A Question I Was Asked:

Were the Popes Really That Wicked?

The Question:

I find you honest. You are a Protestant but you have given some credit where it is due to Roman Catholicism....Now I have a serious question for you. Do you think that we Protestants have exaggerated the wickedness of some of the popes who reigned between about 1100 and 1600? Some terrible things have been written about them. Is some of it too exaggerated?

UK Apologetics Reply:

You know, it would be really wonderful if I could state something like, 'we now know that the papacy was not as wicked and evil as we thought,' unfortunately it is impossible to make such an assertion. For sure, Roman Catholicism can be given credit for certain things; it is now pretty sure, for instance, that the effects of the Inquisition have been over-stated, the numbers of those who died have been over-egged, moreover, witchcraft is not just some silly superstitious idea held by ignorant clerics but there really were witches who did harm and the medieval church saw it as their duty to eradicate them.

Yet the papacy remains a major and highly-embarassing blot on the history of Europe. Some of these popes were incredibly wicked and depraved. Indeed, there are almost too many examples just to pick on a few. Also Roman Catholicism itself admits these things, although it prefers to avoid the subject. Too many of the popes were gangsters and criminals more interested in political conspiracies, murder, and seducing women than in their supposed 'spiritual office.' Others (Innocent III, for instance), took a great delight in encouraging the slaughtering of thousands of non-Catholic Christians. The Council of Trent (1545-1561), sometimes called the 'counter reformation,' was an attempt by the Church of Rome to reform itself. It went some way but never far enough. Nevertheless it would be fair to say that the worst excesses were probably pretty much stamped out by 1650 or so.

There is also the matter of the selling of indulgences (allowances to sin), that too was wicked and despicable and it was one of the main things which aroused the anger of Martin Luther. One thing we can say is that Roman Catholicism itself has perfectly demonstrated that Apostolic Succession is not a true doctrine of their denomination (despite claims to the contrary) because certain of the popes bought themselves into the papal office (which is known as the practice of 'simony'). Just one such occurrence of such corruption would destroy the veracity of Apostolic Succession for good.

So the history of the papacy is an often dreadful and sordid history and this is not just a Protestant perspective, it is the view of a majority of historians. It was also the view expressed in the 2012 three-part BBC series, 'Rome: A History of the Eternal City.' Actually, this was a pretty open and fair-minded series (especially for the BBC) being conducted by the historian Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore. He gave credit to Rome and its religions wherever he could and even seemed somewhat sympathetic to Catholicism at times but did not attempt to whitewash the popes of this period, even providing some quite horrid and sickening examples.

Robin A. Brace. December 24th, 2012.