A bit of fun for a Sunday afternoon

TIME Magazine has a list going called “The 10 Most Controversial Popes”. If you haven’t got much to do this afternoon, you might take a look and see if you agree. Note that it isn’t “The 10 Worst Popes” of history (which would probably be a list populated with the popes of the 10th Century alone – notably, only Sergius III makes it to this list), but the “10 most controversial“. TIME has them as:

1.Stephen VI
2.Urban VI
3.Alexander VI
4.Pius XII
5.Benedict IX
6.Boniface VIII
7.Nicholas III
8.Clement V
9.Leo X
10.Sergius III

Neither Pope Benedict XVI or Pope Paul VI or John Paul II have made it to the list – although surely they must together top the list in terms of media controversy. All the popes on this list lived before the time of the widespread open public media Papal Hunting Season – lucky them. Or us. Anyway, what do you think of the list, and how would you correct it?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A bit of fun for a Sunday afternoon

  1. Peregrinus

    As you point out, “most controversial” is not the same as “worst” (or “most scandalous”). It seems to me, in fact, that you can only have enduring controversy over a question if there is much to be said on both sides.

    I don’t see Alexander VI, for instance, as a controversial pope. There are one or two positive things to be said about him – he was a noted patron of the arts, and he made Rome a welcoming refuge for Jews persecuted in Spain and other countries. But these are not matters of controversy; there is general agreement about them. Almost everything else that can be said about him is a condemnation but, again, there is little controversy about this. The guy was a monster.

    Pius XII is a much better example of a controversial pope, because there is genuine controversy over at least one aspect of his pontificate – his response to Naziism, and in particular to the persecution of the Jews. What did he do? What could he have done? What should he have done? These are important questions, to which there are no obvious or simple answers, and they deal with issues that we have strong feelings about.

    I’d be slow to put more recent popes on the list, if only because we haven’t had time to put them in perspective. I think at least a generation has to pass before we can add anyone to an “all-time” list; otherwise, how do we know that we are not simply prioritising them because their pontificate has affected us directly? I’d hazard a foolhardy guess, though, that in time John Paul II will make it to the list. The length of his pontificate alone, coupled with his strong personality, makes him one of the most significant popes of all time, and it’s hard to be significant and not controversial. He wholly failed to reverse the decline in practice in the West, and many would argue that he exacerbated it. And of course it’s on his watch that the sex abuse crisis bloomed unchecked for so long. There are questions which will not be easily answered over whether this was contributed to or compounded by the nature and quality of his episcopal appointments, and by the example set in his own response to complaints about Fr Maciel.

    I think I’d add Pius IX to the list. Again, he had a long time to make his mark, for better or worse, and I think there will be enduring controversy over the effect on the church of his reactionary response to the world he lived in, and in particular to the decline of the papacy’s secular power. And if we want to add spice to the discussion by finding a reason to condemn him morally there’s always the little matter of Edgardo Mortara.

    • Yes, I think what you say is right. We are talking about “controversy” here, and not simpy “He was a bad pope”. Controversy arises when there are on the one hand people eager to argue “he was a saint” and on the other hand there are just as many people saying “the hell he was”.