Crisis and Catholic Monarchs, Part I

News: Commentary
by Phillipe Champlain  •  •  November 17, 2021   

What can laity do?

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Christ the King of Kings will win in the end. "The Gates of Hell will not prevail" over His Church (Matthew 16:18).

Ven. Abp. Fulton Sheen

Over the last two millennia, Catholic monarchs — kings, queens, emperors, and empresses — have served an important role in keeping the Roman Catholic Church on track.

Tragically, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the eradication of other Catholic monarchies throughout Europe, the pope and the College of Cardinals no longer have any legitimate challengers to remove a bad bishop, cardinal or pope — or any combination thereof of subpar prelates. 

Decades ago, Ven. Abp. Fulton Sheen said, "It is up to the laity to reform the Church." When Sheen said this in 1972, the Church was considerably healthier and visibly more intact than it is now. But Sheen said this with conviction, seeing the Church's dissolution as the trajectory to which the Church was careening!

It is up to the laity to reform the Church.

Sheen, fully cognizant of the Church's long history, knew that without a Catholic monarch — with no emperor, no king and no queen to assist in righting the Barque of Peter — only the laity remained to assist clerics in righting the floundering Church. Sheen was certainly insightful; may God give the faithful remnant the courage and knowledge now to stand up and help right the ship before it founders even more.

The 'Papal Pornocracy'

The 2,000-year history of the Church is far from boring! And it's miraculous how the Church survived at all of these many years given the depravity and moral abandon of its prelates during certain periods. Take, for example, the 300-year period sometimes called "The Papal Pornocracy." You might think the term coined to describe this nadir of the Church is a little over the top. But then you get into the gory details and see the phrase hardly describes the depth of depravity to which the hierarchy had succumbed!

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A. Burt Horsley describes the period of Papal Pornocracy in his book Peter and the Popes:

As we turn to a general history of this period, beginning about the middle of the eighth century and continuing into the 11th, we discover years of endless disorder, almost three centuries of continuous invasion, war, rapine and destruction. Those who lived in this period were frequently victims of the great compelling forces which worked together to produce the kind of environment and the general atmosphere of impiety. The integrity of the ecclesiastical system had generally collapsed of its own internal rot.

Perhaps the absolute low point during this period of grave depravity on the part of the hierarchy was when the dead Pope Formosus was dug up by his successor Stephen VI (896–897) and tried posthumously and then dumped into the Tiber. As Horsely succinctly recounts in his book:

The sinister reign of Stephen VI (VII) 896–897, was characterized by actions and events so sadistic, so macabre, that it is difficult to discover their equal in the annals of the most corrupt secular history, much less reconcile such things with the tradition of the Church. Stephen had the body of Formosus dug up after nine months in the grave, an act of contempt against Formosus and his defiled priesthood. The rotted corpse, dressed in the papal vestments, was trussed up on a throne and tried on various charges. The three fingers of the right hand used to gesture the blessing of the bishop of Rome were cut off and the body first thrown into the river and then ignominiously buried. The indignant populace of Rome joined supporters of Formosus in protest against Stephen, who was incarcerated and strangled.

The terms nadir and pornocracy (both used above) do not quite prepare a man unfamiliar with the Church's history for the depths of depravity to which successors of the Petrine Office had descended.

Bad Bishop Merits Meddling?

But the good news is that in time, God would move men to restore the papacy maligned during the period of the pornocracy. The most notable of these men was Emperor Otto I, who would forcibly intervene to remove the boy Pope John XII from the throne of Peter.

Pope John XII

Octavianus, the son of Alberic II (Rome's ruler from 932–954), had been placed on the Petrine throne Dec. 16, 955 at the age of 18, taking the throne name of John XII. John XII is recorded in the Patrologica Latina for numerous infractions during his short pontificate. Some of the most nefarious include fornication; making the Lateran essentially a brothel; blinding his confessor (who subsequently died); taking money to ordain bishops; ordaining a 10-year-old to be a bishop; as well as many other indiscretions.

In 951, Otto I invaded Italy and took control of the hodgepodge of city-states that comprised Italy at the time — including Rome. Otto I at first left the boy pope on the throne of Peter, but as Horsley cites in Peter and the Popes:

The emperor Otto I passed off lightly earlier reports of irregularities in the behavior of this pope with the remark, "The pope is still almost a child who is easily led astray. The example of honest men will make him better" (Benham 1:224–25). He eventually changed his opinion of John and called an ecclesiastical synod in November 963 to investigate the numerous charges brought against the pope. Pope John XII was indicted for simony in the sale of several bishoprics, incest and adultery in the Lateran Palace, blinding a priest and castrating a deacon, witchcraft, insobriety and squandering away the treasury of St. Peter in wagering and gambling. Forced from the throne, he returned eventually to seek revenge against his successor and his supporters. He died as a consequence of a beating received at the hands of a cuckold husband whose wife he had debauched.

John XII's successor Benedict V was only marginally better as a pontiff. But with Otto I firmly in control of the Holy Roman Empire, the precedent was established of the emperor calling a synod of bishops to depose a notorious pope and oust openly scandalous bishops.

Lay Investiture Controversy

In subsequent centuries, other Christian monarchs would intervene extensively in Church affairs and depose bishops they and their suffrages disliked. This intrusion on the part of Christian monarchs in the affairs of the Church came to a head in the 10th century between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. This intrusion or control of the internal affairs of the Church on the part of a king or other secular authority is now known as the lay investiture controversy.

Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII

In retrospect, little would be settled of this controversy in the lifetimes of either Emperor Henry IV or Pope Gregory VII. When Gregory VII died, he did so in exile in Salerno. In 1085, Pope Gregory VII had fled Rome to avoid being harmed by its citizenry. And in that same year, Emperor Henry IV exercised total control of the Holy Roman Empire; but Henry IV's venture into running the affairs of the Church, calling synods, deposing and elevating anti-popes and so forth was quashed.

Moreover, subsequent popes on Peter's throne would continue to assert their authority in the selection of bishops, abbots and abbesses. In 1606, Pope Gregory VII was canonized a saint by the Church with the Feast day of May 25 — symbolizing the lay investiture controversy was ended once and for all time.

Military Orders Marred

Another strange demonstration of a Catholic monarch asserting control over Church affairs would play out in 1307 with the dissolution of the military orders of the Church by Pope Clement V at the bidding of King Phillip IV of France.

Christian monarchs would intervene extensively in the affairs of the Church and depose bishops they and their suffrages disliked.

Modern historians cite vast wealth as the downfall of the military orders who invented modern banking. Centuries later it's hard, if not impossible, to determine what motivated both King Phillip IV and Pope Clement V to dissolve the most wealthy order within the Church, the Knights Templar. At the time, individual superiors in this order were tried and convicted for numerous crimes. As cited by Mark Cartwright in his article Knights Templar, members of the order faced charges of "the denial of Christ and disrespect of the Cross" as well as "promoting homosexual practices, indecent kissing and the worship of idols." 

King Phillip IV and Pope Clement V

In 1312, the largest, wealthiest military order in the Church, the Knights Templar, would be extinct a mere five years after Phillip IV and Clement V conspired to its dissolution. Other military orders within the Church, the Knights Hospitalier and the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, would survive the late Middle Ages, but only greatly altered from their original rules and purposes.

Monumental Revolutions

Up until the spread of Protestantism, inhabitants of Christendom understood that both Church and State, both pope and king, were governed by sovereigns who exercised total rule of their domains. The pope was in charge of the Church, its dogmas and its clerics. And Europe's various monarchs governed totally their individual domains.

But this would all change dramatically in the aftermath of two monumental revolutions (to be continued in Part II).

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