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loose canons
There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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22: Was John XII the worst-ever Pope?
HERE HAVE, YOU'VE GOT TO ADMIT, been some bad Popes here and there. We’ve met Formosus the corpse-botherer, and there are plenty more where he came from. But I think it’s safe to say that John XII was the worst ever.

John was the illegitimate son of the devout 10th-century Roman lord Alberic - though reading that sentence once again, perhaps not all that devout. Alberic spent years reforming the corrupt Roman church, and making sure that all the Popes appointed were holy men who subscribed to the spiritual revival movement of Cluny abbey.

But on his deathbed, Alberic was overcome by family values and decided to undo all his reforms by making his son Pope. John was not a holy reformer, he was a spoilt 17-year-old.

The Cluny movement was making people less tolerant of papal debauchery, but blissfully unconcerned about what anyone was tolerant of, John did what any 17-year-old with all the resources of Rome at his disposal would do, and opened a brothel in the papal palace. Pilgrims who were unwary enough to visit St Peter’s alone were pounced on and sexually assaulted.

John is said to have consecrated one of his bishops in a stable. In the same refreshingly relaxed attitude to the dignity of the episcopal office, he allegedly castrated one.

When pilgrims brought offerings to St Peter’s, John simply pocketed them. When he was strapped for cash he paid his lovers with church plate.

In 958, he went on a foray to conquer some Italian districts for the Papal State, but it went wrong, and he had to call the German king Otto to rescue him from the tribe he was meant to be attacking. But the deal Otto cut with him was a bit steep, so John tried to have Otto overthrown (by the tribe he was meant to be attacking).

So Otto marched on Rome to overthrow John instead. The holy father filled his bags with all the  ecclesiastical gold he could get his hands on, and ran for it.

John died shortly afterwards in bed (not his own) of a stroke, in his mid-twenties.John was actually baptised Octavian, but made the unprecedented decision to take a saintly pseudonym when he became Pope. So if you ever wondered which Pope started the tradition of taking a new name to dissociate one’s private frailties from the holy office, unfortunately perhaps, but not inappropriately, it was John.

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