May 14, 964 AD — If mankind sought a supreme human symbol of piety, faith, chastity, self-sacrifice and devotion to a cause, the Pope would stand unopposed, his millions of followers believe. But by all that’s holy, it was not always so – as proved by Pope John XII, who died on this day.
A mere teenager when he was elected Holy Father in 955, John was said to have “passed his whole life in vanity and adultery." But that’s not all. Charges levelled against him at the Synod of Rome in 963 included claims by bishops and cardinals that he:
- Turned the sacred palace into a whorehouse
- Fornicated with, among others, his father’s concubine, various widows and even his own niece
- Castrated and then murdered a cardinal
- Blinded and then murdered his confessor
- Took payment for ordaining bishops and even ordained a 10-year-old boy as a bishop
- Ordained a deacon in a stable
- Refused to make the sign of the cross
- Toasted the Devil
- Invoked the names of pagan gods while playing dice and when he lost, used money from the papal treasury to pay off his debts
John was the son of Alberic II, self-styled prince of Rome, who made the Roman nobles swear that his son, then named Octavianus, would be made Pope when the post became vacant. It did so in 955 when Octavianus was around sixteen to eighteen years old.
The boy took the name Pope John XII – and immediately began to worry about his political enemies. To protect himself against them he formed an alliance with Otto I, the King of Germany, granting him the title of Roman Emperor.
But to John’s discomfort Otto’s strength and power grew, driving the Pope to conspire against his supposed ally. “Otto quickly concluded John was unreliable, immoral and a bit of a crook,” says Thomas Noble, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame. Otto deposed John from the papacy and installed a puppet Pope in his place.
John, however, would not be shaken off so easily. While in exile he recruited an army of mercenaries and allies, then marched back to Rome, ran off the puppet Pope and reclaimed his title.
A furious Otto decided it was time to deal with John once and for all and set out for Rome at the head of an army. But he was too late. By the time he arrived Pope John was dead.
Some say he was beaten to death by a jealous husband who caught him in bed with his wife. Others simply say that he was murdered. Otto's historian said that the devil himself came to fetch his most faithful servant. But no-one is sure.
At any rate, he was no more than twenty-nine years old.
In his book, A Complete History of the Popes of Rome, author Louis Marie DeCormenin says: "John XII was a robber, a murderer, and incestuous person, unworthy to represent Christ upon the pontifical throne. This abominable priest soiled the chair of St. Peter for nine entire years and deserved to be called the most wicked of popes."
Ken Pennington, a professor at the Catholic University of America, said in a Time Magazine article: “He was a randy Pope. It is pretty unanimous that he was a dissolute Pope who had many women in the Lateran. There have been unsavory Popes, but he is certainly the one with the worst reputation.”
But Kevin Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University, says that not everything from John XII's reign was scandalous. He championed religious causes, for example with his support of Saint Dunstan, a leader of England's monastic reform movement.
“His genuine interest in church reform has often been overlooked and his impieties and scandals exaggerated because of the way he was portrayed by his enemies, who were partisans of King Otto."
The evidence against John is so overwhelming, though, that his reputation is surely beyond salvation.
Published: April 7, 2017