Papal Contradictions and the Roman Child

by Jesse Johnson

In 1497, Pope Alexander had a crisis of his own making that was threatening to undermine his ability to govern the Catholic Church. A romantic rivalry between two of his sons (he had at least six children) had become a source of intrigue around Rome. In fact, this scandal was so lurid, it was appalling even to those accustomed to flagrant immorality from the papacy. 

The two sons in question were Cesare and Juan, and they were both in love with their sister, Lucrezia. The plot thickened, as the Pope refused to let either of his sons marry his daughter, as he was sleeping with her himself. As the famous biographer and historian William Manchester wrote, “Even for those times, this was scandalous.”

When one of the sons, Juan, turned up murdered, suspicion was split between the father and brother. When Lucrezia turned up pregnant, that same divided suspicion remained. Rome had long been accustomed to assassinations, orgies, and public rioting from the Pope’s family. But this scandal involved all three simultaneously, and even the public was beginning to demand change. Alexander decided he needed to marry his daughter off to a powerful Duke, consolidating the Pope’s power, and ending the scandal.

There were numerous problems with this plan. First, Lucrezia was already married (technically speaking…it was a political alliance thing). No problem, that marriage could be annulled by the Pope. But in order for that to happen, the Pope and a Vatican council had to certify that she was a virgin. This would be impossible to do with a straight face, seeing as how she was known to be the Pope’s lover, was six months pregnant, and visibly showing. So the Vatican council acted without the straight face, and when they declared her a virgin, witnesses said that laughter echoed throughout the Vatican. One poet, Jacopo Sannazaro, wrote a poem commemorating the declaration. Translated from the Latin, it reads:

Here lies Lucrezia, who was really a tart,
The daughter, wife, and daughter in-law of Alexander.

In Latin it rhymed. But regardless, the third obstacle was insurmountable, and the marriage was halted when the groom was murdered by Cesare.

This lead to the uncomfortable development that the Pope’s daughter gave birth to a son, Giovanni, and there was no way of knowing if the father was the Pope’s son or the Pope himself. By the time the child was 3 years old, his mother was 21. It became necessary politically for the Pope to marry her off, and the Pope chose the Duke of Ferrara. The new problem was that Canonical Law forbade the Pope from recognizing his own illegitimate children (only if they were fathered while he was Pope, which in this case was obvious; in fact the public labeled Giovanni “the Roman Child”). That difficulty here was notably compounded by they fact that the mother of his son was also his daughter. But…if the Pope recognized Cesare (his other son and her other lover) as Giovanni’s father, then the Duke of Ferrara would likely not marry Lucrezia for fear of losing his title as Duke.

If that is confusing, here it is simply: The Pope was in a Catch-22. Either the Giovanni was his, or his son’s. One option was permissible legally, the other was possible politically. So what would he do?

First, read/remember yesterday’s post on Papal Infallibility.

Here is his solution, in the words of William Manchester:

The Pope, deciding to legitimatize his daughter’s child, issued two extraordinary bulls September 1, 1501. The first, which was made public, identified the three-year-old boy as the offspring of Cesare and an unmarried woman… The second, a secret bull, acknowledged Giovanni to be the son of the pope and the same woman.

In other words, Giovanni had two fathers. And, don’t loose sight of the fact that he was born only three months after the Vatican and Pope had declared his mother a virgin. That is a truly immaculate conception!

The Bad PopesI was alerted to this story by reading E. R. Chamberlin’s book The Bad Popes. Believe me when I say that this affair is not even in the top five as far as radically immoral acts committed by the Popes of that time. In fact, some of the stories were so graphic and stunning that I paused to ask myself why I was even reading them. The answer is two-fold. First, it is a powerful reminder that Luther’s Reformation was not in a vacuum. Theology has consequences, and bad theology destroys lives. In this case, bad theology had the potential to destroy a continent, which it did. The dark ages were so backwards and perverse, in large part because of the rampant immorality of the Popes.

Secondly, it is a reminder that the strongest argument that Catholic Apologists use today-that the Catholic Church has an unbroken chain of tradition stretching back to the Apostles-is pure fabrication. Not only is it fabrication in the historic sense (because the papacy did not being in any recognizable way until the 400’s), but it is fabrication in the ethical sense. Many Popes, Luther said, “have so often contradicted themselves,” and he did not simply mean on the finer points of theology. When Alexander declared his daughter (whom he had been sleeping with) to be a virgin, only to see her give birth 3 months later, Luther was 16 years old. When Alexander issued official Church Bulls declaring that his son had two fathers, Luther was 19 years-old. He entered the monastery four years later.

It would be another twelve years before he posted his thesis on the church door. From that point forward, it is simply no longer feasible to maintain that Catholics and Protestants essentially believe the same things. There are substantive differences, one of which is the concept of papal authority, and another of which is the claim that the Roman Catholic Church has a glorious and unbroken continuity of being Christ’s seat on Earth.

They may have a tradition, but is neither glorious nor unbroken.

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5 thoughts on “Papal Contradictions and the Roman Child

  1. Thank you for the post Manfred 🙂 I just broke up with my girlfriend who in a Roman Catholic on Sunday. Man it was tough. It felt like I was giving up my whole world and putting it into the arms of God just hoping and trusting that he would make everything okay. I love her so much and was growing in love for her and as I was growing I realized that I was unequally yoked and that I was being a false witness to her about Christ. I felt like I was saying Catholicism is okay just by being with her. I got together with her years ago while I was a “Christian” but before I gave my life over to Christ. I truly believe God will bring her to salvation someday. Through our relationship she became deeply involved in studying her faith. Neither of us cared about our faith and because marrying her was going to require one of us to have to raise our kids in the faith of the other which in itself can’t be sorted out, we decided we wouldn’t get married until we were of the same faith (and me being truly born again and made alive in Christ I knew I could never ever convert of course, she basically felt the same way because she believes that the RCC is the upholder or “pillar and bulwark” of the faith). I truly wish there was a way I could show her that what she believes is a lie from Satan but I have found no way and I left her knowing the only way to be a witness to her was to follow Christ in my own life and to no longer ignore the call. Do you have any idea how I can try to show her that some of the evidence she rests her faith on is built on lies? Like in this post you point out that the papacy is full of scandals and incest and horrible sins but she would never believe these to be true. She would instantly reject them and search for the answer since she cannot accept that her church is not the truth. I know it will take a true and great miracle from God for her to see that her church isn’t the truth. Of course I think the miracle of salvation is that miracle. I just do not know what to do when she firmly plants her faith in things that we know are not true simply because she believes the church is the upholder of the truth. We have talked for months and months about each other’s faiths and I essentially got no closer to helping her so the light and the only thing she helped me see is that I don’t have all of the answers. Such as the church fathers. She gave me a book called “The Fathers Know Best” and I am beginning to read it. She believes it is clear to see that the church fathers were Catholic in faith and that they were the start of the RCC as it is today but I obviously believe any true church fathers did not belong to the Catholic Church as we understand it today. But I don’t have the evidence. I cry out to God because he is the only one who can help her and prayer is my tool of warfare. I like it this way but I know the RCC is full of corruption and I just wish she could see it. Any help or advice is welcomed.


  2. dalcowboiz – Just so ya know, I’m a Redskins fan 🙂

    You are right – only the Lord God (the biblical one, not the false ones) can lift the veil from the eyes of those who are deceived. The Scriptures alone are God’s Truth – no book of man. The first 9 chapters of Romans get at the nut of the Truth. If the Lord saves a person, he/she will develop a taste for the Truth and then the following – which ought to help equip you – will be useful to her. Some of Richard Bennett’s stuff is made explicitly for his former kinsmen of the cult of Rome:

    Here on DefCon there are nearly 200 posts on this religion:

    Pray for wisdom and do not let emotional love over-ride biblical love. Truth is an indispensable foundation of biblical love.


  3. Even though I read about this years ago, it’s still an ugly and almost unbelievable read that any of this took place. Even today it would seem incredible.

    This is what you get for making man a ‘god’.

    Scripture talks about the depths of satan. Well, this is point blank on the surface.

    Can’t get any worse? Keep your eyes opened.


  4. As an aside, does anyone know who the mother/mothers of the pope’s children were? I’ve never heard the name mentioned.


  5. Hello! Wow well good luck to you guys! Hopefully somebody can take down the giants. I would much rather it be the Cowboys but the Redskins are second on my list. I think maybe I’d rather the Giants win than the eagles. Anyways go NFC East!

    Yes I have truly found that I can’t turn her onto the truth by telling it to her. It is simply her hearing without seeing the truth. It is the same for me. When she tells me her “truth” of what she thinks it is she thinks I am hearing but not seeing. She feels the exact way I do but about the RCC. From what Doreen said, I’d say my girlfriend had been worshipping the church if anything. Worshipping it without meaning to. She puts it up on the highest pedestal because she sees it as the pillar of truth. She sees it as God’s way to uphold his truth and so she puts her trust fully in the church. I think her trust in the church instantly leads her to be putting her faith not in the things of God but in the things of man. I mean if I was putting my faith in the church, even the true church, then that would be putting faith into a church that didn’t have a problem with the horrors of the American slavery system and also a church which seems to have many other problems. But the true church puts its faith in God alone. I think people who put their faith in God alone put their faith in his Word alone just naturally because we trust in the Words he has spoken and we just don’t see the church as this thing that can infallibly proclaim doctrine. She thinks that since the gates of hades shall not prevail against the church and since she thinks she is a part of the true church that it is fine to place all of her faith in it. She thinks that the early church fathers were all clearly Catholic and that the church was always with these beliefs. I am amazed that they think the early church had ideas about the things like the assumption of Mary. It stuns me. But they must hold to those things because they need for their church to be the truth otherwise they are lost and they know it.

    Thank you very much for the links Manfred, I will have to look into it some. I am simply trusting that God will show the way, the path for her to come to the knowledge of the true gospel. I can help perhaps but I will only be a part of God’s plan for her if anything. Thanks for the advice! I will never again be able to let my emotions and my own wisdom to keep me from seeing that God’s way is truth and whatever I think isn’t necessarily his way. Thanks!


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