The Pontificate of Pope John XII

The papal accusers often use the pontificate of Pope John XII as a way to undermine the pontificate of Pope Francis and other recent Popes. Let’s consider this case. There are three points at issue.

Was John XII (955-963) a valid Roman Pontiff?

Validity requires three factors: a. valid election b. acceptance of the election by the candidate c. ordination to the episcopal degree. Pope-elect Stephen II (March 22 to 25 of 752) was elected and accepted the election to the office of Pope, but he died before being consecrated a Bishop. Therefore, he is considered merely a Pope-elect, and not a valid Pope. The next “Pope Stephen” is sometimes numbered as: Stephen II (III).

John was ordained a Bishop after he was chosen as Pope. The basis for doubt about his validity is, first, the complete lack of any election. He seems to have been installed by his family, which had much power in Rome, without an election. If Pope Francis were installed by his family, without an election, at the age of about 18 to 20 years, his critics would certainly claim that he was not a valid Pope. And here is the hypocrisy of the papal accusers: they cheerfully accept John XII as a valid Pope, so that they can use his alleged failings to attack the current Roman Pontiff.

“Sometime before his death in 954, Alberic administered an oath to the Roman nobles in St. Peter’s providing that the next vacancy for the papal chair would be filled by his son Octavian, who by this stage had entered the Church. With his father’s death, and without any opposition, he succeeded his father as prince of the Romans, somewhere between the ages of 17 and 24.” [Wikipedia]

Alberic II of Spoleto, father of John XII, was merely the leader of the city of Rome. He had no authority to decide to make his son Roman Pontiff. And the Roman nobles were pressured to support the son, and had no authority in the Church to elect a Pope in any case. It is difficult to see how this could be considered a valid election.

The acceptance of any elected Bishop as Roman Pontiff by the body of Bishops — or the universal peaceful acceptance by the Church as a whole including the Apostolic College — heals in the root any election of any Pope. But there is little or no evidence of such acceptance. It would be difficult to make that case, as John XII does not seem to have issued any teaching or decision of discipline accepted by the body of Bishops, thus showing that they accepted him as Roman Pontiff. Now it is not the case that the body of Bishops can choose to accept or reject a valid Pope. Instead, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Apostolic College and in the Church on earth guarantees that the Bishops as a body and the faithful as a body will not go astray following a false Pope.

Then, the second reason for doubt about his validity is that John seems to have not accepted the office of Roman Pontiff, per se. His behavior, if we are to believe the claims that are often stated about him, is not merely a series of alleged grave personal sins, but possibly a comprehensive refusal to exercise the keys of Saint Peter and the office of the Vicar of Christ. He seems to have behaved like a merely political ruler of the papal States.

There are some examples of decisions by John XII, related to Church matters, but nothing in the way of a teaching from the Father and Teacher of All Christians, and little if anything in matters of discipline. The few decisions that seemed to come from Rome during his pontificate may have come from his advisors, rather than from John XII, who was not even a priest prior to being elevated to become Pope.

This is comparable to a lay person who becomes a parish administrator, in the absence of a priest as pastor. The lay person exercises a certain administrative role, but without taking the role of a shepherd or teacher. Such a description fits John XII well, and leaves us with the possibility — to be confirmed or refuted by the Magisterium at some point in time — that John XII might not have accepted the office of Supreme Shepherd and Supreme Teacher of the Church. His behavior showed no interest at all in teaching or guiding the faithful or the Church. He acted like a sinful secular ruler over the papal states, and not as a Bishop of Rome, nor as the leader of the Bishops and all the faithful.

The Annuario Pontificio makes the following point about the pontificate of a different Pope, that of Leo VIII:

“At this point, as again in the mid-eleventh century, we come across elections in which problems of harmonizing historical criteria and those of theology and canon law make it impossible to decide clearly which side possessed the legitimacy whose factual existence guarantees the unbroken lawful succession of the Successors of Saint Peter. The uncertainty that in some cases results has made it advisable to abandon the assignation of successive numbers in the list of the Popes.” [Wikipedia]

There are other Popes, long named in the list of valid Popes, whose elections and validity possess an uncertainty that cannot be dispelled by reason or theological argument. Only the Magisterium, most likely by the intervention of an Ecumenical Council, can decide such questions definitively. What can be said of Pope John XII at this point is that serious theological reasons exist to consider that he may not have been a valid Roman Pontiff. And given those reasons, his pontificate cannot be used as the basis for a theological argument that concludes the faithful should disobey and resist any clearly valid Roman Pontiff.

Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as the successor of Peter. Since the Church is both Apostolic and indefectible, Pope Francis cannot be an invalid Pope. For then the body of Bishops would have gone astray, as a body and almost in their entirety, following a false head — causing the Church to lose Her indefectibility and Her Apostolic character. As that cannot happen, the body of Bishops cannot have been mistaken in following and obeying Pope Francis as the Vicar of Christ. Therefore, the validity of Pope Francis is indisputable.

As for the personal sins of Pope John XII, it is wrong to assume that every accusation against every Roman Pontiff must be true. John XII attempted to make an alliance against the emperor Otto, and so Otto called a “Council” of Church leaders loyal to him, and a series of grave accusations were made against John XII. With an angry emperor present and ruling over the “Council”, the accusations made cannot be considered to be fair or factual. John was allegedly deposed by this council, led by the emperor. But since neither an emperor nor a council can depose a Pope, we cannot give too much credence to its accusations either.

Similarly today, when those who oppose Pope Francis write and sign petitions or hold conferences or join together to write online articles, their claims are far from truth. Pope Francis has been falsely accused of many grave errors on doctrine and discipline and of grave failings of faith. But we know that these accusations cannot be true, as they are contrary to the charism of truth and of never-failing faith.

It is certainly likely that Pope John XII committed grave personal sins. But we cannot justly assume that every claim is true. As for his death, there are two conflicting versions; both cannot be true. In any case, personal sins by a past Roman Pontiff do not justify present-day disobedience to the current Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis.

Perhaps John XII was a valid Pope, who sinned much personally. But there are no papal documents from him which anyone claims teach grave error or heresy. Or perhaps John XII was not a valid Roman Pontiff, as he lacked a valid election and never accepted the office of Teacher and Shepherd. In either case, his pontificate cannot be used to justify dissent or disobedience to the recent and clearly valid Roman Pontiffs.

Pope Francis is entirely unlike John XII. Francis is not credibly accused of any grave personal sins, certainly nothing in the realm of what John XII is claimed to have done. Francis has taught and guided the faithful continually, worldwide, since his election. He is exercising the role of Shepherd and Teacher. The body of Bishops has accepted Francis as Pope. A comparison between the two men, Francis and John XII, is absurd.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to The Pontificate of Pope John XII

  1. According to the article linked below, this is what Mirjana Soldo (one of the of the visionaries of the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje) has said about Popes, and specifically, about Pope Francis:

    “I must tell you something I have in my heart: I hear from so many pilgrims: ‘Pope John Paul II was a brave Pope; Pope Benedict less; from Pope Francis, I like it, I do not like it’. You must love him, because Pope is Pope: he is our Pope. It is our duty to pray for him. We don’t know everything he carries on his back. We only know how to judge, but not how to pray and, with our prayer, help.
    I believe, with all my heart, that Holy Spirit always gives us a Pope we need……Now we need Pope Francis, and that’s him.”

    Complete remarks can be found here:

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