Monday, July 10, 2006

Related to the Pope

A recent Associated Press article illustrated the intertwining of the generations, using actress Brooke Shields as an example. It seems that the lovely Ms. Shields is related to Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Niccolo Machiavelli, Hernando Cortes and at least five popes.

The point of the article is not that she is distinguished by her pedigree, rather that such a pedigree is completely normal. Anybody that lived more than a few hundred years ago probably had a half dozen or more children. As such, they undoubtedly have millions of ancestors today.

It is estimated that at least 80% of the population of England is directly descended from King Edward III, who reigned 700 years ago. Even six U.S. presidents can be counted among his descendants.

The Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan spread his influence — as well as his seed — almost as far as the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of his dna have shown up literally on all corners of the world.

So we don’t have to go all the way back to Adam and Eve to prove that we’re all “cousins”. But that’s not what struck me about the Brooke Shields article. I got hung up on the fact that she was descended from five popes.

When I first read that, my feeble Protestant mind started protesting. Waitaminnit. Aren’t popes actually people that received the ultimate promotion from priesthood? And isn’t a fundamental tenant of priesthood one of celibacy? And if one is celibate doesn’t that make it kinda hard for him to have, uhm, descendants? This certainly required further investigation.

I discovered that the Catholic Church considers celibacy to be a discipline, not a doctrine.   It wasn’t until around the year 800 that they decided that a celibate lifestyle was the only acceptable one for a priest. Prior to that, several popes had been family men in quite the literal sense. Even after that, there were a few popes that married and fathered children before they entered the priesthood. In those cases, they can rightfully claim descendents.

And there were a few popes that were just scoundrels. Popes that had illegitimate children (or at least illicit affairs) during their papacy include Pius II, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Clement VII, Benedict IX, and Pius IV.

It has been claimed that Clement II died while being treated for a venereal disease. And Paul III was said to have postponed his own ordination so he could continue his promiscuous lifestyle, spawning the Protestant Reformation in the process.

In fact, nepotism was so rampant with the pre-reformation popes that several of them were father-son combinations, handing down Peter’s keys to Heaven much like a father might hand down a dry-cleaning business to his son. Maybe it’s not ironic that the word “pope” is taken from the Latin “papa”, which means “father”.

So, Brooke, rejoice in your heritage. There’s a good chance that your family tree — as well as mine — includes a cacophonic mixture of royalty, papacy, mass murderers, world explorers, and shepherd boys. Mixing all that dna over the course of a few generations contributes to the fact that we are all unique in our own little way.

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