The Babylonian Captivity Of The Papacy

On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI abdicated the papacy. Six days later, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit priest and archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected by the College of Cardinals and installed as Pope Francis I, bringing to a conclusion a remarkable series of events. The papal resignation and Francis’ accession takes us back to the last pope to abdicate, Gregory XII (1415), and the marvelously messy history of the Avignon Papacy.

If we believe the popular myth, we might think that there has been an unbroken succession of popes in Rome since Peter. But according to Roman Catholic scholars, there have been no fewer than forty-six “antipopes” in the history of the papacy, and in the early fifteenth century there were no fewer than three popes ruling simultaneously. How we number the antipopes depends, of course, on when we consider the papacy actually to have begun. Even if we begin with Gregory I (reigned 590–604), the number of antipopes is smaller but still impressive. One Roman Catholic writer defines antipope as “any person who took the name of pope and exercised or claimed to exercise his functions without canonical foundation.” That means that an antipope is anyone who ever claimed to be a pope but whom Rome does not now recognize as a pope.

One reason traditionalist Roman Catholic scholars resort to this approach is the Avignon Papacy. From 1305 to 1378, the papacy relocated to Avignon, France (about 425 miles southeast of Paris), and from 1378 to 1415, there were two and sometimes three popes, one of whom was in Avignon. In 1370, Pope Gregory XI attempted to return the papacy to Rome, if only to reassert papal and Roman control of the Italian peninsula. Upon his death in 1378, the problem of antipopes intensified with the election of Urban VI (reigned 1378–89) in Rome.

He was so unpopular with the people that the cardinals lied about whom they had elected. He was also unpopular with some of the cardinals because he was said to have a temper and, most outrageously, because he accused the cardinals of living ostentatiously—which was a true charge. In retaliation, some electors accused him of insanity.

In reaction to Urban’s election, some of the papal electors relocated to Avignon, where the papacy had been since 1305 (except between 1328 and 1330, when there was a competing pope in Rome). There they elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva as Clement VII (reigned 1378–94). There followed a succession of popes and antipopes in Rome and Avignon between 1378 and 1409, when things took an even stranger twist.

In 1409, the Council of Pisa, with cardinal bishops in attendance, deposed the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII (reigned 1394–1415), and the Roman pope, Gregory XIII (reigned 1410–15), and elected Alexander V (reigned 1409–10). This move failed, with the result that there were now three competing popes. To further complicate matters, Alexander V’s tenure in office was very brief. He was succeeded by John XXIII (reigned 1410–15). Each of the “popes” had excommunicated the others and their followers so that all of Western Christendom at that point was excommunicated.

At the Council of Constance (1414–18), Pisan Pope John XXIII was arrested, brought to Constance, and imprisoned. The Roman Pope Benedict XIII was deposed, and Avignon Pope Gregory XIIabdicated. The council elected Odo Colonna as Pope Martin V on November 11, 1417, ending the schism. Rome has never pronounced on the canonicity of Urban VI’s election or the legitimacy of the Council of Pisa.

Needless to say, these events produced uncertainty that provoked grave doubts among honest, fair-minded Christians in the late medieval period. Concerns regarding the visible head of Christ’s church and the conduct of post-Avignon popes combined to undermine the credibility of the papacy through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Like Christians during the Avignon crisis, we live in an age when authority and order seem to be dissolving before our eyes. Some Christians, who are sensitive to these cultural shifts and to their effect upon evangelical churches, see the problems reflected in liturgical changes and general spiritual and ethical chaos. They are thus attracted to Rome on the basis of her claim to continuity with the past, ostensible unity, and stability.

The Avignon crisis is just one of many examples from the history of the medieval church that illustrate the futility of seeking continuity, unity, and stability where they have never existed. The historical truth is that the Roman communion is not an ancient church. She is a medieval church who consolidated her theology, piety, and practice during a twenty-year-long council in the sixteenth century (Trent). Her rituals, sacraments, canon law, and papacy are medieval. The unity and stability offered by Roman apologists are illusions—unless mutual and universal excommunication and attempted murder count as unity and stability. Crushing opponents and rewriting history to suit present needs is not unity. It is mythology.

Roman apologists sometimes seek to vindicate the Roman popes, as distinct from the Avignon popes and the Pisan popes, by describing the Avignon popes as if they were less fit for office than the former. That is, to put it mildly, a strange argument. If popes are as popes do, then we may shorten the list of popes quite radically. On that principle, Rome had no pope from 1471 to 1503, and arguably beyond. In that period, Sixtus IV (reigned 1471–84), in an attempt to raise funds, extended plenary indulgences to the dead. Innocent VIII (reigned 1484–92) fathered sixteen illegitimate sons, of whom he acknowledged eight. Alexander VI (reigned 1492–1503) fathered twelve children, openly kept mistresses in the Vatican, made his son Cesare a cardinal, and tried to ensure Cesare’s ascension to the papacy. Alexander’s daughter Lucretia has been alleged to be a notorious poisoner. We have not even considered Julius II (reigned 1503–13), who took up the sword and was so busy conducting military campaigns to improve papal control over the peninsula that he conducted Mass while wearing armor.

The existence of simultaneous popes in Rome, Avignon, and Pisa, each elected by papal electors and some later arbitrarily designated as antipopes, illustrates the problem of the notion of an unbroken Petrine succession. The post-Avignon papacy is an orphan who has no idea who his father was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

As happened upon the elections of Benedict XVI and John Paul II to the papacy, reporters stood in Vatican Square after Francis’ election and announced in sonorous tones that the new pope was the successor of Peter and marked another link in an unbroken chain of succession dating back to the first century. With each papal inauguration, reporters stand before sixteenth-century buildings to create the impression that the Apostle Peter held court in them two thousand years ago, that white smoke has always risen over the Sistine Chapel to signal a papal election, and that cardinal bishops have always emerged from the conclave after electing a pope.
In fact, none of these features is Apostolic or even patristic. As one Roman Catholic scholar concedes, “In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve.” It was Damasus I (reigned 366–84), who first asserted the title pope (from the Latin papa, “father”) for the bishop of Rome, and there was nothing remotely like the papacy as we know it until Gregory I (reigned 590–604). The papacy as we know it is a medieval creature. The Vatican did not begin to come into existence until 1506. To be sure, there has been a church on Vatican Hill since the fourth century, but there has not even been a continuous history of papal attendance in Saint Peter’s. The papal headquarters did not move to Vatican Hill until after the Avignon Papacy, and the conclave of cardinals that we witnessed in March 2013 did not exist until the eleventh century.

Our Protestant forebears were deeply skeptical of the papacy as an institution—for good reason. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that the papacy is a purely human institution without divine warrant, and that it has a complicated history. Claims to an unbroken succession crash on the rocks of history, especially those great rocks cropping up at Avignon, Pisa, and Rome for a century in the late medieval period.


This essay by R. Scott Clark first first appeared on July 1, 2014 in Tabletalk magazine from Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. Email: Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.

This version varies slightly from the printed version.  There is some question whether Lucretia was, in fact, a poisoner. Sarah Bradford, Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy (New York: Penguin, 2005) argues that the story that Lucretia (Lucrezia) was a poisoner was a rumor without foundation in fact.  Cesare did have syphilis but died, in battle, in 1507. Thanks to HB reader Dan Saxton for his editorial help.

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  1. As happened upon the elections of Benedict XVI and John Paul II to the papacy, reporters stood in Vatican Square after Francis’ election and announced in sonorous tones that the new pope was the successor of Peter and marked another link in an unbroken chain of succession dating back to the first century.

    I hate this one the most. Thanks for compiling this Scott — maybe you can get a gig with Christianity Today or one of the major networks in time for the next papal conclave.

  2. From Bishop Jewell, 16th century English reformer:

    “To be Peter’s lawful successor, it is not sufficient to leap into Peter’s stall. Lawful succession standeth not only in possession of place, but also, and much rather, in doctrine and diligence. Yet the bishops of Rome, as if there were nothing else required, evermore put us in mind and tell us many gay tales of their succession.” [pg. 201]
    “… This is [Rome’s] holy succession – Though faith fall, yet succession must hold; for unto succession God hath bound the Holy Ghost.” [pg. 347]
    “… if the pope and his Roman clergy, by his own friends confession, be fallen from God’s grace, and departed from Christ to antichrist, what a miserable claim is it for them to hold only to bare succession! It is not sufficient to claim succession of place: it behooveth us rather to have regard to the succession of doctrine. St. Benard saith: What availeth it, if they be chosen in order, and live out of order.” [pg. 349]

    – John Jewell’s “Reply Unto M. Harding”

  3. Scott:

    A few side notes:

    1. The basement at the Avignon Castle, or, Papal residence is very large. The tour guide pointed out that this was where the money was stored. Again, it was very large.

    2. The Papal bedroom had a secretive staircase for the escort/woman of the night to come and go.

    3. The Papal bedroom still has historic graffiti on the walls. I recollect one by an Englishman dated in the 1640s.

    But, these are side notes to your larger point, a well-taken point.


  4. Dr. Clark,

    Our Roman Catholic friends should also consider that the Council of Constance not only united the papacy under one man it also issued the directive commonly called Frequens. Yet, nearly every pope since the Council of Constance has been in violation of Frequens. This raises the obvious problem that the Council of Constance must be considered legitimate by the RCC (and it is) in order to legitimate subsequent papal succession. But what good is authoritative teaching if the church’s authoritative teaching through a general council gets trampled under foot by popes for more than five centuries?

    The relevant section of Frequens is available on the Fordham University website here: I draw your readers attention to this section of this official teaching: “Therefore, by a perpetual edict, we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be celebrated in the following manner, so that the next one shall follow the close of this present council at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that, at the end of seven years, and councils shall thereafter be celebrated every ten years in such places as the Pope shall be required to designate and assign, with the consent and approbation of the council, one month before the close of the council in question, or which, in his absence, the council itself shall designate. Thus, with a certain continuity, a council will always be either in session, or be expected at the expiration of a definite time.”

    BTW – You may want to encourage some of your future PhD students in historical theology to do their work on the Council of Constance. The only significant work that I am aware of is in German (Walter Brandmueller’s Das Konzil von Konstanz) and history professors at elite Roman Catholic schools have told me they thought this was an area ripe for further research.


  5. A couple of other observations:

    The Council of Constance also is notorious for the death by burning of one honest Christian summoned there under promise of safe conduct–Jan Hus (“John Goose” in Czech, whose “goose” was literally “cooked”).

    As for the warrior Pope Julius II, he was one who commissioned Michelangelo. Further, there’ a dialogue/morality play, sometimes attributed to Desiderius Erasmus, about his attempt to enter Heaven. Peter bars the gate to him, and Julius protests that Peter can’t do that to the one who has power of the keys–especially since Julius is a noble Ligurian and not a lowly Jew like Peter. Peter grouses that he doesn’t know any warrior with P.M. on his breastplate, whereupon Julius explains it mean “Pontifex Maximus” (Supreme Bridge-buildre, one of the Papal titles), whereupon Peter retorts that he thought it meant “Pestis Maxima” (Supreme Plague).

    A further point: when it comes to issues of morals and the condition of the clergy in 1300’s-1500’s, the number of Roman Catholic writers who concede that the Reformation was necessary over that issue alone are legion. It is more important, however, for us to keep in mind such things as justification by faith, that Christ alone is the divinely appointed mediator between God and men; and that the Holy Spirit, not some Italian prince, is Christ’s vicar on earth.

  6. the Catholic Answers Live (and typical Devoutee) defense:

    “You’re an anti-Catholic theologian and a hater.”

  7. Yea, I know about all the bad pope stuff. But the clothes are great, the “popemobile” is really cool (where’s that been lately?), and there are lots of pretty pictures all over the place. So, what’s the big deal?

  8. The Avignon popes were all legitimately elected, even though they were French, they were still popes.

    The Papacy was forced to move to Avignon because of political and other issues.

    During the Avignon period there were some 134 Cardinals and 111 were French, hence the election of the French popes. A couple of popes on your list were Anti-popes and would not be recognized as legitimate.

    It should be noted that from a period of 1099 to about 1303 the papacy was conducted in various places, also because of adverse conditions and other reasons.

    The papacy goes back 267 popes. They Early Church Fathers clearly taught the primacy of Peter and his successors.

    The original Apostles that Jesus chose had one betraying him, one denying him and all except St. John deserting him, So yes, there have been good and bad popes, but God has been true to His Word that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church.

    Regarding the Sistine Chapel being completed in around 1481 or so, making the Catholic Church a medieval church creation is the same as holding to a concept that if a Reformed building is only 50 years old, then the Reformation is only 50 years old.

    If we don’t take the Early Church Fathers out of context, and let them speak for themselves, we will find that they were Catholic. We will find that the Catholic Church is an ancient church and not a medieval creation.

    The teachings of the Early Church Fathers are most important because they learned from the Apostles (2 Thes. 2:15 and 2 Timothy 2:2 among many others),

    • Lloyd,

      1. You’re read too many popular Romanist apologists and not enough serious Roman scholarship.

      2. I teach patristics. I read the Apostolic Fathers every fall term. We read widely in the Fathers. Not a single piece of evidence for Petrine supremacy in the 2nd century and certainly not in the first.

      3. Did you read the article? I guess not. Yes, exactly, the “popes” elected in Avignon AND Rome were both elected by papal electors. The designation “antipope” is purely arbitrary. That’s the point.

      4. Yes, context. That what you’re missing. There were multiple polities in the 2nd century (congregational, presbyterial, monepiscopal). Read Ignatius of Antioch. There’s no monepiscopacy there. It’s episcopos, presbyteros, and diaconos. He does not treat them hierarchically but collegially.

      5. The Papacy as we it came to be in the high medieval period cannot be found before the early 7th century and really not much before the 9th—which was a great century for popes!—

      6. The Roman Communion is a creature of the 14th century and even more profoundly, of the 16th century (Trent). The sacramental system she reveres is a 14th century invention. As late as 9th century no one knew anything about 7 sacraments. Ask Radbertus and Ratramnus and ask the latter about transubstantiation, he thought it was both novel and fundamentally wrong and he was correct on both counts.

      7. The Roman communion is not catholic (universal). It’s a relatively modern sect. I understand that’s shocking but it’s true.

    • Lloyd,

      Did you swim the Tiber or something? I’ve argued with you before on the Riddleblog and I thought you were thoroughly Reformed (?)

    • matt,
      Some people are just in a “Reformed phase.” He could be an exemplar of 2Tim.3:7, “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

  9. Some of the Early Church Fathers that taught the primacy of Peter are:

    St. Clement of Alexandria, AD 200, Turtullian of Carthage, AD 211, Origen of Alexandrea, AD 249, St. Cyprian of Carthage, AD 251, Letter of Clement to James, AD 290, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, AD 350, St. Ephraim the Syria, AD 353, St. Ambrose of Milan, AD 379, St Jerome, AD 392, St. Augustine of Hippo, AD 411, Council of Ephesus, AD 431,
    Pope St. Leo I, AD 445.

    The age of the Early Church Fathers runs to about the death of Seville in 636.

  10. Here are some of the Early Church Fathers that taught the successors of Peter in Rome:

    St. Irenaeus of Lyons AD 189, Tertullian of Carthage, AD 200, St Cyprian of Carthage, AD 251, Eusebius of Caesarea, AD, 312, Pope Julius I, AD 341, Council of Sardica, AD 342, St. Optatus of Milevis, AD 367, St. Jerome, AD 376, St. Ambrose of Milan, AD 388, again St. Jerome in 392 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo, AD 400, Council of Ephesus, AD 431, Pope St. Leo I, AD 449, Council of Chalcedon AD 451.

  11. I can cite bushels and bushels of the Early Church Fathers that teach the Roman view on the Sacraments of Baptism as a means of Grace, Baptismal regeneration, The necessity of Baptism, Trinitarian Baptism,
    Infant Baptism, Confirmation, The Real Presence, The Sacrifice of the Mass, Confession (an awesome Sacrament).

    Now, some of these doctrines are expounded upon by theologians for the purpose of teaching and explaining to the masses the main dogmas of the Early Church Fathers as they were handed to them from the Apostles, just like we would teach our children in a way as to make them to understand.

  12. LLoyd, of course you can also cite bushels and bushels of Scripture that teach that the ECF’s were not only inspired, but also infallible, right, never mind that Holy Scripture includes Holy Tradition?

    Didn’t think so.

    And Newman’s doctrine of Development was taught in all places in all times by all as per Vincent of Lerins?

    Oh, but that changed too.

    Which is why those that know better, consider Romanism to be a vicious and despicable delusion and a mendacious fraud according to Scripture, history and reason.

    • Lloyd,

      When you’re actually prepared to have a historical discussion you’re welcome but bluster is not.

      What you seek is a kind of certainty that history and facts and reason cannot give. Thus, you know a priori what must be true.

  13. I find this kind of quote very telling: “In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve.” And this from a Roman Catholic scholar (Eamon Duffy) describing the Early Church. When we get to the Medieval Church that Dr. Clark describes above the connection is that much more tenuous. So how do the Roman Catholics come away from a study of the Early Church convinced that that it was “Catholic,” and then come away from a study of the Medieval Church convinced that the RCC of the Pre-Reformation popes was the same Church as that of the ECF’s?

    • Andrew,

      They do it in two ways:

      1. Proof texting. They find a text that has a merely formal resemblance to what they teach now and proceed to read their (later) view back into it. That’s anachronism. They do this with Irenaeus on the supper. He uses the word sacrifice and they read the much later (9th century and not ratified until the 13th century) doctrine of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice back into it. They do this with the early use of episcopos (bishop) which they read as if (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch) meant by it what they mean by it when, arguably, Ignatius means something more like “senior pastor who is part of a collegial authority structure including elders and deacons.”

      2. A dialectical/Hegelian view and use of history or more simply a whig history. In short, Rome claims, “what we teach now is what we’ve always taught.” They know a priori before they ever get to the facts that the early church must have taught, even if only seminally, what Rome teaches now. By fiat they’ve defined contradiction of the past out of existence. At this point, arguing with them is like arguing with those Marxists who know how the story of the past (history) must come out because they know what the future (eschatology) shall be. That’s not really history. That’s propaganda.

  14. Amen to the following statement from the article”The historical truth is that the Roman communion is not an ancient church. She is a medieval church who consolidated her theology, piety, and practice during a twenty-year-long council in the sixteenth century (Trent). Her rituals, sacraments, canon law, and papacy are medieval. The unity and stability offered by Roman apologists are illusions—unless mutual and universal excommunication and attempted murder count as unity and stability. Crushing opponents and rewriting history to suit present needs is not unity. It is mythology.”
    I am an ex Roman catholic turned Reformed Protestant. Many Roman catholics sadly have been mislead to believe and practice in their worship things that have no origin in scripture or the early church. I began however to question many practices and then I asked what were most of the practices of the Catholic Church practiced by the early church, or were they introduced from paganism into the church by the Roman Papacy? I found the later to be true! Rome hid these facts in her historical accounts of the early church and still does not like to talk about it..when questioned by people like me ..she calls them ancient traditions…thus her teaching of authority is not “scripture alone” but the traditions of the church and the teachings of the popes….(which also are never consistent)..and then also the bible. “Temples, incense, oil lamps, votive offerings, holy water, holydays, and seasons of devotion, processions, blessing of fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure (of priests, monks, and nuns), images, are all of pagan origin”… From Cardinal Newman’s book entitled, ‘The Development of the Christian Religion’, page 359, per Dr. Fabian S. Reinhart, in “Facts for Roman Catholics”, pg. 38
    The article is completely correct and I will add as an Ex Roman catholic turned protestant that I know first hand that the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of rewriting history i.e. False statements deliberately presented as being true; falsehoods. Saying things meant to deceive or give a wrong impression, Presenting false information with the intention of deceiving, and conveying false images and impressions. She es these false statements in order to support her false teaching of salvation which actually contradicts scripture.
    “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that in order to be saved you must keep its laws, rules and regulations. And in these laws are violated (for example, laws concerning birth control or fasting or attendance at Mass every Sunday), then you have committed a sin . . . ‘individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary way by which the faithful person who was aware of serious sin can be reconciled with God, and with the church’ (Canon 9609).” (p. 75) One is not saved by faith alone and those statements are never read from the bible in catholic churches.
    The Roman Catholic Church adds works, and that you have to do these specific things [keeping its laws, rule and regulations] ]in order to be saved, whereas the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that it is by grace that we are saved, not by works.” (pp. 75-76)
    I ever heard the above Ephesians 2:8-9 that it is by grace that we are saved, not by works.”
    The first time I ever read that piece from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians 2:8-9 was in the bible study I joined in the Presbyterian church. I took a course in the New Testament in a Catholic college and those parts of Paul’s letters saying ‘faith alone” were never covered.
    Roman Catholicism rewrites history and even interprets the bible incorrectly so that she maintains CONTROL over her faithful! an emphases “Works and Faith” As part of the distortion and rewriting of history the Roman Catholic Church adds works, and that you have to do these specific things [keeping its laws, rule and regulations] ]in order to be saved, whereas the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that it is by grace that we are saved, not by works.” (pp. 75-76)
    Then she says it was the Protestants who fell away from the truth and discarded “Sacred tradition”.
    if one reads into the lies of Rome you begin to see that a key distinction between Catholics and Protestant Christians is the view of the Bible. Roman Catholics have been taught that the Bible has equal authority with the Church and tradition. Protestant Christians because we read the bible and read the truth know by scripture itself is that the Bible is the supreme authority for faith and practice. The question is, how does the Bible present itself? Second Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” This text tells us that Scripture is not “just the beginning,” or “just the basics,” or the “foundation for a more complete church tradition.” On the contrary, Scripture is perfectly and fully sufficient for everything in the Christian life. Scripture can teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us, and equip us. I have found that Protestants do not deny the value of church tradition. Rather, Protestant Christians uphold that for a church tradition to be valid, it must be based on the clear teaching of Scripture and must be in full agreement with Scripture.
    It took me many years to realize that I was compromising by staying in the Roman Catholic Church. however by God s grace and my searching for the truth “seek and you shall find” I left Roman Catholicism an her rewritten history and lies and became a Presbyterian , a Protestant of the Reformed faith which I now believe is the true an accurate faith of the gospel,not Roman Catholicism.

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