the rise of Marozia but is still part of the story, a part of the story that is a Halloween sort of tale. Just to alert you to what this will build to, this period provides the backdrop to the Pope Joan story (was there really a lady pope???) as well as the origins of the Holy Roman Empire. And there is some remote—quite remote—background to the issue of Church and State. Stay tuned, but meanwhile…

As I had mentioned in that earlier blog on the pornocracy (January 11, 2011), in the ninth and tenth centuries there was struggle among several Roman factions to gain control of the papacy, not for spiritual reasons—nobody at this point was much interested in spiritual things—but because the papacy controlled vast estates in central Italy and even as far away as Sicily, and whoever controlled the papacy had huge economic and political power not only in Rome but various parts of Italy. Popes were elected at this point by an assembly of bishops and clergy who then would present their candidate to the Roman People for their approval. The approval of the people was essential and were a candidate not to receive it, the clergy would have to choose another candidate whom they would approve. The problem was complex. The clergy could be bought or, failing that, intimidated. The people—well they often degenerated into mob rule, following the lead of whoever controlled the mob. The Dukes of Spoleto often had the upper hand in papal elections, but there was at times some opposition that managed to get another candidate elected. In 891 a distinctly unworthy candidate, Formosus (the name is Latin for “handsome”) was elected pope. He double-crossed the Spoleto faction and supported Arnulf of Carinthia for political power and influence in Italy. he died shortly after he had crowned Arnulf. Arnulf himself died shortly afterwards and before he could crush the House of Spoleto. His successor, Boniface VI, was even more unlucky, reigning only fifteen days. The Spoleto faction then managed to get their candidate, Stephen VI, elected to succeed Boniface. The year was still 896—how time flies when there is intrigue.
Now the challenge was how to make sure that the supporters of Formosus did not engineer a return to power of the anti-Spoleto faction. What the Spoleto partisans needed to do was to get everyone of Formosus’ party out of power. To that end Stephen VI convoked a synod to “try” Formosus for various irregularities including alleged simony. They exhumed the body of Formosus, dead these several months, dressed it in papal robes and seated it on the papal throne with a deacon standing alongside to answer for the now cadaverous pope. The trial was a foregone conclusion, of course. Formosus was posthumously deposed, the fingers with which he gave his blessing were cut off, his body was stripped naked and thrown in the Tiber. Moreover all the acts of his papacy were annulled—including the ordinations he had performed. This meant, of course, that the various priests and deacons and minor clerics who had served in his administration and still held their positions—and the priests and deacons with the right to vote in papal electios—were all degraded from sacred office and their positions in the papal administration. The anti-Spoleto party had been disemboweled. Once Stephen had done the work he patrons wanted him to do and eliminated the opposition, the Spoleto faction had no need of him and arranged for his murder.
Before we go on, it might be worth our while to look at the matter of annulling ordinations or declaring orders invalid. There is a long history of this in the Church going back to the various schisms and heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries when various parties would declare the sacramental system of their opposition “invalid.” There were at the time no criteria for this procedure and it seems to have been more of a polemical tool of one faction to weaken the authority of another. In later times it might have been connected with simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices), the alleged simony invalidating the ordination because of various canons that declared simoniacs ineligible for office. It was sometimes alleged that heretical opinions of the ordinand, the ordaining prelate, or the community for which the candidate was being ordained, invalidated the Orders, but then the issue is is "what is heresy?" Certainly denial of the Trinity, or of the two natures in the one Person of Christ qualify as heresy, but is all theological difference a matter of heresy? How far does one have to depart from “orthodoxy” to be a heretic? What doctrines are open for difference of opinion, which are not? If this were simply a matter of theology, perhaps the knot could be undone, but history makes it a very complex issue as there has not been consistent practice on this issue over the centuries. To the historian it seems that validity of Orders is usually a question of polemics that disguises its malicious intent as substantive doctrinal points. Perhaps this topic is worth looking at in more detail in the future as the practice of declaring invalid the orders of one faction by another became a very serious issue at the Reformation and indeed remains a serious issue and block to Ecumenism.
In any case, Stephen’s successor, Romanus, was deposed by one or another Roman faction (read: mob) after only three months. His successor, Theodore II—the son of the once-schismatic Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius(and we have a story there) reigned only 20 days, but in those 20 days managed to annul the Cadaver Synod and restore Formosus to the list of popes, reburying his body and re-instating his clergy. His successor, John IX, reigned two years and confirmed Theodore’s restoration of Formosus. Benedict IV reigned three years, 900-903. His successor, Leo V was deposed and murdered by anti-pope Christopher who, in turn, was turn murdered by his successor, Sergius III. Sergius was the gentleman friend of Marozia—and thus we are into the pornacracy. Sergius, by the way, annulled the decisions of Theodore II and John IX and reinstated the decisions of the Cadaver Synod. He was, of course, tied into the Spoleto faction; his mistress, Marozia, was the fifteen-year-old daughter of the leader of the Spoleto party, Theophylact, Count of Tusculum. Sergius was the first pope, if not to wear the triregnum, the papal tiara (which at this point had only a single crown) to be depicted wearing it.
Here we see popes being deposed, exhumed, annulled, murdered, pimped, and almost any combination of the above. As one can image the papacy had no moral credibility at this period and it was a low point not only of papal morals but of papal authority. The papacy has had its ups and its downs; it did not always have the moral authority or actual power it has exercised in the twentieth century under men like Benedict XV, Pius XI or Pius XII. Bishops beyond the reach of papal authority—and that was most bishops in Europe of what was developing into both Eastern and Western Churches—governed their own dioceses without any reference to the papacy except—perhaps—the occasional prayer in the liturgical litanies where his name might be mentioned. There would be other episodes where papal power waned—the fourteenth century, for example—but it never waned as greatly as this period of the ninth and tenth centuries. There would be episodes as lurid—or even worse (just wait until we talk about the Banquet of the Chestnuts and the Borgias)—but not as prolonged and not as fundamentally corrupt. There is more than one lesson here and some of them are very profound, but let’s just take this one from the Cadaver Synod: the Office is only as respectable (I won’t say “holy”) as the man who holds it, and the Church is (historically) only as holy as its members.
the image today is the Jean-Paul Laurens depiction of the Cadaver Synod.

No comments:

Post a Comment