The Papal Throne in the Pope's
Cathedral, the Basilica of Saint John
Lateran--at the time of Gregory VI
the popes lived in a palace adjoining
the Lateran Basilica.
Benedict was a pretty dissolute character—but hey, he is at that age where hormones are raging. Nineteen-year-old popes are not a good idea. In the Liber Gomorrhianus Peter Damian called him a “demon in the mask of a priest.” He did not let his being an active homosexual get in the way of the occasional heterosexual adultery or rape and allegedly was responsible for more than one murder. But then boys will be boys.
Fortunately, Benedict IX did not want to be pope—at least not at that time in his life. (He would become a problem, like a bad penny he kept turning up in the papal chair—three terms but we will save that story for later. At this point he wanted out, but he had no money. He may not have wanted to be pope but frankly he needed the job. Along came his godfather with a solution that appeared to be a win/win scenario—win/win for Benedict, for the godfather, and for the Church. Unfortunately they overlooked two details—one was Benedict’s character and the other was the godfather’s naiveté.
The godfather was a priest by the name of John Gratian. You have to be careful because there is more than one Gratian in the history of the Church and several of these Gratians are named John. This one was the Archpriest of the Church of Saint John at the Latin Gate. That church still stands today. Gratian was a canon lawyer and a pious man but he lacked some discretion. He suggested that if Benedict resigned the papacy in his (Gratian’s) favor, he (Gratian) would make sure that the young man would have sufficient means for a life of comfort and ease. (He didn’t say debauchery, but if you have money debauchery is cheap.) Thus Gratian became Gregory VI. The new pope did not want power, he wanted to reform the Church.
The reform party was delighted with this deal—the papacy was now in the hands of a reform minded pope and both Peter Damian and the monk Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII for whom the Gregorian Reform is named, were ecstatic. But there was a problem and the problem is that technically Gratian had bought the papacy from Benedict and thus was guilty of simony. Many of the clergy resented—or actually actively opposed Gregory’s reform program, especially regarding celibacy and forbidding the clergy to engage in the political strife that was responsible for all the fighting over the papacy that had almost destroyed the Church over the last two centuries. They were quick to bring charges of simony against their bishops. Complicating this was the fact that Benedict soon came to regret having given up the papacy and tried to reassume it. Complicating it even further, there was a third claimant to the papal throne, one Sylvester, who had been the Crescentii family candidate chosen for the papacy at a time when the Roman mob had forced the young Benedict to flee Rome, and thus, according to some, forfeited the papacy. It was a mess—three popes and two of them no good whatsoever. The Emperor Henry III came down to Italy and convoked a synod at Sutri that recognized Gregory as the authentic pope and declared Benedict and Sylvester to have no legitimate claims to the papacy. That same synod, though it acknowledged Gregory as legitimate pope, also told him that because he had bought the papacy he did not in fact have the moral authority to govern the Church and that he should resign. A good man, he did. Henry’s candidate for the job, now that it was open, was a German by the name of Suidger of Morsleben and Hornburg and he was elected Clement II. It’s good to have an emperor for your campaign manager—it more or less guarantees success. Especially if the Emperor has an army sitting by watching. Clement too was an ardent reformer and continued Gregory VI’s program of Reform with the power of the Emperor to back him up. Gregory went into exile in Germany where he died. He was accompanied in exile by his chief supporter, the monk Hildebrand. Remember him. He is the key player in this reform.
What we see here is that a good pope is not necessarily a good man and a bad pope is not necessarily a bad man. We also see that sometimes in history good popes have come to power in sinful ways—either through naiveté or an ends-justifies-the-means desire to do good for the Church. Of course we also see that some popes have led very immoral lives and that does not mean that they are not true popes. We see too that one of the key needs that the Church had in the central Middle Ages was to free the papacy from mob control and we see that in an effort to do this the papacy actually became beholden to the Emperor. In fact, the papacy ended up in the gift of the Emperors who had the power, if not the authority, to name popes or force them to resign. And we see that a man, even a good man, may be pope but still lacks the actual moral authority to give the Church the leadership it needs. Popes may be, under certain restricted circumstances, infallible but they are never about the ability to make some very crucial errors in judgment, much less are they ever unable to sin. Beneath the robes and triple crown is a very ordinary man. Wisdom, much less sainthood, does not go automatically with the papal office.