6 Papal Controversies From History That Will Get You Ready For The Young Pope

Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO
The trailer for HBO's upcoming limited series The Young Pope only tells us so much about the show's actual plot. We see Jude Law's Pope Pius XIII condemning sinners, bossing around a nun played by Diane Keaton, and casually smoking a cigarette. Pius is supposed to look like one bad MF, but, at least from this trailer, he's nothing but talk. Surely there are more twists and turns to come in the rest of the series, but the relatively tame Pius got us thinking about the real bad boys of the Vatican.

It almost goes without saying that the long and storied history of the papacy has seen its fair share of controversies. From Benedict IX selling his title off for profit to Innocent IV signing off on the use of torture during the Inquisition, not every pope has had a squeaky clean reputation. Pius is certainly in the running to be one of the most photogenic popes, but he's got some stiff competition for the title of most scandalous.

Ahead, we've rounded up seven of the most infamous figures in the history of the Vatican. Click through to meet history's most controversial popes.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Stephen VI (or VII, depending on which source you trust)
Reign: 896 to 897

Stephen's claim to fame is so notorious that it has its own name: the Cadaver Synod, wherein Stephen gave the okay to dig up the body of Formosus, a bishop who had been excommunicated only to become pope himself before dying. Why dig up a corpse, you ask? To have his corpse stand trial for the charges that led to excommunication. Stephen had Formosus's body dressed in papal vestments and propped up in his seat during the arraignment. The corpse was found guilty, had three fingers on his right hand chopped off, and was eventually dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber River.

If this bizarre papal reenactment of Weekend at Bernie's is making you feel ill, maybe you'll be comforted to know that Stephen got his in the end. The public was naturally a little put off by the entire trial, so they drove Stephen into prison, where he was strangled to death. What? Still queasy?
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
John XII
955 to 964

Another young (though not the youngest) pope, John took up the title when he was only 18 years old. To put it lightly, he is the reason you don't see more teenage religious officials. He was said to have been violent, dishonest, a poor study of the Bible, and an adulterer — needless to say, the papacy's rep suffered. But that's only scratching the surface.

When John's reign began, he made the king of Germany, Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor. Otto wanted John to reform a tiny bit, and John, being an 18-year-old, did not appreciate being told what to do. It wasn't long before he was mounting support to start a war against Otto, but those plans fell apart when Otto intercepted his correspondence.

During John's subsequent trial, he was accused of sacrilege, murder, adultery, incest, and turning his sacred palace into a "brothel." To be clear, John did not attend his own trial, but instead wrote the following note to the bishops present: "To all the bishops — We hear that you wish to make another pope. If you do I excommunicate you by almighty God and you have no power to ordain no one or celebrate mass." In other words, he threatened to take his ball and go home.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Benedict IX
1032 to 1044, April 1045 to May 1045, and 1047 to 1048

If you thought John was a bad fit for the papacy, wait until you get to know Benedict IX. Although legend has it that he began his pontificate at the age of 12, Benedict actually came to power when he was around 20 years old.

He enjoyed three separate reigns as pope, meaning he had plenty of time to build up a bad rep. Benedict was called "a disgrace to the Chair of Peter" and a "demon from hell," and he excommunicated anyone who was hostile toward him. His first term only came to an end when he was driven out of the city. After reclaiming the office two more times, Benedict sold the title in a crime known as simony.

If we learn anything from John XII and Benedict IX, it's this: A corrupt young pope does not look like a haughty, 40-something Jude Law having a smoke. A corrupt young pope is a very young man with a god-awful temper (pun intended).
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Urban II
1088 to 1099

It'd be wrong to give Urban all the credit for the first Crusade, but he was the one who issued the call that sent between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians to take back the Holy City, or Jerusalem, from the Muslims. "God wills it," he cried. In retrospect, it would have been smart to add something about God willing only the people with basic training to go.

A major source of the first Crusade's fatalities were inexperienced Christians and innocent civilians who were deemed to be opponents of the papacy's cause. We're going to go out on a limb and guess the violence of the time had something to do with this decree of Urban's: "All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested." It's pretty easy to amass an army when enlistment comes with a get-into-Heaven-free card.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Innocent IV
1243 to 1254

"Innocent" is a cute name for someone who signed off on the use of judicial torture during the Inquisition (the Roman Church's investigation into heresy within the empire).

For the accused to issue a "full" confession, they were expected to name other heretics. It was Innocent who told his Inquisitors they could torture their suspects if that led to a full confession. The practice of torture was regulated and documented throughout the Inquisition, but that doesn't make it any less loathsome.

And given the fact that the Inquisition lasted a couple of centuries after the end of Innocent's reign, it's tough to say if all of that torture did any good at all.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Alexander VI
1492 to 1503

On his mother's side, Alexander was a Borgia, a family so corrupt that it partly inspired the novel The Godfather, on which the films are based. After buying himself the votes he needed to be elected pope, he made sure to keep his family close when he entered the papacy.

Although Alexander's life has been exaggerated in countless retellings, it's known that he had a taste for gold, violence, and his many mistresses (one of whom may have been his own daughter). He happily accepted bribes, attended amoral plays, and frequently held orgies in his palace.

Alexander's exploits as a murderer are eerily similar to those of a Godfather-esque mafioso. He and his son were known to kill their enemies with swords or poison, and they'd welcome the rest of the family to watch the bloodshed.

He's considered one of the most secular popes to have ruled — which we might call a mild understatement.