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Accepted, Not Elected: The Curious Case of Pope Boniface II

In the near future:

Pope Francis’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He knows he has only a few weeks to live. In an effort to perpetuate his agenda after his death, he declares Cardinal Tagle as his successor. In a formal ceremony, he places a special pallium upon Cardinal Tagle, representing the succession of the papacy to him. Francis then threatens excommunication to anyone who does not accept Tagle as the legitimate pope after his death.

Soon after this ceremony, Pope Francis dies. Cardinal Tagle, taking the papal name Francis II, moves into the Vatican to begin his pontificate, amid many supporters within the high reaches of the Church. However, more than 100 cardinal electors gather to elect a new pope, refusing to accept Tagle’s appointment. In a surprise move — and perhaps as a reaction to Francis’s heavy-handed manner of selecting Tagle — they elect Cardinal Sarah as pope, who takes the name John Paul III. 

A week later, Rome witnesses a bizarre sight: on the exact same day, both Tagle and Sarah are formally consecrated as pope in separate ceremonies: Tagle in St. Peter’s Basilica and Sarah in St. John Lateran. 

Now the Church is in full crisis, hearkening back to the Great Western Schism: two men with significant backings within the Church claiming to be pope. However, after just three weeks in this terrible situation, Cardinal Sarah suddenly dies. Cardinal Tagle takes this opportunity to solidify his position: he anathematizes Cardinal Sarah posthumously and pressures Sarah’s most prominent supporters to declare their support for his pontificate. With his support thus secured, Tagle continues his reign as Pope Francis II, which is accepted by the vast majority of hierarchs and members of the Church, even though no formal conclave ever gathers to elect him.

In this fictional situation, who should be considered the legitimate pope? Sarah or Tagle? If Sarah was the legitimate pope, then after his death, is Tagle now the pope? Or is there no pope?

This scenario might sound far-fetched, like something out of the fevered imagination of a crazed Catholic conspiracy theorist. Perhaps so, but something like it already happened. The scenario laid out above occurred in the sixth century, almost exactly as described. Pope Felix IV appointed Boniface II as pope before his death, but the priests of Rome — the papal electors of the time — elected Dioscorus after Felix passed away. Both men were consecrated on the same day, but Dioscorus died 22 days later, and Boniface II was accepted as pope after pressuring many of Dioscorus’s original supporters.

Now take a minute to look up an official list of popes. Scan back to the sixth century:

  1. John I (523-526)
  2. Felix IV (526-530)
  3. Boniface II (530-532)
  4. John II (533-535)

There is no Dioscorus listed! Not only that, but the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia adds this notation to Boniface II’s entry: “Opposed by Dioscorus, antipope (530).” In other words, the man elected by the vast majority of papal electors is now considered an antipope, while Boniface II, who was selected by his predecessor and never formally elected, is considered a legitimate pope.

What does this mean? First, that Church history — and particularly papal history — is always messier than we want to believe. While it might be comforting to assume that every pope’s reign began in an orderly fashion and without any outside influences, the actual historical truth is not so reassuring.

Second, Boniface II’s papacy undercuts arguments against the potential illegitimacy of Pope Francis. A small number of Catholics have disputed the canonical nature of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation or the legitimacy of Pope Francis’s election. However, against that argument many have noted the Catholic teaching of universal acceptance, which notes that the legitimacy of a papacy that has been elected peacefully and has been accepted by at least a moral unanimity of Catholics is infallibly certain.

However, we can go even farther than this argument of universal acceptance of a papal election in the case of Boniface II, for it involves a pope who wasn’t even elected! So far as we know, although Boniface II was not elected by papal electors, he was accepted by the Church as pope. On the other hand, Dioscorus, who was elected pope by legitimate papal electors, was never accepted by the overall Church as a pope and is therefore now considered an antipope.

Thus, even if a man has become pope under questionable circumstances, his acceptance as pope by the universal Church is enough for us to know for certain that he is actually the pope. If Boniface II is accepted as a legitimate pope, then when it comes to Pope Francis — who was both elected by the cardinal electors and accepted as pope by the overall Church — it is undeniable that he must be considered a legitimate pope.

The episode of Pope Boniface II might seem disconcerting to many Catholics; after all, it involves politics, corruption, and insider deals. Yet it demonstrates that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in spite of her all too human members. It was Boniface II who confirmed the decisions of the Second Council of Orange, which opposed semi-Pelagianism and instead taught that grace is always necessary for salvation. This man who rose to the Chair of St. Peter under such questionable means was the instrument used by God to confirm an important doctrine of our faith. We can be sure of that, because we can be sure that Boniface II was accepted by the Church of his day as the legitimate vicar of Christ who had the authority to make such a decision.

So even if today we hear arguments over the minutiae of Benedict XVI’s abdication or Jorge Bergoglio’s election, these arguments can never overcome the acceptance of Francis as pope by the universal Church. To deny Francis’s papacy is to deny the voice of the universal Church, which has accepted him as pope, as she once accepted Boniface II.

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