Formosus (c. 816–896)
Few of this Middle Ages pope’s predecessors thought he deserved to get the job after his many travels around Europe led some to think he was conspiring against the church. Having made many enemies during his papacy, Formosus was subjected to what papal historians infamously call the “Cadaver Synod.” Shortly after he died, the body of the deceased pontiff was exhumed, seated in a chair with papal vestments, and tried for not being worthy of being pope. He was found guilty.
Pope Benedict IX (1032–1048)
Aside from being one of the youngest popes in the church’s history—he was about 18 when first elected—Benedict IX is thought to have sold the papacy to his godfather after he decided he wanted to get married. Sadly, we don’t know the price tag.
Innocent III (1198–1216)
A string of popes in the late 12th century – including the ironically named Innocent III – directed crusaders to retake the city of Jerusalem from Muslim rule, saying that Christians would earn passage to heaven if they died fighting for the church. (Sound familiar?) Recognizing the historical effect of the aggression (colonialism, a history of orientalism), Pope John Paul II apologized for the crusades in 2000. “We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth,” he said from the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Alexander VI (1492–1503)
The papacy of Alexander VI heralded a low point for the Vatican during the Italian Renaissance. The pontiff made little secret of having four children with his longtime mistress; it was also revealed later that he had conducted a sexual relationship with one daughter, who later bore him a son. Despite his vices, Alexander was given slack by the curia for his appreciation of fine art, having commissioned work from Raphael and Michelangelo.
Pius XII (1939-1958)
As pope during the climax of World War II, Pius held a uniquely moral obligation. But anti-Nazi leaders like Poland’s exiled president Władysław Raczkiewicz were incensed that the pope wouldn’t condemn the deportation of Jews from around Italy and other countries. Pius remained under pressure for much of the war, although historical records show that his Vatican protected hundreds of Italian Jews from being deported, and that the pontiff may have actually been a co-conspirator in a plot to kill Hitler.
Benedict XVI (2005–present)
Shortly after the current pope’s election in 2005, it came to light that as a young boy in Germany, Benedict (then named Joseph Ratzinger) was a member of the Hitler Youth, an organization of young voices that cheered the rise of the Nazi Party. His allies said he could not be an anti-Semite, though, because at the time all German children were drafted into the ranks without a choice—and remained there until the war ended. Benedict’s latest scandal also includes youth: recent news reports have implicated him in efforts earlier in his career to cover up the sexual offenses of two pedophile priests.