Here are some more snippets from Why I Am A Catholic‘s telling of the history of the Roman papacy.
The contest of rival popes took its grimmest form in the infamous “cadaver synod” of 897, when the body of Pope Formosus, nine months dead, was exhumed by his successor Stephen VI, dressed in his former papal splendour, and put on trial for usurping the papal office. (Formosus had been bishop of Porto at a time when bishops were ineligible for the papacy, since they could not leave their dioceses.)
A few months after this victory over his dead foe, Stephen was himself imprisoned and then strangled. The body of Formosus was retrieved and honored as a miracle-working relic.
That’s just the beginning of the body count.
Popes in this period were frequently desposed, often hobbled with the claims of anti-popes, and murdered with a dismal regularity. The roll call of papal homicides is grim. In a single century, Stephen VI was killed in 897, Benedict IV in 903, Leo V in 904, John X in 928, Stephen VIII in 942, Benedict VI in 974, John XIV in 984. … By the papacy of Leo VI (928), Marozia, Theophylact’s daughter, had taken over the family business of the papacy, ruling from her eyrie in Castel Sant’Angelo. In her teens she had allegedly had an affair with one pope (Sergius III), father of her bastard child who became Pope John XI. In 928 she had Pope John X murdered for trying to escape the family’s stranglehold. In his place she put here own puppet-pope, Leo VI. When Leo died suddenly, she put in a stopgap figure, Stephen VII, to hold the chair until her son entered his twenties and could be put on the throne as John XI.
Oh wait, there’s more…
Pope John was so dissolute and treacherous that [Saxon Emperor] Otto returned to Rome and presided over a synod that deposed him, replacing him with Leo VIII. But when Otto left Rome, John raised a rebellion against Leo, who fled to Otto. Those who had supported Leo were savagely punished. … When Otto’s army moved back toward Rome, John fled to Campagna, where he died of a stroke, reportedly in the arms of a married woman. He was twenty-seven.
And the final flourish before the Roman Church declared its independence:
Not even the Ottonian interventions could bring an end to the struggle of Roman families for control of the papacy. … They frequently fielded rival popes, leading to a confusing series of depositions, reinstallations, and joint rules. The emperor’s interventions were defied as soon as he withdrew to his northern territories.
… In 1012, the Tuscolani [family] overthrew the Crescenzi [family] by electing Benedict VIII, upon which the Crescenzi created their own pontiff, Gregory VI. When Benedict died, his layman brother was put in as John XIX, and when John XIX died, his brother elevated his own son as Benedict IX, in 1032. Benedict, dissolute and unpopular, was deposed and fled Rome. The Crescenzi were able to supplant him with their own man, Silvester III, upon which Benedict returned to Rome with an armed force, expelled his successor, and again took up residence in the Lateran Palace. But after a brief time he turned over the papacy, in return for a large sum of money, to his godfather, who became Gregory VI.
That was just about the end of that monkey business. Wills quotes the historian Schimmelpfennig who sums up this period of papal history:
“There were now usually two competing popes, as there had been since 963. Though this may not present any problems to a historian, it certain does to a dogmatist. Because there is a lack of criteria, it is difficult to decide who lawfully governed, and, by extension, who carried on the apostolic succession.”
All this makes the super-secret, non-democratic, in camera modern papal elections seem clean and transparent!