Was the Case of Three Living Popes Predicted by Scripture?

Pope emeritus Benedict is still with us, thank God.

Pope Benedict XVI was a good Pope, who chose to resign, as is his unequivocal right. A person elected to the papacy has the free choice to decline the office, or to accept it; and a sitting Roman Pontiff has the free choice to resign at any time. The papal charisms are divinely conferred gifts given to every Pope, whether he likes it or not, but since he had the free choice to accept the office, which implies accepting its charisms, and he has the free choice to resign at any time, God does not violate his free will be necessitating those charisms.

Pope Francis is still with us, thank God. He was chosen by God, in my opinion, to correct erring conservatives and traditionalists. He has rebuked them thoroughly before the whole world, and those among them who were not truly with us, the heretics and schismatics who only accept what the conservative or traditionalist subculture teaches, and not what the Magisterium teaches, showed themselves to be not truly Catholic and not truly faithful to God. They idolize a subculture as well as their own ideas. (I suspect the next Pope will be chosen by God to correct erring liberals.)

What if Pope Francis resigns? I have long said he would resign, but I don’t believe it will happen this year (for eschatological reasons). Then a new Roman Pontiff would be elected, and we could have a situation with one true valid current Pope, and two retired Popes (“emeritus”) who each were true valid Popes during their respective reigns. So the secular and Catholic news media outlets are asking the question, could we have “three living Popes?”

No, we only ever have one valid Pope at a time. When Saint Hippolytus of Rome thought himself to be the Roman Pontiff, he was mistaken. Yes, at one point in time, in the early Church, a Saint was an antipope. No matter how holy or seemingly holy an alleged second or third claimed Pope may be (or the only claimed Pope between the reigns of one valid Pope and the next), the Church can only have one valid Pope at a time. Of course, when one valid Pope resigns or passes away, before the next takes office, there is no valid Pope. So at a point in time when there would be two retired Popes, after Pope Francis’ supposed retirement takes effect, there would be no valid Roman Pontiff. A retired Pope is not Pope until the next Pope is elected; he ceases to be Pope at the effective date and time of his retirement.

But what if we had two retired Popes, Benedict and Francis, and one new Pope, once he is elected? Could this happen? Absolutely. Has it happened before? Not as far as we know. Records of papal reigns in the distant past are not always clear on the exact dates of each Pope’s reign.

But the question considered in this article is this: Did Sacred Scripture predict three Popes at the same time?

{11:4} Thus says the Lord my God: Feed the flock of the slaughter,
{11:5} which those who possessed them cut down, and they did not feel sorrow, and they sold them, saying: “Blessed be the Lord; we have become wealthy. Even their shepherds did not spare them.”
{11:6} And so, I will no longer spare the inhabitants upon the earth, says the Lord. Behold, I will deliver men, each one into the hand of his neighbor and into the hand of his king. And they will cut down the land, and I will not rescue it from their hand.
{11:7} And I will pasture the flock of the slaughter, because of this, O poor of the flock. And I took to myself two staffs: the one I called Handsome, and the other I called Rope, and I pastured the flock.
{11:8} And I cut down three shepherds in one month. And my soul became contracted concerning them, just as their soul also varied concerning me.
{11:9} And I said: I will not pasture you. Whatever dies, let it die. And whatever is cut down, let it be cut down. And let the rest of them devour, each one the flesh of his neighbor.
{11:10} And I took my staff, which was called Handsome, and I tore it apart, so as to invalidate my pact, which I had struck with all of the people.
{11:11} And it became invalid in that day. And so they understood, just like the poor of the flock who stay close to me, that this is the word of the Lord.
{11:12} And I said to them: If it is good in your eyes, bring me my wages. And if not, remain still. And they weighed for my wages thirty silver coins.
{11:13} And the Lord said to me: Cast it towards the statuary, the handsome price at which I have been valued by them. And I took the thirty silver coins, and I cast them into the house of the Lord, towards the statuary.
{11:14} And I cut short my second staff, which was called Rope, so that I might dissolve the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
{11:15} And the Lord said to me: Still they are to you the equipment of a foolish shepherd.
{11:16} For behold, I will raise up a shepherd in the land, who will not visit what is forsaken, nor seek what is scattered, nor heal what is broken, nor nourish what remains standing, and he will consume the flesh of the fatted ones and break their hoofs.
{11:17} O shepherd and idol, abandoning the flock, with a sword upon his arm and over his right eye: his arm will be withered by drought, and his right eye will be obscured by darkness.

“Thus says the Lord…And I cut down three shepherds in one month.”

The three shepherds are clearly not literal shepherds. They are persons who shepherd the flock of the Lord, religious leaders. And lesser religious leaders die from time to time. It perhaps has happened many times that three or more priests died on the same day. So we are not talking about priests. Whether three or more Bishops have died on the same day, I do not know, but it seems like not the stuff of Sacred Scripture, in any case. Therefore, we are left with one possibility that seems, to us fallen sinners, the best fit for this verse, rephrased thusly according to interpretation: And God cut down three Popes in one short period of time.

Such a scenario seems unlikely. Previously, I had interpreted this verse as referring to a Pope and two Patriarchs or something similar. But it does seem to refer to three persons with the same level of authority, and so that prior interpretation is not correct, I now think. Instead, my interpretation now is that there will be three Popes alive at the same time, which of course means two retired Popes and one currently-valid Pope in office. And all three will die in a short period of time.

The rest of the passage refers, to my mind, to the start of the End Times. It is quite a severe passage, speaking of God allowing His people to suffer severely for a time, due to their unrepentant sins.

The Pope called “Handsome” is not the best looking of the three. Rather, it is the Pope of the three who is best and most widely liked. That Pope would be Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope emeritus Benedict. He was well-liked, even by the papal accusers who reject Pope Francis and complain about Pope Saint John Paul II. He had perhaps less controversy during his reign than most other recent Popes. He was handsome in this sense.

The Pope called “Rope” is perhaps Pope Francis. The term means that, not being well-liked by everyone, he was nevertheless very useful, like a Rope. God chose him for certain tasks, and he has done those tasks well. He also reaches out to many types of sinners, who are in danger of sinking into unrepentant grave sin (and ultimately into Hell), offering them a rope to pull them back to faithfulness in the Church. It is a fitting term for Pope Francis.

“and I pastured the flock” God has pastured His flock by means of Pope Benedict and next by means of Pope Francis. But the third Shepherd is not given a name in this passage. This third Shepherd reigns during a time of great suffering for the sheep of the flock, for the Church. He deals harshly with those sinners who refuse to accept what the Church teaches and decides. He reigns during a major war: with a sword upon his arm and over his right eye. He is struck by this war, and he is also struck in the eye(s) by this war.

“O shepherd and idol….” He is a valid Pope, but one who deals sharply with dissent of any kind, on the right and on the left. Some see this next Pope as a shepherd, which he clearly is, as Sacred Scripture counts him one among three valid Shepherds (Benedict, Francis, and the next Pope). But others treat him like an idol. This is perhaps because he will be very conservative, and so some conservatives will idolize him. But he will not be given to idolatry; that is not the meaning of that verse. He clearly is doing the will of God, as did each of his predecessors. But God’s will during that time is a punishment for His people, for their sins, as the passage describes in its beginning.

Woe to you unfaithful sheep, who devote yourselves to conservatism or traditionalism or liberalism or secularism or other idolatry. The next Pope will not be so lenient with you, as Pope Francis has been. The next Pope, I think, will be very conservative — but he will not take the side of conservatives who have hated and rejected Pope Francis. He will excommunicate them, abandoning one portion of the flock that wishes to follow him; for they wish to follow not because they are faithful to each Vicar of Christ, to each supreme Shepherd, but only because they see him as a fellow worshiper of the idolatry of conservatism.

“his arm will be withered by drought, and his right eye will be obscured by darkness.” There will be a severe drought and severe food crisis during his reign. He will be struck blind near the end of his short reign, so that his eyes will be darkened. This will happen as a result of the sword, that is, as a result of a terrible war.

That is my interpretation of the above verse. There will indeed by three Popes at the same time, two retired and one current. And then God will cut down all three in one short period of time. The next Pope after that will not be so controversial.

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

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3 Responses to Was the Case of Three Living Popes Predicted by Scripture?

  1. fr. Philip says:

    Good article! I really appreciate your interpretation and view of Holy Scripture.
    Can I ask your interpretation or meaning of ‘the seven spirits’ in
    Revalation 1:4 ‘the seven spirits who are in the sight of his throne’
    Revalation 3:1 ‘seven spirits of God and the seven stars’
    Revalation 4:5 ‘which are the seven spirits of God’
    and Revalation 5:6 ‘which are the seven spirits of God’

  2. phoenix says:

    After all the tumult during the last decade especially, I’m skeptical that having 2 popes in a row resign would be a plus for the Church. I hope Francis remains where he is as long as he doesn’t become incapacitated.

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