Jennifer refers to the lead editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, about President Obama’s openness to investigating — and perhaps trying — government officials of the Bush administration for the legal advice they gave regarding interrogation methods. The Journal notes that, “everyone agrees that senior officials, including President Bush, approved these interrogations. Is this President going to put his predecessor in the dock too?”
As a modest collector of the more delicious grotesqueries of history, I was immediately reminded of the fate of Pope Formosus, who reigned from 891 to 896. His immediate successor, Boniface VI, lived only 15 days. But Formosus was indeed tried by the next Pope, for perjury, canonical violations and even ambition to be named pope, a sin of which more than a few men of the cloth have been guilty over the last 2,000 years. But wait, you say. Popes are elected for life, so how could he be tried by a later pope? No problem. The new pope, Stephen VI (or VII, depending on how you count — don’t ask, it’s complicated), simply had the corpse of Formosus dug up – -seven months after his death — dressed in papal vestments, and propped up in a chair. A deacon was placed behind the chair to answer any questions put to the dead pope.
Not surprisingly, Formosus was found guilty. His rotting body had three fingers — the ones he had used to give blessings — chopped off and was dumped in a common grave. The corpse was later dug up and thrown into the Tiber. A hermit, who claimed he was led by a vision of Formosus, found the body washed up and gave it a decent burial.
Those slavering over the possibility of a show trial or two for Bush administration officials might want to take note of the fate of Stephen VI. As soon as the trial was over, an earthquake struck Rome and the populace, understandably regarding this as a sign of divine displeasure, soon forced Stephen’s abdication as Pope. Thrown into prison, he was strangled a few months later. The body of Formosus was returned to the crypt beneath St. Peter’s and buried yet again — it was the fourth burial — with full papal honors. The following year, a new pope overturned the decision of the synod that had tried Formosus and forbade trials of the dead in the future.
This sorry episode, known as the “Cadaver Synod,” is generally regarded as the low point in the Papacy’s long history.