This is Part I in a two-part series. Read Part II here.
Near the end of the 19th century, the High Church Anglican and virulent anti-Catholic scholar, Rev. Dr. Richard Littledale, dean of Windsor, published a book titled, The Petrine Claims. The book examined the history of the papacy in light of canon law, papal bulls, and accepted axioms of Catholic theology and concluded that more than 100 popes, recognized as legitimate popes by the Church, were in fact false popes. The causes of invalidity ranged from simony to pre- or post-election heresy to doubtful or manifestly illicit elections. Littledale further concluded that the last legitimate cardinal elector (i.e., one appointed by a true pope) died in the 16th century, and, as a result, the succession of lawfully and validly elected popes ended with the death of Clement VII (d. 1534).
The force of Dr. Littledale’s arguments, supported by his reputation as one of the most eminent scholars of the day, persuaded many of his fellow Anglicans that the line of legitimate popes had come to an end, and it likely served as a stumbling block for those involved in the Oxford Movement who were considering entering the Church.
Fr. Sydney Smith, S.J., took up the challenge to refute Dr. Littledale’s claims, and he did so with one doctrine: the peaceful and universal acceptance of a pope. In his reply, which was published in The Tablet, he said Catholics have no need to be troubled by Dr. Littledale’s seemingly impressive arguments, nor do they oblige anyone to embark upon “a complicated historical inquiry” in order to “know for certain that the Pope who now rules the Church is the true Pope.” “Such fears are needless,” Fr. Smith informs his reader, since:
[W]e have only to ask ourselves in reference to any particular Pope — either the living Pope whom we are called upon to obey, or some past Pope in whom we are historically interested — whether the true Church adheres or adhered to him, or not, and then we can be sure at once, independently of all detailed historical investigations, whether the title by which he entered upon the See of Peter was valid or not.
Fr. Smith went on to explain that because the Church is an indefectible visible society, it can never adhere to a false head. There’s no need to study canon law, or spend years researching ancient Latin texts buried away in archives, to be absolutely certain that a particular pope was (or is) the true pope. All that is required to ascertain his legitimacy is to find out if he was recognized as pope by the Church. If the answer is yes, that alone provides infallible certitude of his legitimacy, as well a corresponding degree of certitude that all the conditions required for him to have become popes were satisfied — such as the condition that the papal office was vacant at the time. And the certitude of the pope’s legitimacy occurs the moment the entire Church learns of his election, provided it is not at once contested.
If we apply this doctrine to Francis, it proves that his election was valid, since the entire Church accepted him as pope following his election. The concerns over the St. Gallen Mafia and Benedict’s abdication did not arise until the following year, which was too late. By then, Francis’s legitimacy as pope had already been established with infallible certainty. And since the legitimacy of a pope logically proves that all the conditions required for him to have become pope were satisfied, the universal acceptance of Francis following his election proves that Benedict’s abdication was accepted by Christ. Hence, all the claims that Benedict’s resignation was invalid due to substantial error, forced resignation, grammatical errors, ambiguous Latin words in the official renunciation, or anything else are proven to be erroneous by the universal acceptance of Francis as pope.
The doctrine of the peaceful and universal acceptance, when properly understood, proves beyond any possible doubt that Francis’s election was valid and refutes each and every objection that has been raised against it. Those who understand this “sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3), and accept it, will know who the true pope is, while those who “turn their hearing away from the truth” by rejecting it will continue to be “tossed to and fro and carried about” by the latest conspiracy theory or fallacious argument.
Before continuing, I should note that there was a time when I also had doubts, or at least questions, about the legitimacy of the Francis pontificate and was one of the first to raise the questions about Benedict’s abdication that are being widely discussed today. But after studying the matter further, there is no doubt whatsoever that Benedict’s abdication was ratified by Christ, Who stripped him of the papal office and conferred it upon Francis on the day of his election.
In Part I, we will see how the “universal acceptance” of a pope is understood according to the mind of the Church, as explained by some of her best theologians. In Part II, we reply to recent objections that have been raised against the doctrine and against its application to the pontificate of Francis in particular, and we see how easily all such objections are answered by a correct understanding of the doctrine.
Papal Election and Its Acceptance
The renowned Dominican theologian, John of St. Thomas, wrote what is likely the most thorough treatise of the peaceful and universal acceptance of a pope that has ever been penned, explaining each aspect of the doctrine with Thomistic precision. He compares the election of a pope by the cardinals to a doctrine defined by a council. He then explains that just as the infallibility of a conciliar decree is dependent upon its acceptance by the Roman pontiff, so too the infallible certitude that the legitimacy of the man elected by a conclave is dependent upon his acceptance by the Church. In both cases, it is the acceptance that ultimately provides the infallible certitude, and which renders the proposition de fide. Because of this, John of St. Thomas goes on to say:
Wherefore, if the Cardinals elect him in a questionable manner, the Church can correct their election, as the Council of Constance determined in its 41st session. Hence, the proposition [i.e., that the one elected is the true pope] is rendered de fide, as already has been explained, by the acceptance of the Church, and that alone, even before the Pope himself defines anything. For it is not [just] any acceptance on the part of the Church, but the acceptance of the Church in a matter pertaining to the faith, since the Pope is accepted as a determinate rule of faith.”
The Legitimacy of a Pope is a Dogmatic Fact
As soon as the entire Church accepts the man as pope, his legitimacy becomes a dogmatic fact, which is a secondary object of infallibility. Fr. E. Sylvester Berry provides the following explanation of dogmatic facts:
A dogmatic fact is one that has not been revealed, yet is so intimately connected with a doctrine of faith that without certain knowledge of the fact there can be no certain knowledge of the doctrine. For example, was the Vatican Council truly ecumenical? Was Pius IX a legitimate pope? Was the election of Pius XI valid? Such questions must be decided with certainty before decrees issued by any council or pope can be accepted as infallibly true or binding on the Church. It is evident, then, that the Church must be infallible in judging of such facts, and since the Church is infallible in believing as well as in teaching, it follows that the practically unanimous consent of the bishops and faithful in accepting a council as ecumenical, or a Roman Pontiff as legitimately elected, gives absolute and infallible certainty of the fact. 
Notice the phrase “practically unanimous,” which is distinct from “mathematically unanimous.” A practically unanimous acceptance only requires a moral unanimity, which represents the “one mind” of the Church, not a 100% mathematical unanimity.
Msgr. Van Noort explains that “when someone has been constantly acting as Pope and has theoretically and practically been recognized as such by the bishops and by the universal Church,” the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium renders his legitimacy infallible, which imposes upon Catholics the strict obligation to accept him as pope with the assent of faith.
Meantime, notice that the Church possesses infallibility not only when she is defining some matters in solemn fashion, but also when she is exercising the full weight of her authority through her ordinary and universal teaching. Consequently, we must hold with an absolute assent, which we call ‘ecclesiastical faith,’ the following theological truths: (a) those which the Magisterium has infallibly defined in solemn fashion; (b) those which the ordinary magisterium dispersed throughout the world unmistakably proposes to its members as something to be held (tenendas). So, for example, one must give an absolute assent to the proposition: ‘Pius XII is the legitimate successor of St. Peter’; similarly … one must give an absolute assent to the proposition: ‘Pius XII possesses the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church.’ For — skipping the question of how it begins to be proven infallibly for the first time that this individual was legitimately elected to take St. Peter’s place — when someone has been constantly acting as Pope and has theoretically and practically been recognized as such by the bishops and by the universal Church, it is clear that the ordinary and universal magisterium is giving an utterly clear-cut witness to the legitimacy of his succession. 
What this explanation also proves is that a pope who is presently recognized as pope by the hierarchy has not secretly lost his office for heresy, since as long as the ordinary and universal Magisterium “theoretically and practically” recognizes him as pope, his legitimacy remains infallibly certain.
If the Church did not have infallible certitude about the legitimacy of the current and past popes, she could never be certain that a particular doctrine had been defined, or the definitive decrees of a council ratified, by a true pope or an antipope. Consequently, the object of the Faith (what Catholics must believe by faith) would be uncertain, which the devil would easily exploit to undermine the faith. The scrupulous would be paralyzed by fear, and the unstable would fall into the most outrageous conclusions. Those who denied various dogmas would only have to cast doubt upon the popes who defined them in order to justify their incredulity. This shows why the Church must have infallible certitude about the legitimacy of those she recognizes as the Roman pontiff, either past or present.
Now, as history shows, the “universal acceptance” does not guarantee that the man will be a good pope, but it does guarantee he will be a true pope. In fact, it doesn’t even guarantee that the pope will not be a positively evil pope, or even “a devil like Judas the apostle.” The heretics Wycliffe and Hus rejected numerous popes on the basis that they were too evil to be true successors of St. Peter. In response, the Council of Constance formally condemned the following proposition:
“If the pope is wicked, and especially if he is foreknown to damnation, then he is a devil like Judas the apostle, a thief and a son of perdition and is not the head of the holy Church Militant since he is not even a member of it.” – CONDEMNED
The Definition of Pope Martin V
The papal bull Inter Cunctas (Feb. 22, 1418), of Martin V, condemns numerous errors and heresies of the aforementioned heretics, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. It also contains a list of definitive questions that the inquisitors were to ask those who were suspected of heresy, in order to determine if they “believe rightly.” Now, since these heretics refused to accept the legitimacy of a pope unless they personally approved of him, one of the questions those suspected of their heresy were to be asked is if they believe that the pope, who is reigning at the time (whose name is to be included in the question), is the successor of St. Peter and possesses supreme authority in the Church. Notice that the question is not if they believe that a true pope (i.e., one they accept as a legitimate pope) is the successor of St. Peter and possesses supreme authority. The question is if they believe the man the Church presently recognizes as pope is the Successor of Peter, etc.
Now, the theologians point to this definition of Martin V to prove that the legitimacy of a Roman pontiff, who is accepted as pope by the entire Church, is de fide. Here is the explanation given by John of St. Thomas:
These words do not refer to the truth of that proposition [i.e., whether he is the legitimate pope] as understood in a general sense — namely, that whoever is lawfully elected is the Supreme Pontiff, but in the particular, concerning whoever is Pope at the time, giving his proper name, for instance, Innocent X [who was pope when he was writing]. It is of this man, whose proper name is given, that Pope Martin is bidding the person suspect in faith to be asked, whether he believes that he is the successor of Peter and the Supreme Pontiff: therefore this pertains to the act of faith — and not [merely] to an inference or a moral certitude. 
The way this question would be asked today is, “Do you believe Francis is the successor of Blessed Peter, having supreme authority in the Church of God?” Anyone who answered “no” would fail in his “profession of faith” and be marked as a heretic. That would obviously include everyone who mistakenly believes that Benedict is still the pope.
In his reply to Dr. Littledale, Fr. Smith points to this same definition of Martin V, as interpreted by the renowned Italian canonist, Lucius Ferraris, to prove that the legitimacy of a pope who has been universally accepted is no mere theory, but equivalent to an article of faith. He writes:
This is no mere theory, but the common doctrine of Catholic theologians, as will appear sufficiently from the following passage in Ferraris’ Bibliotheca, a work of the highest authority. In his article on the Pope, Ferraris says, ‘It is of faith (de fide) that Benedict XIV, for instance, legitimately elected and accepted as such by the Church, is the true Pope — (common doctrine among Catholics). This is proved from the Council of Constance (sess. Ult.) where Martin V’s Constitution, Inter Cunctos, decrees that those who return from heresy to the faith shall be asked, among other points, “Whether they believe that the Pope canonically elected, for the time being, his name being expressly mentioned, is the successor of St. Peter, having supreme authority in the Church of God”.’ For thereby he [Fr. Ferraris] supposes it to be an article of faith, since those who abjure heresy are interrogated only as to truths of faith.
The Meaning of “Canonically Elected”
Fr. Smith then addresses an objection that Dr. Littledale would likely raise. Since one of the main arguments he used to prove the illegitimacy of certain popes is that they were not truly “canonically elected” (due to the violation of an election law), Fr. Smith explained how “canonically elected” is to be understood:
It will be said, ‘Yes, but he speaks only of a Pontiff canonically elected and as such accepted by the Church, so his authority cannot therefore be quoted for the case of one whose canonical election is called in question.’ This, however, is an objection which Ferraris himself anticipates, and he meets it thus:
Through the mere fact that the Church receives him as legitimately elected, God reveals to us the legitimacy of his election, since Christ has promised that His Church shall never err in a matter of faith. … Through the mere fact that the Church receives him as legitimately elected, God reveals to us the legitimacy of his election, since Christ has promised that His Church shall never err in a matter of faith … whereas she would err in such matter of faith if the conclusion did not hold[.]’
John of St. Thomas’s explanation of “canonically elected” is identical to that of Fr. Ferraris: if an election is universally accepted by the Church, not only is the pope’s legitimacy infallibly certain, but the election itself is deemed legitimate and canonical.
As noted previously, just as the universal acceptance of a pope provides infallible certitude that he has become the true pope, so too does it logically provide infallible certitude that all the conditions necessary for him to have become pope were met. Some of these conditions concern the person elected — he must be a male, baptized, a member of the Church, etc. — while others pertain to the electors or other related matters, such as the vacancy of the papal office at the time.
The great 20th-century Thomist, Louis Cardinal Billot (who penned the encyclical Pascendi for Pope St. Pius X), explains every condition that’s required for a man to become a legitimate pope is proven infallibly to have been satisfied the moment the Church accepts him as pope.
[O]ne point must be considered absolutely incontrovertible and placed firmly above any doubt whatever: the adhesion of the universal Church will be always, in itself, an infallible sign of the legitimacy of a determined Pontiff, and therefore also of the existence of all the conditions required for legitimacy itself. It is not necessary to look far for the proof of this, but we find it immediately in the promise and the infallible providence of Christ: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ and ‘Behold I shall be with you all days.’ … God can permit that at times a vacancy in the Apostolic See be prolonged for a long time. He can also permit that doubt arise about the legitimacy of this or that election. He cannot however permit that the whole Church accept as Pontiff him who is not so truly and legitimately. Therefore, from the moment in which the Pope is accepted by the Church and united to her as the head to the body, it is no longer permitted to raise doubts about a possible vice of election or a possible lack of any condition whatsoever necessary for legitimacy. For the aforementioned adhesion of the Church heals in the root all fault in the election and proves infallibly the existence of all the required conditions. 
Notice that last part. From the “moment” he is accepted as Pope by the Church, it is no longer permitted to raise doubts about his election, or the presence of any conditions required for legitimacy. Since Francis was accepted as pope by the entire Church the day he was elected, none of the arguments currently being circulated against his legitimacy, either due to a defect in the election or because of the absence of any condition (such as the condition that the papal office was vacant at the time), is even permitted, much less valid.
John of St. Thomas explains that the certainty that all the conditions were satisfied is a theological conclusion derived from the de fide truth that the man is pope. He writes:
It is immediately of divine faith that this man in particular, lawfully elected and accepted by the Church, is the supreme pontiff and the successor of Peter … because it is de fide that this man … is the Pope, the theological conclusion is drawn that there were genuine electors, and a real intention of electing, as well as the other requisites (conditions) without which the de fide truth could not stand. …
Prior to the election, there is a moral certainty that all these conditions required in the person are actually met. After the fact of the election and its acceptance, the fulfillment of these conditions is known with the certainty of a theological conclusion, since they have, per se, a logical implication with a truth that is certain, and certified by faith [i.e., that he is the true Pope]. … [T]hat he is baptized and meets the other requirements … is inferred as a consequence[.] …
Therefore, we have the certainty of faith, by a revelation implicitly contained in the Creed and in the promise made to Peter, and made more explicit in the definition of Martin V, and applied and declared in act (in exercitio) by the acceptance of the Church, that this man in particular, canonically elected according to the acceptance of the Church, is Pope. 
The following syllogism will help to clarify this point:
Major: If a man is accepted as pope by the entire Church, his legitimacy as pope is infallibly certain.
Minor: There are certain conditions that must be satisfied for a man to become pope.
Conclusion: If a man is accepted as pope by the entire Church, it proves infallibly that all requisite conditions were satisfied.
If the Major is true, the Conclusion is also true.
In the December 1965 issue of The American Ecclesiastical Review, Fr. Francis Connell provides a beautiful explanation of the doctrine and uses it to prove that Paul VI was validly baptized (condition) and validly elected pope.
Question: What certainty have we that the reigning Pontiff is actually the primate of the universal Church — that is, that he became a member of the Church through valid baptism, and that he was validly elected Pope?
Answer: Of course, we have human moral certainty that the reigning Pontiff was validly elected in conclave and accepted the office of Bishop of Rome, thus becoming head of the universal Church. The unanimous consensus of a large group of Cardinals composing the electoral body gave us this assurance. And we also have human moral certainty that the reigning Pontiff was validly baptized, since there is a record to that effect in the baptismal register of the church in which the sacrament was administered. We have the same type of certainty that any bishop is the true spiritual head of the particular See over which he presides. This type of certainty excludes every prudent fear of the opposite.
But in the case of the Pope we have a higher grade of certainty — a certainty that excludes not merely the prudent fear of the opposite, but even the possible fear of the opposite. In other words, we have infallible certainty that the present Sovereign Pontiff [Paul VI] has been incorporated into the Church by a valid baptism [condition] and has been validly elected head of the universal Church. For if we did not have infallible assurance that the ruling Pontiff is truly in the eyes of God the chief teacher of the Church of Christ, how could we accept as infallibly true his solemn pronouncements? This is an example of a fact that is not contained in the deposit of revelation but is so intimately connected with revelation that it must be within the scope of the Church’s magisterial authority to declare it infallibly. The whole Church, teaching and believing, declares and believes this fact, and from this it follows that this fact is infallibly true. We accept it with ecclesiastical – not divine – faith, based on the authority of the infallible Church. 
This quotation not only provides a thorough explanation of the doctrine, but also serves as a refutation of the sedevacantists who claim Paul VI was not a legitimate pope.
Proof that Benedict’s Abdication Was Valid
Now, since one of the conditions required for Francis to have become pope is that the papal office was vacant at the time, and since the papal office would not have been vacant if Benedict’s resignation were invalid, the universal acceptance of Francis provides infallible certitude that his resignation was, in fact, valid, and that God stripped him of the papal office.
The syllogism is as follows:
Major: The universal acceptance of Francis as pope following his election provides infallible certitude that he became the legitimate pope.
Minor: One of the conditions required for Francis to have become pope is that the papal office was vacant at the time, and hence that Benedict’s abdication was valid.
Conclusion: Since Francis was accepted as pope by the entire Church, it proves infallibly that the papal office was vacant at the time, and hence that Benedict’s abdication was valid.
If the Major is true, the Conclusion is also true. If the Papal See was not vacant at the time of the election, Francis would not have been accepted as pope by the Church. Since he was accepted as pope, it proves infallibly that the papal office was vacant at the time, hence that Benedict’s abdication was valid.
Every objection that has been raised against the validity of Francis’s election (or the validity of Benedict’s abdication) can be inserted into the place of the Minor and will be refuted by the infallible Major. Any attempt to get around it will require that Minor, which is nothing but a fallible opinion, to be treated as infallible, and the Major, which is an infallible dogmatic fact, be treated as a fallible opinion. In other words, to reject the legitimacy of Francis, one must reject an infallible truth (Major) in favor of a personal opinion (Minor), which is both illogical and absurd.
In Part II, we use a Q&A format to directly address the recent objections that have been raised against the doctrine of the peaceful and universal acceptance and against its application to the pontificate of Francis in particular.
Editor’s note: This article is Part I of a series. Part II will run tomorrow.
 In a Papal “Diarchy”, Which Half Is Infallible, Remnant, July 3, 2014.
 John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologici II-II, Tome, Disp. 8, Art. 2.
 The Church of Christ, p. 290.
 Van Noort, Sources of Revelation, p. 265
 Op. cit.
 Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, vol. I, pp. 612–613
 Op. cit
 American Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 153, Dec. 1965, p. 422 (emphasis added).
Robert Siscoe was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He has enjoyed a successful business career, beginning at the age of 23, when he was the top producing trader for an international Forex trading firm. He has founded several successful companies and currently works for himself in the insurance and financial industries. Mr. Siscoe converted to the Church in 1998 and quickly became a fervent student of all things Catholic, with a special interest in theology and metaphysics. He is a widely published author and a co-author of the book True or False Pope? Refuting Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors.