CBB Review – Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons

In his book Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, Mike Aquilina details some of the high points and low points of the 2000 year papacy. To do this he focuses on twelve popes and describes the situations they were in, the decisions they made and the subsequent impact it made on the Church. It’s all here, the good and the sometimes not so good.

The book itself is by no means meant to slander any pope. Instead it does an exceptional job of making the case that the men that have risen to the papacy are simply human. They have faults just like the rest of us. Though infallible when proclaiming Church doctrine, the rest of the time they are not and lapses in judgment are possible.

There is a lot to learn in this book and I can only highlight a few of the stories. The first thing to note is the election process that took place in the early church. The citizens of Rome elected the successor to Peter and things were not quite as organized…or civil…. as we know them today. While we anxiously await the white smoke, the citizens of Rome took to the streets as mobs and sometimes there was bloodshed. Such was the case in the battle for the papacy between Damasus and Ursinus in 366 AD. The fighting became quite bitter. “Ultimately Damasus got the best of the strife by the strenuous efforts of his partisans. It is certain that on one day one hundred and thirty-seven bodies were found in the Basilica of Sicinius, which is a Christian church.” Despite how he became pope, Damasus left us with one great deed. He employed St. Jerome in authoring what is known as the Latin Vulgate.

The seat of Peter was such a coveted jewel that even cutting deals was acceptable. Vigilius (537-555) had no problems using this avenue. He struck a deal with then Empress Theodora. She was an avid supporter of the Monophysite heresy. Vigilius promised if she would use her influence to get him elected pope he would reinstate the Monophysite believing Bishops who had been excommunicated. Theodora saw to it that Vigilius was elected……but he did not hold up his end of the bargain. The Monophysite heresy lost. “If Vigilius had been a good man, we might have said he was a hero to steer the Church through such troubled waters. Since he was what he was, we can only say it was a miracle.” 

Benedict IX is the only Pope to have held the papacy more than once….historians count his tenure as three times! He was elected young and had less interest in Church doctrine and more interest in partying. Eventually he was run of town and another Pope, Sylvester III took his place. Benedict sent his families private army to Rome who overthrew Sylvester an Benedict was reinstated for his second papacy. Not too long after, the papacy started to dis-interest him so, for 1000 lbs. of gold, Benedict sold the papacy to his godfather who took the name Gregory VI. Eventually, Benedict decided he wanted the papacy back. This was a most interesting time as Sylvester III never really went away. Now three men claimed to be pope! Henry III of Germany called a special synod which resulted in…. none of the three being recognized and the seat of Peter being open.

Not every Pope mentioned in this book has such a colorful or questionable story. Some are truly good men. St. Leo the Great stood up against Attila the Hun. St. Celestine V was a hermit when he was elected and never really wanted to become Pope. However, he paved the way for future popes to be able to retire. He also made sure no future papal election would occur outside a conclave. St. Pius XII took a strong stand against the Nazi’s who ultimately, knew better than to take on the Catholic Church. Of course there was also our beloved Pope John Paul II. The man whom Mikhail Gorbachev credited with the collapse of Communism.

The papacy definitely has had some interesting twists and turns since the time of the first pope Peter. As always Mike Aquilina presents his material in a fresh, easy to understand manner. This book is quite an interesting read that highlights popes filled with integrity and those who were motivated by other means. All of those presented in the book provide a lesson on human nature. 

I quote Mike from the afterward “The popes you’ve met in this book certainly have been a mixed bag—heroes and villains and weaklings and saints. Yet Francis is still teaching the same doctrine Peter was teaching his little band of followers back when Nero was emperor. An objective, unprejudiced look at history shows that the doctrine of the Church is protected. Even if the pope is a bad man, he never damages the core of Catholic teaching.”


I received a copy of this book for this review from the publisher Servant Books. If you would like to learn more about the book or to purchase a copy click on the title in the review above.

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