Wednesday, March 13, 2013

7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy (#6: Anti-Popes)

Black smoke over the Sistine roof signals the first
balloting in the  2013 Conclave.
Whatever the outcome of the current conclave, one thing is fairly certain: Once that white smoke does appear from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel, we won't be seeing an anti-pope on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica. 

It certainly hasn't always been this way. Everything that has been done over the past weeks, from the careful setting of dates to the taking of oaths, to the command "extra omnes" when the doors of the Sistine Chapel were closed, has been ordered to ensure the freedom of the Cardinals and the validity of the papal election. It's not only a matter of interesting traditions. It's vital that Catholics can be secure about just who it is who is piloting the Barque of Peter.

One of the most important roles the Successor of Peter has in the Church is that of being a visible sign of the unity of Christ's followers. Anti-popes represent the exact opposite of this papal ministry. 

The first anti-popes seem to have arisen in the third century, while persecutions still threatened the Church in Rome. The most recent anti-popes (there are a half-dozen or so right now, two of them in the United States) are so marginal that they cannot even be taken seriously. Historical records are incomplete enough (or simply inconclusive enough) for us to even identify all the Popes and anti-popes of history with absolute certainty. 

By some accounts, St. Hippolytus is considered the first anti-pope, but the term really doesn't fit the primitive Church's situtation. Hippolytus is identified as a bishop in or around Rome, but he was a Greek writer, and may have been the “episcopos” (literally “overseer”/bishop) of a Greek-speaking community that was not integrated into the Latin speaking majority of Rome's christians. It's not even the possibility that Hippolytus was an “extra” bishop in Rome that makes him a candidate for anti-pope status: it's that he is known to have had serious differences with more than one of the recognized early Popes. Hippolytus is recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church, thanks to his martyrdom, in exile along with Pontian, Bishop of Rome, with whom he shares a feastday.

Coming right after Hippolytus, Novatian of Rome is a more likely candidate for first-ever anti-pope. When the savage persecution under the Emperor Decius finally subsided, the Church of Rome had been without a bishop for a year. (Pope Fabian had been one of Decius' many victims.) Evidently, the priest Novatian did not agree with the majority of clergy, faithful and bishops who, according to the report by St. Cyprian, elected Cornelius to the Chair of Peter: he sent messengers to summon three bishops to ordain him a bishop as well, and then issued proclamations claiming that he had been chosen to take Fabian's long vacant seat. That this was happening from Rome meant it was not a simply local matter, but affected the whole Church. All the more was this so when Novatian sent missionaries and attempted to replace local bishops with his own appointees: men who would adhere to Novatian's own rigorist views of Church life. 

From Africa, the Council of Carthage undertook an investigation into the case of the two Popes, concluding without a doubt that Novatian's act was completely illegitimate. Within the year, Novatian was formally excommunicated by Pope Cornelius, in a council of some sixty bishops. True to the disruption of Church unity initiated by this first anti-pope, Novatian's followers (“Novatians”) continued on for several centuries.


Later anti-popes, for the most part, followed a different pattern, being associated in one way or other not with a theological or pastoral tendency (Novantian's severity, for instance) but with politics. They were installed with the support of (or under pressure imposed by) an Emperor or king. The tenth and twelfth centuries witnessed the most of this attempted manipulation of the papal office by secular powers.


The longest-lasting and most disruptive succession of anti-popes began in 1378 when a group of cardinals rejected the (admittedly difficult) Pope Urban VI in Rome, declared his election invalid and named their own man, the former Papal Legate known as the “Butcher of Cesena” for his approval of a mass slaughter of villagers in a disputed territory. (Not the most auspicious of beginnings.)

As “Clement VII,” Robert of Geneva established himself in the old papal stronghold of Avignon, France. His successor was a Spaniard who had volunteered for the job under the ruse of then surrendering his claim and reuniting the Church under one legitimate Pope. Needless to say, the anti-pope Benedict XIII found it more congenial to reign in Avignon than to serve in Rome.

Meanwhile in Northern Italy, a council of hundreds (cardinals, bishops, abbots) met to address the problem of the two Popes. The [discredited] Council of Pisa declared the two contenders, Benedict XIII of Avignon, and Gregory XII of Rome, deposed, and led the way for the cardinals to convoke a conclave and elect—that's right—a third “Pope,” who took the name Alexander V. Alexander was not long for this world; his successor was the Anti-pope John XXIII (not to be confused with the 20th century John, now Blessed John XXIII!). This John (a friend of the powerful Medici family) has the unfortunate distinction of promoting the sale of indulgences, a practice bemoaned in Prague by Jan Hus. In a way the seeds of the Reformation were already sprouting in the fertile terrain of disunity.

With the encouragement of King Sigismund of Germany, John called a Council to end the long schism. Gregory XII in Rome, for his part, authorized the Council, too. Only Benedict XIII in France refused to have anything to do with it. The Council proposed a solution: that all three “Popes” abdicate and allow for a single, valid Pope to be elected. John fled, thinking that the Council proceedings would be invalid without him. Gregory abdicated. Benedict was excommunicated. The new Pope, Martin V, was elected in 1417.

Since the Great Western Schism, no significant anti-popes have arisen with the exception of Felix V, a widower and former hermit who was elected by the Council of Basel when the new Bishop of Rome acted to dissolve the council called by his predecessor. Felix ended well, abdicating his claim and accepting a (real) red hat from his former opponent.





This is the 6th in a series of 7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm confused...how can someone be a saint, yet also be an anti-pope? Secondly, although the article was very interesting, I would be interested in knowing just who the two anti-popes are in the US...you stated that there are two, but gave no further information. Finally, I'd be interested to know whether there were any popes who were priests before becoming pope (went from priest to pope, w/o anything in between)and I thought I'd heard once that there was @ least one pope, who had not been ordained prior to his election (went from laity to pope)?

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Regarding the American wanna-be Popes, one goes by the name Pope Michael and "reigns" from Kansas, where he was elected by a group of six people (two of them were his parents). The second, I just learned, has died. He went by the name of Pius XIII and presided over a tiny following. Both had left the communion of the Catholic Church following Vatican II.

I'm not sure about your other question; I'll ask on Twitter.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

From Joanne on Twitter:@Ritualdiva
Urban VI was last non-Cardinal to be elected but he was an Archbishop at the time.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

More in from Twitter:
Innocent III wasn't a priest when elected
Celestine V was a hermit. You know, the other one who quit.