In recent years the Catholic Church has seen its fair share of controversy. Scandals within the church are not exclusive to the modern era either.
The Papacy of the 9th and 10th centuries was a turbulent institution. A rapid succession of pontiffs, combined with the tumultuous nature of European politics, created an often manic state of affairs in the Vatican.
Commonly known as the Cadaver Synod, the story we will explore today is arguably one of the strangest I’ve ever come across and involves the trial of a dead, decomposing pontiff propped up on a throne before many of his former peers.
The trial heralded the beginning of one of the most corrupt eras in the history of the Papacy, one that is now referred to as the ‘pornocracy’.
Corruption and Deceit
The ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus began in 897AD and is an event that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python sketch.
The events that led to the macabre trial started some years earlier during the reign of Pope John VII. During this period, Formosus served as bishop of the Roman suburb Porto.
He is described as being a dedicated missionary and commanded a reputation as a staunch proponent of the Christian faith; helping spread the religion to the Bulgars.
Formosus caught the attention of John VII, who sought to hamper his meteoric rise to fame. In turn, the pontiff accused the young bishop of violating papal laws that prevent bishops from operating in more than one place at a time. This law was set in place to prevent members of the church from carving out their own lands and titles.
Additionally, John VIII accused Formosus of breaking laws that prohibited members of the clergy from openly declaring their papal aspirations.
John VIII’s attempts to retain his position led him to an early grave, and he was the first pope to be murdered by his own kin.
The Pope’s murder is described as a horrific affair. He was poisoned and beaten to death with a hammer. This murder would mark years of turbulence within the Papacy, with the upper echelons of the church experiencing a staff turnover rate worse than most student bars.
His successor, Marinus I lasted a year in office. His successor, Pope St. Adrian III, then lasted barely a year before he was assassinated. Pope Stephen V would follow before Formosus ascended to the position in October of the year 891.
The Trial of the Century
Several years after Formosus’ death, Pope Stephen VI ordered the exhumation of his corpse with the intention of taking legal action against the deceased. F
Formosus was accused of perjury and for ascending to the Papacy through illegal means and practices some several years before.
The late pontiff’s corpse was exhumed, brought to the Basilica of St John Lateran and propped up on a throne to appear as if he were alive. Were it not for the fact that the body was decomposing, this may have been an awe-inspiring sight – Formosus is said to have been dressed impeccably.
Furthermore, he was provided with legal representation in the form of a deacon. I imagine this would be one of the most difficult contracts any lawyer could take.
Stephen VI proceeded to list off the crimes of the late Formosus, which according to sources at the time included ‘transmigrating sees in violation of canon law, of perjury, and of serving as a bishop while actually a layman.’
Formosus’ representative is reported to have stood by the throne and provided responses to Pope Stephen’s questions and accusations. When asked why he had acted as he did, the deacon hilariously mumbled: “Because I am evil”.
As one can imagine, the trial was a sham and a foregone conclusion. The late pontiff was found guilty of his crimes and was stripped of his titles and vestments. Sources allege that upon being found guilty, Pope Stephen cut off three of Formosus’ fingers on the right hand – a symbolic gesture as it is the hand he had used in life to grant blessings.
In a final act of humiliation, his body was buried in a graveyard for foreigners, where several years later it was once again exhumed and cast into the Tiber River.
Pious Pope or Deranged Madman?
To this day, Pope Stephen VI’s actions continue to raise questions over his state of mind.
There is evidence to suggest that he suffered with mental health issues, as he is reported to have been prone to fits of rage and melancholy.
It is possible that the pontiff had psychological problems. However, it is worth bearing in mind that there were underlying political reasons for the trial.
As mentioned previously, the political climate during this period was turbulent. Several powerful factions in Italy had laid claim to various regions and titles.
Infighting was commonplace throughout this period in the region’s history, and bloodshed often accompanied it.
Pope Stephen VI was aligned with powerful regional figures who had opposed Formosus during his time as the Bishop of Rome. It is believed that the incumbent pontiff was acting on behalf of his political allies in an attempt to defame the image and legacy of his predecessor.
Stephen VI’s time as pontiff would not last long. The exhumation and trial of a corpse was considered by many to be macabre and disrespectful. Within a few months of the Cadaver Synod, he was deposed and imprisoned.
His successor, Pope Romanus, reversed his predecessor’s various decrees and actions and restored the legacy of Pope Formosus.
In a final act of retribution, Pope Stephen VI was strangled in his cell.