Bad Popes and the Saeculum Obscurum

We have heard of the Dark Ages and most people wrongly label the Medieval Era (ca. AD 600-1500) as the Dark Ages.

There is, however, an age that is unanimously classified as the Saeculum Obscurum or “Dark Age.” It’s the 60 years from election of Pope Sergius III in 904 until the death of Pope John XII in 964.

This dark age is also called the Pornocracy because the Popes were intertwined with the powerful Theophylact I, who was Count of Tusculum and de facto ruler of Rome.

Theophylact and his wife Theodora effectively whored out their 15 year old daughter Marozia to be the concubine of Pope Sergius III (904–911). Popes cannot enter into valid marriage alliances, but they can share a bed. By doing so Theophylact united his own political power to the pillow of the Pope of Rome.

As if that were not enough, Theophylact was cuckolded by his own wife Theodora when she became the lover of Pope John X (914–928). Moreover, Pope John X is said to have been a lover both of Theodora (mother) and her daughter Marozia. And Pope John XI (931–935) was the illegitimate son of their daughter Marozia (perhaps the son of Sergius III). Marozia managed for her son Pope John XI to be elected at age 21.

Altogether, a bastard son, two grandsons, two great grandsons, and one great great grandson of Marozia became Popes!!! She even had a descendent who became an anti-Pope. Oh, and Pope John XIII was her nephew, the son of her sister Theodora.

It’s no wonder that this era is called the Reign of the Harlots. Theodora and Marozia (mother and daughter) used their sexual skills to control the Popes while Theophylact benefited politically from his wife and daughter’s pursuits. This papal corruption endured for six decades.

If you get discouraged by sexual scandals in the Church or by politics in Rome, we can be reminded that Christ allows it for some good reason that we do not yet understand. 

Several valid high priests of the Old Testament and several valid Popes of the New Testament have operated in ways that are selfish, dishonest, immoral, and abusive. The high priests after the Maccabees were especially cruel, lustful, and murderous. And Catholic Popes have been equally cruel, lustful, and murderous.

Christ Himself indicated this possibility in His teaching to us:

Matthew 24:
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant [Pope], whom his master [Jesus Christ] has set over his household [Catholic Church], to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant [Pope] whom his master [Christ] when he comes will find so doing. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, 50 the master [Christ] of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, 51 and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

As Saint Gregory the Great taught, Popes are “servants of the servants of God” set over the household while the Master Christ is away. We are required by filial charity to pray for our Pope’s protection and intentions daily. Salvation is through the Master, not through the Servant. And yet, Christ has appointed a Servant so we have teachings built on the Rock.

Even during the Dark Age of 904-964, Christ saved souls, worked in the local parishes, effected the sacraments, and lifted up great saints. Poland, Hungary, and Russia were being effectively evangelized. While Popes were whoring it up in Rome, Good King Wenceslaus (d. 935) was bringing holiness to Bohemia. And Saint Odo was carrying out the Cluniac Reforms.

Our Lord Jesus Christ may be “away,” but He is still present and working among us in every age, even in the darkest age.

Godspeed,
Dr Taylor Marshall

PS: If you’d like to study Medieval Catholic History, please join us online. The New Saint Thomas Institute is now offering three Certificates in Church History: Patristics, Medieval, and Reformation and Modern. Click here to enroll and begin learning about Christian History from the Fathers, Saints, and Popes: New Saint Thomas Institute.

Popes during the Saeculum Obscurum (AD 904-964)
Pope Sergius III (904–911) lover of Marozia
Pope Anastasius III (911–913)
Pope Lando (913–914)
Pope John X (914–928) lover of Theodora (the mother) and Marozia (daughter).
Pope Leo VI (928–928)
Pope Stephen VII (928–931)
Pope John XI (931–935) son of Marozia, son of Pope Sergius III.
Pope Leo VII (936–939)
Pope Stephen VIII (939–942)
Pope Marinus II (942–946)
Pope Agapetus II (946–955)
Pope John XII (955–964) grandson of Marozia, by her son Alberic II of Spoleto. He is often rated as “Worst Pope Ever.”

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