This Day in Jewish History / An Anti-pope of Jewish Descent Dies

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On January 25, 1138, the anti-pope Anacletus II died. Although many heads of the Catholic Church have been rumored over the ages to be of Jewish descent, it is fairly certain that Anacletus, born Pietro Pierleoni (his date of birth is unknown), was the great-grandson of a converted Jew.

The term “anti-pope” has been used in situations where the election of the pontiff has been disputed, so that two candidates have laid claim to the title. The one who in the end achieves recognition is the one who goes down in history as pope, with his opponent being remembered as an “anti-pope.”

Baruch, the great-grandfather of Anacletus, was a Roman moneylender who converted to Christianity and changed his name to Benedict. He married into Roman aristocracy, and it was his grandson, Petrus Leonis, who resolved to have his son enter the priesthood. Petrus studied in Paris and was a Benedictine monk at the abbey Cluny, before returning to Rome. Pope Paschal II appointed him a cardinal in 1111 or 1112.

In February 1130, while Pope Honorius II lay dying, a group of cardinals decided they would promote Cardinal Gregory Papareschi to the papacy. They arranged to elect Papareschi within hours of the death of Honorious, and to install him as Pope Innocent II the following day, on February 14. That same day, however, a majority of cardinals, who included most of those that elected Innocent but now had misgivings over the impropriety of the process, convened and named Pietro Pierleoni as pope.

Pierleoni’s family was still a major banking power in Rome, so it’s little surprise that support for his papacy was complete in that city. But Innocent, who fled Italy for France, was able to line up the political support of the influential Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, who persuaded both the leaders and the church hierarchy of France, England and Germany to recognize Innocent. Lothair, the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Rome in 1132, and occupied all but St. Peter’s Basilica and the pope’s castle, St. Angelo, so that it was possible for Innocent to be crowned as pope (again) on June 4, 1133. Nonetheless, Innocent soon had to flee Rome again, this time for Pisa.

The papal schism thus continued, with the enemies of Anacletus making much of his Jewish ancestry. He was accused of robbing the church of much of its wealth, together with Jewish helpers, and of incest. Only after the death of Anacletus, on this day in 1138, did Innocent become the undisputed pope, and that happened only two months later, when the man whom the supporters of Anacletus elected to succeed him, Cardinal Gregory Conti, resign from the papacy.

Part of a mosaic in the church Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, featuring Innocent II (left).Credit: Wikimedia

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