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Venerable Papal Tradition: The Very Smoke-Filled Room

By Michael Farquhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page D01

When the College of Cardinals assembles tomorrow to elect a new pope, many Catholics believe God's guiding hand will point them to the right man. Perhaps so. There certainly have been a number of inspired choices over the centuries. Yet in some of the most colorful elections of the past, the Holy Spirit seems to have taken a holiday.

This was particularly true during the Dark Ages, a low point in papal history, when worldly pontiffs ruled at the whim of powerful Roman aristocrats. Back then, before there was a College of Cardinals, family ties were a reliable way to secure the throne of St. Peter. (That is, for example, how John XI, reportedly the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III and Marozia, a member of a powerful Roman family, became pope in 931.)


Decorum reigned in 1978 when the College of Cardinals convened and chose Karol Wojtyla as pope. (Arturo Maril -- The Vatican Via AP)

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Holiness wasn't necessarily a prerequisite to becoming the Vicar of Christ in those days, nor was experience. Pope John XII was elected at the ripe age of 18, and proceeded to turn the Vatican into party central. The German emperor Otto I wrote the teenage pontiff with concern: "Everyone, clergy as well as laity, accuses you, Holiness, of homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with your relatives, including your sisters." Little wonder John was dubbed the "Christian Caligula."

Election to the papacy during this seemingly pagan era was no guarantee of job security. A third of the popes enthroned between 872 and 1012 died violently, some at the hands of their successors. Others were deposed for their wickedness and fled Rome in fear of their lives. These were dark ages indeed.

Stephen VII, elected during perhaps the darkest of those days, in 896, was quite possibly the craziest pope who ever ruled. Not long after his ascension, Stephen convened what has become known as "the Cadaver Synod." He ordered the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, dug out of its grave and dressed in full papal vestments. The late pope was then propped up for trial on a number of charges. After he was convicted, his body was tossed into the Tiber River. Stephen himself was deposed, imprisoned and strangled several months later.

Papal elections became a bit more exclusive in 1059, when the College of Cardinals was formed and given sole dominion over the process. Not much changed, however, since the group consisted mostly of the same lines of aristocrats who had been choosing popes for centuries.

The cardinals proved themselves spectacularly inefficient after the death of Clement IV in 1268, when they took nearly three years to elect his successor. As their deliberations dragged on, officials in Viterbo, Italy, locked them in the local palace, removed the roof to expose them to the elements, and threatened them with starvation if they didn't make a quick decision. Blessed Gregory X was eventually elected, and subsequently established many of the rules of conclave that are followed today.

During this period, the papacy was reaching the zenith of its power and glory. The pope, once merely the bishop of Rome, was now more of an emperor who claimed both spiritual and temporal dominion over all of Christendom.

"Who can doubt that the priests of Christ [popes] are to be considered the fathers and masters of kings and princes and all the faithful?" Saint Gregory VII declared late in the 11th century.

It was these imperial pretensions that made the papacy a much bigger prize. Accordingly, the succession became even more obstreperous as greedy cardinals grasped for it.

In 1294, Boniface VIII came to occupy the most powerful throne in the world and enjoy all the wealth that came with it, by reportedly whispering into his simple-minded predecessor's ear as he slept: "Celestine, Celestine, lay down your office. It is too much for you."

Boniface, the last of the mighty medieval popes, got his comeuppance when he was crushed by King Philip IV of France. The papacy was then moved from its ancient seat in Rome to the fortified city of Avignon, France. It would be nearly a century before Rome reclaimed the papacy. In 1378, the cardinals elected Pope Urban VI. He was not a good choice.

"I can do anything, absolutely anything I like," Urban proclaimed. This self-ordained license apparently included the torture and murder of six cardinals who dared to defy him.

Realizing they had a complete maniac on their hands, the remaining cardinals elected a new pope who promptly moved to France. Urban had no intention of budging from his throne in Rome, however. Instead, he appointed his own cardinals and ruled from there.

Now there were two duly elected popes and two colleges of cardinals -- one in France, one in Italy. It was a mess doomed to get even messier. Each side kept picking its own pope whenever a vacancy opened until finally the two conclaves of cardinals united and elected Alexander V in 1409. Only hitch was, neither of the old popes was willing to step down.

Now, with three popes on the job, something almost democratic happened. A council was formed, including both lower clergy and even laity, to sort through the various claims. The situation was ultimately resolved at the Council of Constance, where everyone was deposed in favor of Martin V in 1417 -- just in time for the coming Renaissance.

As the rest of the Western world harked back to ancient Greece in an explosion of art and literature, the papacy seemed to turn to the Dark Ages for inspiration. It was an era of some of the most unholy popes ever.

Competition among cardinals continued to be savage when a vacancy opened on the papal throne. Pope Pius II later recalled the intrigue surrounding the conclave that preceded his own election in 1458: "The richer and more powerful members begged, promised, threatened, and some, shamelessly casting aside all decency, pleaded their own cause and claimed the papacy as their right. Their rivalry was extraordinary, their energy unbounded. They took no rest by day or sleep by night."

Nevertheless, that conclave was positively decorous compared with the one several years later when Rodrigo Borgia nearly bankrupted himself to become Pope Alexander VI. Borgia bribed his fellow cardinals with bags of bullion, money he had earned selling pardons for all manner of crimes, and could barely contain his glee when he won.

"I am pope, I am pope," he exclaimed as he donned his sumptuous new vestments.

Saint Peter would have been so proud.


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