In The Young Pope Paolo Sorrentino has created a complex and intensely flawed fictional Pope Pius XIII. This first American pope, played by Jude Law, is young, strikingly handsome— which he awkwardly likes to point out—and unnervingly old-fashioned. He immediately turns the Vatican City establishment upside down. By choosing the name “Pius,” he is defining himself as dutiful and reverent, but from his first, eyebrow-raising demand for a Cherry Coke Zero, we can’t quite figure out if Pius XIII’s platitudes are a hypocritical display of piety. It’s impossible not to rubberneck as he thunders around the Vatican like the Queen of Hearts.
Sunday nights on HBO have long been a stage for the delightfully devious, but how much piety can one find in 2,000 years of papal history? In 2016, Pope Francis warned that “hypocrisy is spiritual schizophrenia,” but it’s worth noting that popes have often tried to walk a fine line between worldly and spiritual leadership. The following 10 pontiffs notoriously breached notions of papal infallibility with some very human failings. Each of them would give Pope Pius XIII a run for his money.
While the celibacy of the Catholic clergy has been a topic of theological discussion since the Church’s earliest councils, official written regulations condemning sexual activity were introduced in the fourth century. In reality, celibacy was not really enforced until the First Lateran Council in 1123 and indiscretions were common for centuries. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Pope Pius II fathered two children with two different women. It might be more surprising to know that, before he became pope in 1458, he was motivated to write an erotic novel called The Tale of Two Lovers This freethinking humanist managed to go from being excommunicated from the church, to being elevated to cardinal with a little help from his powerful friend, Emperor Frederick III. As pope, he tried to suppress his hypocritical novel, but it became a 15th century bestseller. You can get a copy on Amazon.
This smooth-talking ladies’ man was most famously the father of Renaissance kingpins Caesar and Lucrezia Borgia. He wove a tangled web of influence across Europe, which often involved using his children’s marriages as political collateral to expand the papal kingdom. To court both Spanish and Portuguese favor, he issued official decrees to support their ownership of land in the newly colonized Americas, where he supported both enslaving and forcing religious conversion on native peoples. Pope Alexander shifted alliances rapidly—basically, by licking his finger and putting it in the air to see which way the winds were blowing. His obsession with temporal matters may have ushered in his untimely death (most likely by poisoning). The next pope, Julius II, went so far as to make it clear that anyone uttering the sanctimonious Borgia’s badly behaved name would be excommunicated. Even the Holy See likes to keep its dirty laundry under wraps.
This tall, dark and handsome pope is not known for his rhetorical skills or his exceptional Latin verse: He’s remembered for being the pope who condemned Galileo by sending him to the Inquisition, where he was forced to recant his theory that the sun was the center of the universe. Urban was Galileo’s trusted friend, and had often spoken out in support of the hot-headed astronomer’s work— until Galileo made fun of him in his “Dialogue of the Two World Systems,” that is, casting Urban as a simpleton and fool. (One can almost picture the steam coming out of the pope’s ears.) Urban didn’t care that the Medici Dukes in Florence wanted to protect their courtier; he had Galileo hauled to Rome to stand trial. Even after Galileo’s death, Urban was so furious that he would not allow a public funeral. It took 350 years for Galileo to be acquitted of heresy. Papal memory is long indeed.
This pope was determined to be the most powerful man in the world, and he thought nothing of crushing all temporal leadership under this authority. Dante Alighieri was so angry at Pope Boniface that he put him in the bowels of hell in “The Divine Comedy,” as a lurking shadow representing simony, indulgences, and fraud. (Ouch.) A bold move in the 13th century, Dante took the gloves off because Boniface’s obsession to display his authority over secular leaders allowed for the rise of the political faction that exiled Dante from his beloved Florence. When considering the theological worldview of the Middle Ages, this is one major medieval, “Oh I’m sorry! You’re still alive and reading about yourself in hell? Oh, snap.” Dante didn’t care if you were the pope: He wouldn’t stand for that kind of hypocrisy.
Pope Stephen VI had a propensity for epic theatrics. He put the cadaver of Pope Formosus on trial. During the Cadaver Synod, Formosus’ rotten corpse was dressed in papal robes and tried for his crimes. He was accused of being bishop over multiple places at once and of actively campaigning for the papacy. While popes are supposed to be forgiving, they can also be vindictive—and Stephen was more than a little guilty of this shortcoming. Stephen had committed the same infractions that he accused Formosus of, which explains his hypocritical ruse: Don’t look at me! That corpse, he did it! In the end, Formosus was found guilty, and his fingers were removed so that he could no longer give the blessing. His already decayed body was thrown into the Tiber River. This is one jaw-dropping way to draw attention away from your own crimes.
This pope loved to mesmerize the Romans with his pet elephant, Hanno. The Portuguese King Manuel I had sent the gift to the Medici pope from India. The Italians knew about elephants from stories of the animals marching over the Alps as a part of the Carthaginian army during the Punic Wars. However, a pope parading a real-life elephant around Rome was surely a sight to behold—and way flashier than riding around in the popemobile. When Hanno died, the pope was so distraught that he commissioned a memorial mural by Raphael. Talk of distributing parts of Hanno’s body as relics was used by followers of Martin Luther as Exhibit A in the case against theological corruption. Sorrentino’s Pope Pius XIII is rarely delighted, but when he sees a kangaroo sent to him by the Australians, he lights up like the heart-shaped eyes emoji. One can be sure that Leo X was just as giddy.
Urban II entered the papacy as a reformist who wanted the clergy to remove itself from worldly influences and live a more monastic existence. His song quickly changed. In 1095, he called on the French to set off on the first Crusade to “liberate” the holy land from Muslim control. With the battle cry “Deus vult” (God wills it), he spoke to an eager crowd about spiritual motivations. However, you can almost hear him coughing secular reasons under his breath. The knights of Europe responded too quickly not to be considering the economic advantages of controlling territory and trade routes, too. What maybe started as a “holy war,” almost immediately focused on economic interests—Christian cities like Constantinople, the leaders of which had asked Urban for help fending off Muslim armies in the first place, were even sacked by crusading armies. One can almost hear Urban II uttering a Steven Urkel-esque, “Did I do that?”
How do you make this list if you were only pope for two weeks? The answer is grounded in some rather heinous priorities. Elected by the Spanish faction in the deeply divided Roman Curia, Urban VII had some big plans to help the poor of Rome, but got almost nothing accomplished in his very short reign. He did, however, manage to set the first major smoking ban, which said no one could take tobacco into a church, much less chew it, smoke it or sniff it. In 1724, Benedict XIII, who was a smoker himself, overturned the ban with a blessed smoke ‘em if you got ‘em—a good thing for his fictional successor Pius XIII who smokes like he’s in a Fellini movie.
Pius IX is known for carrying the papacy into modernity, having the longest reign of any pope (31 years) and for being the first pope to be photographed. Pius was so upset when Italy unified as a nation state under the kingship of Victor Emmanuel II that he excommunicated the king and condemned any Italians who supported the new government. The government could barely get voters to the polls. Pius lived long enough, all the while seeing himself as a prisoner trapped in an unholy state, to witness the death of his kingly nemesis. It cannot be easy to see one’s temporal power disappear right out from under your nose. Although the Italian government spoke out against the idea, in part because of the pope’s vehement anti-Semitism, Pius IX was beatified in 2000. Vatican City is sovereign; it has its own post office and makes its own rules.
In keeping with the theme of a “not so pious Pius,” Number 12 is the most recent namesake of The Young Pope. He infamously turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. (His predecessor, Pope Pius XI, spoke out against Nazis until his death in 1939.) While Pope Pius XII had rallied against Hitler’s policies in the past, during World War II he did little to act against the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. Some historians suggest that, by not speaking loudly against the Holocaust, he was using a diplomatic tactic to prevent retribution against Catholics. Others defend the pope with evidence of how many Jews were saved by Catholics, even though the pope could not always save his own priests. Historians may never be sure of his motivations, but Pius XII is rarely remembered fondly—and for good reason.
Christine Contrada earned a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance History from Stony Brook University in New York. She has taught Italian history and culture for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter at @CJContrada.