When it comes to less than decorous behavior by the Papacy, the Renaissance immediately comes to mind, but in fact the most embarrassing age for the Church came much earlier, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. These years mark the absolute rock bottom for the institution and are to some degree a reflection of the abysmal state of European society in general. The earlier part of this period, roughly the first half of the tenth century, is so wretched that it has been given a formal name, the saeculum obscurum – the dark (or ignoble) age, and has also been referred to as the Pornocracy and the Rule of the Harlots.
The saeculum began with the elevation of Sergius III (904-911) and ended with the deposition of John XII (955-964), who was in fact the grandson of Sergius’ alleged lover, Marozia. There were twelve Popes during this time, all of them either members of or dominated by the powerful Theophylacti family of Tusculum (hence the Tusculum Papacy 904-1058), and particularly active were Theodora, wife of Theophylactus I, and her daughter Marozia. John X (914-928) was the alleged lover of Theodora and was supposedly killed by an outraged Marozia, whose son, allegedly by Sergius, became John XI (931-935) and whose grandson became John XII. The half century after the last of the Pornocracy Popes was dominated by another Roman family, the Crescenti, but the Theophylacti were back with Benedict VIII (1012-1024), formally known as Theophylactus II. He was succeeded by his brother, who as a lay person had to be ordained a bishop before becoming John XIX (1024-1032) and who may have been murdered by the Roman mob. He was followed by his nephew, who was elevated as Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048).
Benedict IX is a truly memorable Pope, having had the unique experience of holding the office three times. Installed in 1032, he was driven out of Rome in 1044 by his enemies, who put Sylvester III (1044-1045) on the throne of St. Peter. He returned in 1045, but was convinced to sell the Papacy, only to change his mind and seize the office again in 1047 and be deposed and excommunicated a year later. In an age of dissolute Popes he nevertheless managed to stand out; he was believed to hold orgies in the Lateran Palace and was the first Pope thought to be homosexual. On the other hand, John XII, who was Benedict’s granduncle, had set the bar very high. He was accused, among other things, of turning the Lateran into a brothel, murdering his confessor, calling upon demons when gambling and toasting the health of the devil at the altar.
The current Vatican scandals – pedophilia, homosexual prostitutes for priests, political infighting, a corrupt bank – would hardly be noticed during the Tusculum Papacy, but salvation was at hand for the Church. The Tusculum Papacy came to an end in 1058 with the accession of Nicholas II, one of whose supporters was the reformer Hildebrand of Sovana. In 1073 Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and began an age of reform, freeing the Papacy from the Roman nobility by empowering the College of Cardinals as the electors of the Pope and beginning the long struggle to free the Church from the interference of the German Emperor and the French King.