15 Of The Most Absurd And Unforgivable Things The Catholic Church Has Ever Done

It's hard out here for a pope. See, when it comes to religious history, the list of Catholic Church transgressions makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. Despite exalting virtue and kindness in its teaching, church leadership has spearheaded a long history of outright unforgivable Catholic actions.

You might remember some of these improprieties from school - the Inquisition, Joan of Arc, and the trial of Galileo should all ring a bell. But not everything here is medieval. Though Vatican violence goes way back, a number of disturbing episodes are from recent history. Some of this repugnant behavior comes from popes, some was church-endorsed, and some, most unsettlingly, was just straight-up regular church practice.

Dark church history contains scandal after scandal rife with every vice and taboo you can imagine. When the church was at the height of its power (at which point it was the most powerful organization in the Western world), it's safe to say everything went to its head. Combine that with church leaders seeming to stubbornly resist adapting to changing morality and you've got a whole lot of unforgivable moments on your hands. 

  • Pope Pius XII Denying Eyewitness Reports Of Mass Execution During The Holocaust

    Pope Pius XII is widely criticized for refusing to publicly condemn the Nazi party - though there have been contradictory reports as to whether the pope "placed the papacy's supremacy above the plight of Europe's Jews" or was attempting to "prevent German retaliation and ensure the continued success of the Catholic Church's behind-the-scenes efforts to aid victims of persecution." Early in 2020, however, documents related to the pope's wartime activities, previously held in the Vatican Archives, were unsealed, and they suggest that Pius learned of the mass executions of the Jewish people in the fall of 1942. According to historians studying the documents, an adviser dismissed the reports as exaggerated, prompting the pope to tell the US that "the Vatican was unable to confirm the crimes."

    The new evidence, detailed in the German weekly Die Zietreiterates that in September 1942, Pius's assistant, the future Pope Paul VI, received an eyewitness report of Jews being persecuted in Warsaw. According to Haaratz, in August 1942, Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki also informed the Vatican of persecution being carried out in the Lvov ghetto.

  • Systemically Covering Up Tens Of Thousands Of Cases Involving Sexual Misconduct

    Systemically Covering Up Tens Of Thousands Of Cases Involving Sexual Misconduct
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Remember the time there was a systematic cover up of abuse, molestation, and rape at the hands of priests that went all the way to the top of the church? Conservative estimates say there were 17,200 victims in the US alone, and this type of mistreatment happened worldwide. When complaints came in, priests and other offenders were transferred rather than punished. The extent of their actions will probably never be fully understood because of the decades of cover-up. 

    But the church isn't denying it anymore. The archdiocese of Milwaukee acknowledged the severity of the issue and agreed to pay a $21 million settlement to 300 victims. But these types of settlements are few and far between. Luckily, Pope Francis has set up a tribunal to hold the bishops who facilitated the cover up to account. The molestation of children is still happening at the hands of priests 15 years after The Boston Globe broke the story.

    In fact, in August 2018, a grand jury reported that internal documents from six Pennsylvanian dioceses noted that over 300 "predator priests" were "credibly accused" (a seemingly subjective accusation acknowledgment based on the discretion of individual dioceses) of harming more than 1,000 child victims; the alleged violations go as far back as 1947. Due to the statute of limitations, only two priests were charged with abusing minors. 

    In February 2019, however, Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the systemic maltreatment and vowed to combat the problem. He said, "I think that it’s continuing because it’s not like once you realize it that it stops. It continues. And for some time we’ve been working on it." 

    The International Union of Superiors General has used the uprising of the #MeToo movement to denounce the "culture of silence and secrecy." With the support of Pope Francis and the pushback from the community of international female superiors, the Catholic Church claims to be "working on" overcoming the years of sexual mistreatment by persons in power. 

  • Terrorizing Jews And Muslims For 300 Years
    Photo: Gustave Doré / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1095, when Pope Urban II made a plea for war with Muslims, armies of Christians in Western Europe took up the charge. The pope promised serfs freedom if they went, galvanizing the masses. In the First Crusade, an army of peasants led by Peter the Hermit was massacred by the Turks. When an army of knights went after them and captured Jerusalem, it was said they slaughtered Muslims until the streets ran with blood.

    This was only the beginning. Waves of the Crusades continued until 1396, marking three centuries of warfare and incalculable human suffering. Catholics definitely weren't the only religion involved in this mass violence, but Pope Urban II got the ball rolling. Here's a nice juicy summary of the sordid catastrophe: 

    Taking the heads of slain enemies and impaling them upon pikes appears to have been a favorite pastime among crusaders. Chronicles record a story of a crusader-bishop who referred to the impaled heads of slain Muslims as a joyful spectacle for the people of God. When Muslim cities were captured by Christian crusaders, it was standard operating procedure for all inhabitants, no matter what their age, to be summarily killed. It is not an exaggeration to say that the streets ran red with blood as Christians reveled in church-sanctioned horrors. Jews who took refuge in their synagogues would be burned alive, not unlike the treatment they received in Europe.

  • Pretty Much Everything Done By Pope Boniface VIII

    Pretty Much Everything Done By Pope Boniface VIII
    Photo: Artaud de Montor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When you're such an evil pope that Dante reserves you a spot in the Eight Circle of Hell, you definitely get a place on this list (and are probably laughing in heaven right now at the filthy plebs who wrote this). It's amazing to think people of this nature were endorsed by the Catholic Church, let alone elected to lead the organization.

    Boniface VIII (1230-1303) was guilty of many horrible crimes that, sum total, make him seem like a sadistic Roman emperor. Among other things, he oversaw the complete destruction of Palestrina, a city that peacefully surrendered. Palestrina was completely razed, and Boniface ordered a plow driven over it to prove it had been reduced to nothing but earth and rubble.  

    You know priests take a vow of celibacy, right? Apparently, Boniface VIII didn't take his too seriously. He once had a three-way with a married woman and her daughter, but was even more well known for saying that having intercourse with young boys was as natural as rubbing one hand against the other. So, obviously, he was raping (or at least fornicating with) children. 

    To celebrate his many great accomplishments, Boniface VIII just loved erecting statues of himself. So add hubris to his list of sins. 

  • Burning Joan Of Arc For Dressing Like A Man

    Burning Joan Of Arc For Dressing Like A Man
    Photo: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You may know Joan of Arc as a saint, but the church didn't always hold her in such high esteem. In fact, at one time, she was pretty much the Catholic Church's public enemy No. 1. 

    In 1429, 17-year-old Joan of Arc, believing God had spoken to her, instigated an uprising to get the English out of France, but some high-powered Catholics who sympathized with the English weren't pleased. French king Charles VII wisely accepted Joan's help in his fight against the English, and together, they won some major battles.

    When Joan was captured, Charles VII, unsure of whether he trusted her as an emissary of God, handed her over to the church, which did what Catholics do best - put her on trial for heresy with no evidence. To make things one step more ridiculous, Joan was denied counsel, which was against church rules. Despite this, she is famed for remaining cool, calm, and dripping with integrity throughout the trial. 

    Because there was no evidence of heresy, Joan was found guilty of one of the 70+ other charges brought against her - wearing men's clothes - for which she was burned at the stake in 1431 in front of a crowd of thousands. The church was determined to get her, and it did. 

    In 1456, Charles VII ordered an investigation into Joan's trial. The result? She was declared innocent and made a martyr. The church followed suit and, in 1920, canonized her. Talk about a change of heart. Maybe since all male church officials wear dress-like robes, they decided it was okay for Joan to dress like a man.  

  • Burning William Tyndale For Making A Vernacular Bible For The Masses

    Burning William Tyndale For Making A Vernacular Bible For The Masses
    Photo: Foxe's Martyrs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You'd think the church would make the mass distribution of its core text a main priority. As it turns out, in the 16th century, this was the last thing powerful Catholics wanted.  

    Scholar William Tyndale, on the other hand, wanted this so badly that he went into hiding to translate the Bible into English so lay people could read it for themselves. The church was not happy about this, and when copies were smuggled around Europe, Catholic authorities demanded they be burned. 

    And what of Tyndale? He was captured, tried for heresy for daring translate the Bible, and burned at the stake. When church authorities decided that printing Bibles in English was okay, they borrowed a whole lot from Tyndale's translation. And never apologized.