Top 10 Controversial Popes

#2 Urban VI

The papacy of Urban VI (Bartolomeo Prignano) got off on the wrong foot. An Italian, he was elected to succeed Pope Gregory XI in April 1378 in a move intended to placate Romans bridling at the decades of French domination in the papacy. But once installed, Urban VI alienated his followers with a harsh leadership style. Thirteen French Cardinals who feared that their new leader would favor his fellow Italians fled Rome, declaring within months that Urban VI’s election was “null because it was not made freely but under fear.” On Sept. 20, 1378, they chose their own Pope, French Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who became Antipope Clement VII. The competing papacies launched the Western Schism that proved a thorn in the church’s side for four decades. If only Urban VI had played nice …

#1 Stephen VI

Talk about holding a grudge. Pope Stephen VI (also sometimes known as Stephen VII) despised his predecessor, Pope Formosus, so much that even his death could not satisfy him — he wanted defamation. In the Cadaver Synod — what has been called “the strangest and most terrible trial in human history” and “one of the grisliest events in papal history” — Stephen VI had Formosus’ rotting nine-month-old corpse dug up, redressed in his papal vestments and seated on the throne so he could be tried. Somehow the corpse hadn’t built much of a defense, and Formosus was found guilty of what were likely bogus charges. As punishment, three of Formosus’ fingers were cut off (the three fingers on the right hand used to give blessings). The corpse was then stripped of his sacred vestments, dressed as a layman, dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber River — where he was finally able to rest in peace.

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