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Was Pope John XII “Deposed”?
A Refutation of Prof. Roberto de Mattei
The Italian historian Professor Roberto de Mattei enjoys immense popularity among conservative Novus Ordos and semi-traditionalists because he comes with the pedigree of a being an academic who has taught and written books on ecclesiastical history, and because he continually reassures them through his writings and lectures that their convenient “recognize-and-resist” (R&R) position is the correct alternative to submitting to Circus Bergoglio or rejecting Francis as a false pope.
The Catholic doctrine on the Papacy, however, admits of no such thing as recognizing a Pope as legitimate while refusing submission to him. Some, including Dr. de Mattei, try to get around this by attempting to find historical precedent for Popes who were supposedly heretical and then resisted by their inferiors, or who were even, we are told, deposed (that is, removed from the Papacy).
That this is an exercise in futility stands to reason; first, because we know from Catholic teaching that it will be impossible to find such a case in history, and secondly, because if anyone could find such a case, nothing would be won, for it would prove then that the Catholic doctrine is wrong, thus disproving the Catholic religion altogether.
In his efforts to keep Francis legit while rejecting his blasphemous-heretical magisterium, de Mattei has been disseminating serious errors by the truckload. Examples from his past works include his 2018 theological train wreck of a lecture, “Tu Es Petrus“, which we refuted here, and his 2015 essay that claimed that the magisterium of the 14th-century Pope John XXII contained heresy, which Fr. Anthony Cekada disproved here.
Since de Mattei is an authority on history, however, his testimony enjoys a certain intrinsic credibility, at least in the minds of his followers. His article of of Dec. 4, 2019, published in Corrispondenza Romana, tackles the case of the scandalous Pope John XII (937-964), arguing that he was deposed and replaced by Pope Leo VIII. In this post, we will demonstrate that de Mattei is wrong and that his assertions are seriously misleading souls.
De Mattei’s article is entitled “Who was the worst Pope in the history of the Church?” and was published in English translation at the Rorate Caeli blog (the Italian original can be found here).
The author answers his question in the opening paragraph by saying that it was the tenth-century Pope John XII, noting that St. Robert Bellarmine referred to him as “the most degenerate of all Pontiffs” (De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter XIX; Grant translation). And indeed there is no question that John XII was, if not the worst Pope in history, certainly one of the top contenders for this dishonorable title.
Because of the great scandal the Pope was giving by his debauched life, Emperor Otto (Otho) I, after unsuccessfully summoning John to defend himself against the charges brought against him by numerous sworn witnesses, presumed to condemn and depose him in a synodal assembly at St. Peter’s in Rome. Prof. de Mattei writes:
On December 4, 963, John was condemned and deposed and Otto requested that the Synod elect a successor. The clergy and the Roman people chose (with the name of Leo VIII (963-965) a layman, the Head of the Lateran Chancellery, who, after being ordained deacon, priest and bishop that same day, received the approval of the Emperor and was consecrated in St. Peter’s.
(“De Mattei: Who was the worst Pope in the history of the Church?”, Rorate Caeli, Dec. 4, 2019)
But the story doesn’t end there. De Mattei relates what happened next:
When Otto departed, John, the deposed Pope, came back to Rome and forced Leo VIII to flee. John XII convened a new Council wherein he excommunicated Leo and began to take revenge on those who had abandoned him, by having the right hand cut off one of them (Azzone); and another, (Giovanni) his nose, tongue and two fingers.
The wicked Pope John XII died on May 14, 964, “eight days after he had been, according to rumour, stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery”, as related by the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia (s.v. “Pope John XII”).
De Mattei thinks that this period of ecclesiastical history supports his recognize-and-resist case, inasmuch, as he claims, Leo VIII was a legitimate Pope after John’s deposition by the emperor: “Despite John XII’s protests against the canonical illegitimacy of his deposition, the Church ranks Leo VIII in its official chronology as his legitimate successor.”
But is this so? And if so, is it the whole story?
Let’s look a bit more closely at what happened with the supposed “deposition” of Pope John and the election of his putative successor, Leo VIII. To do that, we will mainly consult traditional Catholic church history books, that is, approved Catholic sources from before Vatican II.
Church historian Fr. Charles Poulet is very clear in his assessment of what happened with regard to the so-called deposition of the Pope. Calling Otto’s synod a “pseudo-council”, he remarks: “It is impossible to justify a procedure of this kind, because no matter how guilty John XII may have been, he was still the lawful incumbent of the Holy See, and Leo VIII was a mere anti-pope, created by the Emperor” (A History of the Catholic Church, vol. I [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1934], p. 420).
Another pre-Vatican II expert in church history, Fr. Fernand Mourret, writes:
Emperor Otto, abusing his powers and avenging himself for some act of John XII, had the Pope deposed by a synod and in his place had the protoscriniarius Leo elected under the name of Leo VIII. But John succeeded in assembling a regular council, which quashed the decisions of the assembly held by Otto. Those decisions were null for two reasons: in condemning and deposing the supreme head of the Church, the pseudo-council violated the principle that the pope cannot be judged by anyone; and in electing the protoscriniarius Leo, who was not in sacred orders, it violated an ancient tradition, that the pope must be taken from the cardinalitial clergy, that is, from the clergy attached (incardinatus) to a church.
(Rev. Fernand Mourret, A History of the Catholic Church, vol. 3, trans. by Rev. Newton Thompson [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1946], p. 512; underlining added.)
The 19th-century historian Fr. Joseph Darras notes the same thing:
Whatever he might be as an individual, John XII. was lawful Pope; any attempt against his spiritual authority was, of right, null. The eighth general council [Fourth Council of Constantinople] had just decreed, in its twenty-first canon [Denz. 341]: “If any one, strong in secular power, seek to expel the Sovereign Pontiff from his See, let him be anathema!”
(Rev. J. E. Darras, A General History of the Catholic Church, vol. II [New York, NY: P. J. Kenedy, 1898], p. 594)
Concerning the emperor’s fake synod presuming to depose Pope John, Fr. Darras says: “Their meeting was but a pseudo-council, their decrees contrary to all canon law, and the Pontiff of their election [Leo VIII] could be but an antipope” (ibid.).
With regard to the status of Leo VIII, Fr. Mourret is likewise unmistakable, calling him an “antipope” whose election was an “unlawful act” (A History, vol. 4, pp. 23, 25). He adds: “True, a heavy responsibility falls upon the unworthy Pontiff, whose life had made possible the terrible charges against him. But, however guilty he may have been, he was the legitimate pope” (p. 25).
The Catholic Encyclopedia confirms all this in its entries on Pope John XII and Leo VIII:
With the imperial consent the synod deposed John on 4 December, and elected to replace him the protoscriniarius Leo, yet a layman. The latter received all the orders uncanonically without the proper intervals (interstitia), and was crowned pope as Leo VIII. This proceeding was aginst the canons of the Church, and the enthroning of Leo was almost universally regarded as invalid.
(s.v. “Pope John XII”; italics given; underlining added)
When the Emperor Otho I illegally brought about the deposition of the unworthy Pope John XII (Nov., 963), he equally illegally caused to be elected, to fill his place, a layman, “Leo, the venerable protonotary”…. No sooner, however, did the emperor leave Rome, than the people rose and expelled his nominee (Feb., 964). John XII at once returned to the city, summoned a council, condemned Leo “one of the employees of our curia, who has broken his faith with us”, and degraded those clerics who had been ordained by him.
(s.v. “Pope Leo VIII”; underlining added)
Who was the lawful and immediate successor to John XII then? Fr. Mourret is not the only one to say it was Benedict V: “Immediately after the death of John XII, the Romans … proceeded to the election of a new pope. Their choice was the deacon Benedict” (A History, vol. 4, p. 26). The same testimony is given by Fr. Poulet (A History, vol. I, p. 421) and the Catholic Encyclopedia (s.v. “Pope Leo VIII”). Fr. Darras, too, identifies Benedict V as the true Vicar of Christ: “The Romans cherished a heartfelt hatred against the German rule. At the death of John XII., regardless of the antipope Leo VIII., they raised to the vacant See (A.D. 964) Pope Benedict V, whose virtue and learning are recorded by even the German historians” (A General History of the Catholic Church, vol. II [New York, NY: P. J. Kenedy, 1898], p. 597).
The popular handbook Church History by Fr. John Laux includes a List of Supreme Pontiffs in its appendix (pp. 1**-3**), and there Leo VIII is not found at all; instead, John XII’s immediate successor is given as Benedict V, confirming the testimony of the historians already cited. Interestingly enough, Fr. Laux’s list is noted as being taken directly from the Annuario Pontificio of 1939, which is the Vatican’s official directory. It is true that Fr. Laux’s book states matter-of-factly that “the Council [Otto had called] deposed him [John XII] and elected Leo VIII in his stead” (p. 269), but this appears to be simply a descriptive presentation of the externally observable facts, rather than a theological evaluation of pontifical validity.
So far, Prof. de Mattei’s (somewhat implicit) claim that Leo VIII was the true Pope after John XII had been removed from the Papacy, has been squarely contradicted. Why, then, does he say that “the Church ranks Leo VIII in its official chronology as his legitimate successor”?
As we already saw, the official Vatican directory that includes the list of Popes is the so-called Annuario Pontificio. Its 1860 edition, available for free online, does not include Leo VIII as a legitimate Roman Pontiff; it does, however, mention his name in its entry on Pope John XII, which reads as follows:
John XII, of Conti Tusculani Romano, elected in the year 950, governed the Church for approximately 8 years, at which time, in the year 963 to be exact, Leo intruded into his pontificate; and, although subsequently being deposed, he dared to encroach upon this supreme authority once more on June 24, 964, and kept it unlawfully until his death, which occurred around April of 966. Nevertheless, Leo is numbered among the Pontiffs by that name, and he is usually called Leo VIII.
(Annuario Pontificio pel 1860 [Roma: Tipografia della R.C.A., 1860], p. 13; our translation.)
Thus far the testimony of the Church’s official chronology as of 1860. Was Leo VIII included as a true Pope in subsequent editions of the Annuario Pontificio? We have not been able to verify it yet, but it is possible.
The 1959 Catholic Almanac (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony’s Guild) presents a list which it says is “adapted from” the 1958 Annuario Pontificio (p. 145). Oddly, John XII’s immediate successor is listed there as being Leo VIII, and Leo’s as being Benedict V (p. 147). To make matters worse, the dates given for their respective reigns overlap so that Leo’s cuts into John’s and Benedict’s into Leo’s. Obviously, these dates cannot be taken as referring to definitely valid pontifical reigns, as there can only be one Pope at a time.
Why is there so much confusion about this? The fundamental difficulty is that the time period in which all these things transpired is known as the saeculum obscurum (“dark age”), for which reliable historical sources are scarce. But there is one incident that is probably most responsible for giving Leo’s claim to the Papacy any extent of credibility at all: Pope Benedict V appears to have voluntarily resigned the Papacy in favor of Leo when the latter demanded to be recognized as Pope and presumed to depose Benedict.
The Catholic Encyclopedia sheds a bit of light on this:
Indignant at the expulsion of Leo, and the election of Benedict, Otho hurried to Rome, and was soon in possession of both it and the new pope. Leo returned with the emperor, and at once brought Benedict to trial. With the consent of all his would-be judges, Benedict was degraded to the rank of a deacon, Leo himself tearing the pallium from his shoulders (July, 964). If it be the fact, as is asserted by a contemporary, that Benedict acquiesced in his deposition, and if, as seems certain, no further protest was made against Leo’s position, he may well be regarded as a true pope from July, 964, to his death in 965, about the month of March.
(s.v. “Pope Leo VIII”; underlining added)
Note well that the Catholic Encyclopedia keeps sound Catholic doctrine intact: The writer speaks of mere “would-be judges”, since Benedict being the Pope, he truly had no human judge, being subject to no one but God alone; and he carefully makes Leo’s reign as a true Pope dependent on Pope Benedict actually (if tacitly) resigning.
The late Novus Ordo church historian Warren Carroll confirms the apparent abdication of Pope Benedict V:
Leo tore the pallium from Benedict V’s shoulders and broke his shepherd’s crook in two. There is every reason to believe that Benedict, a genuinely humble and holy man, then and there resigned as Pope to avoid further humiliation of the Papal office and useless defiance of this Emperor who remained, despite these great transgressions, essentially a friend of the Church. Leo was accepted as his successor, Pope Leo VIII, for about eight months from July 964 until his death probably in March 965.
(Warren H. Carroll, A History of Christendom, vol. 2 [Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987], p. 424)
This would explain the inconsistent listings of Leo VIII as either Pope or Antipope in different official or semi-official church sources.
Adding even more confusion to it all is Fr. Mourret’s observation that “Benedict V has no numerical designation in the generally received list of popes; but many historians consider him a legitimate pope, and we can see no reason for refusing him this title” (A History, vol. 4, p. 27). Yet in the Annuario Pontificio of 1860, Benedict is listed as Pope no. 134, and Leo is the one not included in the numbered list.
No matter how we look at it, the historical record appears to be too obscure to allow a certain judgment. In fact, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that after Pope Benedict V’s (valid or invalid) resignation, Emperor Otto took him to Germany, where “he was even then acknowledged as pope by some of the German clergy” (s.v. “Pope Benedict V”). And Fr. Darras even writes that “Otho had been able to learn something of the virtues of Benedict … and he was taking measures to restore the Pontiff to the Roman See, when death anticipated his plans by removing the holy exile…” (A General History, vol. II, p. 598).
It is very important to understand that with regard to judging the validity of a pontificate so many hundreds of years in the past, the Church is dependent on reliable historical data, which can be difficult to obtain. As new evidence emerges, additional manuscripts are found, forgeries are exposed, etc., the historical record has the potential to change.
Since this is a matter of historical fact and not of doctrine or law, the Church’s judgment in that regard is not protected by infallibility. St. Robert Bellarmine points out “that the Pontiff, even as Pontiff, can err in particular controversies of fact, even together with a general Council, because these depend especially on the testimonies of men” (De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapter II). This is something that “all Catholics and [even] the heretics agree on”, the canonized doctor notes.
While the precise succession of events — and pontificates — in the 10th century is difficult for us to untangle, per Catholic dogma two things are eminently clear: (a) there can only be one Pope at a time; and (b) no human authority can take the pontificate away from a true Pope. Regarding the latter point, the following post is very informative:
At the end of the day, the lamentable confusion about Leo’s status need not concern us too much. We can say with certainty that he was a true Pope if and only if Benedict V validly abdicated beforehand, and only from that time period onwards until his death.
Having clarified all this, a few more words must be said about the gravely immoral Pope John XII, whose dissolute life scandalized all.
Fr. Mourret is careful to point out — and semi-trads ought to take notice — that despite his moral horrors, “by a manifest protection of Providence, the doctrine of the Church never suffered from the faults of this unfortunate Pontiff” (A History, vol. 4, p. 22). In other words, when the immoral Pope took a break from sinning to attend to the duties of the papal office, he was as safe of a guide of orthodoxy and good morals as any other:
Divine providence, watching over the Church, miraculously preserved the deposit of faith, of which this young voluptuary was the guardian. This Pope’s life was a monstrous scandal, but his bullarium is faultless. We cannot sufficiently admire this prodigy. There is not a heretic or a schismatic who has not endeavored to legitimate his own conduct dogmatically: Photius tried to justify his pride, Luther his sensual passions, Calvin his cold cruelty. Neither Sergius III nor John XII nor Benedict IX nor Alexander VI, supreme pontiffs, definers of the faith, certain of being heard and obeyed by the whole Church, uttered, from the height of their apostolic pulpit, a single word that could be an approval of their disorders.
At times John XII even became the defender of the threatened social order, of offended canon law, and of the religious life exposed to danger.
(Mourret, A History of the Catholic Church, vol. 3, pp. 510-511; underlining added.)
This is an amazingly beautiful testimony to the perennial validity of the promises of Christ for the papal office, which cannot be thwarted by the sinful conduct of a true Pope; and it is echoed by Fr. Darras: “But at least the sacred deposit of faith, even when intrusted to unworthy keepers, has never been altered. It has ever remained pure and unmixed; and this is the ever-enduring miracle of the Church” (A General History, vol. 2, p. 597).
This is fully consistent with the papal magisterium on the matter:
Let the faithful recall the fact that Peter, Prince of Apostles is alive here and rules in his successors, and that his office does not fail even in an unworthy heir. Let them recall that Christ the Lord placed the impregnable foundation of his Church on this See of Peter [Mt 16:18] and gave to Peter himself the keys of the kingdom of Heaven [Mt 16:19]. Christ then prayed that his faith would not fail, and commanded Peter to strengthen his brothers in the faith [Lk 22:32].
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, n. 16)
…the Church has received from on high a promise which guarantees her against every human weakness. What does it matter that the helm of the symbolic barque has been entrusted to feeble hands, when the Divine Pilot stands on the bridge, where, though invisible, He is watching and ruling? Blessed be the strength of his arm and the multitude of his mercies!
(Pope Leo XIII, Allocution to Cardinals, March 20, 1900; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 349.)
The Pope has the divine promises; even in his human weaknesses, he is invincible and unshakable; he is the messenger of truth and justice, the principle of the unity of the Church; his voice denounces errors, idolatries, superstitions; he condemns iniquities; he makes charity and virtue loved.
(Pope Pius XII, Address Ancora Una Volta, Feb. 20, 1949)
That the divine promises are manifestly not being kept for the “papacy” of Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope” Francis) only underscores the fact that he is not a true Pope.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “John was accused of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest” — and we note with great interest that heresy was not among the charges brought against him. This is significant, for no matter how immoral he was, it is manifest heresy alone that could have made him lose his pontificate automatically and, so to speak, against his will: “For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy” (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 23; underlining added).
But in addition to keeping the Church’s magisterium spotless, we can thank the scandalous Pope John XII for a beautiful and most traditional custom: “John XII (955-964), who had been baptized Octavian, a name of the pagan emperor, is credited with beginning in earnest the custom of name-changing” (J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995], p. 288).
To sum up: Pope John XII was not validly deposed; his legitimate successor was Benedict V; and if Leo VIII was ever a true Pope, his pontificate did not begin before Benedict V’s free and valid resignation. Considering all of the evidence we have examined, we must unfortunately conclude that Roberto de Mattei has once again misled his readers by mixing truths, half-truths, and falsehoods from Catholic history.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have the choice: Go with the Church’s approved pre-Vatican II church history and theology books, or go with Roberto de Mattei.
Which of these alternatives will most of the recognizing-and-resisting semi-trads choose?
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