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A breezy (and cautionary) history of the papal “dark age”

There’s a two-edged sword of warning to be found in the 900s, for anyone who wants it.

A 1742 print, by the engravers Bollandus-Bouttats, of the corpse of John XII, who was pope from 955 to 964, being carried by a crowd. (Image: Wikipedia)

It’s tough to say when the saeculum obscurum really began, but by the time Pope Stephen VI had been strangled in the jail cell to which his enemies had confined him after he’d dug up the remains of Pope Formosus (Pope Handsome” if you can believe that) and put his predecessor’s dry bones on trial for heresy, historians agree we were in the “Dark Century” of intrigue, misrule, madness, murder, and general mayhem at Rome.

Between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the full establishment of new orders of political power several centuries later, the papacy took on all the duties of civil government in central Italy, and – predictably – saw all the habits of secular rulership in that age and place accrue to itself and the papal officeholders.

Said simply, the papacy fell into the hands of powerful central Italian crime families. Two in particular, the Theophylacti of Tusculum – an ancient settlement delightfully situated in the Alban Hills of Latium where well-heeled Romans kept villae in the late Republican period, the ruins of which one may visit these days – and the Sabine Crescentii got their claws into the office and tussled with each other over it for seventy years.

The Theophylacti liked to have their guy in office, while the Crescentii were frequently content to control the guy who physically occupied the chair.

It’s not that all the popes who reigned during the Dark Century were personally debauched or equally corrupt. Some of them came to power by fairly or relatively legitimate means. A few of them, like Leo VI, even attempted reform. Leo’s reign lasted less than a year, though.

Pope Agapetus reigned for a decade, and tried to deal with some pretty nasty doings in the Church in France and elsewhere. The short version of the French business is that he used what moral clout he could muster to get the clerics and nobles of Reims (there was some overlap) to end a kerfuffle over which of two rival claimants should have the See, but also took sides pretty strongly in the dispute.

One of the reasons Agapetus was able to devote himself to ecclesiastical matters was that there was a desultory “republic” in Rome and central Italy in those days, effectively ruled by a fellow named Alberic (second of that name). On his deathbed, Alberic made the Roman nobles pinky-swear to elect his bastard son, Octavian, as pope.

The nobles kept their word, and that is how we got John XII, whose reign began when he was very young – a teenager by some accounts – already debauched. Legend has it that John XII died violently, thrown from the window of a bedchamber where a Roman nobleman had caught him in flagrante with his wife.

There’s a two-edged sword of warning in all this history, for anyone who wants it.

On the one side, anyone decrying Francis as “the worst pope in history” is staking out a long and rocky row to hoe. It’s fine to think he’s a bad governor of the Church, but he’s not the worst, not by a long shot. It’s also fine to think Francis is the greatest thing since sliced bread, so long as one is willing to warrant that there are good reasons not to see it that way.

Recent popes have been personally pious, generally upright, and sincerely concerned with the good of the Church. That hasn’t made them good rulers or effective governors. One may therefore doubt whether personal piety and moral uprightness are by themselves sufficient qualifications for office, but it is hard to argue uncynically that they are in themselves detrimental to enlightened rule.

On the other, there’s also – and therefore – no reason to think things couldn’t possibly be worse.

In meteorological terms, it’s tough to say whether we are in late autumn or early spring. Whether we are dealing with a violent storm that must be a precursor to the idylls of the promised vernal flourishing in the Church, or the first hints of a long and brutal winter of destructive cold and ice and snow and frost, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

It was a Churchman, by the way, who coined the term saeculum obscurum. The great ecclesiastical historian, Caesar Baronius, first used it in his sixteenth-century Annales Ecclesiastici. Baronius wrote the twelve volumes of his history with a Roman nobleman and Oratorian priest, Oderic Raynaldus, in part to answer the Lutheran version of Church history – and papal history in particular – that was making the rounds of Europe in those days.

Some historians will say the popes got their groove back, and others will point to the persistent machinations of ecclesiastical types through the renaissance and into the 17th and 18th centuries as leading to the decline of the 19th and the final disintegration of the papacy’s temporal power. Others will look on the same set of facts and say, Porque non los dos?

In any case, here we are.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 245 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. A vernal flourishing is preferred, but we are in the month of November. OTOH, we have the legends of St. Francis of Assisi to warm us–he brought heat to bare feet in the snow.

    My parish priest likes to remind: Saints are not scandalized though scandals and trials may abound. Saints trust their Lord. He finds the lost, calms the storms, feeds and cleans and blesses those who Love, trust, and seek Him. No matter who’s pope.

  2. I’d say this in reference to any would-be Pope, as well as to any bishop, priest or deacon: Canon Law should require that at all times when you’re involved in active ministry you must have one spiritual director whom you visit with at least quarterly and a different person who serves as your Confessor whom you meet with at least monthly. With both these in place, my guess is we’d have fewer problems among all those in the clerical state.

  3. All fine and well in the dangers of comparing Francis to the centuries-long judgments of previous pontiffs.

    But Francis’s refusal to clarify the Church’s moral teachings and letting the German Church forsake the Divinity of the Holy Eucharist will hardly sit well with future Church historians.

  4. At least the miscreant popes of the past confined their nefarious occupation to temporal concerns rather than the mendacious deconstruction of the perennial Magisterium. We shoulder a calamity of apocalyptic proportion compared to what has transpired in previous times.

  5. Although interesting [I’ve heard as much from our Jesuit lecturer at the Beda Pontifical] we’re concerned with a more serious set of issues today. Certainly past issues named by Altieri scandalize the faith, test it. However, at present there’s scandal attached to the articulation and radical understanding of doctrines of the faith on the Holy Eucharist, divorce and remarriage, unnatural forms of sexual behavior, irregular unions, reconciliation without the requirement to validly [when a penitent declines to desist committing adultery or other serious sin the confession is invalid the priest who knowingly offers absolution commits a canonical crime] confess sins to a priest, existence of eternal punishment for unrepentant sins, that other religions are on an equal footing with Catholicism, that the Catholic Church must be in a continued state of search for truth, as if the Vat II doctrine Verbum Dei were rendered obsolete due to a pontiff’s concept of time and space, all these and other doctrinal issues in comparison diminish the significance of the previous Dark Age described by Chris Altieri to negligible. It appears that a major point of Altieri’s article is to diminish the far more acute dilemma the Church faces at present. As a priest suffering the quite painful effort of assuring a shaken laity of their true faith in Christ, the Church, the perennial Magisterium, this article doesn’t [appear to] serve that effort well. Although to be fair to the author this paragraph may redeem his effort. “In meteorological terms, it’s tough to say whether we are in late autumn or early spring. Whether we are dealing with a violent storm that must be a precursor to the idylls of the promised vernal flourishing in the Church, or the first hints of a long and brutal winter of destructive cold and ice and snow and frost, things are likely to get worse before they get better” (Altieri). Getting better may indeed mean a final getting better. Mao Zedong’s, It’s always darkest before the dawn may be prophetically realized by Christ’s second Advent.

    • Plus Francis appears to accept transgenderism. Very sad indeed as God created us each specifically either male or female. Francis ought to be teaching this and calling for prayer for all to know this truth as declared in Genesis and by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Also, the belief that same sex attraction is inborn in any person, also ought to be made known that believing that, is believing the counterfeit to God’s creation of male and female. And those who belive such and those who practice such, need to be freed to live God’s creation of them.
      God bless, C-Marie

  6. In an age of ultra mass communication, where Western Civilization has expanded rather than outgrown the moral nihilism of the post war “sixties,” while the Church, for the most part, apologizes constantly to humanity for the “burdens” of the moral truths and gifts it is endowed and by God to defend, and a current Pope who now personifies these trends of moral capitulation, there is nothing about the personal depravities of popes from reigns that were essentially inconsequential to history that could compare to our current dark age.

  7. To begin with I was wondering about the motive for this piece. I will keep my thoughts on this to myself.
    It is difficult for us to judge the worthiness of a Pope who lived centuries ago simply from historians’ notes. Reading articles written about the Popes I have known, one can come to different conclusions about them.
    Since our present Pope has been brought into this discussion I would like to say that there is he bears absolutely no resemblance to the “characters” described in this article. He was a normal Catholic young man who studied engineering, worked as a bouncer and enjoyed going out with his friends. Then, one day, at the confessional, he had a unique spiritual experience and from then on he dedicated himself to serving the Lord as a priest. So, we see he had no influential family backing and devoted himself to the life of service (which very few of his haters do). Yes, he worked with the destitute, the discarded, the lonely and the weak – even in the slums. This is why people who really know him well call him the slum Pope.
    Pope Francis has often said that he is a cradle Catholic. He wanted people to know that he is Catholic through and through. This might come as a surprise to some of his adversaries, but he has not interfered with Catholic doctrine. Not a single one! His teachings are clear. Unfortunately, Catholic journalists and commentators do present views that can cause confusion. Some of these people do so quite honestly, but quite a few have ulterior motives.

    • These are inaccurate comments. Francis has publicly practiced idolatry (PachaMama), endorses homosexuality (Fr. Martin) and distributes the Holy Eucharist like popcorn to anyone who wants it for whatever reason (think Joe Biden).These are not the actions of an orthodox Pope. What Francis says vs. what he does are often two entirely different things.

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