|The Pope and his curia|
medieval manuscript, Krakow
The main power brokers for a long time were the family of Counts of Tusculum. Two of the women of this family—Marozia and her mother, Theodora—prostituted themselves to different popes and schemed to put their sons and grandsons on the throne of Peter. Marozia, the younger of the two women, while still only 15 was the mistress of Pope Sergius III. Sergius seems to have been rather young himself at the time of his being made pope, and he owed the papal office to Theophylact, the Count of Tusculum and father of Marozia. Theophylact was the vestarius (treasurer) to the popes—a position which gave him access to the papal wealth. There was a lot of confusion in the papacy at this time. Leo V had been forcibly dethroned and imprisoned to be succeeded by Christopher. Modern Church historians consider Christopher an anti-pope—but as recently as the early twentieth century he had been included on the list of legitimate popes and his picture is among the papal mosaics stretching from Peter to John Paul II decorating the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. In any event, his reign was quite short as after four months Sergius III—the “boyfriend” of Marozia—drove him from office and had him imprisoned in the Castle Sant’Angelo. Both Leo and Christopher were strangled in Prison—some sources claiming that Christopher had Leo strangled and Sergius had Christopher so dispatched; others saying that Sergius ordered the murder of both in order to remove any counter-claims to his own papacy. So you’ve got a fellow who was made pope by his girl-friend’s father and who has murdered—or ordered murdered—his predecessor(s). We haven’t even begun yet. In 910 Marozia and Pope Sergius have a son who, twenty years later, will himself become pope as John XI. Sergius was long dead, of course, but Marozia was still around and engineered the election. Marozia had a long string of lovers—some sources say including one or more of the intervening popes—and several husbands. One of the husbands—Guy of Tuscany—attacked Rome where he and Marozia murdred pope John X and installed a succession of popes—Leo VI, Stephen VII, and her son by Sergius, John XI—who were no more than her puppets. When Guy died, Marozia persuaded his brother, Hugh of Arles, to abandon his wife and marry her. Alberic II, Marozia’s son by her first husband, Alberic of Spoleto, had enough of her, however, and led a rebellion, putting both her and his half-brother, Pope John XI, in prison where they were murdered. Lest you think that Alberic II was a good guy protecting the Church from all these evil people—he married his stepsister and then nominated his son to be pope. The son, at age 17, became pope in 955 as John XII. here is what was written of him:
Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi... They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins and the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.
Whoa boy, ya think ya seen it all. But wait—what happened to Theodora, the mama bear in this adorable family of adulterous murderers. (And why didn’t Sister even tell us about this in sixth-grade history?) Oh, by the way, before I go further: Pope John XII is a great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of Charlemagne—through his mother. Not that that is relevant. It isn’t. Just a little fact of history. Theodora was not idle through all this. She was a senetrix (a lady Senator) of Rome—more a title in those days than an actual position. But Lady Senators were most rare and in fact it was a title that legitimized her immense political power. Theodora was mistress to John X whom Marozia and Guy of Tuscany had killed. Was Marozia jealous of her mother’s power? Did that inspire the murder? Who knows, it is all a mess.
Some modern historians claim that the various sources (Luitprand of Cremona, the Liber Pontificalis, and other contemporary histories) portray Theodora and Marozia harshly, even falsely, because they were jealous of females exercising the political power that these women managed to wield. That could—to a certain extent—be true; all historians have bias and there are no true “facts” in history. The very tone of voice prejudices the student to the teacher’s point of view. Nonetheless, these ladies and the accompanying popes are no candidates for canonization. This period, known by the pejorative but wonderful appellation: the Pornacracy (the Rule of Whores), marks the most morally deprived period on the history of the popes. Trust me when I say that this entry has only skimmed over the murders, adulteries, sodomies, bribes, simonies, blasphemies, and only the devil knows what else that has adorned the papal throne. While great saints have sat in Peter’s chair, its history is not one of holiness. But the question arises—and it is a question not only for the tenth century—who can reform the papacy when it needs reform? What happens when the man on Peter’s throne is a depraved whoremaster? Or, even more serious, what happens when the man on Peter’s throne is only a puppet for some figure, male or female, in the shadows who has control of the Church? Don’t say it can’t happen—it has and more than once. And it may have happened much more recently than you might think. Hmmm. Very recently. The man in the window may not be the man with the power.