Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pope John XX as the Test of Papal Infallibility and Apostolic Succession

In the late 1950's and early 1960's there was a pope who took the name "John XXIII."  I get the sense that John XXIII is popular among the less traditionalist segment of Roman Catholicism.  For example, Joseph Biden is quoted as saying (source):
I was raised as a Catholic, I’m a practicing Catholic, and I’m totally at home with the Catholicism that I was raised in and this whole culture of social responsibility, reaction to abuse of power, the whole notion that there is collective civic responsibility. It’s the Catholic consciousness that I’m totally comfortable with. … To sum it up, as a Catholic, I’m a John XXIII guy, I’m not a Pope John Paul guy.
Likewise, Garry Wills explains (Why Priests?, p. 57): 
After Humani Generis, directives for punishment were issued from Rome -- silencing not only Lubac, but Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, and other leading liberal thinkers. Under Pope John XXIII these men emerged from the shadows to bask in the warmth of the Second Vatican Council, where they became leading lights.
My point about infallibility is not to contrast Pope Pius XII's repression of the "liberals" with John XXIII's elevation of the same liberals.  If that were so, I'd call this post "Pope John XXIII as the test of papal infallibility."  The point is not just one pope praising what another pope has condemned.  Rather my point goes deeper - to the supposed chain of apostolic succession.

Start going back the chain of apostolic succession through all twenty-three pope Johns.  If you try this, you'll notice a few odd things.

First, there was already a "Pope John XXIII" from 1410 to 1415, also known as Baldassare Cossa.  The 20th century "Pope John XXIII" was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.  By styling himself as John XXIII, Roncalli was identifying Cossa as an anti-pope.

This highlights a period of time in the late 1300's and the early 1400's when there were competing claims to the papal throne.  

Thus, for example, one "list of popes" provides the following:
202. Urban VI (1378-89) Opposed by Robert of Geneva ("Clement VII"), antipope (1378-1394)
203. Boniface IX (1389-1404) Opposed by Robert of Geneva ("Clement VII") (1378-1394), Pedro de Luna ("Benedict XIII") (1394-1417) and Baldassare Cossa ("John XXIII") (1400-1415), antipopes
204. Innocent VII (1404-06) Opposed by Pedro de Luna ("Benedict XIII") (1394-1417) and Baldassare Cossa ("John XXIII") (1400-1415), antipopes
205. Gregory XII (1406-15) Opposed by Pedro de Luna ("Benedict XIII") (1394-1417), Baldassare Cossa ("John XXIII") (1400-1415), and Pietro Philarghi ("Alexander V") (1409-1410), antipopes
206. Martin V (1417-31)
207. Eugene IV (1431-47) Opposed by Amadeus of Savoy ("Felix V"), antipope (1439-1449)
Even though this sort of thing would seem to wreak havoc on people trying to figure out religion by following the right human being (instead of by following the Word of God) during that period, perhaps it is not so significant now.  And, indeed, this is not even the point of bringing up John XXIII (namely to highlight that he's not the first John XXIII).

Stepping back one more step, we come to John XXII.  In the same list quoted above, he's listed as:
196. John XXII (1316-34) Opposed by Nicholas V, antipope (1328-1330)
Noting this interesting problem of competing popes, let's step back to John XXI:
187. John XXI (1276-77)
Nothing so remarkable there.  But what about John XX?  If you keep scanning back through that same list, you'll find John XIX:
144. John XIX (1024-32)
But between John XIX and John XXI you won't find a John XX.  Why not?  Because John XXI made a mistake.  He thought that several of his predecessors had been off by one in their count of the number of pope Johns.  He thought that there was a pope John between John XIV and John XV, who had not been properly identified.  So, he was trying to correct it.  Yet he was mistaken.

In fact, not only is there no pope between John XIV and John XV, the only "John XVI" was an anti-pope.  Using the same list:
136. John XIV (983-84)
137. John XV (985-96)
138. Gregory V (996-99) Opposed by John XVI, antipope (997-998)
139. Sylvester II (999-1003)
140. John XVII (1003)
Now, I'm certainly not claiming that traditionalist Roman Catholics hold to the idea that the ordinal number next to the pope's name has the charism of infallibility.

My point is broader.  If the pope cannot figure out which pope John he is, do you really think he can define dogma infallibly?  Likewise, if the popes John themselves cannot figure out the chain of succession, so as to know which ordinal number goes with their name, what makes you think that this chain of succession is historically reliable and has any real meaning?

When people tell me about supposed "apostolic succession" or "papal infallibility" good old non-existent Pope John XX is in the back of my mind, and perhaps should be in yours as well.  Instead of following errant men, follow Scripture, the infallible Word of God.


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