The flesh opposes the Spirit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is No. 19 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.

As I mentioned in a previous post, not all my 30 reasons were instrumental in my decision to leave the Catholic Church, though they are all reasons why I will never return. But this one disturbed me from the first time I learned of it, while I was yet in the Church, and became more bothersome as I struggled with whether or not to remain. When I finally came to the point where I knew I couldn’t stay and I put to death, so to speak, my Catholic self, it served as the nail in the coffin.

To continue the death motif…the Catholic Church has more than a few skeletons in her closet. They’ve been exposed for a long time and she doesn’t deny them, but I imagine she’d hide them if she could. Though they belong to her past, her assumed designation as the continuous subsistence of Christ’s church1 since its inception, make them relevant to her claims today.

The papal office was not always held in as high esteem as we currently view it. Many of the popes in the Church’s history were quite unworthy to be considered the “vicar of Christ.” According to author and historian Brian Moynahan, “The period of the first millennium was a time of papal depravity,” and here are a few of his supporting facts:

  • A number of these popes, “the cardinal-historian Cesare Baronius wrote later, were…’vainglorious Messalinas filled with fleshly lusts and cunning in all forms of wickedness…’”
  • Various leading Roman families had their own family members installed as pope, and had their rivals murdered.sergius_iii
  • Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of his predecessor Formosus exhumed and tried with fraud. After finding the body guilty, he had two of his fingers chopped off before throwing it into the Tiber River.
  • “Sergius III, having murdered his immediate predecessor, had the unfortunate Formosus exhumed again.”
  • “Theodora, the Theophylact courtesan and mistress of the unfortunate John X, and her daughter Marozia, helped create eight popes in a decade…[Marozia] was the mistress of Pope Sergius III; she had their illegitimate son installed as John XI, and her grandson Octavian became John XII.”
  • “Benedict IX, squalid and lecherous, so shamed the office that the Roman populace had deposed him in favor of Silvester III two years before. Benedict had become pope through his father’s bribery; he now used the family’s hired thugs in street riots to force Silvester to resign and to reclaim his throne.”2

The list, unfortunately, could go on. If the Catholic Church were merely one Christian denomination among many, distinguished only by their particular interpretations of Scripture, she could distance herself from these immoral prelates. Because we are all fallen human beings, and the bad behavior of a few leaders doesn’t affect the doctrine we profess. Unless each of those leaders is not simply a guide and teacher to those under him, but a link in an unbroken chain of apostolic authority.

Hence the Church teaches that “the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ.”3

Some of these popes were truly despicable, yet according to this teaching, to consider them so is to despise God himself. You can still find their names on the list of apostolic successors.

Also on the list are the names of various “antipopes,” men who claimed the papal office in opposition to other popes…some because of their own avarice and lust for power, others because of political conflicts. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The elections of several antipopes are greatly obscured by incomplete or biased records, and at times even their contemporaries could not decide who was the true pope. It is impossible, therefore, to establish an absolutely definitive list of antipopes, but it is generally conceded that there were at least 37 from 217 to 1439.”4

But the Catechism states that, “Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.”5

Thirty-plus antipopes belie the projected image of an unbroken, uninterrupted line of apostolic succession. A Catholic might respond by saying that having an uninterrupted line and being certain of which of the men were actually in that line, are two different things. Agreed. Yet, the infighting, power struggles, and confusion cast doubt on the Church’s claim of being uniquely guided by the Holy Spirit in “shepherding the Church.”

These blots and blemishes in the history of the Catholic Church are more than an embarrassment to her. They are evidence that she has far overstated her divine rights and bestowals. Murder, fornication, deception, and debauchery in the highest office of “the sacred order of bishops” seriously call into question her claims of privilege and authority.

2 Moynahan, Brian, The Faith, Doubleday, New York, 2002, pg. 213-214
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 862
5 Catechism, 862