Dodgy Popes

How many of the 264 popes, from St Peter to John Paul II, have been corrupt?

Only a very small number of Popes were guilty of serious moral lapses. The vast majority were good men. Most Popes of the Early Church died martyrs and 85 have been canonised Saints.

Surely the sinfulness of even one pope proves that the Catholic Church cannot be true?

The fact that some Popes were wicked in their private lives is no argument against the truth of the Catholic Church, any more than immoral conduct by a policeman is an argument against the goodness of having a police force. In fact, it is an argument for the reliability of the Church since it continued during the reign of those unworthy Popes to teach faithfully the truths handed down by Christ and the Apostles and suffered no lasting harm from the immoral conduct of a tiny percentage of its leaders.

Corrupt popes prove that the Catholic Church cannot be infallible.

Infallibility doesn't mean the Pope can't sin. Nor does it mean he cannot make a mistake when talking about Church discipline or non-religious matters such as: science, politics, diplomacy or economics. In none of these examples has any pope ever claimed to speak infallibly.

But doesn't the best-selling book The Davinci Code disprove the infallibility of the popes?

No, in fact it contains many distortions of Christian history. Eg, it contradicts its own sources by disregarding the overwhelming evidence that the king of France (Philip the Fair) and, not the Pope (Clement V), was the chief villain behind the destruction of the Knights Templar in 1307.

Have there been Popes who have held wrong theological ideas and made them public?

Yes, in fact, in the deliberations of Vatican I in 1870 (the council which defined the dogma of papal infallibility), the papal investigators found 41 instances in history where Popes embraced or taught errors in theology. But, on NONE of those occasions was the Pope teaching infallibly.

Has any pope ever taught infallibly and was later found to be in error?

No, never. It is one thing to hold an erroneous theological opinion and to air it publicly, but it is quite another thing to teach something infallibly that was later found to be wrong. At no time in the Church's 2,000 year old history has any pope or council ever taught infallibly on a matter of faith or morals anything that had to be revoked.

But the popes have only made 2 infallible teachings in the last 2,000 years!

Not true. In addition to the Immaculate Conception 1854 and the Assumption 1950, others include: the invalidity of Anglican ordination 1896, and all canonisations are infallible. Also, General Councils have infallibly defined doctrines regarding: the Trinity, angels, grace, Original Sin, redemption, the two natures of Christ, Sacraments, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

What of Paul V and Urban VIII who condemned Galileo; and Liberius and Honorius?

The conditions required for an infallible decision were not present in any of these cases.

What about Pius XII and his support of the Nazis?

Pius XII never supported the Nazis. He did the opposite. He spearheaded an effort to rescue Jews from the Nazis that included hiding them in his own residence. He exhausted his personal fortune rescuing Jews. Newspapers of the day reported his repeated condemnations of Nazism. Former Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide estimated that Pius XII saved 860,000 Jews from death. The Israeli delegate to the UN, Golda Meir said that Pius XII "raised his voice to condemn" the Nazis. In converting to Catholicism, Rome's chief rabbi in WWII chose Pius XII's name Eugene.

What about Pope Joan?

There is no legitimate place in the history of the Popes for her supposed pontificate. Those who concocted the legend could not at first even agree on a name for her. The period of Church history from Nicholas I (d. 867) to John XII (d. 963) was one of the worst in history. The pontificates of most of the Popes in this period were very short. They passed so fleetingly that little is known of them, and it is in this period that the fiction of 'Pope Joan' is set.

Who were the corrupt popes?

In the Dark Ages John XII gave moral scandal and Benedict IX resigned to get married and then tried to regain the papacy later as anti-pope. In the Renaissance Alexander VI had a mistress while he was Pope and brought his illegitimate children to the Vatican. Pope Julius II was a talented general and skilled diplomat, but he had no interest in spiritual matters except insofar as he could use them to achieve his political aims. Pope Leo X was worldly and materialistic, he condemned the errors of Luther, but did nothing to provide the Church with the reforms it needed.

Surely there were more dodgy popes than that?

Other Popes could be mentioned who had a chequered career, but it would not be fair to call them all corrupt since they often repented of their previous immoral actions before becoming Pope. For example, Vigilius and Sergius III were probably both involved in the murders of their predecessors before becoming Pope. But, Vigilius, once Pope, repented of his previous misconduct and actually suffered imprisonment for almost all of his pontificate because he refused to teach heresy. And Sergius, similarly, left behind a good reputation in spite of unfounded and scandalous gossip while he was Pope.

What other popes let the Church down?

No Pope has ever really let the Church down, because, on God's authority, we have it that the powers of Hell will never overwhelm the Church. However, a number of other Popes let themselves down and acted weakly or indecisively in matters of diplomacy and Church discipline. But again, as in all other cases, Papal infallibility remained intact.

What was the darkest episode in the history of the papacy?

There have been many low points in the history of the Popes. Perhaps the worst moment was the 'Synod of the Corpse' when Pope Stephen II had the dead body of Pope Formosus (d. 896) exhumed and seated on a chair to be judged by an assembly. All of Formosus' misdeeds, real or imagined, were recalled and he was judged guilty but, later, Pope Stephen was himself imprisoned and killed. Popes Theodore II and John IX sought to clear Formosus' name and annulled and condemned the entire proceedings of the 'Synod of the Corpse'. Since no doctrinal pronouncements of any kind were involved, even this dark moment cannot be used to disprove the infallibility of the Papacy.

What was the closest call regarding Papal Infallibility and list other common misconceptions?

Pope Sixtus V was responsible for a revised version of the Latin Vulgate that contained many errors. He was on the verge of formally promulgating the botched version. But then he died.

Popes have been rebuked by other Catholics ever since St Paul rebuked the first Pope, St Peter. But at no time has any rebuke disproven papal primacy. The so-called '666 papal crown " Vicarius Filii Dei' has never existed. Many Catholic and Protestant Scripture scholars have leaned towards identifying Jerusalem (and not Rome) as the 'whore of Babylon' mentioned in Revelation. While the Apostles did allow for the ancient form of slavery, they didn't necessarily approve of the practice; it was a cultural reality they had to tolerate. In fact, every papal statement on slavery has always vigorously condemned the practice. The Inquisitions cannot discredit papal infallibility because all of them fall into the realm of Church discipline. No Pope is infallible in matters of discipline.


With Popes such as these, it is easy to see how people forget that Christ made a careful distinction between the powers He gave the head of His Church and the morality of the Pope himself. That is one of the reasons why Christ had chosen the Apostle who denied Him to be the first Pope. God chose St Peter (Matt 16:18) to show that Christ would protect the Church even when the Pope acted wrongly. The Papacy is the only institution which has survived all the vast social and political changes and revolutions in the life and government of Europe since the days of the Roman Emperors. It has survived in spite of persecution and political intrigue; in spite of heresy and schism amongst its subjects; in spite of the worldliness and the weakness or incompetence of some of the Popes. Such a survival is miraculous. The Papacy, and the Church over which it presides, must therefore be the work of God.

Carroll, W, The Glory of Christendom & The Building of Christendom; Carroll, A, Christ the King Lord of History; Drummey, Catholic Replies; Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine; Walsh, M, The Popes; Daughters of St Paul, Your Right to be Informed; Sungenis, R, Creationism, Pope John Paul II & the Case Against Theistic Evolution; Madrid, Pope Fiction; McInerny, The Defamation of Pius XII; Olson,

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.