benedict ix
Portrait of Pope Benedict IX in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (

What Pope Benedict XVI shares with his notorious namesake

(RNS) You won’t find many Catholic churches named after Pope Benedict IX.

benedict ix

Portrait of Pope Benedict IX in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

He was a puppet pope, installed by his powerful family at a time when rival clans ruled Rome. The young man seemed uninterested in religious life, rushing through ordination only after his election to the Throne of St. Peter in 1032.

Benedict IX squandered the papacy’s moral and financial riches in bordellos and banquet halls. His violence and debauchery “shocked even the Romans,” said philosopher Bertrand Russell, which is kind of like being busted for lewdness in Las Vegas.

St. Peter Damian called Benedict IX a ”demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.” The Catholic Encyclopedia labels him a “disgrace to the chair of St. Peter.” He was the first Pope Benedict to resign, selling the papacy for gold in order to marry. He later tried to reclaim the holy office and served three stints as pope between 1032 and 1048.

Nearly a millennium later, the pious and bookish Pope Benedict XVI seems completely contrary to his notorious namesake. Even if his papacy has stumbled at times, by all accounts the current Benedict has led a chaste life devoted to serving his church.

But besides his name, by resigning on Thursday (Feb. 28) Benedict XVI shares at least one additional attribute with his precursor. Both Benedicts -- the sinner and the scholar -- brought St. Peter’s throne back down to earth, albeit in very different ways.

Vicar of Christ. Pontifex Maximus. Patriarch of the West. The papacy has accumulated a host of honorifics over its 2,000-year history. Those titles seem to set the pope apart as a spiritual Superman, not quite God, but closer than the rest of us.

Under John Paul II, the papal mystique magnified. Even during the last difficult days when he suffered from Parkinson's disease, some Catholics said that John Paul could no more resign than Jesus could come down from the cross.

“We become so incredibly attached to and even idolatrous of the papacy,” said Christopher Bellitto, an expert on Catholic history at Kean University in New Jersey. “But the pope is no more or less holy than my mother.”

A mistaken notion of papal infallibility often underlies the pope-worship, scholars say.  A running joke after Benedict’s resignation quipped that he had changed his Facebook status from “Infallible” to “It’s complicated.” Popes are actually only infallible when making certain doctrinal statements, and that authority has only been invoked twice.

By becoming the first pope in six centuries to resign, Benedict cracked the seal between the sacred office and the mortal men who occupy it, Catholic scholars said.

“All those unique titles that seemed to place the papal office above and beyond all other offices and ministries in the church suddenly have to yield to what their occupants all have in common: a fragile, sinful, and mortal humanity,” the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, a prominent church historian, wrote recently in Commonweal magazine.

“The pope -- and not just this one -- loses something of his sacral apartness. He rejoins the rest of us.”

Like the rest of us, some popes have been saints, and some scoundrels. Even St. Peter, the chief apostle and first pope, according to Catholic tradition, had moments of weakness and doubt.

During the Middle Ages, the papacy held great wealth and worldly power, which often attracted the wrong kinds of candidates, writes the Rev. John O’Malley in his book “A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present.”

“The popes of Rome faced particular temptations almost from the earliest days,” writes O’Malley. More than a few succumbed.

pope benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24. RNS photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But Catholic theology holds that even bad popes do not undermine the office or break the line of apostolic succession, said Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology.

“If someone holds an office in the church, even if they are a bad person, the exercise of that office is not compromised,” Wister said.

Some scholars said Benedict's stunning resignation will actually strengthen the papacy by allowing younger men to serve -- and, perhaps, older men to leave.

But other scholars do not believe his example will be followed by future popes.

“The pope doesn’t just sit in his chair and deliver documents in the morning and go golfing in the afternoon,” said Jon Sweeney, author of “The Pope Who Quit,” a biography of Celestine V, who left the papacy five months after his election in 1294. “That seems to be what Benedict XVI is suggesting might change, but I don’t see it becoming the norm.”

In any case, the papacy will never be a normal 9-to-5. Since a dove alighted on the shoulder of Pope Fabian in the third century, Catholic tradition has held that the Holy Spirit guides the selection of Peter’s successor.

That doesn’t mean the pope is always an inspired choice, as the example of Benedict IX makes clear. “There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!” Benedict XVI has said. Free will and human foibles sometimes thwart the Spirit.

But even the papacy of Benedict IX had a somewhat happy ending. Legend has it that he repented and lived his last days in a monastery. After his excesses, reformers seized the papacy from Roman clans and rehabilitated the office.

“Christ said the church would endure," Wister said. "He didn’t say it would be easy.”



  1. P. Benedict IX became a “Dismas,” and not a dismal failure; in terms of his own salvation he was a hallowed success. Thank God!

  2. Mercy and repentance , like the Blood and water that came from The Lord is the lifeblood of the faithful !

    Trusting in God’s mercy and goodness lead us to true repentance ; Pope John Paul 11 was the Mercy Pope , dying on The Feast Of Mercy ; Holy Father Benedict possibly firesaw his role , to call The Church and the world , to the nextdeeper step , of repentance , through which the enemy claims are broken , the step in which St.Peter , at the shore , repents thrice , for his infidelity ; the Holy Father ha staken up on himself, the fallenness of the world , in the steps of The Lord , to repent and plead for mercy , which is what each of us too are called for , to do so , all the way , to our first parents !

    In our times when there are many in secular Govt . with authority over us , have subscribed to being under powers of darkness , it would be agood thing that we would be blessed with two holy men in authority , the future
    Pope as well as His Holiness , thus , to counter the effect of many other bad powers !

    Was blessed to have been able to see his holiness in 2008 – the light of his countenence , as in the case of Bl.John Paul 11 also , is all it takes for one to get a hint of his holiness ; unsure there are many others who carry such in our world !

    Too bad the cameras show us more of the wrinkles and weakness of the frame ; in case of Bl.John paul 11 ,that light was such that one would not even notice his fraility !

    His prayers would help many to become more holy !

  3. Aplogies for the mistakes in the previous post ; – would be good to read this article , on Our Lady of Guadalupe , the New Evangelisation and her words, as far back as the 1500s – ‘I am the Mother of all humanity ‘ , almost reminiscent of the promise to Abraham , being the father of many !
    Thus, interesting that the Holy Father calls Mary , Mediatrix of all graces ..and may be the reference to the brown shoes from Mexico – could it be , in his hidden , ever so humble sense of humor , to indicate the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of all , to come in to hearts and nations, The Spirit , to crush the enemy that plucks out the hearts of truth and goodness , the very life itself from many , supported by those in power !

  4. I’ll pass; no need for shameless self promoting.
    God bless Pope Benedict XVI, his successor and the Catholic Church.

  5. Conclave Novena Prayer:
    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, send down your Spirit over the conclave. Let the Holy Spirit inspire the hearts of the cardinals, that they may choose the man most pleasing to You, as Successor of Peter and Your Vicar on Earth. May Mary, Your Mother and Mother of the Church, be our Advocate. Amen.

  6. I do not think it is a good thing to put down your cross an easier cross, Could you see Jesus doing that or His Blessed Mother.

  7. You think Benedict resigned because of the mental or physical agony it would cause him to continue, or do you think he did it for the good of the Catholic Church and the Catholic faithful as his primary reason? Clearly it was for the latter. To suggest he was running from his cross is total nonsense, imo.

  8. C…John: Benedict is not taking up an easier cross. He is offering himself as a victim soul, in continual prayer for the Church and the world. “For the fervent effectual prayer of a holy man accomplishes much.” and he is surely a humble servant, laboring through prayer unceasing–his time not given over to audiences and various meetings and tours and other duties of of modern popes–but given entirely to meditation, fasting and prayer. Surely the Lord will hear and answer, for the benefit of all at this most critical time in history. We should unite ourselves with him in prayer.

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