Lay Election of Popes Disproven by Church History

© Copyright 2009; revised 2022, T. Stanfill Benns (All emphasis within quotes added by the author)


Appearances can be deceiving; that is why Our Lord tells us in the Gospel to “Judge not by appearances…” In general reviews of Church history, law and teaching, the statement is often found that in the early ages of the Church, clergy and people elected the Pope.  This statement leads one to believe that bishops, priests, and people voted for who would become pope and shared an active role in papal elections. But this is nothing more than an assumption, in reality. On closer investigation, the current laws of the Catholic Church governing papal election (Pope Pius XII’s “Vacantis Apostolica Sedis”) are far closer to what existed from the beginning than it appears. And while it is true that laymen can be elected pope, it is not true, as some have claimed, that this occurred with relative frequency in the first millennia A.D. Nor is it true, in any way, that the election of laymen is an indifferent matter; that the selection of laymen as papal candidates is in any way “business as usual” for the Church, or something that is looked upon as desirable. Church history reveals that only during one disastrous period were laymen elected or appointed pope, with the peripheral participation of laymen, with any frequency. As we shall see, the results of these elections were nothing short of scandalous and detrimental to religion. Following Our Lord’s advice then, we have taken a closer look not only at the history and practice of the Church where lay participation in papal elections is concerned, but at what Christ Himself has indicated as His will in this important matter.

What Did Jesus do?

Protestants have popularized the slogan “What would Jesus do?” on bracelets, in publications on coffee cups and so forth. Just as they took off with Fr. Lord’s “The family that prays together stays together,” the Protestants adopted “WWJD” as their own slogan, although it first appeared in print in a work by the Cistercian Abbot, Dom J. B. Chautard (“Soul of the Apostolate”) over 60 years ago. Chautard’s exact words to Catholics seeking to advance in the spiritual life were: “What would Jesus do? How would He act in my place? What would He advise? What does He ask of me at this moment? Such are the questions which arise of their own accord in the soul eager for interior life.”

To know what Jesus would do, we must first know what He did do and use this as our template, since no one can know the mind or motives of Our Lord in any other way. The Apostles and early Christians constantly looked to the life and works of Christ for inspiration, striving to imitate their Savior in every possible detail. Before the times of massive Church membership and government, before the Gospels were even set down in written form and distributed to the Churches, Apostolic tradition and preaching were all that existed to keep the faith alive; that and the blood of the martyrs, known to all as the seed of the faith. In this sacrifice of life itself, the Apostles and early Christians found perfection in imitating their Master. The Apostles preached, offered the Holy Sacrifice and administered the Sacraments in obedience to Our Lord. Likewise they were martyred in obedience to His teachings and instructed their followers to sacrifice all in obedience to His teachings as well; teachings which ultimately came from God the Father. It was and remains the most important lesson of all time.


Obedience to God’s will in all things was the most predominant virtue in Our Lord. Here we have a God, obedient unto death to His heavenly Father, when at any moment a legion of angels could have delivered Him from any evil which threatened Him. Even as a Child, He could have freed Himself from the chill of the stable, the rigors of the flight to Egypt, the poverty of His life in Nazareth and the need to apprentice Himself to His stepfather as a lowly carpenter. He could have lived in a palace with servants, but He chose to stay where His Father had placed him, in obedience.

Even though it worried and frightened Mary and Joseph, He was bound to go to the Temple following His Bar Mitzvah, for in this way he was giving the first fruits of his newly declared spiritual manhood to His Father, and claiming His rightful place on the very site He would one day preach.  After St. Joseph’s death, He would remain with His Mother as her only support, continuing to work in the trade of His stepfather. And at her request and in obedience, He performed His first miracle by changing the water to wine at a wedding. Thus began His Public Life.

In the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His death, Christ renewed His intent to obey His Father in all things. He willed to suffer a horrible agony and death to accomplish that obedience and our redemption. He told His disciples that on the other side of this horrible suffering and ignominy was new life, the Resurrection. And still they begged Him not to do His Father’s will; to escape His fate instead. Many beg us to escape our own suffering and forget we must obey. They urge us to attend illicit or invalid Masses and receive invalid or sacrilegious Sacraments; to place ourselves under some illicitly ordained and/or consecrated cleric, or accept some lay-appointed “pope” as our leader. Like Christ we have only one choice we can make if we are to accomplish our eternal goal.

What Christ taught and did

Many of us have gone to great lengths to discover what all this true obedience entails. But years of studying theological and other works seemed to provide only incomplete answers. That is because the answer lay in what Christ said and did.  This we learn from one of the great Fathers of he Church, St. Cyprian, who wrote: “Most of the bishops…set over the Lord’s churches throughout the world, hold to the method of evangelical truth and of the Lord’s tradition, and depart not by any human and novel institution, from that which Christ our master both taught and did…The Will of God is what Christ has done and taught,“(Faith of Catholics, Vol. 1, Msgr. Capel, editor). Likewise the Asiatic bishops, commenting on the approbation of the canonical books of Scripture, stated that: “As, on this principle of what Christ had done and taught, the writings of which we are speaking were admitted as sacred and divine…” (Ibid; all emph. mine).

How can what Christ taught and did lead us to the truth concerning who are valid and lawful successors of the Apostles? We need only trace Jesus’ actions in the Gospels to see the will of God in the Divine laws Christ enacted for the selection and identification of His Apostles and their true successors.

Holy Scripture tells us that:

1) Christ received his Divine commission from His Father in Heaven; He was appointed to teach, to govern and to sanctify the faithful.
2) He was the High Priest and King.
3) He did not assume this power on His own, because this would have destroyed the Divine chain of command; He was sent by His Father.
4) When He began His public ministry, Jesus first “called” his apostles to their vocation, then trained them for three years before ordaining and consecrating them all at the Last Supper.  
5) He first promised St. Peter the keys (the papacy) and made him the leader of the rest. But he did not make him Pope until after the Resurrection, because until then Christ Himself was the visible Head of the Church.
6) Also after the Resurrection He sent the Apostles to baptize and convert the whole world, investing them with the powers that He promised them and later sending them the Holy Ghost.
7) He promised to be with His Church, as He constituted it, “until the consummation of the world,” and he made this promise to all the Apostles, not just Peter. Therefore the Pope and His successors and the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, would exist until Christ comes again, and the earth is destroyed by fire.
8) Sending priests to preach in God’s name dates back to the Old Testament.
9) Christ commissioned His Apostles to: teach (teaching them all things); to govern (He gave all the Apostles jurisdiction after the Resurrection); and to sanctify (baptizing converts and doing all that He commanded).
10) Evil men would try to enter the sheepfold to steal, kill and destroy the flock.
11) Some of these would enter secretly.
12) And they would deny the Divinity of Christ.

Bishops and the ordination of priests

Men are called to the priesthood by the proper bishops of their diocese, and a true pope must grant these bishops the necessary jurisdiction to call these men. The pope granting the jurisdiction can only have been legitimately elected according to all the rules for election laid down by a previous true pope, and must be ordained and consecrated by certainly valid and licit bishops either before or immediately following his election. The Popes always have been accepted by a reasonable number of faithful, (on Pentecost a few thousand accepted Peter; during the Western Schism different papal claimants had anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 followers, and this when the world population was much smaller.) Priests are trained for eight years or more and personally receive much spiritual education and direction from their instructors and confessors.  If these priests feel that these students are not advancing as they should, they can ask them to leave the seminary at any time. So they are called and trained as Christ called and trained the Apostles. If this training deviates in any one detail from what Christ taught and did, and what His Church says He taught and did, the calling and training of men for the ministry is not a blessing, but a curse. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, it is better to have fewer, but holier priests, than many who lack holiness and proper training.

Those rightly and licitly trained and retained are eventually ordained and some are consecrated bishops. But this ordination and consecration, to truly make these men priests and bishops, must come from one who belongs to a line of bishops proving their succession from the Apostles. And because Christ placed all the Apostles under St. Peter, and made them subject to him, these bishops must be in communion with the true pope. These are two indispensable conditions of what the Church calls Apostolic Succession. The Apostles and all the men who succeeded them create an unbroken line reaching directly back to Christ. There can be absolutely no break in the matter of orders or jurisdiction received from this line, or the Church is not the Church Christ constituted when He was on earth. He promised it would last as He constituted it until the end of time and His promises are always true. If we say there can be a break either where orders or jurisdiction are concerned, we say that He is a liar and was only a man; a great prophet perhaps, but not God. But only God could have guided the ship that is the Church all these years through so many hurricanes and gales and over so many dangerous reefs without shipwreck where Apostolic Succession is concerned.

Lay participation in the selection of priests and bishops

The Church teaches infallibly that the bishops are the successors of the Apostles. Bishops alone have the completion of the priesthood Christ granted the Apostles when he placed them in charge of the worldwide Church, with Peter as their head. In the early ages of the Church, the bishops allowed the laity to nominate the clergy they believed would be good priests and bishops, then the bishops would choose the most worthy from among these men for consecration. “St. Cyprian…never promoted anyone to Holy Orders without first taking the advice of his people and clergy,” (Rev. J. Tixeront, “Holy Orders and Ordination”). “The bishop was elected by the people, by the clergy of the Church over which he was to preside, and by the bishops of the province. We hasten to add that the strict right to elect belonged to the bishops of the province while the people and inferior clergy were merely consulted…

Jules Le Breton and Jacques Zeiller comment that “The bishops were elected by the Churches but they were usually proposed by the clergy of the city, and it was for the Christian people, then, to confirm their choice,” (“The History of the Primitive Church”). Tixeront explains that this only lasted until the sixth century. “But beginning in the sixth century, the Church began by degrees to withdraw the power granted to the people and the inferior clergy to elect priests and deacons,” (Ibid). From that time on, the only vestige of their former right was the power they had to oppose the Ordination of candidates whom they deemed unworthy, the “scrutiny,” still retained today in the rite of Ordination.

This is confirmed by St. Alphonsus Liguori in his “Exposition and Defense of Faith.” He notes under the 23rd session of the Council of Trent that the heretics then proposed that “all Christians are priests, and the call of the magistrate and consent of the people” were required for ordinations and consecrations. In response to this one Council father stated that “If the people had sometimes chosen priests or deacons, the election was made by the concession of the Holy See, but the right of confirming it and giving spiritual power belonged exclusively to the Churc” Another Council attendee added to this statement that the people assisted at the election only to give the necessary testimony [to the character of the candidates] but that they did not elect.” The laity today can still present themselves at ordinations and object to the candidates to be ordained.

In Rome, for the first 1,000 years or so, the clergy (bishops and priests) of Rome elected the pope but just as in any other diocese, they accepted the recommendations of the people regarding who should be eligible for election. Rev. Tixeront reports that deacons were typically elected to the papacy, because in the course of their active ministry they acquired a greater range of pastoral experience. This does not indicate that in these early centuries, laymen were elected pope. Nor is any credence given here to the idea that laity claimed an active vote in papal elections. Catholic historians regularly complain that it is very often next to impossible to state anything with certainty concerning the papacy, especially in the years 800-1,000. And very often, in researching popes before this time, the history books will say that nothing or very little is known concerning them. Hughes tells us only that by the eighth century, the election by, clergy, Roman nobility and the people was the “customary” practice. Some have intimated that the laity cast votes directly for the popes in these elections, but if this actually happened it was an event that occurred contrary to and outside the law.

Every exception to or derogation from the law must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt when following the Scholastic method mandated by the Church. Things deviating from the law are not to be drawn into precedent, (Rev. Amleto Cicognani, “Canon Law”). No certainty can be had in this matter, and we know that a certainly valid law did exist. In an “ancient canon,” a priest writing a biography on St. Bernard shows that the faithful had only the power to nominate, as was the case with selecting priests and bishops. This Canon states: “The Church ordains that the preference shall always be given to him who, at the request of the people, with the consent and concurrence of the clergy, has been first placed by the Cardinals in the chair of Blessed Peter” (“Life and Teaching of St. Bernard,” Rev. Ailbe Luddy, Cist., 1950).

Lay participation in papal elections

It was this old law to which Pope Nicholas II referred in 1059 when he officially limited the election of a pope to the cardinals. Referring to one of the earliest laws governing elections, Pope Nicholas II wrote: “However, it would certainly be correct and even lawful, if the order of selection carefully weighed in the opinion of Pope Leo the Great was resumed…If the perversity of depraved and wicked men shall so prevail that a pure, sincere and free election cannot be held in Rome, the cardinal bishops, with the clergy of the Church and the Catholic laity may have the right and power, even though few in numbers, of electing a pontiff for the Apostolic See wherever it may seem most suitable,” (April 12, 1059). When we investigate the history of Pope Leo the Great (Pope Leo I), we discover why Luddy referred to an ancient canon — Pope Leo the Great reigned from 440-461 A.D.  The historian Philip Hughes reports that during the time of Pope Gelasius I, “A carefully noted collection of all the canons of the councils and decrees of the different popes deciding cases” already had been collected, and among these easily could have been this ancient canon, (“A History of the Church,” Vol. II). It is most likely, then, that the ancient canon referred to by Luddy appeared in this early collection, which was later included in other official collections, even the Hadriana, used by Christian princes. So very early in the Church’s history Her laws clearly limit the laity to the nomination of papal candidates only. We know this because a later law limited even this level of participation in an election.

This original law of Pope Leo I was echoed again in 769, when Pope Stephen III decreed at the Lateran Synod that the Pope was to be chosen “only from the Cardinals of the Church or the deacons of Rome” (Rev. Ronald Cox, “A Study on the Juridical Status of Laymen in the Writing of the Medieval Canonists”). There had to be a good reason for Pope Stephen to make this decision. We can only assume that he believed that even lesser clergy were not qualified as papal candidates, far less laymen. At the same time, Pope Stephen placed further restrictions on the role played by the laity: “None but clerics should take part…in the election. The laity’s share (nomination) was reduced to the opportunity of cheering the newly-elected Pope and of signing the Acta of the election in sign of agreement,” (Hughes, Ibid.). So the myth of the laity’s right to actually cast a vote for a papal candidate cannot find support in ancient canon law, in papal law or in Church history. Divine law permits only the clergy to actually elect, because to them was entrusted the government of the Church by Christ Himself. The confusion surrounding the laity’s role in papal elections is much easier to understand once Church history is explained.

Rev. George Stebbing C.S.S.R., in his “The Story of the Church,” adds that Pope Nicholas II decreed that: “(1) The selection of a candidate should first be considered by the cardinal bishops, who then, with the other cardinals, should proceed to an election to be afterwards acclaimed by the rest of the clergy and the laity; (2) A Roman member of the clergy should be chosen if possible; (3) The election should be held in Rome, [but if not] the new Pope would exercise full authority even before being enthroned.” The decision to accord the Roman emperor only the right of acclamation in the election had “the effect of taking the choice out of the hands equally of the German emperors and the Roman clergy.” So how was the myth of lay involvement and the election of lay popes perpetuated and used to justify lay election today?

The Siege of Christendom

Lay involvement in elections was at its height during a period Hughes describes as “The Siege of Christendom.” At the beginning of this period, contravening the laws of Pope Leo I and Stephen III, a part in papal elections was restored to the laity and the papal election was limited to the Roman clergy and people, (822-827). The emperor also commanded that the pope swear an oath of allegiance to him, and that no pope would be consecrated until the emperor’s representative had decided that the election laws laid down by the emperor were followed to the letter. First the Roman nobility, in the 800s, then the German emperors, in the next century, either designated their choice for pope openly or reserved the right to approve the choice of the electors. Far from benefiting and providing stability to the Church, these concessions, agreed to only reluctantly by the Church, proved disastrous. Hughes calls these concessions ”unfavorable to the popes,” and describes the time period of the siege, 814-1046, as “the end of even the elementary decencies of life…These years are perhaps the darkest in all known European history. Nowhere are they darker than in Rome, where for sixty years one family dominated, making and unmaking popes at its pleasure…The details of this story are so grotesque, they lose all relation to reality.”

Rev. Stebbing adds: “[All] was covered with a cloud of ignorance, barbarism and corruption which almost seemed to envelope everything…And out of the darkness we have to make out what we are able of the persons or things that appear by the aid of the few and by the no means unimpeachable historians who lived in the period. The general barbarism and violence of the age told very disastrously on the position of the Holy See and the character of its occupant. Never was there a time when its subjection to the secular powers around it were so oppressive and so never has there been a time when so many unworthy pontiffs made their way to Peter’s chair. It was as if Divine Providence would furnish an object lesson of what the consequences would be if the Pope were anything but free, sovereign and independent.” Popes were rumored to have mistresses, they were implicated in murder and torture plots, and they were involved in all manner of intrigues. One pope was poisoned and beaten, another strangled to death in prison, and another very nearly died from a beating but survived. One, it is said, had his nose cut off. Another lay rotting in the streets before his burial and another was dug up from his grave to be deposed in full papal regalia. The features of the face of one antipope were obliterated, he was drug through the streets of Rome and he later was beheaded.

Hughes, Prof. McSorley and Stebbing explain the actual progression of papal election in these ages. First, local Roman rulers were forced to intervene in papal elections when the unruly people who participated in them revolted because their favorite candidates were not elected. On several occasions in the fifth and sixth centuries these rulers forced two rival contestants to resign, or decided from between two contestants who the true pope would be. Then the Carolingian emperors were involved in papal elections and until about 962, a Roman faction nominated every papal candidate. The freedom of election had been lost in the 800s, with the papacy treated as a prize to be won by these various political factions for their own benefit. When an agreement signed with the king of Italy in 824 gave the Roman people a share in the election again, the problems began. Yet even after this concession, we still find that the popes were not appointed, but elected by clergy and people or the Roman clergy until the latter part of the century. The 900s saw the reign of the Roman family the Theophylacts, who imposed one after another unworthy candidate on the throne of St. Peter. Eventually the German emperor Otto I stepped in, ended threats by barbarians and became the protector of Rome. Stebbing says he “nominated candidates to the papacy, summoned popes to trial and on occasion, deposed them.”

Age of the lay popes

It was Pope John XII who requested that Otto I end the interference of rival Roman factions in Church government and it was this same pope who crowned Otto I, making him master of Italy. He came to Italy shortly after the election of the first certainly known lay pope, Leo VIII, elected in 963. All historians now agree Leo was a layman. A council decreed his election invalid because Leo was a layman, but the emperor Otto later reinstated him. He reigned for only two years. It was over a several-year time period following Otto’s rule that two or three other lay popes were elected. Benedict VIII was the second layman “forcibly” elected and he is said to have been at least not incompetent or scandalous. Some believe he was a cleric on election. All agree that John XIX, brother of John XVIII was a layman when elected, and Hughes reports that he “revived the worst traditions of his tenth century predecessors.” But Rev. Stebbing disagrees.

“John XIX was clearly aware of his lack of preparation for this sacred office, and deplored it openly. He determined to guide his conduct by the advice of the best and wisest men he could find to counsel him. In this way…he was able to bear himself with dignity and escape the pitfalls laid for his want of ecclesiastical knowledge.” John XII, pope at the beginning of Otto’s reign, was one of the most scandalous popes to be elected during this approximately 225-year period. His degeneracy was equaled only by Benedict IX, who ruled off and on from 1032 to 1046. Benedict was one of two very young men made popes during these times, although several respected historians firmly state that he was somewhere between 18-30, not 12 at the time of his election, and some maintain he was a cleric. Others believe he was a layman. Benedict’s successor is said to have bought the papacy from Benedict to end the scandal and his evils resulting from his reign, (Stebbing). But soon this evil period would end.

The differing reports of historians concerning the number of lay popes tells us only that we cannot assume they were laymen, particularly since this was not the usual practice of the Church. No one can “prove” the status of these popes, one way or the other, if even the historians disagree. The practice of the Church shows that on all but a few confirmed occasions, clerics were elected to the papacy. The issue here is NOT whether laymen were or were not elected; no one is contesting this. The issue is whether they were ordained and consecrated following election. Even if one or two were not ordained or consecrated before their deaths, (and we know of two confirmed instances of this —Adrian V and Stephen II), Divine jurisdiction was still received and could be exercised in the external forum, according to Canons 109 and 218.

Painful transition

The papacy was at the mercy of its protectors, be they the Romans or the Germans. Unlike today, they were not their own city-state. The Popes have never had their own armies, other than palace guards. Whatever Rome suffered, they suffered. They could have fought the nominations of the emperors and the Theophylacts, but soon realized that disastrous consequences followed. Popes who did not go along with the powers that be were murdered, poisoned, imprisoned, tortured and held, basically, under house arrest. The emperors exacted a stiff fee for their protection. Even though the clergy at times had only a “nominal” part in the election (Hughes), this was preferable to the alternative. Having no part in the election, the confusion and harm to the faithful brought by contested elections, (which occurred anyway) and outright extended vacancies of the Holy See, known to be disastrous, was what they were facing.

The Church was relieved when Henry III, emperor of Germany, came on the scene, for Henry proved to be a better emperor than previous ones. Hughes records that in 1024 he “put an end to the scandals” in Rome, deposed three claimants to the papacy, and “nominated as pope a good German prelate…who took the name Clement II.” All in all, Henry nominated a total of three popes to the papacy. And the people and clergy confirmed his nominations without complaint. Henry, after all, was not a common man, but of royal blood. And the men he appointed were all bishops. One of them, Pope Leo IX was a saint. The man who succeeded him, Victor II, was the last pope nominated by an emperor. The Roman clergy elected Stephen IX and his successor and the next Pope, Nicholas II, ended the appointment of popes by the emperors. But this did not come about without a final opposition on the part of the imperialists, which made for a protracted transition. 

Even after Pope Nicholas II’s law was passed in 1059, ending the reign of the emperors over the papacy, the Church’s affair with imperialism was not over. On Nicholas II’s death, a pope was elected according to the new law, and then German and Lombard bishops selected another man favored by the nobility of Rome (antipope Honorius II). A schism ensued which lasted three years. It took a council to condemn Honorius before Pope Alexander II could begin his reign. (Over one-fourth of the entire list of antipopes in the Church’s history can be found during the time period from 814-1061.) As Hughes comments, the condemnation of lay involvement “suffered somewhat of an eclipse.” 

The next round against imperialism came with the condemnation of lay investiture. Emperors, foiled at interfering with papal elections, still did not hesitate to engage in simony and appoint bishops to sees without papal approval. It was a deeply ingrained abuse that had been part and parcel of the state-run situation in Rome for over two centuries, and unless it also was eradicated, Rome would never be entirely free.

Hughes comments that Gregory VII’s reign, which began in 1073 and ended in 1085 “were years of scarcely uninterrupted storm.” Lay investiture was challenged; a Roman council was convened which declared all those receiving sees from laymen excommunicated as well as the laymen who were offering them. King Henry IV of Germany failed to take Pope Gregory VII’s decision seriously, and prepared to appoint five bishops to sees. Gregory VII threatened him with censure, and Henry responded by trying to unseat the pope. For a time Gregory was even kidnapped, but was eventually returned to the Vatican. The excommunication was delivered to Henry, who submitted to the pope. Later however he returned to his old practices and the excommunication was renewed. The pope was taken prisoner again. He died with Italy divided, imperialism still threatening, and another three-year schism in progress. But the excommunication of Henry left a lasting impression, or should have. With time and troubles that demanded greater attention, imperialism subsided. It would come to life again during the Great Western Schism, the Reformation and in our own times.

Perpetuity of Pope Nicholas II’s law

The experiment of laymen even nominating other laymen as popes, or confirming a nomination made by the emperor, should have left a very bad taste in the mouths of Catholics, as Rev. Stebbing notes above. It resulted in the most shameful behavior and painfully embarrassing history for the Church. The Church only agreed to the conditions imposed by the emperors in fear of their lives and in hopes of purchasing what little modicum of order remained. Certainly no one should point to these regrettable years to prove that the feasibility of laity participating in any way in the election of the unworthy (whether the one “elected” is a cleric or layman) is anything worthy of repetition. Most certainly it is not something that can be cited as a precedent that would grant permission. (Even during the “Siege” period, historians note, clerics assisted in the election by at least confirming the emperor’s nomination.) The very last vestige of any participation in an election by an emperor came with Pope St. Pius X’s removal of the emperor’s right to veto a papal candidate prior to election. This is the reverse of nominating a candidate in that it amounts to deflecting the nomination of a candidate considered unworthy. This power was not the grant of an actual vote. It was a refusal right exercised by the last remaining Catholic emperors in St. Pius X’s own papal election. He later abrogated this veto in his 1904 papal election law, Vacante sede apostolica.

Both the historian Hughes, writing in 1935 and Rev. Anscar Parsons in his canon law commentary “Canonical Elections” (1939) state that Pope Nicholas II’s law was still in effect at the time that they wrote their works, since his “decree fixed the law for all future times,” (Hughes). Inasmuch as the law that he wrote limited papal electors to the cardinals who were to elect a cleric, this part of the election has never changed. Hughes notes that Nicholas’ law stated that, “Henceforth, the only electors were the cardinal bishops and the cardinal clergy of Rome. They were to elect, by preference, a cleric of the Roman Church. The emperor is not accorded any rights…” Pope St. Pius X’s election law and Pope Pius XII’s reordering of his law, Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis codified Pope Nicholas II’s law, effectively retaining its relevant parts and abrogating the rest. Pius XII admits the possibility that a layman could be elected (Six ans se sont, 1957), but only if deemed “fit” prior to his acceptance of the papacy. This is because at least two laymen already were officially listed as valid popes, a dogmatic fact which is indirectly infallible. Pius XII’s papal election law makes no specific mention of the election of a layman, however, although he orders that anyone elected who is not yet a priest must be ordained and consecrated. He addressed the matter of electing a layman only because those clamoring for novelty and change in the Church (Yves Congar and others) brought it up and the matter needed to be clarified. One would think that Traditional conclavists, who should be decrying innovations at every turn, would have been the last to resort to one.

In writing his papal election law, Pius merely added that a two-thirds plus one majority was needed for valid election and eliminated Pope St. Pius X’s requirement: that cardinal-deacons not yet ordained could not participate in the election unless they had first received permission from the Pope before his death. (This reflected the former law of Pope Sixtus V, who in 1586 decreed that there would be three levels of Cardinals: six cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests, age 30 or greater and 14 cardinal deacons. The cardinal deacons, he said, “could be 22, provided they became priests within one year of their appointment,” (Glenn D. Kittler, The Papal Princes). When Pope St. Pius X wrote his papal election law in 1904, Canon Law had not yet been codified. When it was codified, with this saint as the primary author of the Code and Pope Pius XII as one of his many assistants, this law was strengthened.  It was incorporated into the Code under Can. 232. This Canon states: “Cardinals… must be at least priests and be endowed with exceptional learning, training and experience,” (Revs. Woywod-Smith). Some have tried to say that the restriction of the right to election to Cardinal priests and bishops was an innovation strengthened by antipope John 23. But Pope Stephen III’s law above proves this is far from the truth.

We have explained before that the mention of the stipulation for emergencies found in Pope Nicholas II’s law cannot be interpreted as a privilege allowing the laity only to elect. It is included in a law intended to be in effect in perpetuity, but this does not give it the status of a privilege or extend it beyond its original purpose. It does lay down the method for proceeding in an emergency, and we do find ourselves in such an emergency. However, as Pope Pius XII decrees in his Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis, only the cardinals, (and as others have taught, in their absence the bishops) can decide what is to be done in the present situation. “If…a pure, sincere and free election cannot be held in Rome, the cardinal bishops, with the clergy of the Church and the Catholic laity may have the right and power, even though few in numbers, of electing a pontiff for the Apostolic See wherever it may seem most suitable,” (Nicholas II, April 12, 1059).

If we reference Pope St. Leo II’s law as Pope Nicholas II advises, all this provision says is that an election may be held outside of Rome with the usual provisions made for the laity; that of nomination at best and affirmation at the least. This is a restatement of an ancient law specifically designed to exclude direct lay participation in elections, (actual vote or appointment). The Church’s laws in this regard have not changed in nearly 1600 years.  There should no longer be any doubt about this. The Church fought valiantly to escape State control; She knew its many dangers. And to return to such a system would be to invite the return of calamity, as we have seen.

Apostolic succession never absent

Even during the tumultuous times of the Church’s “Siege” era, despite any irregularities in papal elections, one thing never changed, and this can be proven historically: whether laymen or clerics in minor orders, the one elected was always ordained and consecrated as soon as possible, then crowned. They were accepted as popes afterward by the entire Church. Inexperienced popes had full benefit of all the great minds at the Vatican for training, advice and briefing. In this manner they obtained full Apostolic succession since they were ordained and consecrated by successors of the apostles, to continue the Church’s Divine mission. No lay pope-elect has ever ruled the Church for any meaningful period of time without benefit of ordination/consecration. The instances of clerics elected pope remaining for a time without orders happened in the early ages of the Church when lay interference in elections was at its peak or Rome was undergoing attack from barbarians or foreign armies. These popes were elected validly by the cardinals and clergy, were accepted by the faithful and all were clerics on election. This is a far cry from lay people electing a questionably valid and illicit priest or a disqualified layman, or lay people and/or illicit clergy electing an illicitly ordained priest who is then consecrated by an illicitly consecrated bishop.

Research to date ascertains that five popes experienced delays in their consecrations, meaning that they were either deacons or priests at the time of their valid and licit elections, so were members of the hierarchy, (Can. 108). They also were subsequently accepted by the faithful. Stephen II, a deacon or priest on election in 752, simply died that same year before he could be consecrated; scarcely anything is known about him. The same is true of Adrian V, a cardinal-deacon elected in July 1286 who is confirmed as dying before receiving consecration. He reigned for 36 days (some say six weeks) and died in August. His only remarkable act was to suspend what some cardinals considered an overly strict law regarding Conclave rules enacted by his predecessor Gregory X, (1911 Catholic Encyclopedia). His successor, John XXI, later ratified the suspension of these rules. Eventually, however, the very rules Pope Gregory X proposed were adopted: the requirement that cardinals must remain inside the Conclave until the election of the pope regardless of any privations. These later became the permanent rules governing conclaves, and remain to this day.

As for the other three, Pope St. Leo II, a cardinal-priest was not consecrated for 17 months, being elected in January 681, sometime after the death of Pope Agatho on Jan. 10, 681. It is quite interesting to note that several historians do not date Leo II’s reign as Pope until 682, following his consecration, even though he was elected in 681. Pope St. Leo II was consecrated on Aug. 17, 682 and on this same day confirmed the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which had been in session at the time of Pope Agatho’s death, (Rev. Newman C. Eberhardt, C.M., “A Summary of Catholic History,” Vol. I. Eberhardt cites this confirmation as being made in “a letter to the emperor.”) Pope St. Leo II is listed as reigning from 682-683 in the Council of Constantinople documents cited by Henry Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma,” (1957 edition).  

Pope St. Leo II died in 683, shortly after his consecration. His successor Benedict II, also had to wait 11 months before receiving consecration. Pope Gregory IV, elected as a cardinal-priest, waited six months after his election before being consecrated in March, 828. Once again, these delays were certainly not Church policy, but were imposed by agreements made by Rome with the emperors. They are nothing to be passed off lightly. And given the one precedent we have, certainly ordination and/or consecration have never been postponed for more than two years, but exceptions should never be drawn into precedent.

The Western Schism

While Martin V was only a subdeacon when elected, he was initially a cardinal from the Roman obedience of Gregory XII, later declared the valid pope, (although Martin left the Roman line as many others did). Martin V was held in good repute according to the Catholic historians consulted, and many in his family served as cardinals before him. He was an expert in Canon Law. Immediately following his election, over a three-day period he was made deacon, priest and bishop. One would think today that Martin V was at least a material schismatic prior to his election; but the laws governing schismatics at that time were not then what they later became. And Gallicanism was not condemned as a heresy until the Vatican Council convened, although it is said that as a cardinal Martin firmly opposed conciliarism. In this he agreed with Cardinal Zabarella, one of the “leading” cardinals during the Council of Constance. Historian Walter Ullmann says of Zabarella: “There seems to be a genuine dislike on the part of Zabarella for anything approaching so-called self-help by the citizens, in the sense that they could take the law into their own hands: if the faithful of either [papal] obedience believe in the justness of their cause, they will be saved,” (The Origins of the Great Western Schism).

This is precisely the position taken by Pope Paul IV in his 1559 Bull, Cum ex Apostolatus Officio; he did not hold the cardinals who left the obedience of one they held to be a doubtful pope as bound by any censures or guilty of schism, regardless of the time spent in that obedience or whether they acted as electors. He approved of calling upon the civil power to facilitate a new election, which was done at Constance. Even a great Saint, Vincent Ferrer, had endorsed a false pope, (Benedict XIII). And 140 years later, Pope Paul IV held none of them to any censures, and indicated that those only were to be considered heretics and schismatics who knowingly and willingly embraced error or departed from the obedience of one certainly known to be a true pope, having been “canonically elected.” How to tell, outside canonicity, that an election is valid is set down by St. Bernard: character of the one elected, dignity and integrity of the electors, (canonicity of the election), the validity and character of the one consecrating Innocent II a bishop, lack of prejudice owing to family connections and the absence of intimidations by civil authority, (ibid Ailbe Luddy). And none of them seem to have been seriously considered as determinants during the Great Western Schism.

Before Pope Martin V’s election, two of the papal claimants were deposed and Gregory XII resigned, but not before insisting that he formally convene the Council of Constance. Some historians remark that Gregory XII always believed he was the true pope. As a cardinal he had taken a vow to resolve the schism if elected, even if this meant tendering his resignation. But pressure from his family and the secular government caused him to rethink this course of action. He backed off from a mutual agreement with Pedro Luna (Benedict XIII) to resign simultaneously, sensing that Luna was not sincere in his offer to resign. Following Gregory’s failure to honor his vow, Odo Colonna, the future Martin V and several other cardinals left him in disgust. The false Council of Pisa was the unfortunate outcome of these failed negotiations, resulting only in the election of yet a third line of antipopes.  St. Vincent Ferrer also later abandoned Luna for his stubborn refusal to resolve the schism. As early as 1394, “the University [of Paris]… canvassed its doctors and graduate theologians for a thorough census of opinion,” (Thos. Neill, PhD., Neill Schmandt, PhD., History of the Catholic Church).  Unfortunately, their recommendations were met with inaction.

The preferred solution chosen by the University was voluntary abdication, rather than mediation or the convening of a general council, but “the popes rejected the idea.”  In 1398, the French hierarchy voted to withdraw obedience from the Avignon pontiff and for five years acknowledged none of the claimants as pope. Cardinal Zabarella condemned this move of “subtractio,” as outright disobedience. But had the popes done what they were asked to do, had they shown true compassion for the faithful and the Church, the French would never have been disobedient, the cardinals would not have left Pope Gregory XII, and the schism would have ended 20 years sooner. It is easier to understand how men elected by cardinals on two different sides, each with their own obediences and at least somewhat plausible claims, might think they are popes. It is impossible to understand how men without any orders or with only illicit orders, schismatics and most likely heretics, in spite of the Code of Canon Law and Pope Pius XII’s election law and contrary to Church history and practice, could think they had even a prayer of a chance at valid election and Apostolic Succession.

Who can depose doubtfully elected popes?

Some have said material schismatics can elect and be elected, because Cardinals from all obediences and even lay people were allowed to elect the pope at Constance. Six representatives from each nation joined 23 cardinals to elect Martin V. The old Catholic Encyclopedia states that these representatives were all prelates. What is a prelate? Can. 110 tells us that prelates are clerics. Attwater’s A Catholic Dictionary tells us that “the principal prelates are bishops,” followed by prefects apostolic and major superiors of religious orders. Would it really make sense that the Council would invite the minor clergy far less lay people to this election, excluding bishops, archbishops and abbots? This ridiculous attempt to use every possible ruse and all misinformation to convince people that the laity played a role in Church government they clearly never enjoyed is reprehensible. These people forget that the Church during the Western Schism had a true pope all along.

That pope, believing he was indeed the true pope convened Constance before he resigned. By convening Constance, he more than likely supplied for the election of a true pope because he knew the intended outcome of the council would be an election. When the Church (the pope primarily and the body of bishops only secondarily) supplies for defects, She can in effect remedy every flaw in the election. She obviously remedied these flaws at Constance, or the Church would have never recognized Gregory as pope and would not have retained Her Apostolic succession.

Constance did not depose “popes;” the true pope resigned. The Church’s recognition of Gregory XII as the true pope proves this; it could not have been otherwise. No one may depose a canonically elected, ordained and consecrated pope certainly accepted by the faithful except in the case of heresy pre-election. This is the teaching of Pope Paul IV in Cum ex Apostolatus Officio and also is the common teaching of theologians. Constance deposed only doubtful popes, a practice we see from above that has existed since the earliest times in Church history. The Roman political factions deposed papal claimants right and left, Otto I deposed papal claimants, Henry III also deposed papal claimants. In his work Canon Law, Rev. Amleto Cicognani explains that the Gallicanists erred in believing that what really applied to an extraordinary situation (the calling of a General Council to judge doubtful popes), also applied ordinarily, so that these bishops believed they could likewise judge, and were superior to even a certainly valid pope. The historian Franzen Dolan explains that there were really very few participants at the council who held to “radical ideas” such as those espoused by Marsilius of Padua. He states that the council never considered defining that it held itself superior to the pope. Instead, he points out, “the overwhelming majority” simply wanted to dispose of the troublesome antipopes and protect the Church “against similar cases of schism in the future.”

For a wonderful look at Apostolic succession expressed in principle, we need only look as far as the current law of Pope Pius XII on the election of a Roman Pontiff. Even before Canon Law was codified during the reign of Pope St. Pius X, Pope St. Pius X revised papal election law, compiling the essence of all the old laws on election into one manageable document, which addressed the needs at the time. Pope Pius XII would later issue his own law, but with very few changes to Pope St. Pius X’s law and only minor additions. So the present document governing elections, Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis, is nothing less than a compendium of teaching on papal election law issuing from the continual magisterium. In faithfully following these rules, the cardinal-priests and cardinal-bishops link in a very meaningful way to all that has gone before in the Church and connects it to the future of the Church. That is why, as one theologian so eloquently explains:

“The pope has [jurisdiction] immediately from God on his legitimate election. The legitimacy of his election depends on the observance of the rules established by previous popes regarding such election…In the absence of legitimate election, no jurisdiction whatsoever is granted, neither de jure, NOR DESPITE WHAT SOME HAVE TRIED TO MAINTAIN, DE FACTO… A doubtful pope may be really invested with the requisite power, but he has not practically in the Church the same right as a certain pope — he is not entitled to be acknowledged as Head of the Church, and may be legitimately compelled to desist from his claim…

That the Church should remain thirty or forty years without a thoroughly ascertained Head and representative of Christ on earth, this could not be [Catholics reason]. Yet it has been, and we have no guarantee that it will not be again…We must not be too ready to pronounce on what God will permit…We, or our successors in future generations, may see stranger evils than have yet been experienced…contingencies regarding the Church, not excluded by the Divine promises, cannot be regarded as practically impossible, just because they would be terrible and distressing.(“The Relations of the Church to Society — Theological Essays,” Rev. Edmund James O’Reilly, S.J. as quoted by John S. Daly; from the chapter “The Pastoral Office of the Church,” all emphasis by Rev. O’Reilly in the original. Rev. O’Reilly was the theologian of choice in Ireland for local Irish Councils and Synods, was a professor of theology at the Catholic University of Dublin and was at one time considered as a candidate for a professorship at the prestigious Roman College by his Jesuit superior.)

The Church thereby recognizes that whenever several papal claimants exist, the best plan is abdication and the only other recourse is declaration that such men were never popes. As Cardinal Zabarella wrote: “It is the people themselves who have to summon the neighboring bishops for special purposes if the properly instituted bishop neglects his duty of summoning his colleagues,” (Ibid. Ullmann; emph. mine). In a case such as ours, Zabarella says, “good clerics and loyal believers and followers of the Church” would need to resolve the situation, and God would have to intervene, since the Church, “cannot not be.” This also was the gist of Pope Nicholas II’s emergency clause. St. Robert Bellarmine concurred over 100 years later by suggesting the Imperfect Council, which must be convened by the bishops and could only act to denounce all usurpers and provide the Church with a pope.

Church practice, however, also would allow laymen to officially declare a man a false pope, and Pope Paul IV’s “Cum ex Apostolatus Officio” states this as a contingency in the case of removing a usurper. When the location of true bishops and clergy is unknown, it seems to be the only option. Especially if an election could be proven invalid according to existing Canon Law and Church teaching and was then easily and generally recognized as invalid, the claimant could be dismissed. In our current situation it may no longer be possible to summon true bishops, yet still the Church “cannot not be.” Divine intervention is the only answer left to us, whether this means miraculously revealing the location of the hierarchy or some other miracle. What Christ promised will always be.

Apostolic succession in Canon Law and Church teaching

Christ set down the essentials for apostolicity by His own ordination and consecration of the Apostles, lending Orders its divine origin, then His appointment of Peter to the papacy. Thus was the Divine form for this most essential mark of the Church established, a mark without which the other marks cannot exist, (1911 Catholic Encyclopedia). He gave the power of binding and loosing to the Apostles, and this they used to determine the method for designating Peter’s successors. St. Peter appointed Linus to succeed him, but all the rest, save the exceptions mentioned above, were elected by at least some members of the clergy of Rome.  Nowhere in Holy Scripture does Jesus accord any power in the administration of His Church to laymen. He set St. Peter over the sheep (bishops) and the lambs (the rest of the faithful) in appointing him pope.

This is why Pope Nicholas II, following Pope Leo I, groups them in precisely the same way: “ the cardinal bishops, with the clergy of the Church and the Catholic laity.” He gave the power of binding and loosing to Peter primarily and the Apostles as governed by Peter. The people do not share this power. The Church has condemned the teaching that the people themselves can directly elect or appoint their own ministers. (DZ 570, 960, 967, 1502; Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma”). Their participation was always confined to nomination and/or acclamation. If emperors appointed the popes, or had a major share in their appointment, the Church supplied for such a situation, but only reluctantly. At the earliest opportunity she condemned the abuse to return to Her common and constant practice. And She has repeated these condemnations throughout Her history.

Doctrine develops; and the doctrine of the Church concerning the role the laity could rightfully play in ecclesiastical government developed slowly and painfully. But today there can be no doubt how the Church has decided in this matter. Hughes relates that it also was Pope Leo I who, although agreeing to ordain and consecrate a certain number of men elected to Episcopal sees who were not clerics, insisted that the law that they be clerics prior to election must be observed in the future. And this in the fifth century! The specious objection that this law was often not observed later on must be totally disregarded. It was the stated will of the legislator that it certainly be observed, and the legislator possessed the power to bind and loose in Christ’s name. This is upheld in DZ 967 and 424:Those not rightly ordained or sent are not lawful ministers. This means that while a priest who is a bishop-elect has the power to rule his diocese prior to consecration, (external jurisdiction only), this is not true of one who is not a cleric.

If one not a cleric is elected, Canon Law nullifies the election (or appointment). This ancient fact is reflected in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (Canons 147, 153, 154 and 453). First of all, governing all the rest, Can. 147 states that no office in the Church can be validly obtained without a canonical appointment, understood as “the conferring of an ecclesiastical office by the competent ecclesiastical authority in harmony with the sacred canons,” (the canon in this case being Can. 160, which refers readers to Pope Pius XII’s papal election law, “Vacantis Apostolica Sedis.” The canonists Bouscaren-Ellis report that this includes the papacy and Canon 109 and 219 confirm this.) Then Can. 153 declares that only a cleric may be elected to an office and must have the qualifications demanded by common law or particular law; if not properly qualified, conferral of the office is at least voidable. Canon 154 pronounces as null and void any office involving the care of souls that is granted to one not a priest. These two laws are repeated in Can. 453 in the case of pastors.

Some have tried to sidestep these laws by saying that a layman elected pope (by laymen, no less; and clerics deposed for heresy are reduced to lay status under Can. 188§4) receives jurisdiction directly from God and may exercise it (indefinitely) without the benefit of ordination and consecration. Church history and practice (tradition), Canon Law and infallible Church teaching tell us this cannot be true. Competent ecclesiastical authority only may elect, in accordance with the sacred canons, which always insisted on the participation of the clergy. And only when legitimately elected can a man accept the election and simultaneously receive the Divine jurisdiction that grants the actual office. The acquisition of Divine jurisdiction is entirely dependent on this legitimate election. Even the ancient laws demand that a certainly qualified cleric be elected, or in the rare case of a layman elected, that, at the very least, the one elected be confirmed (ordained and/or consecrated), by valid and licit clergy and acclaimed by the entire Church. The only reason the papacy survived the “Siege” era is because Apostolic Succession was always guaranteed

Certainly laymen can be and have been elected, in straightened circumstances or times of emergency, but this is not the constant practice of the Church. Even then, valid and licit clergy always supplied for the election of even an unworthy cleric or layman, at the request of a layman (emperor) and with the participation of cardinals as well as lesser clergy other than cardinals. But this is not possible today. The definition of Apostolicity/Apostolic Succession given in the old Catholic Encyclopedia leaves no doubt that unless a man possesses not merely valid and licit appointment or election but the actual valid and licit orders necessary to his particular office, he can never be counted as a successor of the Apostles.

  1. a) The one who is claiming apostolicity must be able to prove that he possesses Orders and jurisdiction, which proceed in a direct and unbroken line from the Apostles to a bishop yet possessing them today.
  2. b) This bishop must be lawful, (i.e., he must have received his episcopacy from Pope Pius XII). He cannot have been separated from the Church by heresy, apostasy or schism.
  3. c) The doctrine he teaches must be unchanged from the time of the Apostles to the present, with no deviation, either, from those teachings of the Supreme Pontiffs proceeding from the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium.
  4. d) The transmission of power must be both material and formal, meaning it must consist of actual succession from an unbroken line of orders conveyed by those with the authority (jurisdiction) to transmit it, for no one can give an authority he does not possess.
  5. e) An authoritative mission is absolutely necessary for apostolicity to exist and a man-given mission is not authoritative. Unless apostolicity exists, none of the other marks can exist.
  6. f) No new mission can arise because the mission given by Christ to the Apostles must pass from themselves to their legitimate successors in an unbroken line until the end of the world.
  7. g) This notion of apostolicity derives from the teaching of Christ Himself. To deny this is heresy.
  8. h) Any concept of apostolicity that excludes authoritative union with the apostolic mission robs the ministry of its Divine character. No one may disregard any teaching based on Divine law and retain membership in the Church.

This also is testified to by the unanimous teaching of theologians, (

Active lay involvement in elections forever condemned

Finally, The Council of Trent and Pope Pius VI put an end to all controversy concerning the role the laity is to play in the future where the election of bishops or any other ministers are concerned. Occurring only 125-150 years after Constance, it was the first opportunity the Church had to address these matters once the error of Gallicanism found expression in Protestantism. That Trent and Pope Pius VI intended to end these abuses is unquestionably evident in the infallible documents below:

From the Council of Trent: “This Holy Synod teaches that, in the ordination of bishops, priests and other ordersthose who are called and instituted only by the people, or by the civil powerand proceed to exercise these offices, and…those who take these offices upon themselves, are not ministers of the Church, but are to be regarded as ‘thieves, robbers and those who have not entered by the door,’” (DZ 960; Canons 108-109; Can. 147). “If anyone says that … those who have neither been rightly ordained nor sent by ecclesiastical authority, but come from a different source, are the lawful ministers of the Word and of the Sacraments, let him be anathema.” (The Council of Trent, Sess. 23, July 15, 1563; DZ 967, 424; emph. mine).

Condemnation of the Jansenists: Pope Pius VI also condemned a Jansenist version of this same notion: “‘Power has been given by God to the Church that it might be communicated to the pastors who are its ministers for the salvation of souls.’ If thus understood that the power of ecclesiastical ministry is derived from the community of the faithful to the pastors — heretical,” (DZ 1502; Canons 108-109; emph. mine).

These infallible teachings prove that if anyone is instituted by “only by the people, or by the civil power…” [or] “…by the community of the faithful…” as a true priest or bishop without being  “rightly ordained nor sent” and … proceed to exercise these offices…” as “lawful ministers of the Word and of the Sacraments,” they are excommunicated for heresy. In comparing the wording of these condemnations to what happened during the “Siege era” of the Church and the Western Schism, as well as today, it is clear that the Church had these abuses in mind and intended to proscribe them forever here by issuing these anathemas. It is clear from the wording that this was done to protect apostolic succession, and that no one not rightly ordained or sent can be intruded as a lawful minister — be this person a pastor, a bishop or a Pope, who after all is simply the bishop of Rome.

This also was emphasized later in the Constitution “Charitas,” issued by Pope Pius VI: “We therefore severely forbid the… illicitly consecrated men… to assume episcopal jurisdiction or any other authority for the guidance of souls since they have never received it.” So let us hear no more talk of emperors only appointing popes, laymen elected pope, laymen not ordained or consecrated before their deaths and the appointment of laymen to Episcopal offices, even by ecclesiastical authority, with no need of orders. Regardless of what happened in the past, all these things are now forbidden by the Council of Trent and other Church teachings as reflected in Canons 153, 154, 333 and 453.  Pope Gelasius taught that once the Church has ruled on a matter, it can NEVER be discussed or questioned again, (DZ 161).

As Pope Pius XII also later taught in “Ad Apostolorum Principis” : “Everyone sees that all ecclesiastical discipline is overthrown if it is in any way lawful for one to restore arrangements which are no longer valid because the supreme authority of the Church long ago decreed otherwise. In no sense do they excuse their way of acting by appealing to another custom, and they indisputably prove that they follow this line deliberately in order to escape from the discipline which now prevails and which they ought to be obeying” (condemning the lay investiture of Chinese bishops behind the Iron Curtain). How astute Pope Pius XII was in observing that those laymen intruding bishops and the bishops intruded would use the excuse of another custom to exempt themselves from obeying infallible decrees. It was this very appeal to abolished customs that contributed to the destruction wrought by the liturgical reformers at the false Vatican 2 council.


In summarizing what is stated above, the following observations can be made. First of all, the laity as a group never possessed an active vote in papal elections, as the assay of the various early Church laws and actual Church practice cited above proves. Secondly, any participation in the government of the Church by the Roman nobles or the emperors was either the result of tacit agreement by the Holy See or an official, signed agreement between the Vatican and its various “protectors,” at a time when the Vatican had no other choice in the matter.  In the third place clergy, including cardinals, always confirmed any nomination by ruling nobles and emperors, providing orders and/or consecration when necessary, and officiated at the coronation. The remaining nobles and laity also affirmed the election. Fourthly, it could be said that at the time, the failure of the clergy to insist on installing their own candidates rather than accepting a poor choice from the emperor was the result of force and fear. This excused them from any guilt in not obeying the Church’s own laws and practices, since papal election laws were then merely ecclesiastical. Confirmation, coronation and acclamation by the official body of the clergy and the faithful, then, supplied for any deficiencies and effectively legalized such elections.

Until its condemnation at Trent and by Pope Pius VI, election by nomination of the emperor was not identified as a heresy, although it was strictly forbidden for several hundred years. Likewise the Vatican Council forbade the holding of the Gallican articles for several hundred years before their eventual condemnation in 1870. So today, is it lawful and within the bounds of Catholic belief to advocate that we return to the idea that a General Council is above a valid, licit, canonically elected Pope? Most certainly not! And neither is it lawful or within the bounds of Catholic faith and belief to now return to a method of papal election that has since been condemned as heretical. Some will object that the condemnations above were only intended to apply to the institution of Protestant ministers. But when a man not a priest or bishop is “elected” to an office that requires the reception of the priesthood and episcopacy according to invalidating and incapacitating canon laws, and he is not a priest or bishop, but rules and performs as one, this is what the condemnation is forbidding. Or if an illicitly ordained man is elected, even by the people and (illicit) clergy, and he presumes to teach and preach as well as administer the Sacraments, this is clearly likewise condemned.

Canon Law demands that all orders and jurisdiction must be bestowed upon the clergy and proceed only from the clergy, (Can. 118, 147).  In authentically interpreting Can. 147, Pope Pius XII cited DZ 960, in forbidding Chinese secular authority to approve the consecration of bishops. The Divine mission promised to the Apostles by Christ belongs to the bishops, but it can be activated only by the successor of St. Peter. The power that is promised to the pope is “episcopal and ordinary,” (Can. 218). In other words, it requires episcopal consecration, either before or after election, if apostolic succession is to be continued. Episcopal or episcopacy means “an order superior to the priesthood” that includes the power to “govern their flocks…ordain priests and to confirm,” Attwater’s “A Catholic Dictionary; also defined by the Council of Trent). Ordinary means “a cleric with ordinary jurisdiction,” (Ibid.; emph. mine).  This is nothing more but the foundation of apostolic succession: orders and jurisdiction. Divine jurisdiction is transmitted only when ecclesiastical authority Can. 147) posits a legitimate election, (109, 218). Canons 218 and 219 are only a restatement of Divine and infallible teaching. The people or secular authority have no right to appoint even a cleric to an office, as Trent teaches, and the cleric thus appointed cannot exercise such an office even if they appoint him. Only the proper ecclesiastical authority (the cardinals, or the bishops and priests, in their absence), the governing body of the Church, was authorized by Our Lord to designate the one to whom He will transmit Divine jurisdiction, in the papacy.

What did Jesus do?

He created the hierarchy, the ecclesia docens, that they might teach, govern and sanctify the laity, the ecclesia discens; Divine law says that the laity has no governing power in the Church, (Can. 108, 109). He promised to bind and loose, guaranteeing His confirmation of de fide decrees in Heaven already enacted by His Church on earth. He promised that not only the papacy, but also the bishops and priests — the Church as He constituted it — would last “unto the consummation.” He demonstrated by his actions that unless these priests and bishops were first ordained (and consecrated), as He first ordained and consecrated His Apostles before sending them on the Divine mission, they could not be His successors. He gave the power concerning binding and loosing to His Church, and She has never failed to teach that cardinals must elect (preferably) a cleric as pope and that only in emergencies can the Universal Church — cardinals and other bishops and priests, with laymen allowed only to nominate candidates or to acclaim them — act outside this law.  Christ came to earth solely to do his Father’s will, and we must do as He did. Therefore, we must “depart not by any human and novel institution, from that which Christ our master both taught and did…The Will of God is what Christ has done and taught.”

It is as the Vatican Council solemnly proclaimed: “The doctrine of Faith, which God has revealed, has not been given over to be perfected by human intelligence, as though it were a philosophical theory,” (DZ 1800, emph. mine). It is not for us to question how Christ will revive His Church in these seemingly impossible circumstances, or even if, instead of reviving, He will arrive for the General Judgment. One of the two must occur. We are dealing with doctrines of faith, which cannot be questioned. A paraplegic cannot propel a bicycle forward, and a man missing even one of the two legs of orders and jurisdiction can never claim succession to the Apostles. It is what Jesus said, and what He did. It is what His Church unquestionably teaches that He said and did. If we once admit that any man can state otherwise and speak the truth, then we admit that man is a god in his own right and we deny Christ’s Divinity. “God alone is true and every man a liar.”

Jesus promised He would be with us unto the consummation. Lift up your heads, He tells us, for your redemption is at hand. If we keep our eyes on Heaven and remember what Jesus said and did while on earth, we cannot lose sight of our salvation.

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(books consulted or quoted for this work):

Primary sources

  • Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims version, John Murphy & Co., 1899
  • Rev. Stanislaus Woywod, Rev. Callistus Smith, “A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law,” 1957
  • Rev. T. Lincoln Bouscaren, Rev. Adam Ellis, “Canon Law: A Text and Commentary”
  • 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, several volumes
  • Henry Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma,” 1957
  • Donald Attwater’s “A Catholic Dictionary” 1941

Papal documents

  • Pope Paul IV, “Cum ex Apostolatus Officio,” 1559
  • Pope Pius VI, “Charitas”
  • Pope Pius XII, Six ans se sont,” 1957
  • Pope Pius XII, “Ad Apostolorum Principis”
  • Pope Pius XII, “Vacantis Apostilicae Sedis”

Historical Sources

  • Abbot Dom J. B. Chautard, “Soul of the Apostolate,” 1945
  • Msgr. Capel, editor, “Faith of Catholics,” Vol. 1, 1885
  • Rev. J. Tixeront, “Holy Orders and Ordination,” 1928
  • Rev. Ailbe Luddy, O. Cist., “Life and Teaching of St. Bernard,” 1950
  • Philip Hughes, “A History of the Church,” Vol. I-II, 1935
  • Philip Hughes, “A Popular History of the Catholic Church,” 1951
  • St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Exposition and Defense of Faith,” 1846
  • Rev. Ronald Cox, “A Study on the Juridical Status of Laymen in the Writing of the Medieval Canonists,” 1959; Catholic University of America
  • Rev. George Stebbing C.S.S.R., “The Story of the Church,”1915
  • Rev. Anscar Parsons, canon law commentary “Canonical Elections,” Catholic University of America, 1939
  • Glenn D. Kittler, “The Papal Princes,” 1961
  • Thomas Neill, PhD., Neill Schmandt, PhD., “History of the Catholic Church,” 1957
  • Karl Bihlmeyer, Herman Tuchle, “Church History — the Middle Ages,” Vol. II, 1963
  • Joseph Lortz, Edwin Kaiser, “A History of the Church,” 1939
  • Rev. Newman C. Eberhardt, C.M., “A Summary of Catholic History,” Vol. I, 1960
  • Walter Ullmann, “The Origins of the Great Western Schism,” Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1949
  • August Franzen, John Dolan, “A History of the Church,” 1965
  • Rev. Edmund James O’Reilly, S.J., “The Relations of the Church to Society — Theological Essays” 1892
  • John Farrow, “Pageant of the Popes,” 1942
  • Joseph McSorley, “Outlines of Church History,” 1944, (McSorley was a former professor of theology at the Catholic Univ. Of America)
  • Notre Dame Sisters, “A Compendium of Church History,” 1911


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