Those who consider the position of the Catholic Church seriously sometimes have difficulty in understanding how Peter’s authority is continued in the Church through the succession of the popes.
Our Lord said Peter would die a martyr (John 21:18-19), yet he gave him authority over the Church, which was going to last until the end of the world. From Peter, the Rock, were to come that unity and strength which would make the Church impregnable. The “gates of hell” would not prevail, and Christ would be with his Church “all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 16:18, 28: 20).
If the Church changed essentially it would cease to be Christ’s Church. But these promises of Christ apply to his Church and to no other. Therefore, all the essentials given by Christ to his Church must remain. They must still be in his Church. He guaranteed that.
One such essential feature of the Church was undoubtedly the authority of Peter. It was the foundation, and what could be more essential to any building than the foundation? If the foundation changes, the building changes. Our Lord actually compared his Church to a building erected on the foundation of Peter’s authority. All the component parts would be held together by that authority, just as the bricks and girders of a building remain together in position only if the foundation remains solid. Christ’s own guarantee of permanence to his Church implies that the authority he conferred on Peter will remain with it as the most essential feature, the foundation, the source of unity, strength, and endurance. Peter would die for the faith, as our Lord foretold, but his living voice, his authority, would remain in the Church. Otherwise the Church would have changed essentially. It would not now be Christ’s Church.
How does this continuation come about? There is an early record that before Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome they together chose Linus as Peter’s successor. He ruled the Church for about eleven years from 67. For the next twelve years Cletus was pope and then Clement from 90 to 100.
We know very little about the early elections of the popes apart from names and dates. Probably priests and people assembled in Rome chose their new bishop. Some scholars think the laity took no part in the election until after the time of Pope Sylvester, 314-335. From his time the Christian emperors had a voice in the elections. There was trouble later on from the barbarian invaders. Then came interference from other sources, such as the civil authorities and the principal families of Rome. All wanted to have a pope of their choosing.
From 769 layfolk were offcially excluded from papal elections, but powerful people, such as the Emperor Otto I in the tenth century, tried to interfere. In the end the Church had to take drastic measures to safeguard such an important matter.
In 1274 Gregory X brought the conclave into being. It was the last and most decisive of several steps taken since 1059 (when the election of the popes was entrusted mainly to the cardinal bishops) to define the manner of election. The method then confirmed is still observed in its essentials.
In the conclave the cardinals vote in secret session. They remain isolated (conclave means literally a room closed with a key) until the pope is chosen. Two-thirds plus one of the cardinals must agree on the same candidate before the election is completed. Under the conclave system the cardinals are free from outside pressure. The disputes and delays of the earlier methods can no longer happen.
Note that the headship of the Church belongs to the bishop of Rome. A man becomes head of the Church because he is elected bishop of Rome; be does not become bishop of Rome because he is elected head of the Church. The pope’s election is primarily the choosing of Rome’s bishop. The cardinals makes the election because they are the chief Roman clergy.
When their number is complete there are 120 cardinals. They can be of any nationality. In their own countries they may also be archbishops or bishops. Each has a church in Rome or a bishopric near Rome. They are not obliged to live in Rome unless their work makes it advisable for them to be near the pope. Wherever they live and whatever positions they have in their own countries, they are the supreme members of the clergy of Rome. They have been the only men with the right to choose bishops of Rome since 1139.
The pope does not get his powers (such as infallibility) from those who elect him; he gets them from his position as bishop of Rome and head of the Church. Our Lord created that position and made it permanent. It is he who gives the powers to the man the cardinals choose.
Suppose there is a mistake? Suppose the cardinals elect someone unworthy? It could happen. Even though the cardinals pray for light and pledge themselves solemnly to choose the worthiest candidate, their choice is still a human one. Christ never guaranteed that the choice would be perfect. But whoever is validly elected succeeds to Peter’s position and receives his authority, which, we have seen, was given permanently to the Church by Christ.
Inquirers sometimes ask, “Have there not been for periods of history two or three popes or claimants to the papacy at the same time, as, for instance, during the great Western Schism from 1378 to 1417? Can we be sure that the right pope emerged after the trouble?” Yes, there were several claimants to the papacy at the same time, but only one pope. (There can be several claimants to the American presidency at once, but only one president at a time.)
All Catholics knew there could be only one pope. The question was which of the claimants was the true pope. News traveled slowly in those days. National groups confused the issue by indulging in propaganda for their own candidate. There was confusion and scandal, but the succession from Peter was never broken.
Because of civil wars in Italy, in 1309 Clement V moved to Avignon in the south of France. The next five popes were French; they lived at Avignon, but they were, of course, bishops of Rome. Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, and the conclave met in Rome to choose his successor. Urban VI, an Italian archbishop, was chosen. Thirteen French cardinals then said the wish of the Roman people to have an Italian pope had influenced the conclave in its choice, so they chose Cardinal Robert, of Geneva, as Clement VII. The Roman cardinals naturally declared this election schismatical, but the rival lines went on for nearly forty years side by side.
Clement VII was an anti-pope (a false claimant to the papacy) from 1378 to 1394. Anti-pope Benedict XIII succeeded him, and France, Lorraine, Scotland (France’s ally), Naples, and Spain declared for Benedict and regarded him as being legitimately chosen. Other countries stood by Urban VI. The confusion was increased when a local council of bishops at Pisa tried to heal the schism in 1409, but only succeeded in producing yet another anti-pope, Alexander V, who lasted for a year and was followed by John XXIII (1410-1415), who is not to be confused with the authentic Pope John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963. The solution finally came when the anti-pope John XXIII resigned, Benedict XIII was deposed, and Gregory XII, Uban’s third successor, laid down his office for the sake of peace. The Council of Constance then cleared the way for Martin V’s election.
The Western Schism is an indication of the power of Christ in his Church. No merely human institution could have survived such a test of its unity. The foundation of that unity is Peter’s authority vested in the bishop of Rome. Unity survived; its foundation survived.
Doubt about who was the rightful pope during the years of schism does not affect the position of later popes. The papacy is not handed on by one bishop of Rome to another through the laying on of hands, any more than the British prime minister hands on his office to another. As a pope does not receive his office from his predecessor, the identity of that predecessor does not really concern him. A man is pope because the Church recognizes him as bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter.
Once universal agreement was reached after the Western Schism as to whom the Church recognized as bishop of Rome, that person’s position as pope was clear. Who his predecessors were during the period of doubts is of no importance. His position depended on the permanence of the See of Rome, not on the identity of its bishops.
It is well worthy of note that even during the darkest days of the Great Schism nobody doubted the fact of the unity of the Church as a visible society. No one was prepared to see distinct organizations within the Church, each demanding obedience. On the contrary, everyone knew that there was but one visible authority left to his Church by Christ; all knew that the holder of that authority was the bishop of Rome; all were anxious that the identity of that person should be finally decided.
The basic truth emerges as the constant belief of the Church: Where the bishop of Rome is, there is Peter; where Peter is, there is Christ; therefore, where the bishop of Rome is, there is Christ.