One of the strangest episodes in the turbulent history of the Church in the ninth century was a meeting and ecclesiastical trial has come to be known as the Cadaver Synod. During a period of great political upheaval in Italy, from the year 872 – 965 there were 24 Popes. With so much chaos and such frequent shifting of power structures, very few documentary sources about that time survive. But here’s what we do know:
In 864, Formosus became the Bishop of Porto during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas the first. 11 years later, shortly after Charles the Bald’s imperial coronation, Formosus fled Rome out of fear of Pope John VIII, for reasons unknown. Shortly thereafter, John VIII accused Formosus of conspiring to usurp the papacy, and deserting his diocese in Porto. When John VIII died in 882 Bishop Formosus seemed to be out of the woods. In fact, he himself was elected pope in 891, and after a papacy embroiled in the politics of the Holy Roman empire, died in a 896.
One year later Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of his predecessor Pope Fomosus exhumed and brought to the papal court for judgment. According to one account, Stephen VI asked the previous pope’s remains, “when you were Bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?” He then ordered the body interred in a graveyard for foreigners, later to be dug up again and thrown into the Tiber River. This macabre and vindictive spectacle turned public opinion against Stephen, and a public uprising led to his being deposed and thrown into prison, where he was murdered. One year later Pope Theodore IId annulled the decrees of the Cadaver Synod, and prohibited any future trials of the dead person.
Today’s synod of Bishops are much more sober deliberative meetings, and we can give thanks that the church is no longer embroiled in the tangled politics of empires.