Corrupt Popes


I want to talk about the subject of corrupt popes, because it bothers so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. One popular perception is that all the popes of the Middle Ages were corrupt: they killed people, had mistresses, had children out of wedlock, and started the crusades. And then some Catholics add, “That’s why I left the Catholic Church.”

Whenever someone accuses you of something the first thing to do is to find out the facts. Just go through the list of accusations quickly. Have there been bad popes? Unfortunately, yes, and it’s terrible and scandalous. But how many? Of the 266 popes, not all of them have been holy. The Church only recognizes about 30% of them as saints. So, we’re not out to prove they’re all saints. But they’re not all bad either. In fact, there have only been about 10 corrupt popes, which is 3.7%. Yes, some did kill, some had mistresses and children. And St. John Paul II apologized for the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade of 1204. So, where does that leave us? 3.7% are corrupt, 30% are outstanding and the rest are somewhere in between. Those are the facts, both good and bad.

St Paul and Gorbachev

Pope John Paul II meets Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

It’s also a fact that our modern popes have been amazing. Pope Francis is certainly a man of God. Pope Emeritus Benedict, even though he got bad press, is a holy man. St. John Paul II helped bring down communism. Pope John Paul I and St. John XXIII were holy men, and Pius XII, even though he’s been heavily criticized, saved more Jewish people than anyone else during WWII (Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, 110).

Listen to this: “The debate is over. Those who attack Pius XII still do not have a shred of documented evidence to support their claims. They base their theories on the books and research of historical revisionists whose research is weak and faulty… There is no question that Pope Pius XII was a hero to the Jewish people… It was Pius XII who acted deliberately and directly to save Jewish lives and he did so from ground zero of the war in Italy. The Vatican was infiltrated by spies and surrounded by hostile forces. The Catholic Church… acted to save more Jews than all of the world’s religious leaders combined. This fact is inexcusable as many of these leaders lived in the safety of neutral nations, in the US and the UK, for example.” This is coming from a Jewish man of New York, Gary Krupp, who founded an organization dedicated to breaking down barriers between religions.


Venerable Pope Pius XII

So why do some people like to discredit the popes and circulate misinformation? I suppose it’s because if you can discredit the popes, then you can discredit their teachings. Many people don’t like our teachings on abortion, sexuality, etc. And, for some Catholics, there’s a more personal reason. I once asked a man, “Why don’t you come to church more often?” He said it’s because life’s busy, sometimes you get lazy, and then you hear from the media about the bad things the Church does. I thanked him for being so honest. But that makes sense: if we can discredit the popes and the Church, then maybe we don’t have to go to Mass on Sundays, we don’t have to follow all of the Church’s teachings. We’ll use these as excuses to justify our behaviour.

Every pope has been a sinner, and always will be. Today, we hear in the gospel that two of the first bishops, James and John, were seeking glory for themselves, and the other ten got mad at them. We see their humanity and sinfulness, just like we see it in bishops today. But did Jesus get rid of them? Eleven out of twelve betrayed Him at the Cross, but did Jesus take away their authority? Jesus still chose them to be leaders in His Church. Why? For the same reason that Jesus chooses all of us to be Christian: He calls sinners. Just because we’re Christian doesn’t mean we’re perfect. We aim for it, but don’t always get there.

I mentioned it last year: there’s no such thing as a perfect church; if you find a perfect church, go join it; it won’t be perfect anymore. Just as all of us are sinners, so are all bishops, priests and deacons. If people lost authority because they were sinners, parents would have no authority, neither would teachers.

For me, the Catholic Church is bigger than the pope. He’s a necessary part and I will always follow papal teaching, but the Church is about Jesus, not about the pope. Corrupt popes bother me, but don’t shake my faith in Jesus, the Church or in the teaching authority of the pope.

Let me clarify an important teaching: Catholics believe the Pope can teach infallibly, but this does not mean we think that popes don’t sin. Of course, they do. They go to Confession like we do, and the first pope, St. Peter, clearly sinned. What papal infallibility means is that the Holy Spirit will prevent the Pope from teaching something wrong when it comes to faith and morals and only when he intends to teach infallibly, which he doesn’t always do.

Pope Francis Confession

Pope Francis confessing his sins.

GesupietrochiaveSo when the pope gives an interview, he can say things that are right or wrong, because he could be merely stating an opinion. But, when he teaches about something related to faith and morals (not just any subject matter) and intends for Catholics to believe this definitively, we believe the Holy Spirit will protect him from teaching error. These are extremely limited parameters of infallibility. Jesus Himself gave this infallibility when He said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18) Without infallibility, we’d have no absolute way of knowing what Jesus is teaching us and the powers of death would prevail over us. As evidence for this, keep in mind that those ten bad popes never taught anything wrong. Why? They were too busy sinning to teach anything!

Quick parentheses: if we want to know what’s official Church teaching, then go to an official document like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or look for official documents like encyclicals or Apostolic Letters. Here is a list of papal documents which explain the different levels of authority of papal documents.

There’s a beautiful story told by Dante about a Jewish businessman from Paris named Abraham. I’ll paraphrase it to make the point more clear. His Catholic friend wants Abraham to become Catholic, so Abraham says, “I want to go to Rome first to see the pope.” His friend tries to dissuade him from going, because, if he goes, he’ll see all the bad things Catholics in Rome do, especially the clergy. But he goes anyway. When he comes back, he says, “Okay, I’m ready to be baptized.” And his friend asks, “You still want to become Catholic after all you saw?” The Jewish man says, “Yes. When I went to Rome, I saw so many bad things done by Catholics, and I realized that the pope and those around him are actually working against the Christian faith! The fact that this church hasn’t failed is a sign that it must be guided by God.” 

That’s a good point. The Catholic Church does a tremendous amount of good in the world. At the same time, we’re full of problems. If you ran a business as badly as our church is sometimes run, you would go out of business in a year. It’s amazing that we’ve survived and thrived for 2,000 years.

FulwilerI’ve told you before about Jennifer Fulwiler. She was born an atheist but started getting interested in religion, then Christianity, and then Catholicism. She started getting interested in 2002 when the clergy sex abuse scandal was erupting in the US. She knew the media coverage was biased, and many people were portraying all bishops and priests as corrupt men. (From Atheism to Catholicism, Track 9, 4:14). But that only served to make her more interested in the Church. She says, “I thought, if even part of what they’re saying is true, it only makes this church more interesting, because corrupt people are always the first to sell out; immoral, power-hungry men are always the first to do whatever the people in power want them to do, so that they can get more power for themselves. And so, if it were true, that the Church were filled with corrupt and sinful people, it only makes it harder to explain how it has been doing what it’s been doing for the past 2,000 years. And I realized I had found what I was looking for: people cannot pull off something like this on their own. I simply didn’t give humans enough credit, and I realized I see the fingerprints of God. I don’t think that this church could do what it has been doing for the past 2,000 years by human power alone. I see divine intervention here, and I have found the fingerprints of God.”

If we’re so corrupt, then why don’t we change our teachings to make us more popular? Many people want us to change our teaching on homosexuality, divorce, contraception, male-only priesthood, celibacy. If we’re all corrupt, and just want power, then why not give in to popular demands? Because we’re prevented by God from giving in. And that’s a tremendous gift of God

There are three things we can all do:

1) Don’t let the sins of some clerics be an excuse to leave the Church. I’ll put it another way: is our faith in Jesus based on men? Is our faith in the Church, the Mass, and the Eucharist based on some priests? Please remember this phrase: don’t leave Peter because of Judas. Don’t leave the rock on which Jesus built His Church because of a traitor. 

2) How many of us pray for the Pope every week? Archbishop Miller? We all do, every Sunday. Because, from ancient times, the Church has always prayed for the pope and the local bishop during the Eucharistic prayer. I pray it out loud, and you’re invited to silently join your prayers to mine as I pray on your behalf.

3) Defend the popes against unfair criticism, and the key word is unfair. If it’s fair criticism, then we accept it. I once had dinner with Uncle Joe (whose name has been altered to protect his identity!). He told me how Pope Benedict is power hungry, was weak on abuse, and is trying to maintain power. I was happy to listen to Uncle Joe and I said, “Uncle Joe, if you want to talk about problems in the Catholic Church, I’ll talk about them; there are lots of them! But what you just said is factually wrong. Pope Benedict was not power hungry; he was the first pope in 600 years to resign from the papacy; he willingly gave up his power. He was not weak on abuse; in fact, he tightened things up. And he is maintaining zero power because he doesn’t influence Pope Francis one bit. Pope Francis is a big boy, and obviously is making decisions that Pope Benedict would not have made.” If people criticize our popes, then make sure they’re being factually correct. If they’re not, then please defend the Holy Father.

Jesus says today, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” Eleven out of twelve apostles did this: they grew in holiness and died for Jesus. And, thank God, Pope Francis is doing this today. Even if the Church were completely guided by corrupt men, that wouldn’t show the Church is wrong, but show she’s guided by something greater.Pope_Francis_Feet