A Word About Antipopes: A Commentary from the Curator
One of the traditional attacks on the Catholic Church and its teaching authority is the historical fact that for a period of time there were two or even three popes at once. But is it really a historical fact? Was there ever a time when the Catholic Church had more than one pope reigning?
From the very earliest centuries there have been antipopes–men who claimed to be pope but who in fact were not. One of them (the first one) is a saint, St. Hippolytus, who thought he was reigning in the early third century. Obviously St. Hippolytus reconciled with the church, or we would never refer to him as a saint.
The most famous period during which we had antipopes is called The Great Schism, when there were first two claimants of papal authority and then a third, supposedly reigning between the years 1378 and 1417. It was a terrible time in church history because it seemed as though each person claiming to be pope had a valid argument while only one did.
Here is the background: Popes lived in Avignon, France, for a period of seventy years until Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. After his death in 1378, the election held to determine his successor was violently interrupted by citizens of Rome. The Romans wanted to make sure an Italian was elected so that the new pope would stay in Rome, where he belonged. The cardinal electors were frightened by the mobs, so they quickly elected an elderly Italian cardinal who took the name Urban VI. Because Urban’s reign was so unsatisfactory and divisive, historians believe a crisis was created. Many of the cardinals, mostly French, retreated to Agnani and elected a second pope, Clement VII, to replace him. Clement then became the first antipope of The Great Schism. (Because he was not considered to be a legally elected pope, two centuries later a second Pope Clement VII was legally elected.)
The appearance of two popes became a confusing matter because both sides seemed to have sound arguments. Different countries aligned themselves with the different popes. There were even cases in which very holy people who were later canonized saints aligned themselves with the opposite papal claimants.
Things got worse before they got better. In 1409, cardinals from both sides decided to call a general council to resolve the problem. The Council of Pisa deposed both claimants to the papal throne and elected a third pope, Alexander V. The two other claimants refused to step down and three men now claimed to be pope.
With the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, another council was convened, the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council, backed by the authority of the emperor, deposed the antipope from the Council of Pisa. Antipope Clement VII’s successor, the antipope Benedict XIII, refused to step down and until his death claimed the papacy. The legally elected pope, Gregory XII, successor to Urban VI, graciously resigned to make way for an undisputed pope. The third claimant, Antipope John XXIII, absconded to Germany but was brought back, tried for various crimes and imprisoned for some time. (Antipope John XXIII is listed in the biographies of the popes of the Papal Artifacts website and may be viewed on page five of the papal histories.) Pope Gregory XII died three weeks before the Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V, ending the schism.
This is a very brief history of a much more complex and tragic time in the Catholic Church, but the point we need to take from this story is there never really were three popes. Theologians and historians alike recognize only one line of claimants to the papal throne, and that is the line starting with Urban VI and ending with Gregory XII. All the others were simple people who claimed to be pope when in fact they were not. Even if it was confusing and there were countries and saints who disagreed, still there was only one authentic pope at any given time.
Someone can claim to be pope, but that does not make him pope any more than my claim to be Superman makes me Superman. So the next time someone has a beef with the church or the papacy and brings up the time there were supposedly three popes, you can authoritatively tell him he is misinformed.
—Father Richard Kunst
Scroll to Number 5 of the Papal Minutes for a word about them!
A Catholic radio station in our area, the RPR Network (YourCatholicRadioStation) is featuring the Curator of Papal Artifacts in a series entitled, Papal Minutes with Fr. Richard Kunst.
All the Minutes (with the exception of Pope Benedict XIV) are connected to popes on Papal Artifacts. They include some details we’ve not included in the past–for example, what occurred from a window in the Vatican just prior to the election of Pope Pius X? Giuseppe Sarto’s surname is translated, “tailor.” You can find out by accessing the above link.
Enjoy the Papal Minutes—a gift from the Curator of Papal Artifacts!
And some information about the artifact: A Lead Seal from the Pontificate of Anti-Pope John XXIII
Here is Father’s Commentary:
The lead seal that we have here is a papal bull that was originally attached to a parchment, and it fell off, but this is such a unique papal bull. I have several of them in the Collection, but this is the only item I own that is from an anti-pope.
All throughout church history we have had people who have claimed to be pope. An anti-pope is a person who claims to be pope and who may have significant followers, but is not the legitimate Bishop of Rome.
Some of them have had strong arguments that suggest they are the legitimate popes, and we hear about a period of time in the 1300s and into the 1400s where we had the “great schism.” That was when two men claimed to be popes at the same time, or even three claimed to be popes at one time. So we have had men that have claimed to be pope at one time or another for different reasons, and some of them had strong arguments. And we hear in that period of time where various groups of cardinals went off and voted for pope or the other.
This is actually a papal bull from the anti-pope John XXIII, who was in the first part of the 1400s. And because he was an anti-pope, the name was still open and available for another to use. There have been some situations in papal history that when an anti-pope uses a name, the name is never used again. In other cases they might choose to go to the next number. As a matter of fact, this is true in the use of the name, John XXIII. The mere fact that Blessed John XXIII was elected in 1958, when the last John XXIII died in the 1400s shows the amount of time that elapsed before the name was used again.
So it took 500 years for someone to feel comfortable to use that name again, and it’s the most used papal name: there are twenty-three Pope Johns, and sixteen Gregories and sixteen Benedicts.
So it’s a great item to look at Pope John XXIII but to know, in this case, that he’s an anti-pope.
The word, bull comes from the Latin, bubble. It is the lead seal that was appended to the end of a document acting as the signature of the pope. On one side, it contains the pope’s name and on the other, images of Saints Peter and Paul from whom he is given his authority.
The bull is generally an official document of the Holy Father. We know by the choice of threading used, either silk or twine, the importance of any particular bull.