Which Popes Are Valid?

Book Discussion: The Indefectibility of the Pope
Chapter 1: Which Popes Are Valid?

Pope Saint John Paul II: “After his acceptance, the person elected, if he has already received episcopal ordination, is immediately Bishop of the Church of Rome, true Pope and Head of the College of Bishops. He thus acquires and can exercise full and supreme power over the universal Church. If the person elected is not already a Bishop, he shall immediately be ordained Bishop.” [Universi Dominici Gregis]

The three conditions for a valid papacy are:
1. valid election;
2. free acceptance of the office;
3. ordination to the episcopal degree (as a Bishop).

Now Peter was “elected” by simple decision of Jesus. Elected means, in the broader sense, chosen. So, in the history of the Church, the way that Popes were “elected” varied. And this can make it difficult to determine if the first condition were met.

For the second condition, it is not sufficient to merely state that you accept the office of Pope. In my analysis, Pope John XII was an antipope because he never truly accepted the office. John was elected at the age of 18 years. He was not previously ordained and had to be rushed through the process to be ordained as a Bishop. He had no real interest in religion, in prayer, in Scripture, in any devotion. He lived in the Pope’s quarters, wore the clothing of a Popes, used the title. But he never taught the Church. He never guided the Bishops or the faithful. He did not, at any time, substantially exercise the office of the Roman Pontiff. And so, I have to conclude that he never accepted the office.

Condition #2 being lacking, John XII was not a valid Pope, but an antipope. And it showed in his behavior:

“John was the youngest man to become pope, having been elected at the age of eighteen, and his pontificate is one of the most scandalous in history. He was accused of turning the Lateran into a brothel and of committing fornication and adultery. It has also been said that John invoked the names of pagan gods while playing dice, toasted to the devil, blinded his confessor, and committed arson.” [North, Wyatt. A History of the Popes: Volume II, (p. 15).]

Of course, Pope Alexander VI was also a sinful Pope. But he taught the Church. He was well-versed in Sacred Scripture. He guided the Bishops. He in fact took up the role of the Roman Pontiff, and two of his successors said that he was one of the most effective Popes. Despite his personal sins (fathering children with his mistress), he succeeded in ending the stranglehold that two powerful families of Rome had had on the office of the Pope. At the end of his life, literally on his death bed, he repented of his sins, made a thorough confession, and received Communion and Extreme Unction. He may well have died in the state of grace, despite a pontificate marred by personal sins. So he was a valid Pope.

Pope-elect Stephen II was validly elected. He freely accepted the office. But he was only a priest, not a Bishop. And he died before his ordination as a Bishop. Thus, he was never a valid Pope, and so he is called “Pope-elect”.

The alleged “Pope Joan” (not discussed in my book) was a woman who supposedly held the office of Pope for a short time. Since every valid Pope must be a valid Bishop, and women cannot be validly ordained to the episcopal degree (as Bishops), no woman can be a valid Pope. If there ever were such a person — and I’m not saying there was — she could only be an antipope.

Now there are only three conditions for someone to be a valid Pope. But I believe that the indefectibility of the Church prevents the body of Bishops from ever accepted, as a valid Roman Pontiff, a person who is in fact an antipope. Therefore, the acceptance of a Pope by the body of Bishops confirms the validity of the election.

Since Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as the Roman Pontiff, it is a dogmatic fact that he is a valid Pope.

Another type of confirmation is found in the approval of the documents of an Ecumenical Council. Only a valid Pope can approve of the teachings of an Ecumenical Council. If the Magisterium accepts a Council as valid, by dogmatic fact, then the Pope who formally approved of the Council’s teachings must be a valid Pope.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
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* My translation of the Bible (the CPDV)
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1 Response to Which Popes Are Valid?

  1. Professor Q says:

    Pope Joan is a Protestant canard. “She” doesn’t even need a mention in a serious article like this one. Her relationship to reality is about the same as that of a person with “gender identity disorder” – namely, none at all.

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