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Popes throughout History: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Catholicism regards St. Peter as the first pope, handpicked by Jesus Christ himself, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew (16:18), when Jesus said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” If you count St. Peter as the first pope, then Benedict XVI is the 266th pope or the 265th successor of St. Peter, depending on where you begin.

Probably the worst pope ever, Alexander VI (1492–1503) was a Borgia. The name is infamous; the Borgias were a notorious yet influential Italian family during the Renaissance when no unified Kingdom of Italy existed — only small principalities, dukedoms, and city-states.

Pope Alexander VI had several illegitimate children before and during his reign as pope, two of whom are noteworthy: Cesare Borgia and his sister Lucrezia Borgia. Cesare grew up to be a ruthless autocrat, and Lucrezia is reputed to have been the most famous poisoner.

Alexander VI is the epitome of nepotism, bribery, deceit, debauchery, and anything else you can imagine. The Borgias were the Sopranos of their time. The list of Borgias included 11 cardinals, 2 popes, a queen of England, and a saint.

And Benedict IX (1032–1045) was a close second to the worst pope. Assuming the throne of St. Peter in his late teens or early twenties, this playboy pope incited a riot in Rome because the people were so disgusted with his antics.

Lady pope? Hardly. The so-called Pope Joan never existed except in myth from the 13th to 17th centuries. French Protestant David Blondel (1590–1655) disproved the myth once and for all in a scholarly refutation, but the story is so bizarre that some still believe it despite the lack of any credible evidence.

The legend goes that a woman named Joan impersonated a man so that she could enter the clerical life and rise through the ecclesiastical ranks of the hierarchy, which she allegedly did with ease. Supposedly, her short hair and manly dress fooled everyone until one day, while riding a horse, she gave birth to a child and was exposed as a fake — only to be stoned to death by the angry mob.

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