By: Ashley Hoffman
January 13, 2017
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There have been unsavory Popes, but he was certainly the one with the worst reputation,” Ken Pennington, a professor at the Catholic University of America, tells TIME.
He was charged with disloyalty and adultery, and historians maintain that even though his reign dates back to an age when historical records are questionable, both charges are true. His papacy even started with a broken rule, though it’s one for which he can’t be blamed: When his powerful father Duke Alberic II of Spoleto told the clergy to appoint his illegitimate son as Pope, he violated the decree that papal replacement plans aren’t supposed to begin before a sitting Pope dies. The clergy honored the duke anyway, and made his son the Pope.
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“He was not the most admirable Pope,” says Pennington. “In fact, he was probably one of the worst popes that ever lived, but he was not a dummy.”
But the alliance with Otto didn’t last a year. Pope John XII soon aligned with Berengar II’s son behind Otto’s back. (Historians speculate that this was because he regretted granting Otto so much power.) “Otto quickly concluded John was unreliable, immoral and a bit of a crook,” Noble says. Infuriated, Otto briefly deposed Pope John XII. But by regaining the trust of church members and getting rid of his enemies, John was soon able to resume the papacy.
Pope John XII also caused a fair amount of scandal with his private life. Though some allegations of the young Pope’s doings are likely exaggerated—Otto’s ally Liudprand of Cremona wrote in History of Otto that Pope John XII turned the palace into a “brothel”—the charge that he was not celibate holds up to historical scrutiny. “He was a randy Pope,” Pennington says. “It was pretty unanimous that he was a dissolute Pope who had many women in the Lateran.”
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Professor Kenneth Pennington's Areas of ExpertiseHistory of Procedure
For additional information about our professors' areas of speciality, see his faculty profile page.